Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Bad Boys for Life, 2020 - ★★★★

A MLK day treat for me personally. This third film in the Bad Boys saga (full disclosure... I loved both 1 and 2 in the series) brings us right back to detectives Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) as they patrol the streets of Miami Beach once again. Things are different this time as Marcus is now a grandfather and Mike is no longer "bulletproof". A supporting cast of young up-and-coming SWAT team members are in the mix this go-around and the age jokes are plentiful throughout.

The real heart of this movie is Lawrence who gives a real emotional performance that works. When Marcus sheds some real tears in the middle of the film because of a few key events that affect him, you really believe his acting. He's definitely fallen out of shape a bit but his acting may have actually improved over the years. Will Smith is still the usual cocky lead that drives these films and he makes up for the subpar Gemini Man that he released earlier in 2019. The banter between Smith and Lawrence is what makes these films so good. They just feed so well off of each other and the scenes with heavy dialogue between Mike and Marcus are the moments that shine brightest with this movie.

I really enjoyed this film and it falls right in line with the same tone and quality as the first two. Kudos to young directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah who took the franchise reigns from Michael Bay (who makes a clever cameo in this film) and are setup to direct the next Beverley Hills Cop film as well. The action they showcase on screen is top-notch and well crafted. High concept fight scenes help propel the story and raise the stakes in the end. There's a reveal towards the end of the film that sets things up for another Bad Boys entry (that has just been green-lit). I say bring it on. I love the chemistry of these two characters and as long as Smith and Lawrence are game, I'll be there to see the next film.

The Two Popes, 2019 - ★★★★

I went into this film not looking forward to it but came away extremely glad that I took the time to watch it. This is an excellent "behind-the-scenes" look at the Catholic church and that papal machine. It's really interesting to see inner-workings of the conclave and the selection process of choosing the next pope.

Jonathan Pryce is really good in the lead role as Pope Francis. He looks a lot like the real pope and his chemistry with Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) is fun to watch. Watching where Francis came from in his history and the choices he made leading up to succeeding Benedict was effectively conveyed on-screen by director Fernando Meirelles. You rarely get to see the lives of cardinals and bishops in such a raw format. I'm sure a lot of this isn't totally authentic but it makes for riveting cinema.

Make sure to watch through the credits scene to see a hilarious back-and-forth with the two popes watching the 2014 World Cup Final following the papal transfer of power. I learned a lot watching this film and it's well worth a viewing on Netflix.

Parasite, 2019 - ★★★★½

Bong Joon Ho spins an original tale of class dynamics in modern-day Korea with this interesting look at an entrepreneurial family taking advantage of an opportunity that falls in their lap. Getting into all the plot details here will ruin the experience for a first time viewer so I'll just touch on the asthetics which are remarkable. The crisp, well-paced narrative rolls along with effective from performances from a talented cast.

Bong's production design is excellent and the sleek modern home that sets the stage for much of the movie's events is filmed beautifully. So much so that the house itself becomes a key character in the film. The story is the standout aspect of this movie as there are clever twists and turns throughout. I found myself enjoying the ride and marveling at the high-level craftsmanship of Bong's work.

The only slight issue I had with this film is the over-the-top violence we see towards the end. I'm not usually one who is put off by violence but I don't really know if the film really needed to go to that level to be effective. Still this is a remarkable achievement from a foreign language entry and hopefully this gets rewarded by the Academy next month.

Monday, January 13, 2020

1917, 2019 - ★★★★★

This movie blew me away. Sam Mendes' personal recounting of stories his grandfather told him is at the same time sentimental, moving and utterly thrilling to experience. The film (which plays out over a single day in 1917) focuses on two young British soldiers in World War I. Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman aka Game of Thrones' Tommen Baratheon) are given an order to hand-deliver a message to a different regiment, calling off a planned attack against German forces that would end in massive bloodshed if carried out. The premise is simple but the cinematic execution here is world class.

I felt very much like I did in watching 2013's Gravity when viewing this film. I was riveted to the screen from the first frame and there is an underlying tension and realness that Mendes and his amazing cinematographer Roger Deakins brings to life. You are experiencing war first-hand and get to witness all of the chaos that war brings despite several scenes and settings that portray beautiful landscapes and haunting visuals.

What is so technically amazing about this film is the choreographed fluidity of the film-making involved. From start to finish the camera is right there up close and personal with Schofield and Blake. We see them exploring the trenches in familiar territory at the start and then are right there with them with each new landscape and area of France they explore first-hand. There are numerous scenes that go on for long periods of time without a visible cut in filming. Mendes lets Deakins do his work and through some technical tricks it's almost as if the whole movie is one long take. The scene you see in the trailer of Schofield running through a charging battalion near the end of the film is totally amazing to witness on the big screen. It's a virtual lock that Deakins will take home a well deserved 2nd Oscar win for his work here.

Mendes really should be rewarded as well. In a very similar vein to what Alfonso Cuaron did with Gravity, Mendes orchestrates tragedy, conflict and beauty in a seamless sequence of rich landscapes and realistic battle scenes. At times I felt like I was playing Battlefield or Call of Duty on my PS4 during sequences in this film. While not totally filmed from a first-person perspective there are First-Person-Shooter elements in this movie. Thomas Newman's effective and brilliant score ties in perfectly with the sprawling narrative.

The acting here is serviceable but this is certainly not an actor's movie. MacKay and Chapman give a raw sense of panic and resolve and make you feel like the third Lance Corporal along for the ride with them. Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden and Benedict Cumberbatch all show up for brief scenes but add a sense of authenticity and importance to the film. This film is all about the journey though. The path these two young soldiers have to follow to complete their mission. Through day and night, they experience battle and conflict but also moments of clarity and kindness that contrast the horror of war.

Simply put, 1917 is a masterpiece. A poetic symphony of site and sound that brings you along with the two heroes of the film in a totally immersive experience that flies along at a rapid pace (this felt like an hour-long film). I can without-a-doubt say that this is right up there with Saving Private Ryan as the best war movie ever made. I really liked Dunkirk, but Mendes one-upped Christopher Nolan here. This is easily the best film of 2019 and I hope Oscar rewards this extremely high-level of film-making.

Monday, December 30, 2019

American Factory, 2019 - ★★★★

This is a great look at culture clashes between the United States and China. The work ethic of American and Chinese couldn't be more different and this brave attempt at creating a synergy between the two cultures at the Fuyao Glass America plant in Dayton Ohio is documented brilliantly with this film.

Kudos to the Obamas for producing this movie and they may be in line to accept an Oscar in February.

Little Women, 2019 - ★★

Greta Gerwig's adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic novel is what it is. A safe, simple story of little girls growing up to be women and it's a story that just isn't my cup of tea. I was thoroughly bored throughout this film and while I did respect the performances (especially the up-and-coming Florence Pugh and the grande dame herself Meryl Streep) I just wasn't engaged with this movie.

Gerwig has made two films in a row (2017's Lady Bird) that really just didn't do it for me. The biggest issue I had with this film is the rapid jumps back and forth through time. The film is paced through a series of present-day sequences intercut (with almost no explanation at times) with flashback scenes. It was very confusing to know what time frame you were witnessing throughout the movie.

The score by Alexandre Desplat is one of his worst film scores and the movie felt entirely too long. I'm sure there's a target audience for this type of film but it certainly isn't me.

Cats, 2019 - ★★★

I know. Everyone HATES this movie. I'm sure this will sweep the razzies this year, but let's all pump the breaks a bit. Tom Hooper tries to recreate the magic of Les Miserables with this Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation of the Cats musical. The movie is not awful and works in a variety of ways. The issue here is that those who are seeing this musical for the first time will probably hate it and the CGI effects will just become a barrier to prevent them from enjoying the music.

I came into the screening having just seen Cats at the Kennedy Center two months earlier. I saw this musical several times as a child and was fully aware of the plot, costuming and all of the music in the film. Tom Hooper takes the existing story and adds in a white kitten named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) to lead the audience through the story and to participate in many of the musical numbers. I thought this was an interesting choice and not quite necessary but Hayward is very good with both her facial emotions and her singing.

The real issues I had with this movie were some of the casting choices. Rebel Wilson in particular is god-awful as Jennyanydots. This is a role that in the stage musical is not played like a bumbling bafoon acting crass and ridiculous as all of Rebel Wilson's performances are. Her sequence in the film is horrible with tons of forced practical "comedy" featuring dancing rats, mice and cockroaches that falls on its face. James Cordon as Bustopher Jones is also overly comical and not as endearing as the character in the stage musical. Jason Derulo is not as "cool" as the Elvis-esque stage character of Rum Tum Tugger. I thought that Idrid Elba (Macavity), Robbie Fairchild (Munkustrap), Ian McKellen (Gus), Judi Dench (an excellent spin to have a female Old Deuteronomy) and even Taylor Swift (Bombalurina) were very good.

The CGI in this movie is not the best but it did not bother me as much as it seems to bother all of America. I thought a lot of the facial closeups with ears perking up and the CGI fur was well done. This is the look the Hooper and his team wanted. The choice of not animating hands and feet was very strange but the base CGI is passable for what it was engineered for. The biggest visual issue I had was all the anthropomorphic animating of the smaller-than-cats creatures like cockroaches,mice, etc.. . I think the people-as-animals stunt casting should have ended at the cats phase.

The story of this film is borrowed loosely from the musical which already has not much of a plot. This film/musical is really all about the music. If you don't like the music, you're going to hate the play/film. If you're going into it for the first time seeing CGI people-cats you'll probably hate it. But as someone who likes some of the music and thought the musical was halfway decent, I thought this adaption wasn't all that bad. I was entertained and really did enjoy the power-moments of Jennifer Hudson's Memory despite the snotty nose.

Bombshell, 2019 - ★★★½

Charlize Theron totally nails her portrayal of Megyn Kelly in this semi-true story of the fall of Roger Ailes at Fox News. Whomever was in charge of the prosthetics/makeup on this film should win an Oscar for morphing Charlize into a spitting image of Kelly. Theron added in the proper voice affect to finish the stunning transformation.

The film itself is an insider look at the outbreak of the me too movement in media. Director Jay Roach makes sure to look at all sides of this issue in laying out the facts and opinions on both sides of the political aisle. Nicole Kidman is effective as whistle-blower Gretchen Carlson and Margot Robbie SHINES as fictional up-and-coming reporter Kayla Pospisil. Robbie in particular conveys both youthful exuberance and first-hand fright and trauma based on what she experiences in her interactions with Ailes (John Lithgow in a brilliant performance).

While Theron and Robbie are the highlights here, the story and plot are a bit too inside-politics for my taste. Supporting turns by Mark Duplass and Kate McKinnon help move the pacing along but I found myself overwhelmed by intricacies of politics that just don't interest me personally. Still this is a very good female-driven vehicle that does a solid job of lifting the curtain on the seedy underbelly of American journalism.

Uncut Gems, 2019 - ★★★½

The Safdie Brother have created a raw and real look at the NYC underbelly and in the process have given Adam Sandler another "dramatic" role to sink his teeth into. Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a NYC jeweler who is addicted to betting on sports. The movie gets ramped up at times especially in the jewelry store scenes where everyone is yelling and vamping on top of one another. I found these scenes to be particularly annoying as it seems that everyone is trying to yell louder than one another. I suppose the Safdies were trying to make the audience uncomfortable here and it worked, but I didn't find this rewarding at all.

Sandler is serviceable here in the lead role but he really just yells and yells like he does in his famous comedy roles. There's nothing groundbreaking about his performance. I also really hated the score in this film by Daniel Lopatin. It didn't compliment any of the scenes and actually served as a distracting presence throughout.

The real star of this movie is Kevin Garnett who plays a 2012 version of himself with authenticity and a sense of realness. As an NBA fan it was pretty cool to see real-life playoffs clips spliced with the dramatic context of the fictional narrative. The perils of sports gambling are brought to the forefront with a shocking ending that makes up for some of the over-the-top acting/screaming along the way.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, 2019 - ★★★★½

This movie has divided a large fan base like no other. People who loved Last Jedi are clamoring that director JJ Abrams has once again copied the story and themes from a previous film in the series and that there's a lack of creativity in this movie. Others who weren't as enamored with Jedi are loving this film for what it is, a solid send off to this saga of nine films.

Let's be clear... I liked Last Jedi. I didn't LOVE it. The visual choices that Rian Johnson made in that film were perfect and it may be the best LOOKING Star Wars movie ever. I did not like the choices made for Luke Skywalker with the whole lightsaber over-the-shoulder toss and his exaggerated reluctance to teach the force to Rey. Going into the screening of Skywalker I wished that episode 9 contained a hybrid of the visuals from 8 and the nostalgia from 7 and I pretty much got my wish there. Rise of Skywalker looks great and is jam packed with great references to the past including a lot of big-stakes resolution at the end. This movie does borrow a lot from Return of the Jedi just like Force Awakens borrowed from A New Hope. It didn't annoy me in Force Awakens though and it didn't annoy me with this film either. I just felt that there were enough throwbacks to the past (I loved the return to the throne room from the Return of the Jedi Death Star) that gave the film an emotional connection to my lifetime of watching all these films. Was there a lot of original plot ideas here? NO. But I don't think I needed that with this film. This movie simply needs to wrap up everything in this Skywalker thread and I think it did so rather nicely.

This film is a showcase for the acting talents of Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega and Oscar Issac, all perfectly cast characters that pay off in this final film. You really buy the chemistry between all of them and there are multiple jokes throughout that really work. Ridley especially has a lot to carry on her shoulders with the narrative here and she pulls it off brilliantly.

It's a shame that we have episodes 7-9 with two "battling" directors at the helm. Overall I think the sequel trilogy sits head and shoulders above the prequels but definitely behind episodes 4-6. JJ Abrams did an admirable job and I was entertained and mostly satisfied with Rise of Skywalker, a film I want to see again and I feel is getting a bad rap from most critics.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Richard Jewell, 2019 - ★★★★

Clint Eastwood is still chugging along as a top-list director at age 88. His latest true-story effort is a retelling of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombing and the subsequent aftermath. I remembered a lot of these events as I was and am a huge Olympics fan but what this movie does really well is showcase the media/FBI involvement in wrongfully accusing an innocent man.

Sam Rockwell plays Jewell's attorney Watson Bryant and delivers another excellent performance while Kathy Bates shines and earns her Golden Globe nomination as Jewell's concerned mother. Both of the actors I just mentioned are Academy Award winners and proven commodities, the real bright spot of this film lies in character actor Paul Walter Hauser who absolutely nails the title role of Richard Jewell and gives him a level of complexity that I really wasn't expecting going into this. We're able to see Jewell as an aspiring law enforcement officer and as a fish-out-of-water when he's suspected to have planted the fateful bomb in Centennial Park. In a crowded Oscar race, I'd almost want to save a spot for Hauser in the Best Actor category although I know that won't happen. He was simply the right actor choice for this role and delivers way beyond what he's done in other films like I Tonya and BlacKkKlansman.

The acting is great here (John Hamm and Olivia Wilde are solid as well), the story is solid but it does drag along in places. Similar to his work with Sully, Eastwood is able to spin some depth and character development into another from-the-headlines story. Hauser will never be better in a film and it's worth buying a ticket just to watch him embody Richard Jewell.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Knives Out, 2019 - ★★★★

Rian Johnson brings back the murder mystery whodunnit genre with this enjoyable yarn about a powerful man and his extended family. Coming off the heels of The Last Jedi, Johnson gives us a clever twist on the "Clue" mystery-thriller staring a long list of celebrities I won't fully mention here. The stars that shine brightest are Christopher Plummer (Harlon Thrombey - patriarch of the family) Daniel Craig (as the Southern twanged detective Blanc), Ana de Armas (Marta Cabrera - Harlon's nurse) and Captain America himself (Chris Evans as Thrombey's grandson Ransom). I won't give any spoilers away to whodunnit, but the mystery goes on throughout the film and the best part of this movie is watching Daniel Craig try to solve the case. This is one of his best performances of his career and his southern mannerisms are spot-on and hilarious at times. Basically everything he says in this movie is worth a chuckle and you can't take your eyes off him when he's on-screen even in background scenes.

It's interesting to contrast this film with the recent success of Succession on HBO. There's a lot of similar dynamics here but Succession manages to fully paint the family members, adding depth that can't be duplicated in a two-hour film. Most all the cast here is excellent while a few key actors are under utilized (Toni Collette and Jaime Lee Curtis in particular).

This isn't a perfect film and there are parts that drag. I wish the mystery was played out a bit differently too, but Craig alone powers this movie to a high rating. de Armas is really clever and engaging here and shows us so much more than she brought to the table in Blade Runner 2049. This is definitely worth seeing and you'll have fun watching this play out. It'll be interesting to see where Johnson goes from here.

The Irishman, 2019 - ★★★

I don't fully get the whole universal praise of this film. I enjoyed watching it and really do appreciate all the technical work done with the de-aging of the main characters. The performances by De Niro, Pesci and Pacino are all top-notch in this "true story" look at the disappearance / murder of Jimmy Hoffa. De Niro in particular carries the film and it's really his best work since Goodfellas. You can tell that this was a passion project for the cast and Martin Scorsese as every scene is beautifully detailed and well crafted. The film looks great in 4K as well as I was able to watch this on Netflix at home, a trend that I am starting to enjoy more and more.

The major problem I had with this film is the run-time. This movie is waaaay too long and over indulgent. I felt we just got every single detail of Frank Sheeran's (De Niro) life and some of it could have been cut out. So many conversations ad nauseum between the main characters that after a while it's overkill and I started zoning out. Goodfellas is the best comparison to this film and that film just was so much more engaging than this one with memorable scenes and characters. The Irishman tells an intriguing story about growing old and coming to grips with what you've done over your lifetime but the way it's conveyed on screen is just a series of brutal killings peppered between forgettable conversations. Maybe part of the problem here is a lack of strong/memorable female performances in this movie. Lorraine Bracco brought so much to Goodfellas and that edge seemed to be missing here.

Marty Scorsese is a brilliant director but this is not in his top tier of films. It's really great to see Joe Pesci working again and I hope this isn't his final film. This is worth seeing for sure, but you may want to break it up in several chunks if you're watching via Netflix.

Marriage Story, 2019 - ★★★★★

Wow, this was a powerful film and very personal for me. As someone going through aftershocks from divorce and custody disputes, this felt very familiar at times. Noah Baumbach delivers a raw and gritty look at a real marriage falling apart before our eyes played out by two brilliant performances in Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. The two play two aspiring thespians. Nicole (Johansson) is a film actor turned Broadway art-house actor who decided moving to LA to be in a hit TV show was important for her career. Charlie (Driver) is a Broadway director who loves the pulse of New York City and runs a theater company there. Nicole's desire to be in LA pulls herself and her child Henry (Azhy Robertson) to relocate there with Nicole's Mom (Julie Hagerty).

What plays out through the bulk of the film is the back and forth between not only Charlie and Nicole but the dynamics of legal battling between Laura Dern (Nicole's attorney) and Alan Alda / Ray Liotta (Charlie's council). I fell like I've already given away too many plot details, but the draw of this film is the amazing performances by Johansson, Driver and Dern in particular. ScarJo has never been better. There is a scene early on that just focuses on her telling her marriage story to Dern in a raw uncut take where you can't take your eyes off her. She's so believable and makes you sympathetic to her plight even as I tended to side with the father in this situation. Driver is really really good as Charlie and he comes across as a genuine dad who loves his son but also loves his craft. The scene of him singing Stephen Sondheim near the end is a culmination of so much emotion throughout the film.

I don't believe I've ever really seen a Baumback film before and now I feel I should go and watch some of his earlier work. What he does here is lets his actors shine through unfiltered scenes that feel so real and natural. His takes are just long enough to let the emotion come out and bring us in as first-hand witnesses to this dispute. This movie is a masterpiece and only has a fault in the casting/writing of the child in the movie. Henry comes across as such an annoying / limited kids for an 8 year old. There is literally a scene where he's learning to read the word "iron" at age 9. He has a lot of pointless lines and he just isn't as real/genuine as the child in Kramer vs Kramer. Still, all the other performances are so good that they overshadow this small drawback. I haven't seen Judy yet, but I find it hard to believe there will be a better acting performance than what ScarJo delivers in this movie.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, 2019 - ★★★★½

Mr. Rogers is a role that Tom Hanks was born to play. The consummate nice-guy actor fully embodies the role of nice-guy children's TV show host. Hanks' performance oozes empathy and sincerity and never comes across as hacky or corny. The film, directed by Marielle Heller is a beautiful look at the life of magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (portrayed brilliantly by Matthew Rhys) who is struggling to find his way as a writer, new father and son to an estranged father (Chris Cooper). The film plays out like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood targeted at grown-ups and Heller does a wonderful job of cross-cutting scenes from the show with real-life interactions between Lloyd, Mr. Rogers and his attempt to reconcile with his dad. The scenes toward the end with Cooper and Rhys are powerful and brought out a few tears in me.

I really enjoyed this film and can't recommend it enough. The only problem I had with it was watching This Is Us' Susan Kelechi Watson play Lloyd's wife. Her performance was OK, but I feel she'll always be Randall's wife from the TV show and I couldn't really believe her in this role for some reason. Of course this is a minor nitpick. See this movie which comes across as chicken soup for the soul and a great tandem film to the Won't You Be My Neighbor documentary about Fred Rogers. Tom Hanks is a national treasure and this is another in a long line of classic performances to add to his resume.

Honey Boy, 2019 - ★★★½

A slightly depressing but honest look at Shia LaBeouf's childhood and his relationship with his alcoholic-abusive father. LaBeouf plays a character similar to his real-life Dad named James, alongside Ford v Ferrari's Noah Jupe (as "Otis" aka Shia as a child). Director Alma Har'el paints a whimsical picture of innocense mixed with the pressure of working in show business and what . Otis ends up smoking a lot at a very young age and we see how his abusive relationship with his Dad turns into trouble later in life when a 20-something Otis is played by Lucas Hedges. The movie does a solid job of showing how a tough-love father can impact the life of an impressionable child. Touching on themes of divorce, Har'el delivers and allows Shia to shine in the lead role. His chemistry with Jupe is excellent, but overall I wanted a little more here. The film is short and to-the-point but there's nothing really new with this story. Still, this is a showcase for LaBeouf and we really need to look out for Noah Jupe as an up-and-coming your actor.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Frozen II, 2019 - ★★★½

This movie looks brilliant and you can tell this sequel has been in gestation for a while based on the flawless animation. I "liked" but didn't love the first film and I sort feel the same about this one. Anna and Elsa are front-and-center once again and this time they embark on a quest to find out more about their past and relationship with their parents.

This movie deals with serious issues of purpose, finding your place in the world and touches on colonialism. Everything is wrapped up in a nice Disney bow with a slew of new songs throughout. The comedic high-point is a nice Peter Cetera - meets Queen ballad video by Jonathan Groff (who I much prefer in Mindhunter) as Christoph (Anna's love interest).

The story didn't blow me away and the songs are mostly forgettable (besides the terrific Into the Unknown) but I still enjoyed the return to this world. I would say that Josh Gad's voice acting as Olaf the bumbling snowman is the best part of this movie. He was slaying the kids left-and-right in my theater. If you have a kid, you're probably going to see this. If-not, you should probably wait for video or Disney Plus.