Movie Review: Us

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Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) faces her worst nightmare in Us, Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out. (Source: Deseret News)

“Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?”

Jordan Peele exceeded audiences’ expectations with 2017’s Get Out. After the five-season run of the hit sketch series, Key and Peele, he made a directorial debut that perfectly balanced humor and thrills. Due to winning his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, he digged deep with the allegory of the Black Lives Matter movement that has been discussed since its theatrical release. As the host of the upcoming Twilight Zone reboot, it’s no surprise he’s going to become the next Alfred Hitchcock. His filmmaking skills show in his slightly superior sophomore film Us, an allegory of killing the American Dream.

Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) spends vacation at her childhood beach house outside Santa Cruz with her husband Gabe (Wilson Duke) and her children, Jason (Evan Alex) and Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph). Although stricken with fear and anxiety after a creepy incident on the boardwalk when she was a child (in the film’s spine-tingling opening sequences), she and Gabe befriend a wealthier couple–John (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss). Maybe she will have a fun, peaceful time after all. One night, Adelaide’s past begins to haunt her when a family ends up in their driveway. It reveals they are their doppelgangers in nastier appearances. All hell begins to break loose.

Nyong’o leads a great ensemble as the overbearing mother whose horrifying dreams would soon come a reality. The audience emphasizes with her as she attempts to keep her family safe during this horrible event. Her interactions between her husband and the kids does generate some good laughs and is never a dull moment.

The core theme of Us involves the biggest evil of all is ourselves. However, In an interview with IndieWire, Peele decided to dig deep with his own interpretation. “I was stricken by the fact we are in a time where we fear the other,” he said. “Whether it is the mysterious invader that we think is going to come and kill us, take our jobs, or the faction that we don’t live near that voted a different way than us. We’re all about pointing the finger and I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil is us.”

Peele’s writing and direction is wonderful. The suspense is not shaky and the humor is never shied away. Kudos to Mike Gioulakis’ unnerving cinematography, the atmosphere in this is guaranteed to generate chills and gasps. There is also something so subtle it would require plenty of rewatches to catch what everyone didn’t catch up on before–from the images of Jeremiah 11:11 to the rabbits roaming around in the underground hallway. One of the obvious influences is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which both have a similar tone. Like the timeless horror movie classic, Us will be discussed about for many years to come. I’ll never listen to The Beach Boys the same way again.

10/10

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Movie Review: Apollo 11

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Three American astronauts go to the Moon in the documentary Apollo 11. (Source: New York Post)

A movie called First Man came out last year, which was Damien Chazelle’s first blockbuster. Although Neil Armstrong’s emotional journey to the Moon was an incredible experience to see in theater, it became a box-office disappointment after it sparked controversy surrounding its real-life patriotic moment being absent from the film. There is no doubt it will earn a cult following.

Now–the latest documentary Apollo 11 has landed in theaters after its strong premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, showing never-before-seen footage, shot in 70mm film. It works as a companion to Chazelle’s overlooked masterpiece.

Everybody knows how July 20, 1969, became a monumental day in American history. Following JFK’s promise, NASA recruited three American astronauts to the Moon and safely back to Earth at the end of the decade. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were up to the task. A lot of people not only watched (or heard) the Saturn V rocket lifting off, but they were ecstatic about the journey home.

This morning, I watched an episode of The Grand Tour where James May was talking about the Apollo program. You might ask: What does space have to do with a show about three guys giving each other a hard time while talking about cars?

Well–he wasn’t just talking about the history of the space program, he also talked about what cars the astronauts owned after going into space. Aldrin and Armstrong drove a Corvette, while Collins drove a VW Beetle (makes sense since he stayed inside to control the Lunar Module while the other two took their first steps on the Moon). There was a program where a dealership leased astronauts Corvettes for $1 per year, and trade them in for the latest Corvette. Armstrong owned a 1967 Corvette Sting Ray, the one which May drove down the runway at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. His passion for this material is nothing short on infectious. It’s as if his wildest dreams have come true. But–I digress.

This breathtaking documentary only features footage inside the control rooms in Cape Canaveral and Houston, in space, inside the rocket, and the heart-racing sequence of traveling to the moon. Also, featuring the occasional voiceovers of Walter Cronkite’s news broadcasts and Nixon’s phone call from the White House congratulating the astronauts in outer space. It’s an experience to behold on the big screen.

10/10

Movie Review: Everybody Knows

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Laura (Penelope Cruz) and Paco (Javier Bardem) reunite in Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows. (Source: IMDb)

You can’t go wrong with Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. Two of his movies won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film–A Separation and The Salesman. The reason his movies shine bright is the authenticity of the situation the characters get into. The suspense intends to be subtle. Now–Farhadi goes to another country with his latest film, Everybody Knows. With his screenplay originally written in Farsi (later translated), this marks his first film ever to be in Spanish (a language he is NOT fluent in at all). Starring a real-life couple, in which both have won an Oscar for acting, and directed by a wonderful filmmaker, the results are quite disappointing.

Laura (Penelope Cruz) is a Spanish woman from Argentina, who has traveled all the way to her native village outside Madrid for her sister’s (Inma Cuesta) wedding. With her husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín), daughter Irene (Carla Campra) and young son Diego (Iván Chavero), everyone is ecstatic with her arrival. Then, he meets Paco (Javier Bardem), who runs a local vineyard. We later learn they used to be childhood sweethearts.

Things begin to go awry when Irene has disappeared during the reception. When a text message gets sent to Laura’s phone about getting 300,000€, everyone begins to question each other and find out who the kidnappers are.

Bardem and Cruz are always a pleasure to watch them playing two former lovers who discuss what happened after they broke up. There’s a reveal halfway through that is better left unspoiled. I love the scene early on where Paco speaks in front of a classroom about how wine is made. As he states, “It’s time that gives character, from personality to wine.”

The movie does have the qualities from Farhadi’s previous films. It has subtle tension, real characters caught in a real situation, and a great ensemble. Unfortunately, there’s something about it that feels dry. It’s probably the second act that drags to no end and the mystery hardly leads up to a satisfying payoff. I can imagine how hard it must be to lose a loved one, like Laura. Other than that, it could have been a lot worse. 

6/10

“Once”: An Indie Musical Masterpiece

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Two musicians (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) develop a friendship in John Carney’s masterful indie musical Once. (Source: TIME)

John Carney used to be the bassist for the Irish indie-rock group The Frames before becoming a filmmaker. On a shoestring budget of $150,000 (or €112,000), he decided to make a musical set in modern-day Dublin. With the lead originally intended for Cillian Murphy, he eventually cast two professional musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, which they met when Irglova was only 13-years-old. Her father booked The Frames to perform at a musical festival he organized. Hansard helped her develop her own music career. Their affections towards each other make Once (2007) all the more authentic.

A down-on-his-luck busker–dubbed in the credits as “Guy” (Hansard)–spends most of his days playing guitar and his performing songs on the streets of Dublin. He would play songs that people are familiar with during the day (the movie opens up with him performing Van Morrison’s “And the Healing Has Begun”), and perform his songs only at night. Every now and then, he works at his father’s (Bill Hodnet) vacuum cleaner repair shop.

One day, Guy meets a Czech immigrant–dubbed “Girl” (Irglova)–who sells flowers on the streets and also works as a nanny. She, too, happens to be a musician. Case in point, she plays the piano. After Guy talks about his plans of earning a record label in London, the duo decide to write music together.

I appreciate it whenever non-professional actors do their best in front of the camera without assuming they will earn any awards. Sometimes, the results can be dull and wooden. What Hansard and Irglova do here is more than just giving a performance. The two feel like real people with real ambitions. The movie shows how sympathetic they are for one another, despite one might have his heart-broken by an ex-girlfriend, who moved to London, and might get her back one day (in one scene, Guy improvises a short yet amusing song called “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy” while the two sit on a bus). During the scene where the two pander at the view of the Irish coast, he asks her if she loves her husband. She tells him, “Miluju tebe”, which means “I love you” (it wasn’t subtitled). The line was, in fact, ad-libbed, which makes Hansard’s reaction feel all the more genuine.

The music is nothing short of delightful. With most of the songs playing live, they showcase the talents of these wonderful musicians. They play their first song, “Falling Slowly” (which won an Oscar for Best Original Song), in a music store, which sets off their relationship off in a good war. The song goes perfectly with the theme about anything is possible (“Take this sinking boat / And point it home / We still got time”). Guy has his dreams of making it big after being heartbroken, so the duo meet by chance and begin performing with each other. However, they decide to use a personal loan for an all-night recording session with a band called Interference. In one of the movie’s most emotional scene, Girl plays a breathtakingly haunting song called “The Hill”, about a relationship breaking apart, while the band is having a break. In the middle of the song, she breaks down crying. She later said she wrote it for her husband, in which he did not like. I also love the scene where Girl listens to Guy’s music on a CD player and rehearses a song (“If You Want Me”) while walking down the street at night. The smoothness of Carney’s direction, Tim Fleming’s cinematography, and Irglova’s singing makes for one beautiful scene.

The most understated quality is the dynamic between Guy and his father. I love how surprised Guy is by his father’s encouragement of going to London, and, undoubtedly, saying his songs will become big hits. It takes pride to earn that much respect for a loved one. Their relationship is as authentic as the relationship between Guy and Girl.

After their Oscar win, Hansard and Irglova began performing on tour worldwide as The Swell Season. Bob Dylan became such a big fan of the movie, he wanted the two to open up for him with The Frames on his behalf. Later, the duo recorded a cover of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” for Todd Haynes’ 2007 film I’m Not There, based on Bob Dylan’s music. A lot of pressure in their relationship caused the two to break up. However, they are still recording music to this day. Hansard just released a great album “Between Two Shores”, and is releasing a new one in April. Irglova is now settled in Iceland, who has released two studio albums–“Anar” (2011) and “Muna” (2014).

As for John Carney, he went onto direct two more movies involving music. Begin Again (2014) was his first movie set in America–specifically New York City. Although it doesn’t hold the same magic as this movie, there is a lot to like. Sing Street (2016) was a miraculous movie, set in Ireland in 1985 about a group of teenagers starting a band, that got snubbed by the Oscars. From its old-fashioned filmmaking to the toe-tapping music, that movie will have people smiling once the credits start to roll. None of those movies will never compare to the understated beauty of Once.

Movie Review: Arctic

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A pilot (Mads Mikkelsen) tries to find his way out of the Arctic Circle in Joe Penna’s impressive directorial debut Arctic. (Source: Filmmaker Magazine)

Director Joe Penna started on YouTube as Mystery Guitar Man. He would put a lot of his time and effort into making some of the most creative videos involving music. His videos range from a stop-motion video of him playing Mozart on the guitar to doing a video edited to make it look like it was shot in one take where he would make different sounds with certain object. He also appeared in an ad for McDonalds featuring Rhett and Link using the similar techniques. From years of watching his videos, I had a feeling he would become a talented Hollywood filmmaker someday.

Just like that–my wish came true! Arctic marks the directorial debut from the 31-year-old from Brazil. It’s a survival tale following the likes of Cast Away, 127 Hours, Life of Pi, All is Lost among others. With a movie containing minimal dialogue and zero backstory on the protagonist, Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison manage to craft one of the most gripping films of its kind that I’ve ever seen.

A man named Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen) crashes his plane in the middle of nowhere in the Arctic Circle for awhile. He has set up camp doing his routine including checking fish lines and making a distress signal. Even with his big SOS facing towards the sky, he has gotten no luck. One day, he sees a helicopter, but soon crashes. He saves an injured woman (María Thelma Smáradóttir) from the wreckage. After mapping his way to a designated rescue area, he and the woman must go through challenging obstacles including mountains, frigid temperatures, disheartening weather conditions, and a polar bear.

Mikkelsen drives the movie with a performance that is more physical and expressive compared to his other roles. He does speak a line here or there, but his performance consist of his facial expressions and body language. The audience is with Overgård every step of the way overcoming the challenges he has faced and what has yet to come, with Joseph Trapanese providing a haunting score.

Arctic is really Penna’s show. He never uses any complex camera techniques. From the gorgeous faraway shots (accompanied by Icelandic cinematographer Tómas Örn Tómasson) to the clever use of angles, it makes the overall setting another character. It’s hard not to feel the bitter cold that our characters face. This intense journey of “man vs. nature” demands to be shown on the biggest screen possible. Look forward to see this movie on my list of the best movies of the year.

10/10

Movie Review: Captain Marvel

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Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) suits up in Marvel’s Captain Marvel. (Source: Radio Times)

Last year was one helluva year for the MCU. Black Panther was history in the making upon its release. It became the highest-grossing film in the series as well as the highest-grossing film to feature a mostly African-American cast and directed by an African-American filmmaker. Not only that, it became the first superhero film to receive a Best Picture Oscar (but lost to the timely and old-fashioned Green Book). With Avengers: Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp both ending on cliffhangers, audiences wait in anticipation on what will happen to our superheroes.

Captain Marvel comes into save the day. But first, here’s another film about the origins of the superhero.

Vers (Brie Larson) lives on the planet Hala, and is part of an alien race known as Kree. Suffering from dreams of another life on Earth as U.S. Air Force pilot Carol Danvers, she is caught in the middle of a war between her race and the Skrulls, who have shapeshifting abilities. Her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) wants Vers to control her emotions carefully. When her pod crash lands inside a Blockbuster video store in Los Angeles in 1995, she joins forces with a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to end the alien war before it’s too late.

It’s surprising to hear this movie receiving a mixed reception compared to the previous entries. Yes, it might have the familiar tropes of superhero origin stories of the past. And yes, it’s far from the best and the worst in the series. But–writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half-Nelson, Mississippi Grind) manage to bring in the fun and poignancy into this empowering tale of the means of being human.

Larson electrifies as the titular hero, whose superpowers include super-strength, endurance, stamina, and throwing fireballs with her fists. She has trouble remembering where she came from. Then, she reunites with her old friend Maria (Lashana Lynch), a single mother to 11-year-old Monica (Akira Akbar); looking through old pictures of herself trying to fit the pieces of the puzzles (in one emotional scene). As Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) tells her, “We don’t fight wars, we end them.”

The first act is sluggish than its predecessors. Once Danvers lands on Earth, the pace starts to pick up with its references to ‘90s nostalgia, witty dialogue, dazzling effects, and almost wall-to-wall action. Jackson’s Nick Fury provides plenty of good laughs, especially when he shows his soft side when he encounters a cat named Goose. The rest of the cast is fine although forgettable. Nevertheless, Captain Marvel is still a good time early in the year. Bring on, Avengers: Endgame!

8/10