Soul

In Pixar’s latest film, which after delays from theaters, is now out on Disney+, Joe Gardner is a music teacher who aspires to make it big as a jazz pianist. However, on a big day where his dreams start to get closer, he gets into an accident that separates his soul from his body, bringing him to the You Seminar, a limbo where souls are prepared to start a life on Earth. He goes on an existential journey through New York with another soul and learns the true purpose of life.

Soul brings no less to the screen than the lively, all-ages-friendly adventures that Pixar has made us used to. Director Pete Docter, who has brought to life Pixar classics like Monsters Inc. and Up, brings the same wondrous animation and spirit to Soul that he brought to Inside Out. The streets of New York are depicted with such realism and beautiful, diverse energy. The You Seminar is also portrayed vividly although not difficult to compare to the animated corners of Riley’s brain in Inside Out. Within the first few seconds, Jamie Foxx proves to be perfectly cast as Joe Gardner, who aspires to become a famous musician while teaching middle school and living up to the expectations of his mother, also perfectly played by Phylicia Rashad (who you may know as the titular character’s mother in Creed and its sequel). Tina Fey delivers a great voice performance as Soul 22, a both unenthusiastic and curious/energetic soul who has her reservations about starting a full life on Earth. Graham Norton, in what I believe is his first film role outside of himself in Eurovision Song Contest, is funny and entertaining in a supporting role. However, an absolute standout for me was Angela Bassett, whose immediately recognizable voice brings ferocity and status, exactly what was needed for her part — Dorothea Williams, a respected jazz musician and sax player whose band Joe hopes to join.

With every following year, I realize more and more how intricately mature Pixar’s films are to not just appeal to kids, but also tug on the heartstrings of adult audiences, and never compromise the entertainment for any age group, even with a film like this that has some physical comedy. Like I said, the lovely animation is hard not to appreciate — even small details like cars passing by feel rhythmic. At first I was surprised by how quickly the story gets going but as the film progresses, it develops Joe even more with his decisions in and out of his body. The plot also manages to play with concepts about life, history, and souls in believable and fun ways. It’s easy to notice borrowed elements from Inside Out and Coco, though, especially the visual tones of the former and the afterlife aspect of the latter. The writing is also a little all over the place in a few moments, but ultimately nails its themes. It’s a film that reminds you to live in the moment and amount life not just to our goals, but to every cherished memory we have with our world, ourselves, and our loved ones. Viewers will be able to connect as the film emphasizes the passions we all chase and can’t live without, and stresses the importance of those things that “bring out the real you”, but reminds you to embrace every minute of life on the way.

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Wonder Woman 1984

Wonder Woman’s next big screen adventure finds her in 1984 facing two all-new foes: Max Lord and The Cheetah. This highly anticipated sequel was finally released simultaneously in theaters and streaming at home on HBOMax.

The first film inspired many viewers with its hopeful messages and the fierce, courageous hero played by Gal Gadot, whose performance became a symbol of female empowerment in thru superhero genre and all around the world. The charm, optimism, and tone that made the first film special are still here, and director Patty Jenkins still does a good job bringing the gigantic action to the screen, with better visual effects than its predecessor. From the exciting opening scene in Themyscira, you are reminded as to why this corner of the DC Extended Universe is one of the most notable. Gadot again brings genuine humanity and morality to Diana, inspiring us all to work together and see the beauty in the world. Her chemistry with Chris Pine is again great, although his death in the previous film makes his appearance here a little less welcoming, as he doesn’t feel as adventurous and memorable. However, the movie handles emotional moments between them really well, and their coupling still helps drive the film forward. Kristen Wiig, beloved for comedies like Bridesmaids and SNL, does really well as Barbara Minerva, who is very humanized through her performance and introduction. However, her character’s drastic transformation is when her writing became insufficient and unbelievable, and feels like a wasted opportunity that deserved much better. Pedro Pascal is now highly popular with TV audiences, not only as the titular Mandalorian but also for fans of Narcos and Game of Thrones, as well as with action movie fans for Kingsman and Triple Frontier. For those reasons, I was very excited about his casting, but his performance is such a huge step down from his famed presence in other franchises — his silly character is made worse with awful dialogue and a villain plot that I can only compare to Jafar from Aladdin. And because the conflict isn’t that great, that really hurts the movie. This makes a lot of the script feel over-the-top, including the objective feeling very cartoonish and the messages becoming muddled.

The pacing isn’t as slow as another lengthy DCEU movie, Batman v Superman, was, but still felt like an issue; the first one at 141 minutes seemed to pace itself well and fly by briskly, but at one point during WW84‘s 151-minute runtime, I was starting to feel like the story should jump to the action quicker. Much of the buildup entertaining, but in some instances I was hoping for the film to pick up and get to the point more speedily. This is by no means a film that’s hard to get through; like I said, the tone is still fun and heartfelt, and the action is really good, with some good set pieces like a mall fight, and other strong settings where the fights take place, as well as Wonder Woman getting to show off some new powers. The set design that reminisces the 80s feels lively and great, although it takes advantage of the time period less than expected (I can’t help but compare that Stranger Things utilized its 80s setting in a more memorable manner). Even though the backdrop for the final act is excellent, it ultimately feels wasted (both Wonder Woman movies have had a villain reciting a terrible evil monologue and I don’t know why the writers felt the need to keep it). There’s also themes about women dealing with catcalling and insecurities about their looks that feel underdeveloped, or needless as not much is done with that. The first movie’s simplicity helped it work better, but the goals and messages here start to feel overcomplicated to the point where I wish the film had stuck to the simple ideas that made the first movie more thoughtful and inspiring. The layout for the hero’s journey is there; Diana has wants that don’t quite coincide with her needs and the greater good, and so a choice must be made. But the film isn’t strongest when dealing with humanity’s greed and desire for self-interests, it’s when it deals with the love, unity, and heroism we should all see in ourselves and others. This sense of inspiration and optimism is the golden strength of both Wonder Woman films, but I wish the road to get there was less long and windy, and a little more fresh. Also, don’t get up quite yet when the credits start; there’s a cameo that will get all generations of audiences to feel excited. In summary, this is a sequel that retains many great elements from its predecessor and will satisfy comic book fans and those who were moved by the first, but the weak conflict and subpar writing hurt the film and make it, while entertaining, less than wonder-ful. The one thing that’s always consistent is Gadot’s acting and the heart she gives to the titular heroine we all love.

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Mulan (2020)

Like the animated musical that inspired it, Disney’s live-action Mulan is based on an ancient legend of a young warrior who defies gender norms in an act of courage to protect her family and home land.

Last year, the shot-for-shot replicas of Aladdin and The Lion King made more money than amazing movies like 1917 and Parasite due to pure audience nostalgia, and that says everything about today’s movie demographics and Disney’s future priorities. However, unlike those other remakes, I had much to look forward to with Mulan as it seemed like a less cartoonish, fantasy-driven take on a tale that wasn’t even so Disney-like to start with. Mulan is a movie that’s definitely on the higher end of the remake spectrum — definitely below The Jungle Book but probably at the same level as Beauty and the Beast. This isn’t a difficult movie to enjoy — the scenery is lively, the acting is solid, and the story is easy to follow especially when you know what it’s going for. So while I appreciate the attempt to make something somewhat different, Disney was unable to step out of the previous film’s shadow without removing the heart that the original had. I don’t care about talking dragons or bursting into song, but even an empowering movie like this somehow felt devoid of emotional connection due to lack of character. It’s very much confusing as to whether it’s trying to still be a charming kid’s movie or a serious war movie. On one hand, you have the childish elements removed, and a PG-13 rating to focus on action scenes, but then you have a witch who can turn into a bird and Mulan basically fighting with… the Force? I’m not one to nitpick about “How could this possibly work in real life?” when I watch a movie, let alone a Disney fantasy film, but she does so many stunts that seem physically implausible and only make sense if you’re some sort of Jedi or one of the heroes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There isn’t even a throwaway line about Mulan maybe having a strong connection to nature or her physical side, she just magically is the greatest acrobat and fighter in the world and we don’t even see her develop these abilities like the rest of the soldiers, which pushes us even farther from our iconic hero.

Liu Yifei does well as the titular character with what she’s given, but I wish the director and writers showed her emotional journey more, as her entire development feels defined only by the “woman defying gender norms” and “Loyal Brave and True” mottos. The rest of the cast feels underutilized especially Donnie Yen, an acclaimed performer who’s already proven himself to film lovers in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as well as the Ip Man movies. Instead of seeing an interesting teacher-student relationship between Commander Tung and Mulan, he only serves for one scene of dramatic irony and one trust/distrust contrast moment. Tzi Ma does an excellent job as Mulan’s father, and her mother’s actress is also good, but we don’t see much of them either — same goes for Jet Li who is really great as the Emperor. There’s also a character who befriends Mulan and is the first one to really trust in her but the connection feels oddly one-sided. And the villains are awful, both the cartoonish Bori Khan and the equally pointless and emotionless shapeshifting witch. The visuals are very creative, especially the lovely scenery used for wide shots and battle sequences. The standouts include an amazing shot of a fight scene on a geyser, and the sequences in the Imperial City, that I could even see scoring the film an Oscar nomination for Production Design. The story is entertaining again to follow, especially when you remember the spirit of the story you already know, and when you follow conversations between the young soldiers, as well as the training montage where you can’t help but recall the awesome song that’s originally thee in the animation. The final battle is especially cool, but the film is greatly hurt — this may even be the film’s greatest flaw — by the horrendous editing. The random moments of slo-mo, as well as rushing through sequences in a montage fashion, is especially what hurt important character and scene-building moments, and letting the action play out for longer would’ve strengthened the spectacle. So while I did enjoy Mulan for the most part and had a positive impression of it when it ended (speaking of which, the end credits are gorgeous), something felt missing throughout which is that charm and energy that’s present in most terrific family films. It isn’t fully felt until a touching final scene where the messages unify and become clearer and more impactful to the plot. It’s a fun family watch, an important story about breaking down stereotypes and who “can” and “can’t” fulfill certain duties, but an extra 10-20 minutes of runtime, as well as stronger utilization of the cast and a more consistent emotional pull not just to the empowerment theme but also to the characters and world of the story, would’ve made this a more satisfying and excellent remake like we hoped for.

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Tenet

Whenever auteur Christopher Nolan makes a movie, he makes it impossible for it to disappear in the crowd of films being made. His approach to making and presenting films transcend being just a movie, he always crafts an experience. A Christopher Nolan movie is an event, and for years his audiences have craved not only his strong writing and style, but his ability to immerse the viewer in the plot through practicality, tension, and premium formats like IMAX, and challenge them with nail-biting questions and inventive concepts. Tenet is an experience, and a marvelous one for that matter. From the opening moments my jaw dropped as the clock immediately starts ticking with an unpredictable action sequence. The loud sound effects engulfed my ears and the realistically crafted action glued my eyes to the screen, in an unparalleled fashion. Nolan’s partner for 3 films, Hoyte van Hoytema, handles the cinematography beautifully, whether it’s for making the real action feel present or having incredible shots of locations such as the Italian Amalfi Coast and the streets of London. The director’s commitment to practicality makes for more urgent, nail-biting action and of course appeals to the eye. 

John David Washington portrays an action hero whose grace feels reminiscent of Tom Cruise’s performance in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Robert Pattinson is also great as Washington’s partner, delivering charm and fun as opposed to his darker performances in Good Time and The Lighthouse. Elizabeth Debicki delivers a lot of heart and soul to the film and Kenneth Branagh is also memorable as her husband, though it’s hard to be surprised when Branagh does something praiseworthy — at this point, he’s done it all! Dimple Kapadia also delivers a nuanced performance, and Michael Caine also makes a welcome appearance, as he has in nearly every Nolan film! However, I would argue that some of the younger famous talents, such as Himesh Patel, Clemence Poesy, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson were underutilized considering their remarkable past performances and their intriguing small roles here.


Like I said, Nolan’s grand and large-scale approach to everything he makes pays off with Hoyte van Hoytema’s gorgeous camerawork, and the booming sound effects and music by Ludwig Goransson (Oscar winner for Black Panther), whose inspired work seamlessly follows in the footsteps of Nolan’s past collaborations with Hans Zimmer while leaving enough room for himself to invent. However, the loud sound and music does sometimes overshadow dialogue which is a slight issue at times. The other important point is the script’s complexity. Nolan invents new concepts involving time, physics, and science and expresses them in a way that some may find hard to follow or lament as confusing. I personally found myself lost at times because a lot of exposition is spoken very quickly by the characters, and this is problematic when you have a lot of rules and objectives that you’re hearing about for the first time. This movie even outdoes Inception and Interstellar for how complex these themes and ideas are — and for some, confusing. Even those two aforementioned films have a lot of complex new ideas as well, they felt more accessible than the way the exposition is delivered here. And of course, that always means more rewatches are warranted which is also fun, but it’s also okay to admit that there could’ve been a clearer way to help audiences follow, even to Nolan fans like myself who love the intricacies that the filmmaker invented in those other films (which for the record aren’t also easy to comprehend in one viewing). This doesn’t take away from the spectacle and excitement that is to behold in many of the sequences that are unlike any action set pieces ever put to film. But the film did occasionally lose me in a few fast-talking scenes that clouded some of my understanding of some later scenes’ objectives and motives.

Christopher Nolan is also known for having big endings, and while some massive things do happen and get revealed (don’t worry, I won’t commit the movie sin of spoiling a Nolan movie’s plot), there’s some reward left to be wished for when compared to the “totem question” of Inception, or the resolution of Cooper and his daughter’s storyline in Interstellar. There still is so much to be discovered under the surface which is always a lovely thing, but I think the moments of revelation, tension, and mystery in the final sequences needed more catharsis to get a stronger reaction. Only time will tell how much this film’s mysteries linger with us audiences — looking back and discovering new things afterwards is always a perk of Nolan’s adventures.

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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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