Babylon

At only age 38 and with 4 major films, Damien Chazelle has solidified himself as one of our time’s most respected, beloved and exciting auteur filmmakers. His flare for grandeur and stories of epic and wondrous proportions shows once again in Babylon, even if the fact that it’s by far his most graphic movie may turn off many viewers, even within the first few minutes. As a matter of fact, there’s barely a moving story, the content is incredibly graphic, the character arcs are sometimes purposely incomplete for you to try and discover, and it doesn’t necessarily teach anything new about old Hollywood — yet something about Babylon is so transfixing and stunning that I was completely invited into the world Chazelle presented to me for 3 hours, and didn’t want it to end. The costumes and sets expertly bring you into the world of 1920s Hollywood glamour and cinema, but it’s the masterful cinematography that elevates the film into a stylistic marvel. The score by Justin Hurwitz is the best of the year, but that’s no surprise when his scores for Chazelle’s last three films were all life-changing, and this one is no exception. Hurwitz’s magnificent jazz themes and blends of instruments create a score that make an already breathtaking world a place you won’t want to leave, which perhaps explains the movie’s title.

Diego Calva is a breakthrough as the film’s lead, a party fixer that starts to work his way into the wonders of picture making. His eyes and spirit create a relatable sense of awe to the glamour he discovers and an undying empathy that sticks with the audience even when he seems to lose his way. Brad Pitt is also great as a movie star who’s devoted to his art, despite a messy home life, but fears losing his fame when silent films are no more, and talkies are suddenly the new big thing in the industry. The real scene-stealer, though, is the captivating Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy, an aspiring actress whose path to the spotlight is as messy as her potent need for attention, which Robbie conveys in the most lavish of ways. She delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as she creates a tremendous character that will help define her career for years to come, and will resonate even with those who didn’t love the rest of the film. The supporting cast also has their terrific moments, including but not limited to Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Katherine Waterson and Tobey Maguire.

Babylon‘s storytelling sometimes feels like a hangout movie in the way Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was, with extended scenes that build more to a mood than a plot point. It also feels like Damien Chazelle ripped a page out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s book, being a plot-driven character piece where an actual story with an objective, direction or basic structure still takes a back seat. Instead, the story is defined by the characters’ larger than life personalities and the outrageous decisions they make which may or may not play into the later scenes and are often what define their arc, rather than a clear backstory or revelation. My main issue with the film is the ending itself, which takes what could’ve been a more powerful moment and decides to spoon-feed the message to the audience in an incredibly baffling way, and while others may be checked out by its length and self-indulgence by then, the final minute was the only thing I really think didn’t work from a writing and editing perspective. Though it’s an understandably divisive movie for its graphic content, it is for better or worse, one of a kind, and though it isn’t as coherent, sensible or even logical as many viewers would want, it’s more than enough to invite you to discover and dig into the beautifully messy and gargantuan spectacle that is Babylon.

I Wanna Dance with Somebody

Naomi Ackie stuns in this biopic about Whitney Houston, and the movie makes a strong case for why she was the greatest singing voice of her generation. It highlights Whitney’s accomplishments, shortcomings, and struggles with glamour, empathy and care, but the editing seems to occasionally bring Ackie’s performance down and while the characters and performances are strong, the script is so cliche it almost feels like it’s checking off boxes as it goes. The music biopic tropes are almost all there, whether it be the way the movie portrays the sudden rise to fame, abusive marriage, addiction, controlling father — it’s the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect but with a different soundtrack. The way the movie goes through these cliches feels almost like the way the parodical Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox story would’ve been written, and the editing often glosses past important story points and doesn’t let the beautiful musical sequences breathe and play out without frequent montage-like editing during the songs. Cinematograper Barry Ackroyd of the Bourne movies, The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips, and Bombshell isn’t enjoying using a tripod too much and often shifts between handheld and still shots mid-scene which occasionally distracts.

In addition to Ackie’s breathtaking work, changing Houston’s mannerisms as she takes us from her teen years to the end of her life, Stanley Tucci is excellent as her manager Clive Davis, who in a nice change of pace from most biopics, isn’t the greedy asshole who takes advantage of the star, but a kind counselor and a devoted friend to Whitney. Ashton Sanders does a strong job as her husband Bobby Brown, as well as Tamara Tunie and Clarke Peters as her parents. Seeing Whitney’s process in creating her songs is also very satisfying, as well as her struggles with drugs and her music being called “not black enough” by critics of her music. Though it’s easier to follow than this year’s Elvis and has fun sequences for fans of Whitney’s music, with a star-making work from Naomi Ackie, but the script in the latter half could’ve been much stronger, as well as the runtime which drags later on and could’ve trimmed 10-20 minutes.

She Said

She Said follows the true story of New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor as they break one of the most important stories in a generation – a story that helped ignite a movement and shattered decades of silence around the subject of sexual assault in Hollywood. The movie packs with it a lot of weight, as the Harvey Weinstein bombshell was only 5 years ago, leading to the beginning of the #MeToo movement. Director Maria Schrader and writer Rebecca Lenkieweicz choose to highlight the journalists and their integrity, relentlessness and dedication, as well as their victims and their courage to speak out, rather than showing Weinstein himself on screen. Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan bring ferocity and empathy to their performances, and the movie highlights their perseverance and strength in their job, but also the importance of this story to them as women, as well as their balancing of their personal lives as mothers and the support of their husbands without it being questioned. Mulligan especially feels very naturally in command of her role, but Kazan also rises to having that same on-screen force. Andre Braugher is also great as Dean Baquet, the chief editor of the New York Times, and Samantha Morton and Jennifer Ehle are excellent as two women interviewed about their experiences with Weinstein.

The film is an important watch and though the more emotional moments may make viewers uncomfortable, it’s powerful to see Hollywood reckon with such a recent past, doing it with such patience and grabbing your interest even when talky scenes with many journalistic, legal, or industry terms can go on for long. The movie not only resonates because of the terrible things that happened in the film industry, but the silence that was allowed for go on for decades, the many who enabled the wrongdoers and their remaining in power — and whether the accountability still must be held — and the failure of the law to protect victims of sexual abuse, a change that’s only begun mere years ago. It addresses a system that’s allowed men to get away with years of abuse of power, and even get elected president, but at its core, it works because it brings forward the strong voices that helped contribute to the exposure of the broken system, both from the reporting and the survivor side. It’s a film that’s a conversation starter, about change that still needs to be made, and in affinity with the women of its story, whose bravery and determination are front and center.

The Fabelmans

Growing up in post-World War II era Arizona, a young man named Sammy Fabelman discovers a shattering family secret and explores how the power of films can help him see the truth.

Inspired by his own childhood and infatuation with cinema and filmmaking, The Fabelmans feels like everything Steven Spielberg’s career has been leading up to until now. But not only is it personal and revealing, it’s a masterpiece in its own right that earns its spot amongst other Spielberg classics. Michelle Williams somehow tops her remarkable work in Blue Valentine and Manchester by the Sea in one of the most powerful performances in Spielberg’s recent films. Williams makes the role and everything it demands hers. Along with his co-writer Tony Kushner, who also worked with the director on Munich, Lincoln and West Side Story, Spielberg paints an empathetic look at his mother through Williams’ character, Mitzi Fabelman, but also doesn’t shy away from her flaws and shortcomings, though never quite judging her. As the family’s patriarch Burt, Paul Dano delivers his most restrained but possibly most impactful performance yet, as the logos to Mitzi’s pathos, who does everything, even if it’s spending lots of time with his work or being firm with his kids, out of love and pride for his family. Seth Rogen is also excellent as Sammy’s surrogate uncle, portraying the most endearing and complex role of his career — not to mention Judd Hirsch in a hilarious few minutes of screentime. But Gabrille LaBelle as Sammy himself is a breakout to behold. He rips into your heart as a young man who embodies the aspiration and underdog not just in Spielberg but in all of us, as he works through familial conflicts, (sometimes anti-Semitic) bullying, and adolescence through empathy and, as sappy yet poetic as it sounds, film.

Along with his frequent collaborator behind the camera, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg makes basic settings such as a camping site or a high school hallway feel like a fairy tale. The production value along with the colors of the scenery make the simplest 1950s and 60s settings look grand, and makes film and cameras look like a weapon that spews greatness and wonder wherever it goes, because to the legendary filmmaker, that’s exactly what it is, and he makes you feel it in every frame. Even if you’re a cinema buff, it’s the most human coming-of-age story about family in a long time that juxtaposes innocence with the mistakes people, especially parental figures, can make — but the importance their humanity has on their children — and the uncertainty yet optimism of the world that is to come for Sammy Fabelman. Spielberg also manages to tell entire stories about certain characters’ backgrounds without ever directly addressing them, simply through their reactions and decisions. It’s incredible that about 50 years and 40 movies into his career, he still manages to surprise us and make us in awe, but don’t worry, there’s a lot of laugh-out-loud humor as well, so much effectively for a movie that isn’t ever quite a comedy. Knowing where the director’s story ends makes this journey with him, which is 2-and-a-half hours but earns every minute of it, even more gratifying. This movie especially resonated with me for its striking depiction of how movies and filmmaking can make you feel less lonely, as Spielberg’s films have for around half a century now. It’ll entertain, inspire and touch all ages, feeling like the culmination of his creative career yet unlike almost anything he’s ever made before. By the end you’d want to thank him for the opportunity to peer into his world.

The Woman King

The Woman King historical epic inspired by the true events that happened in The Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful states of Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. Viola Davis makes every performance of hers seem effortless, and her role as General Nanisca of the Agoije, the Dahomey’s all-female group of warriors who defend the Kingdom, is no exception. Davis portrays the titular character as a fighter with a tough exterior who eventually peels back layers to reveal pain she must defend herself from through physical and emotional strength. Thuso Mbedu and Lashana Lynch are both outstanding, Mbedu as a new recruit who must grow into a courageous fighter, and Lynch as a commander who gives it her all into the role physically and makes you care so much about her character.

The action is staged very well and is surprisingly strong for a PG-13 rating, but it’s never distractingly holding back from showing violence either, though nothing is disturbing here. The grandeur of the costumes and sets makes the atmosphere work so well, and the film benefits from a spectacular score from Terence Blanchard, who should at least get nominated for an Oscar. Though the film does occasionally slow down between the powerful moments, the last act especially is the most exciting, investing and empowering and elevates the entire movie. It’s a great popcorn action film but also a showcase of amazing production and performances that’s built for the big screen.

Three Thousand Years of Longing

A lonely scholar, on a trip to Istanbul, discovers a Djinn who offers her three wishes in exchange for his freedom.

George Miller’s first film since Mad Max: Fury Road allows him to let loose as expected, but doesn’t feel as rewarding as it could have. Tilda Swinton shines in a more fun, likable role than some of her more “chameleon”-like performances, and Idris Elba is great as a Djinn tasked with most of the film’s dialogue and monologues. The production design is also very noteworthy as is the score by Tom Holkenberg, easily his best music for a film since Fury Road. However, the CGI doesn’t look as grand or convincing as it attempts to be and could’ve used some more work.

Though Swinton and Elba’s conversations about how all the ways wishes could go wrong are interesting, the stories Elba tells about his past don’t feel as powerful or intricate as the film wants you to believe. The third act feels an abrupt turn of events and certainly drags, in a way feeling anticlimactic. Upon digging, Miller has a lot of interesting things to say, whether it be about longing, imagination, or love, but he doesn’t explore them deeply enough to deliver that unexpected blow of catharsis and fulfillment that the ending wants you to experience. Perhaps this is one film that constitutes a rewatch, but only certain parts feel inviting to revisit, while others, I feel I’d simply skip over if I ever saw this film again. It’s certainly bold and like nothing that’s come out this year, and its ambition is worth commending, but for most, this isn’t worth rushing to theaters to watch.

Thor: Love and Thunder

Thor enlists the help of Valkyrie, Korg and ex-girlfriend Jane Foster to fight Gorr the God Butcher, who intends to make the gods extinct.

Taika Waititi brings his signature laugh out loud humor and energetic storytelling style to Love and Thunder, as well as playing the lovable rock giant Korg who’s become Thor’s sidekick of sorts. Chris Hemsworth is as always having lots of fun, and Natalie Portman returns as his old flame Jane, who accompanies him along with Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson kills it as always though her character doesn’t get as personal as Thor and Jane do) on the film’s journey. Russell Crowe is also quite funny as Zeus, and expect some great celebrity cameos as well. The standout though is definitely Christian Bale as the villain. He gets to go all out with his performance as Gorr the God Butcher, and his motivations make sense as well as his weapons and planets seeming cool, though I would’ve added a little more screentime with the character because in a way he’s still underutilized compared to the heroes. But also worth mentioning is the memorable soundtrack that gives the film a lot of life — and Guns N Roses hits.

Though Waititi’s style now feels synonymous with Thor’s solo journey, it also feels like the saving grace of the movie that Taika’s at the director’s chair. Since Thor’s already gone through most of his meaningful development from his first movie unto Endgame, there isn’t much left to develop with him and the movie is best enjoyed as a Waititi adventure comedy as a result. It’s also not as smooth or funny as Ragnarok, and the director’s weakest film yet. The script feels rushed and slowed down in the wrong places and certain nuances feel underdeveloped — a few more minutes of runtime wouldn’t have hurt. The final battle is also visually uninteresting though conceptually fun, the location and lighting of the action feels anything but exciting. Thor and Jane’s romantic chemistry is sweet but also nowhere near as natural of a pairing as Tom Holland and Zendaya in Spider-Man or Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow in the Iron Man movies. It also feels like Thor’s journey concluded more naturally with Endgame, and as an epilogue to his story it serves the character fine, but I think Marvel should close his arc here because it feels like all of Thor’s most memorable moments and growths are in the past.

Thor: Love and Thunder is a solid 2 hours of fun visuals and laughs, though it feels like the character’s story is being stretched a little past its breaking point, go for the enjoyment and cast, especially Christian Bale’s villanous performance.

Elvis

Elvis provides a look into the life and career of the King of Rock and Roll and his relationship with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Austin Butler’s immersive performance stuns as he brings the singer back to life with so much energy and character, that you’d believe it was really him in every shot he’s in. The costume design is accurate to Elvis’ real wardrobe and overall gives the film a spectacular visual side to it. The musical sequences are by far the most entertaining, impressive, and even emotional aspects of the film. If that’s enough for you, this movie is worth a watch, but this movie is brought down by Baz Luhrmann’s pretentious style (director of Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet and The Great Gatsby). The editing is very flashy and fast in an attempt to immerse you into the vivid world of Elvis’ music and journey, but as a result, any sort of intimacy or room to breathe feels gone. Butler’s performance is terrific but the only times we get to interact with Elvis as a real person (and not just as the musical legend he was) are when the movie uses incredibly cliche beats we’ve seen in plenty of other music biopics like Walk the Line, Rocketman, Respect, Straight Outta Compton, and so on. Moments such as Elvis getting his love for music, dealing with loss, rising to stardom and creating his greatest hits feel lost in the prestige Baz feels so insistent on — it’s a tiring assault on the senses with some questionable decisions, like including music by Doja Cat in a scene that’s set in 1950s Memphis? Some of the CGI and green-screen also feel unrealistic and break the illusion of an old-fashioned look.

Tom Hanks is still my favorite movie actor, but his character in this movie is such an odd, one-note character and showing lots of the film from his perspective just makes us feel farther from Elvis’ humanity. The movie is also very long and gets too boring before it makes a real emotional point. What’s really interesting to see from a story perspective is how Elvis brought black music to white audiences and forced the system to reckon with the integration of cultures. Though this aspect is really eye-opening, it’s a shame that it isn’t focused on for the latter parts of the movie as well. The film decides to simply throw everything at you that you don’t get enough to appreciate the moments that are beautiful, or feel that you’re with Elvis for enough time because of the film’s montage-like editing fashion.

Though Austin Butler is a powerhouse and perfectly captures the stage presence and livelihood of Presley, and the musical sequences are exciting and breathtakingly brought to life, Elvis is brought down by its surface-level character writing as well as its poor and overwhelming editing. Luhrmann cares very much about making his movies a spectacle, but how much is too much? If you’re an Elvis fan, watch it at home, but if I ever end up watching Elvis again, you’ll probably find me skipping right away to the music scenes and that’s it.

Licorice Pizza

The story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley in 1973.

Licorice Pizza is no less than a Paul Thomas Anderson movie — stylized, larger-than-life, and a beautiful anomaly. Like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, things happen to the characters that often go unexplained but its the way the characters react that defines the story. PTA makes movies that are defined by characters who feel larger-than-life but have a human core, though one may not always understand them on the surface. Alana Haim steals the show in her very first movie role, portraying a young woman trying to find herself only to find that she may not be alone in that. To make things even cooler, her family plays themselves in the film! Cooper Hoffman is also great as an incredibly confident teen actor who looks forward to achieving his destiny someday. The crazy situations that happen may not always add up to much sense but they offer revealing moments about the film’s spirit and character. With that comes a layer of irreverence and craziness with how bold and out there this film gets — like a famous actor trying to his favorite scenes from his movies, or another Hollywood star having a big meltdown — but it’s all PTA’s complex way of conveying his themes and the messy beauty of the human condition. The free-spirited nature is amplified by the vivid direction, including great production value and soundtrack to immerse you into the Valley in the 70s. Like many of PTA’s other films, the movie doesn’t quite fit the mold of one genre — it’s part coming-of-age story, part outrageous comedy, part political drama, part Hollywood-based epic. The movie does slow down in the second half but ends on a strong beat. The movie is a picture of youth, the parts we play to fit into the world, and the bonds that not everyone may understand. It’s a great watch, but it’s best to be familiar with the director’s style and filmography to know what you’re in for.

LicoricePizzaPoster.jpeg

Black Widow

Set in between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Natasha Romanoff, on the run from the law, encounters friends and enemies from her past as she confronts her dark origins.

With the return of theaters, it’s so exciting to see a Marvel movie again on the big screen, a whole two years after the last one, Spider-Man: Far From Home. The action, set around the globe from Cuba to Budapest, is exciting and more grounded than other MCU films. It focuses less on superhuman or fantastical abilities and more on the grit and hand-to-hand combat, along the lines of spy films like Jason Bourne and Atomic Blonde. The fights have lots of impact and feel nail-biting — there’s only a few weird moments of slo-mo that weren’t needed. Scarlett Johansson never lets us forget why she’s such a beloved actress and Avenger, and Natasha’s spirit is ever present as personal revelations about her surface. It’s really great to see her front and center, headlining her own film, but it feels like it should’ve been released back in 2017, in between the films it was set. In a cinematic universe all about bringing in connections from past films and setting up future ones, it feels weird to ask the audience to dial their brain back only a few years to an era we already passed where films like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther are set. What requires even more suspension of disbelief is the fact that we know where Natasha’s journey leads afterwards in Infinity War, and ultimately ends in Endgame. However, that doesn’t completely sink the film’s quality and consistent enjoyment factor, from the get-go with an exciting opening action scene. The visuals consistently stand out, which was enhanced for me by the 3D experience, and the pacing is also strong for a film that’s 2 hours and 14 minutes.

Florence Pugh is the highlight of the film, bringing her fantastic acting chops to the emotion and heart of the film, and shares some wonderful scenes with Johansson as well as David Harbour and Rachel Weisz, who form Nat’s makeshift family. Pugh and Harbour bring their already respected reputations with them, but reinvent themselves with memorable, humorous and heartfelt roles, though Weisz is worth mentioning too. My main issues are mostly minor, but the themes aren’t often as emphasized as in other MCU films, which is a shame, and the progression of the plot isn’t as strong either. It isn’t Black Widow’s best appearance, don’t go in expecting The Winter Soldier, Civil War or Endgame, but better late than never to have her as the lead in her own film. The villain are also very uninteresting, and though he does the job to motivate our hero, Ray Winstone’s performance is very one-dimensional. His sidekick, however, Taskmaster, is a very intimidating presence who’s great to watch. It’s overall not top-tier Marvel material, but still a satisfying standalone film that utilizes its tone, action set pieces, and cast well, and worth the theatrical experience, as always, stay seated for the credits and enjoy and intriguing post-credits scene.

Black Widow (2021 film) poster.jpg