Thursday, February 1, 2018

REVIEW: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

There's no witty opener to be found here. I want to be as straightforward and honest about Luca Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name as Call Me by Your Name was straightforward and honest with me. This is the most piercingly honest depiction of first/falling in/romantic love I have seen in a very long time, perhaps of all time. If I would have postponed my top five list of 2017, this would have surely made the mark. The premise is so simple it begs you to question its gimmick: maybe they're on Mars the whole time? There is nothing deceiving about this film, and its pureness in relation to its characters is what makes it one of the better I've seen in the past decade.

Oliver (Armie Hammer) comes to stay with Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) as a research assistant for a summer in northern Italy in 1983, along with Perlman's wife Annella (Amira Casar) and son Elio (now Oscar-nominee Timothée Chalamet). The relationship begins: and that's the movie. Spread out leisurely over 132 minutes, and written by film veteran James Ivory, the movie's beginning crawl intoxicatingly invites the reader to come take a vacation, be a fly on the wall, indicated by the laid back intro of "Somewhere in Northern Italy." Along with being the most viscerally romantic, I think this is one of the most calmest movies I've ever seen. When I think of drama, my mind conjures arguments, fights, battles! I don't think anyone in Call Me by Your Name even raises their voice. It would disturb the paradise, the fragile moment these characters exist in. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's cinematography is mesmerizing, capturing serene postcard landscapes and tiny, intimate settings where Elio and Oliver hide away in equal measure.

But one undersung aspect of filmmaking is utilized to perhaps the fullest I've ever seen: lighting. It makes me want to petition the Academy to add this to their list of distinguished film achievements. No film has captured the lighting of love quite the same way. There's no romantic pinks, no spotlights in a dark room. Just quiet, intimate darkness, like when you first made out in your parents' house, and the lights were low, and you knew your partner's parents were coming to pick them up. When Elio is pursuing Marzia (Esther Garrel), a device the film uses to show Elio's lust vs. his love, there are nights when both of his lovers are gone, and he just sits there. A Hollywood film would have his mother pat him on the back, ask him what's wrong. "Oh, nothin'," he would say, and she'd smile knowingly, adding "Someone's got love on the brain!" Here, it's just a glance of pure wanting, bathed in a somber violet, and you know exactly what he's going through.

The dialogue, spoken in the true European fashion of alternating between three languages, is remarkably subtle. Many scenes are played out with minimal dialogue and silence, which, in a lesser movie, would make its aforementioned two hours and twelve minutes feel like a drag. But I was reading Roger Ebert's review of Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (these are the things I do with my time) and he mentioned how the film was a "hang-out" movie, the type where he wanted to watch the characters scheme and talk for hours on hours. Jackie Brown is a long movie, even for Tarantino's standards, and it can stand to lose about 20 minutes. But every second in Call Me by Your Name felt invaluable. The mild flirtations, the parental advisories (not the stickers on CD's, but the talks the Perlmans give Oliver), the many swimming ventures: they all add up to a kettle-whistle of boiling romance. Condensing six weeks of raw love into 132 minutes is masterful, and like the plentiful flies that are spotted in the margins of the frame, we're allowed to watch it all unfold. (Fly theory credit to Chris Stuckmann of YouTube fame). Like Ebert, I could've watched these characters drink wine, sunbathe, converse with nutty Italian relatives and bicycle down paths leading to nowhere for hours and hours.

But time flies when you're in love, as Elio realizes. Stuhlbarg delivers an extraordinarily powerful, life-altering monologue, not only to hi onscreen son but to the viewer. Even if it's temporary, love with everything you've got. As the credits rolled and the Sony Pictures logo came up, the entirety of the theater I was in (me and three other people) kept absolutely still. No one stirred, made a sound. We'd all just witnessed an entire relationship before our eyes. But like Mr. Perlman's words of wisdom, I adored Call Me by Your Name while I had it. It's not gay arthouse Oscar bait. It's simply love, and nothing else.

Rating: 4/4 stars

Sunday, January 14, 2018

MY TOP 5 FAVORITE FILMS OF 2017!

My New Years resolution? Pay more attention to this blog! If you look back on the posts, there's a six month gap between my Oscar predictions and my first review of the year, July's All Eyez on Me (which actually does make a spot one of these lists below). I'm going to be probably stepping away from the predictions this year. A friend of mine has sparked my interest in creating a YouTube channel where I can post reviews, not necessarily like the ones on this blog, but I'll keep y'all updated.

This list was intentionally late, because I wanted to make sure I saw all of the films that I wanted to to make the best possible list. My last semester of college starts tomorrow, and I'm confident I saw all of the 2017 movies that I really wanted to. Though it pains me to exclude films I've loved like LEGO Batman, The Big Sick and Mudbound, I wish you all a productive 2017 and hope 2018 has even better cinema to come!

5. LOGAN LUCKY
A complete left-field surprise for me in 2017. Nothing about this movie's trailer, featuring an Eminem-blonde Daniel Craig, Adam Driver with a prosthetic arm, and a NASCAR robbery screamed out to me. But this honestly had the most airtight script of the year, even though its author might not exist/be a pseudonym for director Steven Soderbergh. Something about Channing Tatum and Driver doing southern accents cracked me up, the deadpan comedy and amazingly easy-to-follow heist plot had me completely invested, and Farrah Mackenzie as the littlest Logan will positively warm your heart. I caved into watching this film after my friend told me it was a "perfect movie." It's not quite there, but it's close.

4. GET OUT
Since the East/West college football sketch was released, I have been tirelessly in the corner of Jordan Peele. His Hitchcockian thriller with a satirical bite (more of a chomp if you're a white person watching it) boosted my respect for him even higher, which I didn't think was possible. Peele's not afraid to dip into the sci-fi absurd, because he earns our trust in dropping us in such a real, not-racist racism world that you accept whatever comes. Daniel Kaluuya, who already had wowed me in "Black Mirror," brings real leading-man gravitas to the unfortunate Chris. This was the only theater experience I had where the audience cheered at the climax, and I too hope to be cheering when Jordan Peele walks up on Oscar's stage come March.

3. MOLLY'S GAME
A glorious mix of Steve Jobs and The Big Short, I don't know why I wasn't excited to see this at first. Aaron Sorkin has written some of my favorite films of this current weird decade (the twenty-teen's? I dunno...), and he's topped himself in his directorial debut with the story of Olympian skier-turned poker queen (she doesn't like poker princess) Molly Bloom. This is a story that was begging filmed, not to mention that the book it's based on is featured in the film, because what happens after its publication was almost as interesting as the events Bloom chronicled in her book! I'm still toying whether Jessica Chastain was good or glorious in the title role, but I have no shakiness on the fact that Idris Elba, Michael Cera and Kevin Costner were the Holy Trinity of supporting performances. Of course, the real star is the rat-a-tat Sorkinspeak, the dialogue making this film's two and a half hours feel like an episode of "West Wing" without commercials. This movie exceeded every single expectation I carried, and since it's brand new now, GO SEE IT!

2. LADY BIRD
If you've ever had a mom, you'll love this movie. That's a roundabout way of saying Greta Gerwig's directorial first outing is just about impossible to dislike. Though the wonderful Saoirse Ronan's title character may be a little pretentious, the movie never is. Besides Timothée Chalamet's hilariously snobby Kyle, these people feel so genuine. It also gratefully doesn't have a cemented plot, rather letting the audience get acquainted with Lady Bird's highlights, rarely dawdling on cliched coming-of-age showstoppers like prom or virginity loss. Laurie Metcalf does not play the mother of the year, but she probably plays your mother: imperfect, unintentionally hard, endlessly loving. Lady Bird is the best high school movie to come out this century, even though, like our protagonist, our century has just turned 18.

1. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
My expectations for a Martin McDonagh-helmed project are always going to be sky-high after he blew me away with In Bruges, and Three Billboards comes so dangerously close to earning a spot in my all-time top ten. Nothing about this movie is easy, with its foul-mouthed, tough love protagonist played with true grit by Frances McDormand. Its initial villain, the aggressively stupid Officer Dixon (the equally wonderful Sam Rockwell), has the single greatest character arc of 2017, and after years of cheering him on, I have confidence Rockwell will finally get the Academy Award he's deserved for years of eclectic work. As I noted in my review, everything about Ebbing is ratcheted up to be the coldest, meanest town you've seen on screen. Somehow amongst the brilliant dialogue and earnest characters McDonagh is able to find the heart. Though I'm sure it would make a just as compelling play or novel, this movie demands to be seen.

Read on to see my honorable and dishonorable mentions! (HINT: Tupac Shakur and a fish-man may be involved)

Thursday, January 4, 2018

REVIEW: THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

We really don't deserve Hugh Jackman. He's made nine on-screen appearances as Wolverine, including his most recent/final/best outing in James Mangold's Logan this year. With almost decades with the claws on, I'm glad to see him usher in a new era of his career as P.T. Barnum in Michael Gracy's The Greatest Showman. An original musical with the music team Pasek and Paul, fresh off Oscar wins for La La Land, I was excited to see Jackman in the lead. His Jean Valjean, whose veins we got to see in full throttle in Les Miz, was an intense revelation, a testament to the fact that Jackman can beat up bad guys but also belt out tunes. And though it might appear that this is his sole vehicle, there's a lot of talent that gets introduced in The Greatest Showman, and for the most part this movie delivers.

First, it's important to direct you to the film's Rotten Tomatoes page. It seems to have the opposite problem of The Last Jedi, which notoriously has a 91% critical approval rating but (as of 1/2/18) an evenly split 50% approval rating from critics. Greatest Showman sits at an extremely average 55%, but 90% of audience goers loved it. This seems to be one of the finest cases of life imitating art. The film chronicles P.T. Barnum's struggle to get by and then meteoric rise to fame/infamy. His critics, personified by "House of Cards" alum Paul Sparks, are dismissive of his "circus," but the audiences eat it up. Like its subject, Greatest Showman aims to please with big, inspiring musical numbers, not-so-subtle takes on racism and classism, and an infectiously positive attitude.

"Ladies and gentlemen, it's the moment you've waited for" whispers Jackman hiding behind the stands of the pulsating crowd. The film delivers on the promise of spectacle, providing a breakout for the best bearded lady I've seen onscreen since Kathy Bates' Emmy-nominated turn on "American Horror Story", Keala Settle. She is a tender presence, commanding respect, and gets to belt her heart out in the movie's unofficial anthem "This is Me." Zendaya, who impressed me with her Disney-persona-shedding role in Spider-Man: Homecoming floored me with her duet "Rewrite the Stars" with Zac Efron, who finally does not play a douchebag in another Hollywood film. Their rope-dangling musical number was the highlight for me. Jackman is strong as the lead, and after reading this was his passion project, the sweat and tears are particularly evident.

I'm not going to grade this movie because I don't want to discourage you from seeing it. I saw this movie on Christmas Eve in a South Carolinian theater, and right before it started director Gracy and Jackman appeared before us, thanking the audience for coming out to see an original film, the kinds that don't get made as often as they used to in Tinsel Town. Greatest Showman is extremely predictable stuff, but its heart is in the right place, and I want to encourage anyone reading this to go see it, because it's pretty hard to dislike. Support original movies this New Year, go see The Greatest Showman!

Monday, January 1, 2018

REVIEW: THE SHAPE OF WATER

The generic cup of Guillermo del Toro's latest, The Shape of Water, runneth over. It is fantastical, horrific in points, a musical element (I won't spoil that surprise), intense psychological drama, comedic moments courtesy of the always-fabulous Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins, and of course, as the amphibian man will tip off to you, sci-fi. But if I had Michael Shannon pointing a gun to my head (and let's be honest, with the performances he gives, that might not be out of the realm of possibility), I'd label The Shape of Water a romance. It's ruminations of love and hate and the ways we can show love, express it, would be goopy and syrupy in the hands of a lesser director, but del Toro is full-on freaky fairy tale here, and if you're wondering why the movie with the big green fish man is getting nominated for so many awards, I suggest you read my review.

Of course, the magic of this movie is that you don't have to choose. It's gruesome, it's sexy, it's a little scary, it's wonderful. The British gem Sally Hawkins plays mute cleaning lady Elisa in a...government facility? (del Toro doesn't really get bogged down in small details like that, or where our amphibian monster comes from.) She works there with sassy fellow cleaning lady Zelda (Octavia Spencer, who, though in a Golden Globe-nominated performance, I still wish Hollywood would stop giving her nurse and maid roles). Elisa also finds comfort in her hopeless romantic neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), though it's a completely platonic bond for reasons I won't spoil here. Whilst cleaning the men's room, Elisa and Zelda meet Strickland (Michael Shannon), greeting them by literally swinging his junk, placing his cattle rod zapper on the sink and effectively creeping the ladies out. Strickland is in charge of the care of an amphibian creature he captured from South America, and, loathing the city of Baltimore that he's currently located in, is itching to kill the creature and get out.

Shannon is so good at playing an unhinged bad guy that we might be used to it, but we shouldn't. Though the Academy has nominated him for non-villain roles in Revolutionary Road and Nocturnal Animals, his over-the-top Zod, his wild turn in Kangaroo Jack (there's a movie you didn't expect to see in this review), but nothing compares to the Bible-quoting, eight-fingered, candy-chewing Strickland. del Toro could've opted for the east Big Government Bad, but he allows entry into his antagonist's personal life. He's a man of control, who sees oppression as a favor to others because they get to listen to him. I'm highlighting Shannon's role because Spencer, Jenkins and Hawkins have all been accumulating the award nominations this year, and while they're well-deserved, Shannon needs a moment in the spotlight.

Speaking of Sally Hawkins, she continues her winning streak and furthers the argument for proclaiming her one of today's greatest actors. I played a mute once in my college musical, and once you're free of being chained to the script, not having to talk can let your character express so much more. She's pretty close to perfect as Elisa, a character who might've been played as a "woe is me" sad sap, but in Hawkins' hands radiates optimism and determination. Richard Jenkins is a sensitive sensation as Giles. As I'm writing this, I'm realizing this movie is a character actor's dreamscape. All the folks in the margins of your favorite films, including the fantastc
Michael Stuhlbarg, excel in this feature.

The style of this movie, creature-feature/science lab green is surprisingly effective, where it could've just looked like a fish tank. My only lament is that the one thing del Toro sacrifices when he plays homage to the monster movies/romance flicks of the past is unpredictability. I knew where the beats of the film were going to take me, but when a movie is done as well as this, you don't really mind. Start 2018 off right with what is sure to be an Oscar-winning delight, and with a movie that features an inter-species romance that doesn't come off as goofy, that's a miracle.

Rating: 3.5/4 stars

Sunday, December 24, 2017

REVIEW: JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

On paper, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a cash grab, and in actuality, it definitely still is a cash grab. But it's a keenly executed, smart, genuinely funny, well-acted cash grab. Sony is about as subtle as The Rock's muscles, or Kevin Hart's brand of comedy. They could've recast Robin Williams' role and made the already CGI animals in the original even MORE CGI except this time Kate McKinnon is a kooky babysitter or Melissa McCarthy is a pesky neighbor next door. But no one would've shown up. How do you continue a property like Jumanji without blatantly ripping off what made the 1995 version magical?

Well, a lot like this. The original version was a board game, so the logical thing to do is make it a video game, but not like "Call of Duty." Instead it's a cartridge 90's game, looking depressingly like an artifact of ancient times. Introduce your four main tropes characters in a high school setting: the geek, the jock, the bimbo and the geek...girl. Don't let your audience dwell too much on the fact that these are as stock as it gets, have the video game transport them to the world of Jumanji. Get the stars of Central Intelligence, Kung-Fu Panda and a beautiful woman who you probably know from that thing you watched. Wrap it up as a Christmas release when it would've killed in 2017's weak summer.

That's a cynical, Sony executive's summarization, but the shock you might've experienced from seeing this movie's certified fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes is valid. Director Jake Kasdan really gets the most out of the video game setup, using the familiar characteristics of the genre to play on audience's expectations. Dwayne Johnson looks like he was sculpted from the gods, and they play on the fact that he looks so much like a video game character. The body swapping element of the film is its absolute strength, with Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan all absolutely devoting themselves to roles they could've easily phoned in. Black's consistent whine and Gillan's inability to be anything but an awkward girl trapped in a gorgeous, Lara Craftian body are the highlights. Nick Jonas also pops up in a suave, self-deprecating role, but I'm sad to report character actor treasure Bobby Canavale is wasted as a generic villain. Though it could be argued a generic villain is what Welcome to the Jungle is lampooning, Canavale's commitment to trying to sneer evil is a little cringy, and the actor deserves better.

It's a shame, because the ensemble of the four team members is strong, with an emphasis on team. It's not really a spoiler to laud that when most movies would make the characters go their separate ways before the climax when they join hands and beat the Big Bad, this movie does the opposite. Like real high school, these four teens live in their own bubbles. They'd never hang out together unless they all got detention. Instead of dividing them to make them appreciate the new friendships they made, the team actually learns to work together and begins to grow on one another...like real life! And like the original, there's still lots of CGI fun to be had, even if some of the creatures look like they belong in an actual video game. There were consistent laughs throughout each scene of the picture, and if they undercut some of the more emotional parts Welcome to the Jungle strives for, that's OK. This movie worked way more than it had any right to. What could've been an offensive insult to Joe Johnston's film and Robin Williams' legacy actually turns out to be a truly fun and breezy time at the cinema, with an emphasis on "welcome" in Welcome to the Jungle.

Rating: 3/4 stars.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

REVIEW: LADY BIRD

My film studies professor would never forgive me if I called Greta Gerwig's directorial debut Lady Bird "real" or "relatable." "'Real' as compared to what?" she would say, her face scrunched up. "Relatable as compared to who?" So as to not disrespect her good name by copping out with generalizations, I'll call Lady Bird humble, hilarious, and easily one of 2017's finest films. It's a coming-of-age movie not devoid of cliches, but also not devoid of a massive heart.

Saoirse Ronan stars as the titular character, whose birth name is Christine. The deviation from the religious-sounding name is intentional: Lady Bird goes through the motions of Catholic school but she's no saint. She argues with her tough-love mother (Laurie Metcalf, who all but has the engravings of her name on the Oscar statue), romances with her theatre castmate Danny (the recently Oscar-nominated Lucas Hedges) and goofs off with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). In other words, a pretty normal high school senior. She's not overly quirky like Max Fischer in Rushmore, though that movie's goals are much different. In Wes Anderson's film, Max has to win the heart of the teacher Ms. Cross. Lady Bird is just trying to get by. She's not bullied or ostracized or has an eating disorder or gets pregnant. She just wants to be a little unique.

This is a bit of a tangent, a tiny detail, but they didn't try to hide the acne on Ronan's cheeks. This is not to judge her: it's very mild and I myself had horrible acne from seventh to tenth grade. But the forces that be (except for those in charge of the main poster) let the star have the small imperfections that make her human. That was such a nice touch in a film full of nice touches. The small, masterly strokes comprise the masterwork. The film's cinematographer, Sam Levy, said Gerwig wanted Lady Bird to look like a memory. And from an editing standpoint (shoutout to editor , it was certainly successful. Coming-of-age tropes that have been beat to death, a pulpy, thin film of an overused plot device, are skimmed over. School dances are shown in brief, sex scenes are not romanticized, her eighteenth birthday consists of her father (Tracy Letts) offering her a cupcake, and then eating said cupcake.

Just two years older than myself, Ms. Ronan has proven herself an extraordinary actress, a chameleon capable of camouflaging into any young woman she so desires. Losing her thick Irish accent is enough, but creating a believable teenage girl that we all haven't seen a thousand times is another. Metcalf is fairly worthy of the heaps of praise as her mother. The Academy loves a struggling mother, whether it's Mo'Nique's abusive matriarch in Precious, Anne Hathaway's prostitute with a heart of gold in Les Miz, or Patricia Arquette's devoted divorcée in Boyhood. Marion's relationship with Lady Bird is genuine, captured perfectly in that scene in the trailers where they're bickering but then instantly adore the dress she picks out. Expect Metcalf to shout out a lot of mothers on her awards tour. And you should call yours and tell her you love her. Yes you!

Timothée Chalamet, who's been stunning critics with his role in other Oscar-contender Call Me by Your Name nailed the role of a philosophical too-good-for-school type (although I hope he doesn't get type casted as the moody boy that Dane DeHaan's sad eyes won't let him escape). I've gone to college with a handful of these guys. Beanie Feldstein is a sweet surprise, Tracy Letts nails a compassionate, if underwritten father role. But Gerwig gets a pass; the film world could do with some more strong female characters in the forefront, and not just considering the past few months. Just like seeing her star in Greenberg and Frances Ha, Gerwig is a breath of fresh air behind the camera and on the page. She's orchestrated one of the smartest movies of the year, and one of the all-time best high school movies.

Rating: 3.5/4 stars

Thursday, December 21, 2017

REVIEW: STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

With a number of people I exchanged this scary thought: I wasn't as hyped for The Last Jedi as I was two years ago for The Force Awakens. And then they did something even scarier: they agreed with me. For Episode VII, there were many factors in its favor: there hadn't been a live-action Star Wars film in a decade, there hadn't been a good Star Wars movie since 1983 (alright, that one is my opinion), Disney had bought Lucasfilm and Daisy Ridley was an unknown for the lead. Two years ago I listed the film as my third favorite movie of the year, a bronze medal in Olympic terms. Now I wouldn't be so sure. I've watched it again since 2015, where I was in a theater full of like-minded fans hoping to be rekindled by the galaxy far, far away. It is indisputably a soft remake of A New Hope, but I suppose I was one of the sheep who liked being herded into someplace familiar. With Last Jedi...I didn't know what to expect. I knew the characters going in now, I knew Luke was going to play a major role. But the wonder of if J.J. Abrams was going to be able to walk the tightrope and pull of a Star Wars success was met, and after seeing Brick and Looper I knew Rian Johnson was an extremely capable choice. I suppose I felt...safe.

And safe is kinda what Disney is, right? The villain's never going to win. There'll never be a PG-13 animated film in their canon. So when I logged on to the old internet and discovered that people took issue with The Last Jedi because it took risks?! There is only one point in the film where it truly shocked me, and even then I wouldn't necessarily call it a risk. And I don't want you, the good reader, to

  1.  Read this review and fear trying to navigate a landmine of spoilers, or 
  2. Having already seen this movie, be disappointed by the fact of me not being able to sink my teeth into anything.
Which is why, if you click that "Read more" button below, you'll able to see what my spoiler-y thoughts are for the film. If you just want a quick, numerical glance of what I thought of the film, look right below, and I encourage you to come back to this blog often in the next couple days, with reviews of soon-to-be-Oscar-darling Lady Bird, weirdly winter-released summer blockbuster Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and the Golden Globe-Best Musical nominee The Greatest Showman.

Rating: 2.5/4 stars