Friday, February 23, 2018

The Florida Project - 8 stars out of 10

The Florida Project - 8 stars out of 10

“The Florida Project” gives us a glimpse into the world of the homeless through the innocent eyes of a child.  It masquerades as a series of vignettes that catalogue a young girl’s adventures but actually reveals the toxic world that her irreverent mother has created.  The improvised script and cinematography establish the guerilla-like tone that director Sean Baker envisioned; however, I found it difficult to fully digest the story because the important themes aren’t woven throughout the dialogue.  As a result, I didn’t realize how much of the film was hard to stomach until the next day.  One of the most amazing aspects of this film is its genius setting.  The characters’ proximity to Walt Disney World reinforces the film’s central theme: Hope is just down the road but seemingly unreachable.  I found the most memorable part of the film to be my complete disgust for Moonee’s mother.  Bria Vinaite, in her acting debut, turns this character into literally the most detestable human being that I have ever seen.  I was really angry with the casting throughout the film, until I finally realized that she was delivering an incredible performance.  I’m sure that the script’s character description said something about being “unbearably trashy,” but the improvised nature of the script leads me to give most of the credit to the actress and not the writers.  I’d go as far as to say that she deserved a Best Actress nomination more than (dare I say?) Meryl Streep for being so completely hateable.  Willem Dafoe deservedly received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the father-like motel manager who finds a way to love his residents, regardless of the sad circumstances that they have embraced.  He is a perfect dynamic contrast to Vinaite.  Brooklynn Prince also received widespread acclaim as Moonee but it didn’t click for me until the final scene where we got to see actual acting instead of a kid just being a kid.  Her character is a brat, but you forgive her every step along the way because of her circumstances.  It is also important to note how much of the film Prince carried on her shoulders (even if she is just acting like a kid the whole time).  “The Florida Project” probably won’t resonate with a lot of people due to its improvised nature, sad content, and unclear storytelling, but it is an impressive display of acting that is sure to leave you feeling all sorts of emotions in the end.

[Pictured: Vinaite gives one of the most cringy performances ever (in a good way)]

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Roman J. Israel, Esq. - 4 stars out of 10

Roman J. Israel, Esq. - 4 stars out of 10

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” has an odd name and an odd script to match.  Most of this film's issues stem from its script and editing, getting caught somewhere between the tone of a courtroom thriller and a mundane character study.  This lack of commitment to a genre creates an identity crisis.  The story itself is very interesting but the execution is slow-paced and forgettable.  After the Golden Globe and Oscar nominations came out, I expected the film’s saving grace to be Denzel Washington.  In fact, one movie reviewer went as far as referring to the titular character as “a 21st century ‘Rain Man,'” but I actually found it to be the least impressive of Denzel’s eight Oscar-nominated roles.  The real question is how he received a nomination over James Franco in "The Disaster Artist."  I don't condone the things that Franco has been accused of, but aren't the Oscars supposed to award an outstanding performance and not a person's character?  Denzel's performance lacks a moment that makes you say “wow” and his character transformation from an idealist to a cynic doesn’t shine through.  It seems like the rest of the cast struggles to make something of the script as well.  I can't recommend “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” until it is rebooted with a new script.

[Pictured: After his performance in “Fences” last year, anything was going to be a letdown.  Especially with this script]

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Blade Runner 2049 - 9 stars out of 10

Blade Runner 2049 - 9 stars out of 10

“Blade Runner 2049” is the type of film that makes you sit back and say “Wow.”  It is a visual marvel from its holographic AI character “Joi” to its vividly bleak dystopian setting, offering an even grittier view of the future than the original.  Director Denis Villenueve has created a spiritual successor to Ridley Scott’s iconic “Blade Runner” that honors and expands the universe that was first revealed 35 years ago.  I was so awestruck by this film that I had to watch it a second time the next day.  Roger Deakins’ cinematography has created one of the most beautifully shot films of all time and I believe that he will finally win his Oscar.  So many of these shots became immediately iconic, all culminating in the haunting Joi love sequence that will spin your mind in circles. 

[Pictured: The Joi love scene took over a year to pull off and was shot using mostly practical effects, layering video footage of two actresses on top of each other through double exposure.]

Ryan Gosling does a good job of walking the line between human and machine as a Replicant and it is magic to see Harrison Ford reprise his role of Rick Deckard, but this film is all about the girl power.  It is interesting that the film was criticized for its portrayal of women in the future when its three most dynamic characters are female.  Robin Wright has been infallible over the past few years and continues her streak of excellent roles as Lieutenant Joshi.  She gives her character multiple layers with a hard exterior that is complimented by her soft spot for K.  Ana de Armas is completely endearing as Joi, the holographic AI character and voice of reason throughout the film.  Her character is designed to keep us wondering if her love for Gosling comes from her heart or from her computer programming.  This complex existence gives her character the most depth in the film, even though she is 2-dimensional.  Meanwhile, Sylvia Hoeks is the polar opposite of Luv: cool, composed, and heartless.  The scene where she is reclining in the white leather chair controlling drones as she has her nails done is already iconic.  You will never forget the intensity of her underwater scene, either.

[Pictured: This shot is about as “Ridley Scott” as you can get.]

For all of the amazing aspects of this film, it is simply too long.  This is properly reflected in its Oscar nominations: the film’s Production Design, Visual Effects, Cinematography may be the best that we’ve seen since “Mad Max: Fury Road” (plus nominations in the Sound categories), but it fell short of categories like Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Editing due to its 160-minute runtime.  I would love to see the 2-hour version of this movie.  It would’ve allowed plenty of time to tell its fascinating Replicant story, show several action sequences, explore post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, and fill its world with Ridley Scott-esque imagery without dragging on.  I could’ve also done without all of the adult content but I understand that it is a part of Villenueve’s image for the gritty future.  It’s actually less abrasive than a lot of R-rated films but be aware that you may want to cover your eyes at several points.  Despite a few shortcomings, “Blade Runner 2049” is an unforgettable film that will stick with you long after the credits roll.

[Pictured: “Blade Runner 2049” has a style of its own that sets it apart from any other film, including the original “Blade Runner”]

Monday, February 19, 2018

War for the Planet of the Apes - 8 stars out of 10

War for the Planet of the Apes - 8 stars out of 10

“War for the Planet of the Apes” is the latest chapter in the epic reimagining of the Planet of the Apes series.  The world of the apes is brought to life through the most vivid motion-capture animation ever created.  The primates are so realistic that it gets pretty creepy at times.  The film does an amazing job of blurring the line between what is real and what was added through digital effects, creating a completely cohesive atmosphere that we believe is 100% real.  The film is unquestionably one of the top two contenders for the Best Visual Effects Oscar this year.  The real question is whether the Academy will favor its incredibly realistic computer generated characters or “Blade Runner 2049’s” vividly bleak dystopian setting.  Unlike most of the critics, I didn’t love the story as much as the first prequel from 2011.  I’m a sucker for origin stories and felt that there wasn’t enough interaction with characters that can talk to keep the story moving along.  I appreciate that Caesar is set apart by his ability to speak but it takes way too long to move the plot along.  The most standout piece of this puzzle is Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar and I hope that he will someday be acknowledged by the Academy for his incredible embodiment of characters through motion capture.  I feel that he could justifiably be a contender for Best Actor, but we will likely have to wait for an honorary award.  Woody Harrelson makes a perfect nemesis and continues to be on a roll of impressive roles.  “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a fitting conclusion to this chapter in the series, delivering a poignant ending and an open-ended option to expand the universe to future films.  I am still amazed at its ability to make us love a creepily realistic ape more than the humans that he encounters.


[Pictured; Andy Serkis' facial expressions are reason enough to watch this film series]

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lady Bird - 9 stars out of 10

Lady Bird - 9 stars out of 10

“Lady Bird” is a coming-of-age story that focuses on a high school senior’s struggle to find a place of belonging and her tense relationship with her mother.  The story strays away from far-fetched circumstances and transforms its characters through realistic adolescent situations.  The main character is loosely based off of writer/director Greta Gerwig’s childhood experiences at a Catholic school in Sacramento and it shows in the vividly detailed Lady Bird character as well as the characters that surround her.  It is like watching life unfold before your eyes.  Some of the content is strong, but it matches the language and circumstances of teenagers who are trying to fit in.  I actually gained most of my appreciation and understanding of the film during a conversation with my wife the following day.  I had trouble relating to the characters until she described the film as “her version of ‘Boyhood.’”  While my personal experiences didn’t align with Lady Bird’s, the film realistically depicts life as a high school girl in the same way that “Boyhood” walked through many of my adolescent struggles (to which my wife couldn’t relate).  I still find “Boyhood” to be a superior film because of its incredible execution of a nearly impossible undertaking as we literally see the characters grow up over the course of 12 years, but “Lady Bird” works as a great companion piece through its female perspective of finding yourself.  There is a painstaking attention to detail in making this film feel like real life.  Even seemingly insignificant moments like when Julie meets Mr. Bruno’s pregnant wife resonate with our memories of adolescent struggles.  The key to any film that centers on everyday life is raw, realistic acting.  The film establishes this with Saoirse Ronan (who performed without makeup to show a real version of herself), Laurie Metcalf’s honest portrayal of motherhood with a frustrating teen, Tracy Letts’ endearing father-daughter relationship, and Stephen McKinley Henderson’s veteran acting ability.  I didn’t love Ronan’s performance as much as I loved her in “Brooklyn” so she isn’t getting my vote for the Best Actress Oscar, but she is still incredibly impressive.  She is proving to be one of the finest actresses of our generation and she is only 23 years old.  Her chemistry with Metcalf would make you think that they are actually related and each of their abilities to turn on a dime from devastation to elation and back again makes their Oscar nominations well-deserved.  I also loved the performance of Beanie Feldstein who embodies that unconditionally loving friend that we’ve all been able to rely on in our worst times.  “Lady Bird” doesn’t have action sequences or big twists, but it does have comedy, sadness, and a transformation of characters through everyday circumstances to which we can all relate.


[Pictured: This image screams "high school!" Perfect casting and amazing acting]

Friday, February 9, 2018

Kong: Skull Island - 8 stars out of 10

Kong: Skull Island - 8 stars out of 10

“Kong: Skull Island” transports a classic villain into a clever new historical time period.  One of my earliest memories is watching the 1933 version of “King Kong” at my grandparents’ house and being absolutely terrified.  I’ve grown to appreciate this monster movie star over the years, but he continues to grow fiercer with each modern incarnation, first in 2005 and now again in 2017.  Unlike the Peter Jackson remake, this reboot places the discovery of Kong in the midst of the Vietnam War.  Skull Island has been located in the South Pacific throughout the history of the Kong franchise, making this setting a natural fit.  The film welcomes an all-star cast featuring John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson, and Tom Hiddleston.  These actors elevate the film beyond your typical monster movie with Reilly playing a particularly endearing role (especially toward the end).  Often times the characters in these films are underdeveloped and afterthoughts to their monster counterparts, but their depth adds so much to the story.   While the setting is interesting and the acting is great, the real reason to watch this film is its Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects.  Some films get this nomination for their explosions or their otherworldly atmospheres, but “Skull Island” is all about the creatures.  Kong is incredibly realistic, the Skullcrawlers are terrifying, and you’ll have nightmares for weeks about giant spiders hovering above your house.  I still prefer the 2005 remake for its preservation of the original story, but “Kong: Skull Island” turned out to be a very worthwhile action film fueled by nonstop adrenaline and vivid visual effects.

[Pictured: The script does a great job of incorporating an epic creature battle into this story of Vietnam soldiers]

Thursday, February 8, 2018

I, Tonya - 9 stars out of 10

I, Tonya - 9 stars out of 10

“I, Tonya” is part biopic, part mockumentary, but all quality.  This film humanizes the media-created villainess Tonya Harding and reveals the life that shaped her polarizing personality.  While Harding’s life is a long chain of sad and unfortunate moments, the film is more of a comedy than a drama with its tongue-in-cheek tone and over the top acting.  One of the film’s most distinctive features is the incorporation of interviews that are re-enacted by the cast from interviews filmed by screenwriter Steven Rodgers.  They are the crux of the film’s unique style and provide insight into what the characters were thinking during their series of unfortunate events.  The interviews also reveal a great deal about Harding as she constantly makes excuses for her poor decisions.  Amidst the comedy, the film makes bold statements about the cyclical nature of domestic abuse.  It drives home the point that Tonya’s emotionally abusive mother caused her to later accept physical abuse in her marriage.  Some of the most powerful moments in the film occur when Tonya breaks the fourth wall in a complete emotional disconnect from the moment because the abuse is so common (and even expected) in her life.  This film is a great showcase for Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, each one delivering the greatest performance of her lifetime.  Janney is pure evil and one of the most despicable villains that I have ever seen while Robbie manages to earn our sympathy in spite of her crass and selfish behavior.  She embodies Tonya so perfectly (at age 15 and at age 25) that videos of the real Tonya won’t look right anymore.  Their Oscar nominations for Actress/Supporting Actress are no surprise and Janney will likely win hers.  By the end of the film, it’s easy to forget how incredible McKenna Grace was in her brief-but-emotional performance as young Tonya at the beginning, and Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt is hysterical.  His character is so annoying but you can’t help but get giddy every time that he appears because he is so blissfully clueless.  The characters are incredibly well-written, though I do have to take issue with one aspect of the script: The f-word.  In fact, 100 of them.  I understand that they are emphasizing the edginess of the characters but it went way beyond where it needed to be.  Even real-life Tonya has mentioned that she has never sworn as much as the movie indicates.  The writers could have made a great PG-13 film by portraying the rough-around-the-edge personalities of the characters through a means other than profanity.  Outside of the great acting and storytelling, “I, Tonya” is a well-executed sports movie.  The filming of the ice skating sequences is artistic, energetic, easy to follow, and convincing that Robbie actually landed a triple axel.  Its Oscar nomination for Best Editing is well-deserved, though it’s hard to compete with “Dunkirk.”  It is important to note that this film portrays Tonya’s ignorance to the Nancy Kerrigan incident but nobody knows how deeply she was actually involved.  Her character even states that there is no such thing as truth and this is her version.  “I, Tonya” captures an important moment in American pop culture and fleshes it out to a depth that we never knew.  The story is perfectly cast with characters that you will love, hate, and love to hate.  It is grossly underrepresented at the Oscars (especially with mediocre movies like “The Post” up for Best Picture) but its acting and cultural relevance will guarantee it a cult following forever.

[Pictured: This film is all about acting, but the editing of the ice skating sequences is out of this world]