Onward

Set in a suburban fantasy world, Disney/Pixar’s Onward introduces two teenage elf brothers who embark on an extraordinary quest to discover if there is still a little magic left out there in order to bring back their deceased father for one day.

Onward is everything viewers will hope it’ll be with an original and exciting premise supported by mature and heartfelt themes. The movie does an excellent job at world-building and atmosphere; this suburban version of Lord of the Rings is brought to life with so much creativity and we get to see plenty of corners in this new, fascinating world. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt’s roles fit like a glove — their already known personalities wonderfully amplify the characters that felt like they could’ve been written just for these specific performers. The fact that Holland and Pratt have already shared the screen before in Avengers: Infinity War just makes it even more entertaining, but it’s also the writing for Ian and Barley that makes their brotherhood the anchor of the film. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is also great their badass mom, but Octavia Spencer is a standout as the Manticore — a mystical beast who now runs a restaurant and misses the glory days of magic, fighting, and flight. Not only is the character brilliant but Spencer makes the role of a “scary on the outside, soft on the inside” character feel fun and fresh.

Onward is the kind of film where the quality increases as the runtime progresses — the objective is creative and every obstacle, physical or emotional, is exciting to watch and our heroes’ quest never feels dull. Not to mention the plot is more mature than most family-aimed films — even for a Pixar movie. When it comes to down to the true emotion of the film, it lands at all the right moments and manages to craft a realistic representation of sibling-hood and family, even if the main characters happen to be elves. The film is very much mystical yet its roots lies in the real world — it’s based on director Dan Scanlon’s real-life experiences as he lost his father at a young age, meaning it may especially reach viewers who have lost a parent. In my case, this movie did get me emotional but for a much different reason — as an older brother, watching Barley play older brother/mentor to Ian made me reflect on my own experiences with brotherhood (in only positive ways, don’t worry). This is the power of family films — to tell stories about family. While I felt Frozen 2 was lacking of that sort of merit, this proves that may have only been a one-time miss for Disney, and while Onward might not be able to reach Nemo or WALL-E levels of classic — and maybe not better than some of their recent hits like Inside Out and Coco — I can say it’s as great as I was wishing it would be, and certainly has potential to hold up among the rest of Pixar’s library, but only time can tell. Pixar has held a special place in my heart for a reason, and Onward once again proves their strengths in delivering stories that audiences can cherish and grow up with, regardless of age.

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Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

After saving the world in Suicide Squad, and fresh off her break-up with the Joker, Harley Quinn finds herself a target after crossing paths with Roman Sionis, who’s in pursuit of a valuable diamond, and must team up with Dinah Lance (AKA Black Canary), Helena Bertinelli (AKA Huntress), Cassandra Cain, and Renee Montoya, in order to stop him.

Birds of Prey takes some major steps in the right direction after the mess that was Suicide Squad, in which Robbie was really the only relieving aspect. This film is a complete departure from everything its predecessor was — this one’s an irreverent, R-rated crime comedy that looks like a comic book come to life, in the best way. The film feels ready to take risks, go all-out with the humor and raunchiness, tell non-linear stories that don’t progress quickly, and freely create a new mood that doesn’t feel like anything else in the DC Extended Universe. Instead of floating portals and ancient demons, the action is — still cartoonish, yet very street-level, with the villains being your average asshole criminals who want glory, money, and to torture and kill people. Perhaps the villains are the film’s weakest part — Ewan McGregor gets very over-the-top and annoying as Roman Sionis/Black Mask, who does bad things because he’s bad and evil… never seen that before! But he’s more than redeemed for by the heroes. Margot Robbie is perfect as Harley Quinn, she completely owns not only the role but the image of Quinn, not only because she’s the first live-action portrayal of the character but because she’ll be the ideal one for generations to come. Jurnee Smollett-Bell is a breakout here as Dinah Lance, we spend plenty of time with her and are able to feel engaged with her performance and progression throughout. Perhaps we needed more of Mary Elizabeth Winstead… for such a talented actress, she’s barely in the film and her character has plenty of potential that wasn’t utilized as well as Harley and Canary. Perhaps there’ll still be a chance for Huntress to shine soon?

For all its attempts at humor, some of the jokes and dialogue will miss, too, like some unsubtle messages, some “funny” or “deep” moments that don’t always land, and some weird soundtrack choices, including an odd Marilyn Monroe reenactment-montage that’s quickly skipped on instead of being utilized as a crazy-fun moment. Other than that, Birds of Prey definitely knows when not to take itself seriously, and the story-driven rather than character driven approach actually works when your characters are supposed to be very over-the-top and morally ambiguous and your style is all out with time jumps, visual humor, insanely fun action, and narration (although there’s certainly a bit much of Harley’s narration over scenes). Maybe it doesn’t feel as fresh as the Deadpool films did, especially when the first film was the first in its genre to be so crude and self-aware, and in such an unapologetic way. However, Birds of Prey utilizes its cast of characters and script in unexpected and welcome ways, and enough of a hilarious, engaging, and refreshing run-time to make up for some weak antagonists and a few minor but certainly forgivable missteps in dialogue and soundtrack choices.

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The Oscars (92nd Academy Awards)

Tonight were the 92nd Oscars! Here are the winners in case you missed it:

Best Picture: Parasite
Best Director: Bong Joon-Ho – Parasite
Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix – Joker
Best Actress: Renee Zellweger – Judy
Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern – Marriage Story
Best Original Screenplay: Parasite
Best Adapted Screenplay: Jojo Rabbit
Best Animated Feature: Toy Story 4
Best Original Score: Joker
Best Original Song: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” (from Rocketman)
Best Cinematography: 1917
Best Film Editing: Ford v Ferrari
Best Production Design: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Bombshell
Best Costume Design: Little Women
Best Animated Short: Hair Love
Best Visual Effects: 1917
Best Sound Editing: Ford v Ferrari
Best Sound Mixing: 1917
Best Foreign Language Film: Parasite (from South Korea)

Overall, these Oscars were some of the best in years — I agree with almost all the winners, I’m just very disappointed that Sam Mendes lost Best Director despite making one of the best directed films in years with 1917. That was the category I was most enthusiastic for, but ultimately most let down by. He won every other directing award this season, like the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, BAFTAs, and Director’s Guild Awards, so it’s odd to me that the Academy thought differently than the majority of people in the industry as well as audience members. Parasite did make history though by becoming the first foreign language film to win Best Picture. It’s a deserving spot in history for an outstanding film. Joaquin Phoenix had the most moving speech of the night about unity and injustice, and won his first Oscar. Taika Waititi also won his first Oscar for Jojo Rabbit which I was very happy about. Little Women was the very safe choice to win Costume Design and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was the only film this year with costumes that were actually memorable. Hildur Guðnadóttir became the first woman to win Best Original Score for composing Joker, making Thomas Newman lose his 14th Oscar for a superior score in 1917 that I thought should’ve won. Still though, history was made tonight.

The Gentlemen

After big studio pieces like King Arthur and Aladdin that didn’t quite feel like they belonged to him (although he did make quite a good Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey Jr., and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was arguably fun as well), The Gentlemen is Guy Ritchie at his most untamed and… Guy Ritchie-like. He goes back to doing what he does best — making irreverent, unforgiving British crime with non-stop violence and cursing, playing around with narrative in creative ways and even referencing himself. He celebrates his creative freedom with this film to bring to life a violent, original, and entertaining crime flick that will be embraced by his fans as well as any audience member who’s willing to enjoy this great film for what it is. Matthew McConaughey’s character would be much less lovable in real life than his other roles yet is always a blast to watch, even when he’s a marijuana-obsessed crime lord. Charlie Hunnam is surprisingly the perfect choice to play the classic British crime protagonist in a Guy Ritchie movie and this is far better than his other film roles to date. Older audiences will definitely be attracted by the addition of Hugh Grant, who plays a much shadier role than his typical romantic lead but his continued partnership with Ritchie always works well. However, my favorite part of the cast was Colin Farrell, who is no stranger to this British crime noir subgenre, specifically In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. These roles always fit Farrell like a shoe so seeing him as a mean but enjoyable criminal again is nothing but fun. The entire cast is strong, with the exception of Jeremy Strong who is awfully miscast as a role that’s supposed to come off as serious and intimidating yet ends up feeling dull and uninteresting in his performance.

From an eye-catching opening and an awesome opening credits sequence, you know The Gentlemen is something special among the action and comedy films Hollywood is used to releasing today. Ritchie definitely steps out of the box, playing around with narrative and characters, like showing you an event and then showing it again from different perspective to fool you as to what may have happened before. He also knows how to make his dialogue incredibly memorable and his characters intriguing, even when their backstories aren’t quite needed. It almost feels reminiscent not only of early Ritchie films like Snatch, but also of early Tarantino like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. This movie’s first act can be slow, but once the plot and characters are set up, it all becomes very interesting and unpredictable. Ultimately, The Gentlemen feels like a refreshing reward that we only get every once in a while with a superb cast at their A-game and some truly unique filmmaking that makes for some laugh-out-loud, unapologetic nonstop entertainment — or as Hugh Grant’s character calls it, “beautiful, beautiful cinema!”.

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1917

There’s been films this year that have enamored me, mesmerized me, and reminded me why I love films, but all year I have been waiting for a triumph on the level of 1917. Not only is it Sam Mendes’ strongest directorial effort, it’s one of the greatest filmmaking feats in years, breaking technical boundaries and capturing your senses from the first to final minute, leaving a remarkable lasting impact for long after the credits roll. Though on paper, the story sounds rather simple, Mendes is still able to create the most awe-inspiring and gripping cinematic experience of the year through the film’s outstanding execution. The film is made to look like one unbroken take, with the help of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose work alongside filmmakers like the Coens, Denis Villeneuve, and Mendes has earned him 15 Oscar nominations and one win — here, he breaks his own boundaries once again with jaw-dropping long takes, beautifully capturing the non-stop action through trenches and city ruins and conveying as powerful of a story with no cuts that most films do with thousands. The one-take act is not only dazzling from a technical perspective, but makes the story feel like one continuous movement, without room to stop and catch your breath, which works perfectly for this adventure war film in which time is the enemy. The unbelievable production design that brings these settings to life is immersive and exemplary. Also worth noting is the work of composer Thomas Newman. Having heard many of his scores that he’s made throughout the decades, this feels like the culmination of all his works in which he beautifully covers a variety of tones — ambient, thrilling, reflective, and emotional.

The stylistic elements work perfectly to elevate a basic concept into a nail-biting adventure where we fear for our leads’ lives as the journey into lands of uncertainty. Speaking of the leads, George McKay is especially excellent at capturing the fearful but determined spirit of his character. We don’t need to hear much about the characters’ pasts or personal lives to feel something — through moments of human instinct, persistence, and compassion, Mendes gives us everything we need to care about these characters and get more emotional than almost any film this year. So the style doesn’t just serve as a “gimmick” to round up Oscar nominations, but as a form of storytelling to make an already superb script feel even stronger. The closing cards, in which Mendes dedicates the film to his grandfather (who was a WWI veteran himself), makes the effect even more powerful. Thinking about the film after it ended, I was reminded why I go to the movies, and what storytelling is for — not just to put asses in seats, but to leave a lasting effect on an audience by utilizing the art of cinema to tell stories with true meaning and soul. Whether you’re a fan of war movies or not, it doesn’t matter, because 1917 is the film this year that cannot be missed on the big screen at any costs, and a definite frontrunner this year. It will certainly be looked back at in years to come for its originality and trailblazing in its genre, and might not be topped by another war film for many, many years.

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Uncut Gems

Howard Ratner, a charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score, makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime.

As soon as I heard that Adam Sandler was starring in an A24 film, I immediately got excited — I’ve seen Sandler prove himself by stepping out of the typical “goofy physical humor” tropes before in Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories. Here, Sandler delivers a completely new side of his acting skills; it feels like somewhere in between his charismatic and serious sides — except his character Howard is a criminal and a downright horrible person. He continuously cheats his buyers, put his gambling addiction above his family, and even cheats on his wife, but possibly the fact that he has a family is what ultimately grounds his character and gives us brief moments to sympathize for him when the terrible choices he’s made come back to bite him. Sandler is really able to take on a challenge like nothing in his career and really stuns, as he was certainly the right choice to play the part as the film ultimately proves. After watching Uncut Gems, you’ll never see Sandler the same way. Julia Fox is scene-stealing as Howie’s mistress, who not only conveys energy but she’s perhaps the only character who’s able to do kind and forgiving things in the entire film. Not only has she not had any prior acting experience, but neither has Kevin Garnett who is also great, starring as himself yet he’s able to make every scene of his engaging. Lakeith Stanfield, who proves himself over and over again, also has some strong moments in a minor role. Idina Menzel also does really well as Howie’s wife, who is reasonably fed up with his neglectful, reckless behavior.

The Safdie brothers certainly know how to make a film theirs. Every setting and character feel like they’re living in the Safdie’s world. They’ve clearly made themselves more than distinctive and their films really do feel like nothing ever made before, almost as if they’ve invented their own genre, or at least style. That said, although their style definitely feels new and authentic, with actors (and non-actors appearing in the film) yelling over each other and real setting being used, I wasn’t a big fan of their previous film, Good Time. Although Uncut Gems is definitely a lot more interesting, and the camerawork and music feel more fitting here, it still at times suffers from a lack of direction, especially in the middle part of the film. There’s some excellent sequences and creative filmmaking throughout, but at times, even in the film’s strongest moments, its elements work against each other — the script inserts uncomfortable “cringe humor” into scenes with opposing goals, like trying to be heartfelt or powerful. The Safdies once again try to push the boundaries of human senses even further — How loud and retro can this score get? How bad can we depict humans to be? How gross and unsettling can we make it? Hell, the movie even starts with a close-up of Sandler getting a colonoscopy. What business did this moment have being there, I still don’t know. It felt like these moments of weirdness or darkness sometimes didn’t add up to much or were there for the sake of it. Thankfully though, the climax feels far more engaging and rewarding than in their previous film, thanks to a more interesting buildup and multiple things going on in different locations with different characters, and we can actually care about what’ll end up happening to Howie, even though like I said, he messes up time after time and mistreats nearly everyone in his life. It’s those small moments Sandler and the script deliver that put us on his side when it comes to his major bets and successes. I just wish the film struggled less in finding a consistent direction and reason for us to care. This is different than every Sandler film and just about every film out there right now, so it isn’t hard to see how it would be off-putting to many, but if you know what you’re in for with the Safdie brothers, then you may be able to enjoy it — their vision has definitely left me thinking after the end. If only everything else wasn’t subordinate to the extravagant cast that gives it their all.

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The 77th Golden Globe Awards

Tonight was the Golden Globes, honoring the best of movies and television of 2019! Here are the winners in the film categories:

Best Picture – Drama: 1917

Best Picture – Musical or Comedy: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Director: Sam Mendes – 1917

Best Actor – Drama: Joaquin Phoenix – Joker

Best Actress – Drama: Renée Zellweger – Judy

Best Actor – Musical or Comedy: Taron Egerton – Rocketman

Best Actress – Musical or Comedy: Awkwafina – The Farewell

Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern – Marriage Story

Best Screenplay: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Original Score: Joker

Best Original Song: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” (by Elton John) from Rocketman

Best Animated Feature: Missing Link

Best Foreign Language Film: Parasite (South Korea)

Overall I really enjoyed this year’s Golden Globes ceremony. Not only was Ricky Gervais a hilarious host who dared to make raunchy jokes in a world where humor is taken very sensitively, and it’s refreshing to see him not care and deliver a more shocking taste in his humor. I also thought the winners were far better than last year’s, especially considering Bohemian Rhapsody won Best Drama last year, even though it was the least interesting nominee in its category and got mixed reception from critics and audiences. I have yet to see 1917 but from the trailers I’ve seen, it seems amazing. I was most excited about Brad Pitt’s win for playing one of the greatest film characters of the decade, Cliff Booth, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which won the most awards of the night. I’m also very happy with Awkwafina’s win for her terrific The Farewell performance. Although I liked Taron Egerton’s performance as Elton John, I am very disappointed that Leonardo DiCaprio did not win for his terrific performance as Rick Dalton. I hope he’s at least nominated for the Oscar. I loved Joaquin Phoenix for his complex role in Joker and think he’s a deserving winner too, but I still think Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson should be in strong consideration for their magnificent turns in Marriage Story. Speaking of which, I am very disappointed that Johansson did not win, though I still haven’t seen Judy. I am also disappointed that Missing Link won Best Animated Feature over How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World and Toy Story 4. Other than that, I’m happy with how the winners turned out (as well as some great TV getting awarded, like Chernobyl and Fleabag) — but the highlights of the night were the lifetime achievement awards given to two of modern entertainment’s faces — Tom Hanks and Ellen DeGenres for their lifetime achievements in film and teleivison, respectively. Hanks, who’s been in more treasured films than I can count, has influenced Hollywood with his incredible performances but also his positivity and impact towards those around him. Ellen is most famous for continuously giving back to the community and for continuing to fight for justice, risking her career to come out and pave the way for future LGBT stars, as described in an emotional introduction from SNL star Kate McKinnon. Hanks is my favorite actor and Ellen is one of the greatest TV personalities there ever is, so together they made the most notable honors in a long time from the Globes.

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