Movie Review: The Lighthouse

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Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Wake (Willem Dafoe) get on each other’s nerves in Robert Eggers’ sophomore feature The Lighthouse. (Source: Slate)

Robert Eggers is becoming one of the most versatile filmmakers in the horror genre. His debut, The Witch, premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival (with a nationwide release the following year) with critical acclaim. Its subtle nature didn’t win everyone over, the Old English dialogue, the creepy atmosphere and music, and its portrayal of a family’s grief during the time before the Salem Witch Trials was wonderfully brought on by Eggers’ writing and directing (not to mention being a breakthrough role for Anya Taylor-Joy). This time, the New Hampshire native shifts the time forward for his second feature, The Lighthouse

Set in Maine in the late 1800s, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives on a tiny island to serve as a “wickie” (or, lighthouse keeper) with the veteran Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Hoping for a fresh start, Winslow spends an entire month trying to get used to Wake barking orders at him. As a storm approaches, they begin to get on each other’s nerves.

Eggers did a lot of research for this movie–from the location to the period accuracy. The dialogue (in which the characters sound like pirates) is influenced by the works of Sarah Orne Jewett. From visiting and studying the lighthouses, the production designers had to build a 70-foot lighthouse. Although filmed in Nova Scotia, he and co-writer (and brother) Max Eggers both capture the beauty and spirit of Maine to a T.

Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, The Lighthouse is a darkly comedic, trippy, and batshit crazy film relying on psychological terror, and a slight improvement over The Witch. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography (shot on 35mm film with a 1:19.1 aspect ratio) and Mark Korven’s score are enough to give the film a sense of claustrophobia. Dafoe and Pattinson are so good working of each other as two men who hold secrets that will shock audiences and would require repeated viewings. Once the storm hits, they both descent into madness. The terrifying imagery is enough to keep you up at night. An instant horror classic!

10/10

Movie Review: Zombieland: Double Tap

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Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), Wichita (Emma Stone), Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) are back to kill more zombies in the sequel to 2009’s surprise hit Zombieland. (Source: Salon)

2009’s sleeper hit Zombieland was one gory, hilarious road trip. It was a clever spin on the now borderline tiresome zombie subgenre featuring one of the funniest cameos by one of the funniest actors. There is great chemistry between the main cast who have perfect comedic timing. After years of being in production hell, Ruben Fleischer returns as director after several misfires (including the uneven Gangster Squad and the dismal Venom), as well as the four leads–Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin–to give us familiar gags and nostalgia as well as some fresh ideas in the long-awaited sequel Zombieland: Double Tap. In most cases, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.

After the events of its predecessor, America is still overrun by zombies. Columbus (Eisenberg) has never been happier in his life; living in an abandoned White House with the three other survivors–the gunslinging, Twinkie-loving Tallahassee (Harrelson), the sarcastic Wichita (Stone), and the rebellious Little Rock (Breslin)–who came together as a family near the end of the first film. Columbus decides to take his relationship with Wichita to the next level. When she learns about Little Rock going on the road with hippie Berkeley (Avan Jogia), she joins with Columbus and Tallahassee, which means they encounter more zombies and other survivors including a dumb blonde named Madison (Zoey Deutch).

Before any of you get worried, this sequel is a nonstop blast. It recycles the same gags and it’s not ashamed of poking fun at its predecessor. There is more rule-making and rule-breaking, more gore, more special effects, and more zombies with personalities (ranging from dumb to semi-intelligent). The action set pieces are just as fun as ever (of course, the movie would play a Metallica song during the opening credits). Although it isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious as its predecessor, it has plenty of laughs to have audiences in stitches.

It’s great to see the four leads mature over the years. Eisenberg’s Columbus is still the offbeat, fast-talking geek adding more rules to survive the zombie apocalypse. Along with Harrelson’s Tallahassee (who makes this movie as worthwhile as before), they go back on the road again. The movie also has memorable additions to the cast including Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch as two guys who are similar to Tallahassee and Columbus. Deutch is a hoot-and-a-half as Madison, whose stupid decision-making might get her and others into trouble. Rosario Dawson is straight-up awesome as Nevada, the owner of an Elvis Presley-themed motel near Graceland, who bonds with Tallahassee over the late singer. Tallahassee’s anecdote about him singing and dancing to “Hound Dog” like Elvis on top of a cafeteria table will have you smiling.

Zombieland: Double Tap is a sequel that didn’t need to happen, but it’s great to see the actors back in action. Make sure you stick around during the end credits. Trust me, you will not regret it.

8/10

Movie Review: Joker

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Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) flips the tables on society in Todd Phillips’ dark re-telling of the Joker. (Source: Observer)

Just like Batman, the Joker has been portrayed by numerous actors who give different portrayals to each of them. Most famous ones include Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and Heath Ledger (in which he, posthumously, won an Oscar for The Dark Knight). The only terrible portrayal is, indeed, Jared Leto in Suicide Squad, who plays more as a gangster than the Clown Prince of Crime. Now–it Joaquin Phoenix’s turn in director Todd Phillips’ (Old School, The Hangover) dark, gritty take on the villain’s origins focusing more on the protagonist’s psyche.

Set in the early 1980s, Gotham City is stricken with crime and unemployment. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) has a neurological disorder that makes him laugh at inappropriate times. He works as a clown entertainer, and lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) in a small, run-down apartment. Every night, they both stay up to watch a late-night show with host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur pursues his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. One night, he invites his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a single mother, to a show. Then, things start to enter a downward spiral until he puts on white face paint and dyes his hair green to become the infamous Joker.

I appreciate how Phillips, co-writer Scott Silver, and cinematographer Lawrence Sher give Gotham City an unsubtle yet vintage feel (there is no CGI at all; thumbs up for practicality). The director has used influences from the films of Martin Scorsese before. Joker is no exception. Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are two of the film’s biggest influences. It involves our anti-hero making his target with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullon), the city’s richest person who is running for mayor. At the same time, Arthur proves he can be part of a society that seems to be his biggest enemy. “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a f—ing comedy,” he says in a pivotal moment.

Not surprisingly, Phoenix throws Leto’s version out of the water. He gets everything right on the money–his physicality (he lost a whopping 52 pounds for the role), his evil laughter, and not ashamed to show his violent side or dance the night away. When the Joker makes his dream a reality, he gives a monologue that will knock your socks off. However, his performance is not as amazing as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line or Theodore Twombly in Her. He leads a rock-solid supporting cast including De Niro, who has never been this good in a long time as the late-night talk-show host who seems to be laughing at our protagonist.

The movie, however, is far from perfect. It’s easy to see why it has become one of the year’s most controversial movies. It’s unpleasant in every sense of the word. The violent, gritty nature might be not for everyone to stomach. And finally, its social commentary on the social structure could have been explored more. Joker didn’t bore me for a second. The origins are compelling enough, and Phoenix’s performance is enough to recommend the movie. I might not see it again anytime soon, but I’m somewhat glad this movie exists. Oh–and I like the use of Frank Sinatra here.

7/10

Movie Review: Ad Astra

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Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) looks for answers about his father in James Gray’s marvelous space opera Ad Astra. (Source: Cnet)

Brad Pitt has had a great decade. He got nominated for an Oscar for Moneyball, produced such amazing films as 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight, and made audiences cheer in World War Z, Fury, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Now–he stars in probably the most complex and understated performance of his entire career in Ad Astra. Directed by James Gray (We Own the Night, The Immigrant), he takes inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now (which he used a lot of in his previous film The Lost City of Z). I have never seen a more realistic portrayal of space. “Ad Astra” is Latin for “To the Stars”. I couldn’t think of a much better title.

For thirty years, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) has been presumed dead on Neptune while going on a mission to search for intelligent life. His gifted son, Major Roy McBride (Pitt), learns that he might be alive. Learning about power surges in the Solar System, threatening humanity, he accepts to embark on a daring mission with Col. Pruitt (Donald Sutherland) to find him and bring him back to Earth. Fearless, he leaves his ex-wife Eve (Liv Tyler) to find connection.

Already stealing the show in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pitt leads a diverse cast while giving one of the best performances of his career. Although it’s never implied, it’s clear Roy is on the Autism spectrum. His biggest strengths are his courage and intelligence, but pay close attention to his body language and self-control. Even through his narrations, he is always thinking. Veterans Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland have minor roles, but both have their shining moments.

A movie like this, containing the theme involving the desire to reconnect with family, would have been as corny as Christopher Nolan’s pretentious space adventure Interstellar. What Gray does here is anything but. He hits the tone just right. It’s devastating. It’s suspenseful. It’s cerebral. And it’s visual dazzling–from the massive sets to the visuals. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography and Max Richter’s neoclassical score makes audiences feel there are in space with Roy. Ad Astra needs to be seen on the big screen. This joins Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, and Gravity as one of the absolute best films in the science-fiction genre.

10/10

Movie Review: Downton Abbey

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The Crawleys are back in the film version of Downton Abbey. (Source: Vanity Fair)

During its six-season run, Downton Abbey has become a worldwide phenomenon. It generated an average of 120 million viewers from around the world (not to mention being the most viewed show on PBS in the United States). A lot of its filming locations including Highclere Castle has been some of the most popular tourist attractions in the world. Creator Julian Fellowes allows audiences to learn about the customs and the lives of a family living upstairs and their kitchen staff living downstairs in a gorgeous mansion in the British countryside. The show was set over the course of about 13 years, starting in 1912, following the sinking of the Titanic, and ending on New Year’s Day in 1926. It was all brought together wonderfully with its quick wit, gorgeous scenery, and wonderful cast of characters.

Three years after the finale, Fellowes writes a screenplay for a film with Michael Engler (who directed several episodes) comes back in the director’s chair for perhaps one more visit to the countryside. They both give fans (like myself) what they deserve after the series ended. These two filmmakers do what they know best. Earning $31 million over the weekend, this is the first film from Focus Features to be #1 at the U.S. box office.

Set in 1927, Lord Robert Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and their two daughters–Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Edith (Laura Carmichael) all learn that King George V (Simon Jones), Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are visiting Downton Abbey as a part of their tour through Britain. When butler Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) is not up for the task, Mary decides to bring Mr. Carson (Jim Carson) out of retirement to take his place. Violet, the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith), learns her cousin Maud (Imelda Staunton) is also visiting, she is ready to spew out her remarks at any given second. As soon as chefs and servants from Buckingham Palace make their entrance, this causes tensions with the staff including head chef Mrs. Patmoor (Lesley Nicol) and Daisy (Sophie McShera). 

Making a Downton Abbey film might be an excuse for fan-service, but this revival is nothing short of delightful! Although it doesn’t move at the fastest pace, it’s excellent to witness the marvelous sets, interiors and costumes, John Lunn’s familiar music, and more importantly, the characters we know and love. The familiar themes of the socioeconomic factors are as present as they ever were. I also like one fascinating subplot involving two gay characters going to pubs and expressing their feelings towards one another in a time where homosexuality was deemed illegal. The dynamic between the people upstairs and downstairs is captivating. I love the connection between Mary and housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), even when they discuss the future of the mansion. “Downton is the heart of this community, and you’re keeping it beating,” Anna tells her.

The cast simply couldn’t be any better. It brings back familiars as well as newcomers. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is the sassy grandmother everyone wished they had. She just loves getting under Isobel’s (Penelope Wilton) skin every chance she gets; providing a lot of laughs from the audience. Even when Violet learns Maud is holding a grudge against the family, she tries to understand where she’s coming. Deep down, however, she still loves and supports the family. 

Of course, it won’t be a Downton Abbey movie without a ball. Without giving anything away, this is the sequence that really hits home. Who knows? Maybe it gives the sense that the series is far from over. But–let’s wait and see. This movie is a treat for fans. As for non-fans, it would make perfect sense to get right on the bandwagon before seeing the movie.

9/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: It: Chapter Two

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Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) returns to haunt Derry once again in It: Chapter Two. (Source: Slant Magazine)

Stephen King’s magnum opus was long overdue for an adaptation reboot. 2017’s It : Chapter One was everything I wanted and more. An R-rated horror film with a great sense of humor, thrills, and featuring a poignant and somewhat crude portrayal of adolescence and facing childhood fears. It worked due to Andy’s Muschietti’s confident direction, atmosphere, the terrific performances by a talented group of child actors, and Bill Skarsgård’s terrifying presence of the evil shape-shifting Pennywise the Clown. 

It: Chapter Two is a longer sequel–clocking in at almost three hours long–containing A LOT of flashbacks and reuniting for the characters. The child actors and the same crew return while a cast of adults portray their child counterparts. Although slightly messy and not as terrifying as before, it’s still thrilling enough to keep the film going.

After defeating Pennywise the Clown (Skarsgård), Bill Denborough (Jaeden Martell) and his six friends (all of whom formed the Losers’ Club) all make a blood oath promising they will return to Derry, Maine, if It is not entirely dead. 27 years later, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Michaud), the African-American of the group, remains as the town librarian. He has heard about a recent killing of a gay kid named Adrian Mellon (Xavier Dolan)–as seen in a gruesome sequence early on in the film. He decides to call his childhood friends, who have each gone their separate ways.

  • Bill (James McAvoy) is a successful mystery author and screenwriter, who is infamous for writing terrible endings.
  • Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard, as a child; Bill Hader) has been hitting the stages with his stand-up comedy.
  • Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis; Jessica Chastain, who worked with Muschietti in his feature film debut, Mama) is a fashion designer still enduring abuse from her husband Tom Rogan (Will Beinbrink)
  • Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer; James Ransone), the hypochondriac, is a successful risk analyst in New York with an overbearing wife Myra (Molly Atkinson, who played Eddie’s overbearing mother in the first film)
  • Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor; Jay Ryan), once overweight, is now a hunky architect in Nebraska.
  • Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff; Andy Bean), the Jewish kid, who is now living in Atlanta as an accountant for a law firm.

All but one reunite with Mike at a Chinese restaurant (where they eventually get attacked by their fortune cookies). Once the Losers are all back in town, they begin to ponder their past as well as confronting their worst fears yet again. They all learn about a ritual that would put an end to Pennywise once and for all.

The movie takes awhile to get going. There is a lot of catching up on these colorful characters and scenes that feel gratuitous. Not to mention, the length is 30 minutes too long. Once it gets going, the craziness hardly lets up. The reason why the first film was great is because it realistically captures how a child witnesses their own horrors in the most shocking of ways and bravely facing the fears. Although it’s not as terrifying as its predecessor, there are still a fair share of creepy images. Muschietti succeeds yet again with his clever use of camera angles and fun set pieces (i.e. I love the sequence in the carnival funhouse). As thrilling as the climactic battle can be, it does run out of steam. This movie contains the most blood used in any movie. 

The adult cast has terrific chemistry; each of them having their standout moments. Starring in his first horror film, Hader steals every scene he is in–generating some good laughs and sympathy from the audience–and having an arc that is fascinating. Skarsgård doesn’t earn much screen time this time around, but he still kills it as Pennywise; showing more of It’s forms and briefly of his creepy origins, kudos to Gary Dauberman’s screenplay not turning into a soapy melodrama like the 1990 original turned out to be.

It: Chapter Two blows the original miniseries out of the water. It might not win everyone over, but there is plenty of nightmare-inducing scares to offer. I am glad these movies have come out at a perfect time. They will always be a Halloween tradition for years to come. Don’t forget to watch out for a cameo in this movie that needs to be seen to believe.

8.5/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: The Peanut Butter Falcon

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Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) and Zak (Zack Gottsagen) become best friends in the Deep South in The Peanut Butter Falcon. (Source: IndieWire)

The Peanut Butter Falcon became a sleeper hit at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival (which won the Spotlight Audience Award) showcases the talents of two forthcoming filmmakers and an actor with Down syndrome. Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz met Zack Gottsagen at an acting camp for adults with disabilities in Venice, California. Gottsagen, who has been acting since he was a kid, impressed the two with his skills. As a result, the two homeless filmmakers promised to pen a screenplay for him. They got no other actor than Josh Brolin to help them start the project. Eventually, the two would get a great cast to star in this feel-good dramedy reminiscent to Mud.

Zak (Gottsagen) has been living in a nursing home in North Carolina for two years, under the care of Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). He dreams of becoming a professional wrestler like his idol The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church, the role Brolin was originally set to play before declining to play Cable in Deadpool 2), whom he obsessively watches a video tape of every day. After several failed attempts, he gets a little help from his friend Carl (Bruce Dern) to successfully escape the facility in the middle of the night.

Along the way, Zak meets Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), an outlaw spending most of his time fishing in the marshes and stealing crabs from traps. The two eventually become good friends. Once Eleanor catches up to them, she must make a moral choice of taking Zak back or let him pursue his dreams.

There have been plenty of movies in recent years with great messages about following one’s dreams. However, there have been few movies that with so much authenticity. The Peanut Butter Falcon is a prime example of that and more. LaBeouf and Johnson have never been better. The audience learns about where they came from. Without giving anything away, their backstories bring enough emotional layers. LaBeouf’s Tyler is reluctant of tagging along with Zak, but becomes more respectful and understanding as the movie progresses. In one scene, Tyler explains to Eleanor about Zak’s freedom, and he could never be looked down as being a disabled person. The movie would never be complete without Gottsagen’s childlike innocence, charisma, and wit. Church is certainly having a blast here. 

With gorgeous cinematography by Nigel Buck, terrific performances, and a wonderful message, I guarantee this Mark Twain-inspired film will have everyone smiling long after the credits roll. A future cult classic, for sure!

10/10