Movie Review: Victoria and Abdul

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Queen Victoria (Dame Judi Dench) and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazan) of India strike up an unlikely friendship in Victoria and Abdul. (Source: Vogue)

This is not the first time Judi Dench has played Queen Victoria. Her first outing was in 1997’s Mrs. Brown, in which she received her first Oscar nomination. It simply follows a servant helping her recover from her husband’s loss. Twenty years later, she is back as an aging yet wiser version of the Queen in Victoria and Abdul. Stephen Frears (who has been directing for more than 40 years) and screenwriter Lee Hall recreate the “mostly” true story if the Queen’s friendship with Abdul Karim, an Indian Muslim. The result is quite disappointing.

Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has held the reign for 63 years. Her Golden Jubilee is coming up. Since India is ruled by Britain, she decides to call upon Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a prison clerk, to participate. He–along with Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar)–arrive in Britain by ship. He eventually develops a beautiful friendship with the Queen. This pisses off her royal family, including her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), to no end. For the Queen, however, this is one of those moments she will never forget.

Dench has been in a lot of movies for a long time. Some of her greatest performances are M in the James Bond films, Lady Catherine in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, and an Irish woman looking for her son in Philomena (also directed by Frears). This is yet another miraculous performance to add in her long repertoire. As Queen Victoria, I just love how she is in control of everything. Nobody can stop her! It’s hard not to laugh or crack a smile when she is being taught by Abdul about his native language and the Qur’an. Their chemistry is so infectious.

While the movie is amusing at best and Danny Cohen’s cinematography is gorgeous (one scene involving having dinner in the hills of Scotland reminded me of The Queen), this movie is underwhelming. The tone shifts all over the place from very funny to very dramatic. The movie only pinpoints who Abdul is. The audience hardly know a lot about their friendship. Believe me, I know you want to Google about the entire story on which the movie is based. Hell, even the texts are rather vague. At the end, Victoria and Abdul feels incomplete. Now–I’m in the mood to watch Mrs. Brown.

2/4

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Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

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Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is on the search for some answers in Blade Runner 2049. (Source: Vox)

In 1982, Ridley Scott introduced a world unlike any other. From its imaginative sets and thoughtful allegory on life, Blade Runner is one of the best sci-fi films imaginable. It features Harrison Ford playing a quiet hero (as opposed to Indiana Jones or Han Solo) where he must get rid of a group of bioengineered people from the Earth. Since its release, people have been debating whether Deckard is a replicant or not. There’s no real answer to the debate; other than it’s up to the viewer.

Today, Scott returns to his futuristic world as producer, while Denis Villeneuve–whose Arrival has returned to the traditional, thought-provoking science-fiction–is in the director’s chair. Blade Runner 2049 is certainly up his alley!

30 years after the events of Blade Runner, newer replicant models are now becoming a part of society. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) works as the new “blade runner” for the LAPD. He is assigned to take down (or “retire”) older replicants. One day, he sees the remains of an adult replicant and their child. Preventing a possible war against humans and replicants, K begins to investigate the murder, which might connect to Officer Deckard (Harrison Ford), who went missing all these years.

What I love about Villeneuve’s direction is he never wastes anyone’s time relying on mindless action or manipulative emotion. With Blade Runner 2049, it keeps the similar tone and themes of the original while giving a fresh take on the futuristic world. Roger Deakins’ cinematography feels like a painting coming to life. From the 3D holograms to the impressive architecture to the scene where K walks through the ruins of erotic statues, this contains some of the most visually stunning visuals I’ve ever seen (Deakins has a good chance of winning an Oscar).

While the movie can be quite brutal at times, the movie contains the theme of nostalgia. It asks the important question: Are memories artificial memories implanted in our heads? Or is it the exact opposite? As a replicant, this is what K tries to figure out. In one particular scene, he explains his only childhood memory involves getting bullied as he plays with a toy horse.

Gosling is familiar playing characters who can be violent yet have subtle emotions (i.e. Drive). He and Harrison Ford lead a marvelous cast including Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Barkhad Abdi, and Jared Leto. Let’s hope Villeneuve crafts more original sci-fi films in the near future. Not only is Blade Runner 2049 one of the best sequels in recent memory, it surpasses the original by a slight margin.

4/4

Movie Review: Gerald’s Game

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Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) prepare to have some sex in Gerald’s Game. What could possible go wrong? (Source: Phoenix New Times)

Netflix is releasing two Stephen King film adaptations. Gerald’s Game, which came out last Friday, and 1922, which is coming out on the 20th. They both can be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home during this Halloween season.

Recently, I watched the home-invasion thriller Hush, directed by Mike Flanagan (Oculus). I was really impressed what he did with the movie. Featuring minimal dialogue; not to mention a deaf protagonist (different for the horror genre), he never lets up the suspense. Everyone can relate to this movie about having the feeling that somebody maybe watching you. However, in Flanagan’s latest, Gerald’s Game, the main fear is losing someone close, as well as the past.

Jessie (Cara Gugino) and Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) are a middle-aged couple struggling to keep their marriage afloat. They decide to spice things up a bit for the weekend at a lake house in the middle of nowhere. While having sex, Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the bedpost. She thinks Gerald has taken things too far. “This is turning into some rape fantasy I never knew you had,” she tells him.

Then, the unthinkable happens. Gerald dies from a heart attack; leaving Jessie still in handcuffs. Spending hours on end yelling for help with any lack of thirst, Jessie begins to hallucinate and have terrible dreams.  She begins to fight for her life.

Since its 1992 publication, Gerald’s Game has been deemed as “unfilmable”. Fast forward to 2017, where anything can be possible. Flanagan simply breaks that barrier, and turns one of King’s least popular books into a disturbing work of art. His bag of tricks come to good use here. For instance, the use of the red filters during Jessie’s shocking flashbacks of her as a little girl anticipating the solar eclipse with her father (Henry Thomas, Elliott from E.T.) over the lake.

Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood are at the top of their game here. Greenwood, an understated actor, has starred in plenty of films for many years, from Racing Stripes to Eight Below to Star Trek to Flight, among others. His turn as Gerald is one of the best of his career. As for Gugino, it’s hard to imagine the physical and emotional pain she had to endure.

While Gerald’s Game is far from perfect (the final act is a little weird), this white-knuckling psychological thriller is what 50 Shades of Grey should have been.

3/4

Movie Review: Stronger

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Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) waves the flag in David Gordon Green’s Stronger. (Source: Boston Herald)

The Boston Marathon bombing was one of the biggest U.S. tragedies. It’s shocking how a great city would face something so horrible. Leaving hundreds of people injured and three dead, it’s a moment that none of us will ever forget, like with 9/11.

Unlike Patriots Day, where the main focus is taking down the terrorists, Stronger, the second movie about the bombings, focuses on one of the survivors’ road to recovery. Known for making mainstream comedies (Pineapple Express, The Sitter) and independent dramas (George Washington, Prince Avalanche, Joe), this is the first real-life drama from director David Gordon Green.

Based on his memoir of the same name, Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an ordinary, everyday guy from Boston. He works at the local Costco and is big sports fan. One thing he is looking forward to is seeing his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslay) run in the Boston Marathon. Jeff waits for her at the finish while holding a sign for her until the bombs detonate. After losing both of his legs, he begins fighting for his life. With the support from his parents and Erin, he tries to walk again. This time, with prosthetics.

This movie would have gone into sappy territory, but what Green and screenwriter John Pollono give the audience something inspiring and powerful. Gyllenhaal has delivered some phenomenal performances–from his first lead role in October Sky to his Oscar-nominated turn in Brokeback Mountain to becoming dark in Nightcrawler. His performance as Bauman is one of his absolute best. Becoming a symbol of “Boston Strong”, he has the special opportunity to be introduced in front of thousands of fans while waving a flag at the Bruins game, or throwing the first pitch at the Red Sox game.

Most importantly, he wouldn’t be anywhere without his girlfriend. In one particular scene, Jeff and Erin have an argument in the car about being there for one another. When she walks out on him, he crawls to the glass door, knocking on it, so Erin can come out. Then, he experiences flashbacks of the aftermath of the bombing. We see him lying on the ground, with his legs blown off, with the other spectators in agony. This is a heart-wrenching scene that makes the audience feel as if they are part of the incident.

With a strong supporting cast, Gyllenhaal and Maslay are the ones who carry it through with its raw true-story. Stronger is, by far, the best film about the Boston marathon bombing. Here’s to one hundred more.

3.5/4

Movie Review: It (2017)

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In It, Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) is out to get you. (Source: IMDb)

It by Stephen King is one of my all-time favorite books. It features humor, scares, and memorable characters (not to mention an iconic villain who smells people’s fears) that we get to know and sympathize with. The first attempt at adapting Stephen King’s ambitious magnum opus about good vs. evil into a film happened in 1990 on ABC, starring Tim Curry as the titular monster. With a gifted ensemble cast, it started off alright during the first half. Then—it derailed in the second half resulting in becoming more as a sitcom/soap opera than a straight-up horror movie.

Now, the second adaptation is the first to be released in theaters. After last year’s clown epidemic, I can’t think of a more appropriate time for people to be terrified of clowns again. Well—it finally happened! Argentine director Andy Muschietti (Mama) and three screenwriters have crafted something scary, hilarious, and heartbreaking while keeping the nature of Stephen King’s book without any of the ridiculous stuff. Even Stephen King stated how much he loved this version of It. “I wasn’t prepared how good it really was,” he said in an interview. “It’s something that’s different, and at the same time, it’s something that audiences are going to relate to.”

Every 27 years, an extraterrestrial creature, known as It, preys on children and their fears. It takes the form of what they fear the most, and brings them to their doom.

This happens to one of the kids in the beginning of the film; where it opens up on rainy fall day in 1988 in the town of Derry, Maine. Bill Denborough (Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special and St. Vincent), a 12-year-old with a terrible stutter, has finished making a paper boat for his young brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). He chases it to a storm drain and meets Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a seemingly cheerful clown, in the sewer, who…well—you know what happens next.

Eight months later, school is out for the summer. Derry seems to be a little quieter after Georgie’s death. A lot more kids have either disappeared or pronounced dead. Bill decides to team up with his friends—asthmatic germaphobe Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), trashtalking Richie (Finn Wolfhard, Stranger Things), tomboy Beverly (Sophia Lillis), new-kid-on-the-block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), homeschooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and Jewish kid Stan (Wyatt Oleff)—to defeat It.

It is a lovely tribute to the 1980s culture. Focusing more on the kids than on the clown, their interactions are reminiscent to Stand by Me, another Stephen King adaptation. The adults are mostly absent, but whenever they appear, they are portrayed as either abusive or overbearing. The kids are grown up in a time where they are neglected by their parents, and need to escape from their troubles to stand up for one another. The audience fears what the children fear (which is what horror is all about).

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The kids are out to get It in Stephen King’s latest adaptation of It. (Source: Horror Freak News)

I can’t imagine a better cast. Finn Wolfhard’s Richie is a laugh riot; he tends to get out of every situation by wisecracking or doing voices. Sophia Lillis is the new Molly Ringwald (even one of the characters calls her that); her Beverly has the kind-hearted bravery like the boys. Although she is the outcast at school (her classmates call her a slut) and goes home to her abusive father (Stephen Bogaert), she feels more at home with the boys. If Tim Curry’s goofy yet eerie portrayal of Pennywise was to Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman, Bill Skarsgård’s is to Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Whenever he is on screen, he is terrifying; from the buck-toothed grin to the vintage clothes to his line deliveries (i.e. “You’ll float, too”).

What makes It shine is the imaginative sets, clever angles, Benjamin Wallfisch’s eerie score, and Muschietti’s direction and atmosphere. It’s hard not to get a tingle down one’s spine whenever the kids’ fears come to pure life, ranging from a Leper to a child walking with its head blown off. The scary stuff is a ton of fun to watch; even The House on Neibolt Street is the haunted house you wished you have ever been a part of. I can’t ask for anything more perfect. It is officially one of my favorite horror movies.

With the sequel coming out sooner than everyone hoped, it wouldn’t work without Bill Hader cast as Richie and Jessica Chastain as Beverly.

4/4

Movie Review: It (1990)

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The cast of It (1990) strike a pose. (Source: Warner Bros.)

In 1986, Stephen King has published his most ambitious book. It, a book about a group of kids teaming up to fight off a supernatural being that kills children, became the best-selling book of that year. This 1,000-page long epic has the full package: humor, heart, and straight-up horror. Adapting the book into a feature-length film isn’t a bad idea, unless it airs on television. Four years later, director Tommy Lee Wallace, screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen (Carrie), and a gifted cast collaborate on bringing Stephen King’s book to life on ABC as a two-part miniseries.

Does It work? No—but it doesn’t mean it’s a complete waste of time.

Instead of taking place in 1957 and 1985 (like in the book), the movie takes place in 1960 and 1990. A shape-shifting creature known as “It”, who preys on children taking form on what they fear the most. Primarily taking the form of Pennywise the Clown (Tim Curry), he terrorizes the town of Derry, Maine, every 30 years. Every day, kids either go missing or end up getting killed by Pennywise. Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid), the only African-American living in Maine, calls his childhood friends about It resurfacing from the Earth.

His friends are as follows:

– Bill Denborough (Richard Thomas, The Waltons), a successful writer with a stutter that gotten worse as a child after his young brother Georgie (Tony Dakota) got killed by Pennywise while trying to retrieve his paper boat down a storm drain.

– Ben Hanscom (John Ritter, Three’s Company), the new kid in town who went on to become an architect.

– Eddie Kaspbrak (Dennis Christopher), the one with asthma who runs a successful limousine business.

­– Richie Tozier (Harry Anderson, Night Court), the goofball with a talent of doing voices, who would eventually become a comedian.

­­­­– Beverly Marsh (Annette O’Toole, Smallville), the only female in the group, who grew up with an abusive father (Frank C. Turner), joins the group after running away from it all. She has a great eye when it comes to using a slingshot. Later on, she became a fashion designer.

– Stan Uris (Richard Masur), a Jewish kid who is the biggest smart-ass of the group. He later becomes a successful accountant.

While known as “The Losers”, they must reminisce about their childhoods until they reunite to get rid of It once and for all.

Adapting a marvelous novel into a made-for-TV movie would mean to take out every graphic detail and language from the novel. As a result, the movie plays it safe. The movie does have its moments. The first half is particularly strong, due to the chemistry between the child actors (it’s a shame Jonathan Brandis, who played young Bill, died too soon) and conjuring up some pretty decent scares. The second half, however, falters from being too soapy and too silly (not to mention the image of the dog dressed up as the clown). Tim Curry’s Pennywise is the main reason why the movie is worth watching. He maybe goofy and innocent-looking wearing bright colors, but his sinister side is what makes his performance shine. But—the sets and the effects do not hold up 27 years later (don’t get me started on that climax). I’m glad It is being remade into something much darker. Bring on, Friday night!

2/4

2017 Summer Movie Review: Wind River

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Cody Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is on the hunt in Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River. (Source: Slash Film)

Taylor Sheridan has crafted two of the best screenplays so far this decade with Sicario and Hell or High Water. He perfectly blends graphic violence with humanity set in a social and economic climate—for instance, the War on Drugs of Sicario and the economic crisis of Texas in Hell or High Water. Sheridan’s latest, Wind River, is his directorial debut and brings forth what made his two previous films so brilliant. This time, set in the most remote area of the United States. So remote even the officials do not have the statistics of how many Native American people have gone missing.

In Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cody Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is assigned to hunt for predators who kill livestock. One day, while out in the snowy wilderness, he stumbles upon the corpse of an eighteen-year-old Native American girl named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille). Along with FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), Lambert is assigned to investigate the presumed murder of the girl, whose father (Gil Birmingham) is stricken with grief about his loss.

Filmed in and around Park City, Utah (the home of Sundance Film Festival), this movie is as realistic as it is devastating. Sheridan puts it to miraculous use with his great screenplay and direction, hauntingly beautiful visuals, and violence so sudden it’s effective. The characters feel like real people.

Renner’s Lambert almost resembles the tropes of a classic Western hero. He’s a caring father who is dealing with a rough past. He knows every area of the snowy Wyoming Mountains (not to mention a keen eye when it comes to hunting game). The scenes he has with the girl’s father (superb performance by Birmingham) are some of the finest moments I’ve seen this year at the movies. Olsen’s Banner, in contrast, is a rookie coming from Las Vegas. She arrives on the scene without bringing any winter clothes. But—she ends up being in charge of the investigation with Lambert. These two stars are at the top of their game here.

Once the violence comes into the picture, it makes the audience jump out of their skin. With its slow burn, the movie leads up to one satisfying payoff. I’m hoping Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay will be a tie-in for an Oscar nomination. This is one of the year’s best films.

4/4