Blinded by the Light- Movie Review

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Blinded by the Light is a near perfect way to reinvent an artist’s work for a new audience- it’s completely specific to a unique experience, and the soundtrack in of itself is not really what the story is about. The film is not only set to the songs of Bruce Springsteen, but rooted in his teachings, but that being said, its not just about Springsteen- it’s about Javed, and how “The Boss” kickstarted his journey of self discovery. The joy of the film is that whether your a Springsteen fan or have never heard his music, the idea of becoming inspired and making changes within your life is something anyone can relate to- Javed’s experience involved finding his voice as a writer and finding a balance within the traditionalism of his community.

Javed (Viveik Kalra) lives in Luton, England, and struggles as he starts at a new school- there aren’t people that look like him, he doesn’t feel welcome as he tries to explore his writing, financial issues threaten his family, and he feels left out as his parents’ traditionalism prevents him from partaking in social events with people his age. As his family becomes hard pressed for money and growing bigotry and xenophobia threaten his community, Javed fears that his future will never fulfill him, but a fateful encounter introduces Javed to the music of Bruce Springsteen. For once in his life, Javed feels like someone listens to him.

The parallels between The Boss’s messages and Javed’s life are clear; The Boss isn’t neccessarily the answer to everything, and the film is clear to show how all types of music and art can inspire people, but for Javed, this is what inspires him to talk about the things that are important to him. The depiction of his conflict with his parents is very well handled- we completely understand why they stick to their values, but we also understand Javed’s frustration as he wants to be accepted by his school community. The depiction of the bigotry Javed faces is also well done; xenophobia has many faces and appears in different ways, and the constant fear of being insulted or injured fuels the desperation that Javed feels.

There’s also just a gleeful corniness to the way the film incorporates the music; Javed’s first experience hearing “Dancers in the Dark” is a rightfully bombshell moment for him- the film visualizes lyrics in order to make it clear how they relate to this story. From fighting bullies to finding first love to rebelling against the school DJ, the film expertly finds all the right places to use the music to progress the story. Even if it plays out in an idealistic and borderline cheesy way, there’s nothing inauthentic about the characters themselves- we feel the raw energy that these songs have, and we see the extent to which these iconic words have made Javed happier and more optimistic.

I have to give a lot of credit to Viveik Kalra for his performance; even though Javed makes mistakes and is often too earnest for his own good, his optimism and sincerity is infectious. Truly, his performance is what makes the film work, and the film’s best scene (a sequences towards the end when Javed gets to address his family in plain language) is notable because its based on Bruce’s music, but its Javed’s words. It’s this message that the film is keen to embrace; drawing inspiration from the great artists that speak to you, but creating your own story. Grade: B+

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The Peanut Butter Falcon- Movie Review

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The Peanut Butter Falcon is the type of movie that, had it been made by a major studio twenty to thirty years ago, would be a massive blockbuster. Its a film that feels plucked out of the days when films like Rain Man or Forrest Gump where both Best Picture winners and massive box office hits, and while this is definitely smaller scale than those two, it fits the same sort of crowdpleaser, deeply uncynical mold. However, its a different time and those sorts of movies aren’t the massive hits anymore, which is why The Peanut Butter Falcon is so refreshing- its so inherently sincere that you’d have to look deep within it to find any sort of inauthenticity.

Zak (Zack Gottsagen), is a young man with Downs Syndrome that lives in a retirement home and dreams of becoming a professional wrestler like his hero The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church). After many unsuccessful attempts, Zak breaks out of the retirement community and befriends Tyler (Shia Labeouf), a fisherman whose traveling to Florida for new work as he grieves the death of his brother. Tyler decides to bring Zak along on his travel so he can bring him to meet The Salt Water Redneck, setting the two on a cross country adventure, as Zak’s caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) looks for him.

It’s a perfectly simple premise; part of the story includes Tyler avoiding other fishers who he has feuded with, forcing the two to stay on the outskirts of land as they walk and raft to their destination. There’s a few wacky characters along the way, but the movie mostly focuses on the chemistry between Zak and Tyler. It’s a perfect arc for both characters; Tyler is initially dismissive but he grows protective over Zak very quickly and is keen to find another figure in his life that he can love like a brother, and for Zak its the first time someone has taught him how to live on his own and not treated him as less than normal.

Gottsagen and Labeouf also looks great together. Gottsagen nails all the physical comedy, and as Tyler trains Zak to become a wrestler we see Gottsagen use his strength and size as less of a hindrance and more of a strength. We instantly understand their bond as Tyler praises Zak for his daring escape, and most of the montages and comedy work because it genuinely feels like the two enjoy spending time together. There’s a reason the film has been compared to Mark Twain (other than its own references to his text); the conversations between the two aren’t neccessarily complex, but the cadence, the rhythm of their speaking feels like we’re seeing the world from their perspective. Tyler tells Zak about how he’s inherently a good guy, and why nothing about his physicality will change what’s in his heart.

Dakota Johnson is also terrific here; her character, an educated and higher born person, is made to stick out like a sore thumb, and her presence serves as a constant reminder of where Zak comes from. Her care for Zak is evident, but in some ways she also wants to hold him back, which is why her entry into the main story is important; the adventures between Zak and Tyler are fun, but will they last, and can they really live the rest of their lives traveling alone? Johnson has a frankness to her that also comes off as soft, and the budding relationship between her and Tyler makes sense in that their perspectives and ways of helping Zak couldn’t be more different.

The final journey to reach The Salt Water Redneck is refreshing for all the things it doesn’t include- the drama is entirely centered on Zak trying to channel everything he’s learned into something he can be proud of, and for Eleanor and Tyler its the chance to take their built up desires and empathy and use it to make real change for someone. Perhaps there are moments that feel predictable, and though the ending is somewhat abrupt, this is also a crowdpleaser- I’m not sure it would be satisfying any other way. Grade: A-

The Farewell- Movie Review

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It’s hard to describe The Farewell because its not just about one thing. It’s a story about complicated decisions and the differences between cultures, and uses the format of a family reunion drama to say a lot of interesting things about responsibility to one’s family. As is evident by the film’s closing moments, this is a story that is rooted in a real experience by writer/director Lulu Wang, and as a depiction of a family in crisis, this feels like a complete portrait; we leave the film understanding the perspective of everyone in the family, and we understand both why they have affection for each other, and why their family gatherings are so rare.

Billi (Awkwafina) is a struggling writer who was born in China but has lived in New York with her family since she was six. After visiting her parents, Billi learns that her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is dying of a tumor, and that the family is reuniting in China to see her. The catch is that Nai Nai doesn’t know she’s dying, and the family isn’t telling her; they arrange for Billi’s cousin to get married so that the family has a chance to gather to see their matriarch one last time.

The big question the film poses is right there: is it our duty to tell someone their fate, or is it best to let them remain ignorant? We see both sides of the equation; Nai Nai takes joy in planning her grandson’s wedding and reconnecting with her family, but underneath all of this is a facade, and the lengths in which the family goes to deceive her can be extreme. It’s also a matter of culture; as is beautifully explained by Billi’s uncle (played by Jiang Yongbo), the way in which the East and West view family and individual choice is different, and the idea of the family carrying a burden instead of an individual is a valued perspective to hear.

I think seeing the perspectives of each member of the family is what makes the film so interesting. While each of the family members is there to accommodate Nai Nai, their relationship with her varies. In particular, the shaky relationship between Billi’s parents, Haiyan (Tzi Man) and Jian (Diana Lin) is explored; Jian has always fought for the respect of her mother in law and is bothered by her controlling nature, and Haiyan’s regard for the Chinese tradition has been shaken by his time in America raising Billi. The film mostly centers on Billi’s relationship with her grandmother, but throughout the film a deeper family is hinted at, and there’s no better way to understand how people interact than amidst a tragedy.

Awkwafina is terrific as Billi, who despite feeling like an outsider in her family, both due to her lack of success as a writer and her lack of knowledge of the traditional culture, shares a special relationship with her grandmother. Billi’s discomfort with the lie is understandable, and her perspective not only comes as someone disillusioned with the culture, but due to her love of her grandmother, who is played excellently by Zhao Shuzhen. Shuzhen’s performance is warm, bubbly, and throughout the film she’s able to make the best of each situation and bring optimism to a family that is often at odds with each other. Of course, we don’t know how her optimism would fare if she had knowledge of the truth, and it some points we’re kept guessing as to how much she may know.

While the majority of the attention is centered on the performances and familial dynamics, this is also a very well directed film. Lulu Wang shows us the detail of these traditions, as well as the meticulous actions taken by the family to get together and become adjusted to living together, resulting in a film that feels very lived in and inviting. Take for example a dinner scene in the middle of the film (which is brilliantly staged around a rotating tray of food); its a dialogue scene in which the family discusses the pros and cons of America and China, and while the tray navigates to each family member as they speak, we have an acute awareness of how everyone else is feeling, what they find funny, and what they’re uncomfortable with.

It’s also worth noting how funny the film is; the reunion of these family members under circumstances that require deception can make for a lot of humorous moments, particularly considering that this supposed wedding was conceived as the reason to get them all together. The humor makes the film feel more authentic, but it also is what makes it uplifting; regardless of what Nai Nai does or doesn’t know, she has a profound impact on everyone’s lives, and we see a reflection of that legacy for what may be the last time. Grade: A

The Art of Self-Defense- Movie Review

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The Art of Self-Defense has all the makings for what could be a cult comedy; its premise is lifted from similar films about an ideology taking roots in all elements of a character’s life, but the way in which the film is shot and the dialogue is delivered is idiosyncratic, blunt, and often very dark. It’s interesting how well the film transitions from tragic comedy to a blackly comic thriller, and while there are points in which character actions are clearly black and white, there’s also an ambiguity to what exactly the film is saying at points.

Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) is the epitome of pathetic; he’s bossed around at work, lives in a meager home alone with his dog, and one night is brutally attacked by a seemingly random mugging. Now trying to change his nature, Casey attends a karate lesson by an eccentric Sensei (Alessandro Nirvola) and decides to devote himself to karate. As Casey rises through the ranks of karate, he finds his Sensei’s teachings not only impacting his martial arts skills, but inspiring him to be a more aggressive, angry, and masculine version of himself.

It’s a concept we’ve seen before, but seeing Casey’s evolution from a socially awkward geek into a more capable, and eventually less caring and more confrontational person works because Eisenberg is so convincing as this pathetic character. Granted, this is quite similar to roles Eisenberg has done before, but the film goes out of its way to show why Sensei’s ideologies would be appealing to Casey, and how his fragile thinking would be susceptible to his extreme thinking.

Alessandro Nivola is downright brilliant; Sensei is a quirky character with exaggerated qualities, but Nivola is able to make the turn into being intimidating with ease. This is a large part of what makes the film work; the humor is often broad and relates to common themes about how hyper aggressive thinking would affect day to day life, but when needed the film is able to become dark and shocking with its violence and humor. The ending in particular is very interesting; it absolves a certain type of thinking and offers a solution that is ambiguous for its characters, resolving the natural arc of how these characters should be resolved without claiming to have a clean solution.

If I have any major issues with the film, it’s how the film handles its “twist.” I put twist in parenthesis because its seems fairly obvious what will happen, and while that in of itself is not a bad thing, the film broadly explains itself when it could have been more subtle, and the time devoted to this storylines cuts away from the rising tension that leads to the final act.

The way that The Art of Self-Defense handles ideas about personality changes through the guise of karate is fascinating, although there are ways in which the film could be more specifically tailored for the 21st Century- how does a changing, more connected world react to the Sensei’s teachings, and how does this make Casey more isolated? Nevertheless, it’s an endearingly frank movie with some truly wonderful performances, off kilter and very rewarding. Grade: B

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood- Movie Review

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There are not many filmmakers in history who’ve influenced the industry as much as Quentin Tarantino; nearly thirty years after Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino remains one of the few filmmakers who have never compromised, whose films still feel like events, and whose choices and style feel distinctive in a way that still inspires imitators. Tarantino will be debated forever, and really he has nothing to prove because the films speak for themselves.

I don’t think Tarantino was trying to prove anything in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but this clearly feels like the sign of a matured filmmaker. This isn’t a deliberate change of pace- there’s still all the snappy dialogue, long set pieces, bold music choices, and dark humor you’d expect from Tarantino film, but more than anything this is a hangout film about the end of an era. It’s not my place to judge whether or not this is a personal film, but this feels like his most sincere work- there’s an inherent sadness to the passing of Golden Age of Cinema and the supposed “Era of Innocence” in this country.

The year is 1969 and Hollywood is in a transition of change, with hippie culture taking to the streets and movie stars fading from prominence. Former western actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) feels as if his career is over as he’s subjected to secondary parts as he struggles with alcoholism, with his longtime parter and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) struggling more than ever as his selfish friend ignores him. Rick reminisces about what his career could have been as he observes his neighbor, the illustrious movie star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who is married to filmmaker Roman Polanski.

The phrase “love letter” is used a lot, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood seeks to put us directly in the midst of what 60s cinema is. The film’s loose structure allows Tarantino to directly involve us in the story, with the long clips of the projects Rick is involved with taking on a life of their own and managing to be riveting on their own. When Tarantino pulls back the curtain on the world of cinema, it’s through the eyes of the film itself; the semi-parodical, semi-serious musings about actors getting lost in their roles comes from eight year old child actor, and in one brilliant scene we see Rick and Cliff commenting on a past project as the film is shown to us, breaking the fourth wall without breaking the guise of the story.

This is similarly used when Sharon Tate goes to a theater to observe the audience reaction to one of her films; her utter delight at the audience’s enjoyment could be observed as an argument for the communal filmgoing experience, a defense of the movie star idea, or just a representation of the innocence that was lost in the country at the tail end of the 60s.

This is also perhaps the funniest thing Tarantino has ever written; due to the hangout structure, the film allows for the characters to simply navigate between misadventures, from a hilarious appearance by Bruce Lee to Rick’s tumultuous experiences remembering his lines for a shoot. It’s based on history, but this is very clearly Tarantino’s version of history; the admiration for the era is there, as evidence by the often indulgent interior and exterior car shots done in a style similar to 60s films, and Cliff and Rick fit seamlessly within what we understand history to be.

Despite the rewriting of history in points, this never feels like broad satire, which is why I feel that this is Tarantino’s most sincere piece. There’s a purity to how Tate’s life is shown, how her every day is filled with pleasure in simple moments and the energy in which she infuses her environment. While the joke behind the Cliff and Rick relationship is clear (Rick is self destructive and complains, but Cliff is the poor one who’s been long suffering), there’s also a genuine sincerity between these friends.

Leonardo DiCaprio is perhaps my favorite actor, living or otherwise, and this is a often surprising performance- Rick is simultaneously funny and sad, cool and pathetic, and there’s a charm to his self-indulgent determinism that detracts from his often toxic behavior. Perhaps there’s a touch of self-parody in Rick’s pursuit of stardom and disregard for others, but DiCaprio makes the selfish nature endearing in how committed he is.

As for Pitt, this is a masterful comedic performance; Cliff is blunt in his line delivery, and the joy he takes in disrupting stable environments is ironically countered towards his consistent service to Rick, who views him as a best friend but never takes the time to help him. Early on in the film, we see both Cliff and Rick return to their respective homes, and the contrast couldn’t be more clear, both in their class status and their attitudes.

The end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a simple masterpiece in channeling history and style into a cohesive voice; we know what events in history have to occur and we feel like we know how the third act of a Tarantino movie will play out, but the film manages to subvert both ideas whilst fulfilling both. The build up fills us with a sense of perpetual dread because of history, with the more extreme Tarantino events coming in in just the right moments to add humor and shocks. Without spelling out how the film closes, it suggest something profound that Tarantino has never attempted before- it’s a audacious move from a filmmaker who always knows how to surprise us. Grade: A+

Yesterday- Movie Review

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If there’s one thing that I admire about the marketing for Yesterday the most, its that its one of the few major studio films in recent years that is sold entirely on its premise. Not a franchise, not an IP, not even any real stars (although it doesn’t hurt to be helmed by one of cinema’s greatest living directors). It’s a great concept- what would the world be like without The Beatles? What’s interesting about the film is that the concept is more of a backdrop; there’s probably a lot of stories that could be told in the wake of The Beatles being erased from history, but this is just about one specific instance.

Struggling songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) has been constantly set back as his career seems to be going no where, despite the continued support of his longtime manager Ellie (Lily James). After Jack is determined to give up his dreams, a freak accident leaves him brutally injured, but more significantly, he’s now living in a world where the iconic music of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr no longer exists.

The Beatles have been explored many times onscreen before, so its interesting to see that the film uses their music as the catalyst for the film’s story, but doesn’t necessarily claim to be an analysis of the work in particular. Compared to something like Across the Universe, which has a clear correlation to the sociopolitical themes that The Beatles stimulated, or Nowhere Boy, which explores the origin of the iconic music without utilizing it specifically, Yesterday is more about the large gap of culture that The Beatles inhabited. The Beatles, like Coca-Cola or Harry Potter (which are both directly referenced in the film) have transcended what they initially represented and taken on their own legacy. I don’t think any one approach is necessarily better than the other, but Yesterday is more about the idea of The Beatles than The Beatles themselves.

That being said, there’s also a lot to be said about how we analyze cultural legacy- which is precisely what Yesterday suggests. As Jack begins to reintroduce the music to his friends and family, he’s desperate to explain the impact of the music, but is consistently cut off or ignored (one scene in particular draws some great laughs as Jack’s family interrupts his first rendition of “Let it Be”). He wants to cram years of analysis and impact into a first rendition, but that’s not why The Beatles were first appreciated- it’s because their music is fun and catchy. This is why Jack’s career takes off, and why the music is (as we now see) able to translate into any period in history.

The idea of simply enjoying something without demanding people understand its deeper meanings clearly resonates with director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis. While we gets glimpses at how the world may have been impacted by the lack of The Beatles, its never fully explored, nor are the other gaps in history fully explained. This purposeful vagueness is intentional, because the story is really Jack’s, as he looks for fulfillment as an artist. Success is all relative to him, and at the end of the day his relationship with Ellie is the only thing he’s actually searching for. She is his career, and when his career ends up surpassing her, he questions what his intentions really are.

For a filmmaker as obsessed with process as much as Danny Boyle is, Yesterday seems simple in a creative way. Boyle has always had a knack for the intimate, be it the feverish nightclubs of Trainspotting, the walk and talk in Steve Jobs, the interrogation scenes in Slumdog Millionaire, or the confined spaceship in Sunshine. All these films have one thing in common: what if we took a huge event and looked at it from the singular location, and not as an epic? What if Steve Jobs’s life was condensed into a series of conversations? What if the most important space mission in history was viewed from the perspective of outsiders who might never see their families again? What if an inspirational true story was structured around a man telling his life’s events to a suspicious prison guard? Like Boyle’s other films, Yesterday has the premise of an epic, but is mostly centered around conversations.

Being penned by Richard Curtis, these are often really fun conversations. They’re never particularly deep, and the extent to which the film actually engages with the idea of who art belongs to and our role to share it are rather slim, focusing more on a series of recurring gags. Many of these amusing side characters seem to be one-note, but that’s because Ellie is the only thing that grounds Jack, and the entire process seems to be about finding what the meaning of his success would be without her. The film’s best and boldest scene (in which Jack encounters a familiar figure who puts his life in perspective) is ultimately about just that- what is success, when do you know if you’ve made it, and who is this really all for?

As a continuation of this, I’ve rarely been more aware that I’m watching a future star than I was watching Himesh Patel in this film. There’s a complete authenticity to his performance, and the character is written specifically to reflect his status as a well meaning guy with no malicious intentions, who’s often oblivious to the ramifications of his actions (be it ignoring his long smitten manager or taking credit for all of the works by the greatest music group in history). Watching Patel work through the creative process of trying to remember the lyrics to a song is often uproarious but also strikes a chord with anyone who’s ever tried to sing in their car- its a blend of satire and sincerity that the entire film emulates.

There’s a lot to unpack in Yesterday, and while its fun to analyze the film’s themes and how it’s constructed, we also enjoy the film in the same way Jack’s family may have enjoyed their introduction to “Let it Be”- it’s charming on a visceral and emotional level, and maybe doesn’t require the interrogation on an artistic level. I can criticize the repetitive nature of some scenes, the length, or the many questions that arise from the premise (why cigarettes not exist in a Beatles-free world), but like the Beatles, I’m judging Yesterday on the sum of its parts. Grade: B

Under the Silver Lake- Movie Review

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Under the Silver Lake is a very odd movie, purposefully obtuse in a way that invites an immediate cult following. It’s no surprise that the film’s journey into theaters was fraught with setbacks; after a polarizing reaction at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the June 2018 release was pushed to December, then pushed again to April of this year when it wasn’t deemed an awards contender. This April release featured a very limited theatrical rollout that coincided with a VOD release prior to its debut on Amazon Prime Video (where I caught up with it). In a way, there has not been a consistent period of discussion regarding the film as its release was so mishandled, and I have a feeling that the conversation surrounding it will continue years onward as more people analyze it.

I think its nearly impossible to dismiss the craft put into Under the Silver Lake; the film lulls its audience into a hypnotic state in which we’re never totally clear what is intended to be important, or what is just a product of the inherent weirdness. There is certainly a deep mythology to what writer/director David Robert Mitchell has created, but in many ways, the film is an experience. That’s something that is often said, but I think the frantic journey of discovering what the film is, the crushing impact of its length, and the analysis of its text (which in many ways feels like a response directly to analysis) are crucial to understanding it.

Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a pathetic loser who’s on the verge of being kicked out of his apartment when he has a chance encounter with a beautiful woman (Riley Keough), who promptly disappears. Sam becomes obsessed with finding her, as he attempts to make sense of the strange occurrences in his Los Angeles community, which include a serial killer of dogs, a prostitution ring, a pop group with subliminal messages hidden in their songs, and a mysterious group seeking ascension to another plane of existence.

Is Sam crazy? Are we simply viewing the sequence of events from his warped point of view? It’s clear that Sam isn’t intended to be a redeeming protagonist, as is evidence from Garfield’s terrific performance, but sometimes we are entranced by his ideas about the subliminal and secretive elements of society. At the same time, it’s clear that the film’s attempts to advocate for Sam’s position that there must be something tying everything together is meant to be challenging- how much are we really suppose to relate to this obsessive, creepy guy, and what does that say about us as a viewer?

What makes the film so unique is that it manages to spontaneous and spiritual, yet pay off the thematic core of a search for answers. It’s dark, shockingly violent, and often genuinely scary (Sam’s obsession with the dog killer lead to a suspenseful sequence where he views a crime through a video monitor), yet there’s an inherent absurdism to all the wisdom it provides. There’s not as much outward comedy as the premise may suggest, but as a viewer we’re able to constantly shake our heads and stare in disbelief at what we’re watching.

As for Garfield, this is some of his best work, and a new chapter in his career. While he’s given tremendous performances in the past- The Social Network, Hacksaw Ridge, Silence, 99 Homes, the first The Amazing Spider-Man, all of them are variations of an idealistic and optimistic, likable protagonist. With Under the Silver Lake, Garfield has taken the quirkiness and neurotic elements of his past performances and channeled them into a truly disgusting individual. He captivates our attention through his hapless misadventures and encounters with the strange and eclectic supporting actors, yet we’re often reminded that this guy isn’t the ideal version of anything.

Since the film is told entirely from Sam’s perspective, each supporting actor is mainly there to give Garfield with information or insight that propels him to his next step. In doing this, we never get to fully know any of the other characters, which is precisely the point. There’s a one note shallowness that everyone brings to their roles that reflects Sam’s narcissism, and it’s also a great pallet of intriguing character actors. Ruben Fischler in particular has fun as a comic book writer who introduces Sam to ideas about subliminal messaging, and Riley Keough’s character Sarah reflect the perfect driving force for this hypnotic journey.

It’s also clear that the film is trying to be disorienting when it comes to any technical elements. The score is overtly bombastic, and while at first it may feel like a satire of the noir elements that are satirized, it also gives a legitimacy to Sam’s quest. The strange imagery, including large, detailed environments and odd animated segments are purposefully off putting, and reflect the film’s ability to never be pinned down in one place or as one thing.

Is Under the Silver Lake a masterpiece? I think there is definitely an argument to be made for it, and there’s not a lot of films I’ve seen recently that are this rich in both subtext and detail- it’s a layered meta commentary that is so rich with meaning that even the indulgences feel like they have value. Yet, it’s also that willful obtuseness that makes it hard to get into fully. It’s hard to fully evaluate a film in which I’m not entirely sure what its intensions were- that’s also what makes it so fascinating. Grade: A

Spider-Man: Far From Home- Movie Review

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“You’re not a jerk for wanting a normal life.”

Spider-Man has always been the most relatable superhero because he’s the most relatable; at his core, he’s a confused kid who feels like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and the poignancy of Peter Parker trying to balance a normal life with greater responsibilities has been the theme that resonates throughout the best of the Spider-Man movies. The idea of a kid playing with a larger world has only been amplified by Spider-Man’s inclusion in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the personal stakes of Peter’s life feeling all the more nuanced in a world that involves time travel, aliens, and world destroying cataclysms.

Spider-Man: Far From Home gets a lot of things right, but at its core it understands exactly how Peter Parker should fit into the universe without sacrificing the uniqueness of the Spider-Man pathos. Here we find Peter struggling with living up to the legacy of Tony Stark, an honor he doesn’t feel he’s ready for, and at the same time wants to confess his feelings to the girl he likes.

These are the perfect themes for the film; Tony Stark’s mentorship to Peter isn’t the key to the Spider-Man story, but it is in *this* Spider-Man story, and the legacy of Iron Man is only amplified by the inclusion of the supporting characters and world of the Iron Man films. As for the girl, a teenage crush may not be a world shattering issue, but for a sixteen-year-old its everything; this is Peter’s story, and we’re drawn into it because the film treats these kids and their issues with respect.

The film picks up with Tom Holland’s webslinger as he sheds his duties to go on a class trip to Europe, where the appearances of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the enigmatic hero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) disrupt Peter’s plans to confess his feelings to his crush MJ (Zendaya). I appreciated the way in which the film deals with a post-Endgame world, with an expositional scene at the beginning personally drawing us back into the world from the perspective of a modern high school.

It’s been discussed endlessly, but I really can’t get over how great Tom Holland is in this role. He is the definitive Spider-Man. Holland has always embodied the geeky, awkward joys of Peter’s consistent sacrifices of personal relationships in order to live up to his responsibilities, but in this one we’re really drawn in by his innocence. There’s a naivety and sensitivity to Peter; his inherent willingness to screw himself in favor of others makes him a great hero. His unquestioning belief in the goodness of others represent another key element of Spider-Man- the search for a father figure.

In this film, the father figure comes in the form of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio. Gyllenhaal, one of the greatest actors of his generation, makes for a great foil to Peter, representing a different sort of mentor who’s also caught in the legacy of Tony Stark. Gyllenhaal takes a lot of chances with the character, and they pay off; Mysterio represents a way out for Peter, and the search for a balance makes for great drama.

The movie is also just hilarious; Marvel movies are sometimes criticized for using humor to undercut drama, but this is an example of how it works well and inform the stakes of the film. It’s hard not to see the John Hughes comparisons made to this film and its predecessor, and the film mines nearly every possible comedic opportunity out of a teenage superhero, with just the right amount references to the greater MCU. Credit is due to the supporting cast; this is a world that feels very lived in, and each young actor is able to take what seems like a one note role and make it three dimensional.

If there’s criticism I have its that there are a few moments in which character motivations could’ve used a few additional scenes to be better realized; while its clear that the filmmaker want to show the quick decision making process that Peter has, a few scenes could’ve used a better build up in order to make the decisions more realistic. There’s also a lack of truly imaginative action; while we get some fun spectacle, a lack of rules regarding the goals of each scene make it hard to follow. Both Far From Home and Homecoming are able to use their emotional connection and humor to illuminate action scenes, but they lack the trippy visuals of Into the Spider-Verse or the creative staging of the the Sam Raimi films.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a great Spider-Man movie that serves as more than MCU connective tissue, and at the same time is able to raise the stakes for Peter Parker with a jaw dropping ending that changes the character forever. It’s a funny, quick witted romp that delivers, and occasionally coasts, on the affable charisma of Tom Holland. This is such a saturated market for superhero movies, and Far From Home delivers on all the heart and humor that could be found in a 21st Century vision of the character. They’ll probably make Spider-Man movies forever, and I’ll probably keep seeing them, but don’t worry- this is a good one. Grade: B+

Rocketman- Movie Review

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Rocketman is a very thorough, creative take on the musician biographical film; Elton John was in no way a conventional person, so it makes sense that a biography would need to break the barrier of what would a film like this could be. Obviously, it’s a celebration of music, and the film uses Elton’s songs to turn his life into a cosmic fantasy in which each song represents a core moment in his journey. Less focused on dates and figures as it is with the authenticity of Elton John’s personal story of overcoming hardships, Rocketman boasts the year’s first Oscar worthy performance in Taron Egerton’s unbelievable transformation into the iconic singer.

The film chronicles the early days of Reginald Dwight, who struggles to connect with his tumultuous family as a child, finding solace in his love of music. As a young Dwight navigates the music scene, he befriends songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and takes the stage name Elton John as his music becomes a phenomenon. The concert footage is often wonderful, but the film is really about the different relationships in Elton’s life; from his fraught and complicated relationship with his parents to his lifelong friendship with the always honest Bernie, the film wrings all the dramatic potential out of the people that shaped Elton, and illustrates it with wonderfully imaginative musical numbers.

Enough good words cannot be said about Egerton; he is so captivating as a performer, filling the room with electric stage persona that Elton is known for, but it’s also a highly vulnerable performance. At the heart of the story is a scared child who is confused about the world and is in search of acceptance, and Egerton makes the cycles of addiction heartbreak, and excess all the more heartbreaking onscreen. This is a very rounded performance; Egerton captures how the fits of rage fit into Elton’s life, but also how his upbringing and challenging relationships caused him to become lost, and how he ultimately had to ask for help.

While the narrative is structured on Elton’s life, its the musical numbers that help to show the key emotional moments, with “Your Song” serving as a celebration of his friendship with Taupin, “Rocketman” showing us a window into his darkest stage of addiction, or “Crocodile Rock” providing an electric introduction to his live stage persona. The way in which these sequences serve the narrative are very creative and allow Egerton to excel as a performer, but also allow the film to show if its visual flare.

The musical sequences are also just remarkable works of craftsmanship; the visuals are eye popping, and are able to ground surreal elements within what’s actually happening with the scene; whether its exploring suppressed emotion or visualizing a mood shift, each scene is a self contained work of art that also connects to the larger narrative. The costume work is just stunning, as are the distinct color pallets that best serve the tone each scene sets; there’s a sense of silliness and absurdity within each number, be it celebratory or tragic, and the intercutting of appropriate flashbacks helps to best accentuate what the scene means within the story. Choreography is also a highlight, and the film makes sure that each scene includes a sense of urgency and movement in order to make it more exciting.

For a film that features so much fun music and inspiration, Rocketman is also a film framed around Elton’s trip to rehab. The image of Egerton, clad in an absurd outfit, recounting his often strange and sad story in a therapy circle, is clear; this is a larger than life person who is able to ground himself, yet remain uncompromisingly himself. It’s a delightful, thoroughly honestly personal work, a film that celebrates legacy, yet manages to tell its story in new and exciting ways. Grade: A-

John Wick: Chapter 3- Parabellum- Movie Review

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The John Wick series has more or less been a miracle, not just in revitalizing Keanu Reeves’s career, but in the modern R-Rated action movie. While there certainly is the rare Mad Max: Fury Road or Baby Driver or other auteurist work, the action market is largely populated by the same PG-13 or other franchise building works, and the days of the gloriously goofy action films of the ’80s or ’90s seem to be lost. What’s great about the John Wick films is that they’re not just throwbacks; through their dazzling visuals, creative world of assassins and hitmen, and innovative combination of gunplay and kung fu, the John Wick films have created a new subgenre that pays tribute to that spirit whilst forging a new direction.

With John Wick: Chapter 3- Parabellum, director Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves have created another pulpy, highly detailed spectacle. It doesn’t quite match the perfect emotional resonance of the first film or the pure nonstop adrenaline of Chapter 2, but with Parabellum, the pair have crafted an immersive thriller about consequence and will to survive. These films are able to get everything out of their concept; the story is simple, but the attention to detail and unique vision of a multi-class society of covert assassins and their order makes it feel lived in and nuanced.

After violating the rules of the Continental hotel, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is declared excommunicado by the High Table and has a $14 million bounty placed on his head. Desperate to escape the forces of the High Table, Wick calls on favors from former allies and seeks out past alliances in order to survive. There’s an intersting story here about the fallout of past actions, both good and bad, and it’s enough to justify the glorious action spectacle that follows.

The film is simply packed with action sequences, but the great thing is that the non-action scenes are more than placeholders. The highly specific world allows for a wealth of great characters, and the film features a great supporting cast of character actors that are able to come in, play up their eccentricities, and then exit. Each actor gifts the screen with a certain weirdness as to best counter the steely Reeves; Halle Berry in particular makes for a great foil, and franchise regulars Ian McShane and Lance Reddick both have a blast as Wick’s allies at the Continental. Also having a blast is Laurence Fishburne, Reeves’s Matrix costar, who’s able to feel like he’s improving each scene, yet still feels like exactly what the film needs in every scene he appears in. Each actor is able to imply an entire history that’s never explicitly stated, and the brief glimpses of different parts of this society make it all the more exciting.

What is there to say about the action that hasn’t already been said before? The amount of work put into the stunt coordination is evident, as is the filmmaker’s desire to diversify what we’re seeing. There’s a great number of chases, but each chase too similar, with each scene feeling like it’s own self contained, mini adventure. The brutality of the violence is often used for great comedic effect, but seeing the love and hard work put into the film makes me even more invested.

The last fifteen minute actions sequence of the film is straight up the best onscreen action I’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road; incorporating all the best elements of noir, Eastern cinema, and the action films Reeves has built his career on, it’s the best possible execution of a sword fight that you could want. There were shots in the film that made me audibly gasp; the use of color and shadow, usually used through fluid long takes, does more to establish the mood and tone of the film then dialogue ever could. The craftsmanship is exactly why these films are a cut above most action films; watching the trailers for other action films in front of Parabellum only made me notice the difference more.

At the heart of it all is Keanu Reeves; the brilliance of the role isn’t only the self awareness, but how Reeves plays to his strengths. Behind the sternness and bluntness, there’s a deep sadness in the role, and if you look, some wisdom- something that sums up the appeal of Reeves as a performer. Reeves has been in many of the great action films of all-time (The Matrix, Point Break, Speed), but he’s never had a role like this, where he’s a highly qualified, entirely lethal, very lonely guy who doesn’t neccessarily save the day or get the girl. Parabellum is the culmination of the character’s arc, one that mimics the classic movie spectacle of a Chaplin or Keaton; he’s the unbeatable guy with the will to persevere no matter what. Grade: A-