Movie Review: 1917

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It’s a race against time in Sam Mendes’ latest masterpiece 1917. (Source: Military.com)

There have been plenty of great movies set during World War I. The 1925 classic The Big Parade became one of the finest masterpieces of the silent era. However, it wasn’t until two years later, when Wings became the first film ever to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Over the years, famous filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick (Paths of Glory) and Steven Spielberg (War Horse) also brought their A-game to capture the horrors and outcomes of the Great War. The 2004 film Joyeux Noel captured an unbelievable story about the British and German troops making an agreement to stop fighting for one day to celebrate Christmas.

None of them compare the brutality and wonder of 1917, the latest collaboration of director Sam Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (their first since Skyfall). Using clever filmmaking and editing techniques, the movie makes it look and feel like one seamless, continuous shot through the trenches of France. Fresh from winning a Golden Globe for Best Picture and directing, dethroning Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in the box office last weekend, and receiving 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, this movie is worth all the hype.

The movie opens on April 6, 1917, the same day the U.S. would enter the war. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) enlists two young British soldiers–Lance Corporals Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay)–to deliver an urgent message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), of the Devonshire Regiment. Here’s the catch: He and his army are across enemy lines planning an attack on the Germans, who have taken refuge at the Hindenburg Line. The two race against time to avoid getting killed and possibly save 1,600 lives.

This isn’t the first movie to use the one-shot effect. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 thriller Rope and the 2014 Best Picture winner Birdman are both wonderful movies that have achieved the effect. Expect some edits, but Deakins is the perfect cinematographer to shoot a movie like this. It makes the audience feel like we are with these two soldiers through the duration of the mission. The camera follows in front of them, behind them, or beside them. It’s hard to imagine how difficult it must be for the crew to determine which direction the actors have to go. With brilliant editing, there are a lot of shots that will send chills down your spine.

At the film’s core, it’s a story about survival and compassion during the toughest of times. Mendes, who dedicated the film to his late father (who actually fought in World War I), does an outstanding job keeping the stakes and suspense higher than a bald eagle soaring through the sky with his direction and writing. The marvelous cast including British favorites Cumberbatch, Firth, Mark Strong, Richard Madden are given smaller roles than the two unknown actors who have long careers ahead of them. As the two young soldiers, Chapman and MacKay beautifully capture the courage and sympathy on this dangerous mission. The astounding sets and Thomas Newman’s excellent score are also enough to make 1917 a WWI epic for the ages. Sorry, Joker, but this is certainly the film to beat in this year’s Oscars.

10/10

Top 100 Best Movies of the 2010s: 50-41

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(Source: The Hollywood Reporter)

50. Ford v. Ferrari (2019) – There are several movies over the past ten years that were worth seeing on the big screen. Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, James Mangold’s return to biopic-territory drives by (no pun intended) like a breeze. I have never heard of the story behind the 1966 24-hour race at Le Mans until walking into the theater. This is an exhilarating and downright hilarious movie with superb performances by Matt Damon and Christian Bale (rare to see him perform with his native British accent nowadays). Also, big thumbs up for actually filming the climactic race in Le Mans.

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(Source: The New York Times)

49. Lincoln (2012) – From Young Mr. Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Abraham Lincoln has been portrayed and parodied hundreds of times since the beginning of the 20th century. However, no other movie would have this much power that Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner bring here. Even as a child, I imagined Lincoln to have a high-pitched voice (without even knowing, years later, that he actually did). Daniel Day-Lewis perfectly embodies the 16th president of the United States, with his tall stature, killer sense of humor, and his love for public speaking. Leading a stellar cast including Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tim Blake Nelson, and David Strathairn, this is a patient and timely portrait of a legendary man’s final months in office.

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(Source: NPR)

48. 12 Years a Slave (2013) – Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film is far from easy viewing. At the same time, it’s an uplifting odyssey of Solomon Northup (a superb Chiwetel Ejiofor), an African-American violinist from upstate New York encountering the horrors and unexpected sympathies as a slave on his road to freedom. An all-star cast with the likes of Michael Fassbender as a vicious slave owner, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, and Benedict Cumberbatch all carry through in a movie so disheartening and beautiful.

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(Source: The Collegian)

47. Selma (2014) – For her portrait on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quest for civil rights in Alabama, director Ava DuVernay takes David Webb’s screenplay to make the most powerful film on the subject. David Oyelowo’s portrayal of King is a gentle soul, who is a caring husband and an ambitious leader in the Civil Rights Movement. With a gifted supporting cast including Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King and Tom Wilkinson as LBJ, a lot of research was done to get the history 100% accurate. It all worked out beautifully. Selma is required viewing for American history classes.

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(Source: ComingSoon.net)

46. Midnight in Paris (2011) – Woody Allen has made some of the greatest films since the 1970s–Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Blue Jasmine. Coming from somebody who loved all those movies, Midnight in Paris is probably his magnum opus. It’s a downright charming, witty story about an American screenwriter named Gil (Owen Wilson, who has never been better), who moves to Paris with fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams). One night, while resting after a late-night stroll through the city, he mysteriously goes back to the 1920s, and encounters several historical figures including F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll). This movie contains themes that are familiar with his other movies involving characters in love affairs and Gil’s love for this magical era is infectious. There is a line from Hemingway that is not only, but also rings true about writing: “If it’s bad, I’ll hate it because I hate bad writing, and if it’s good, I’ll be envious and hate all the more.”

"Manchester by the Sea" Casey Affleck, from Roadside Attractions press site

(Source: Boston Herald)

45. Manchester by the Sea (2016) – Kenneth Lonergan’s drama set in New England is about as hard-hitting as it is engaging. Casey Affleck received a well-deserved Oscar for his performance as Lee, a janitor from Quincy returning to his home in Manchester-by-the-Sea setting up funeral arrangements for his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) while looking after his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Through a series of flashbacks, we quickly begin to learn how and why Lee has left his home after all these years. Talking too much about it will ruin the whole movie. 

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(Source: Chicago Tribune)

44. Skyfall (2012) – Daniel Craig is arguably the best James Bond since Sean Connery. He gains enough charm of Connery, as well as having the violent side of Timothy Dalton. Casino Royale served as my proper introduction to the ongoing franchise with its incredible stunts and the most intense game of poker ever witnessed on film. After the disappointing Quantum of Solace, Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins both take the franchise to another level with Skyfall. From beginning to end, this is a gripping, stunning ride of getting rid of someone from M’s (Judi Dench) past. As Rauol Silva, Javier Bardem gives enough complexity to his delightfully over-the-top performance. Skyfall is up there with Casino Royale, Goldfinger, and GoldenEye as one of the best in the series. Bring on, No Time to Die!

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(Source: IMDb)

43. John Wick (2014)/John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)/John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019) – This exhilarating trilogy showcases how awesome Keanu Reeves truly is. It tackles the familiar concept of “bringing back the past” in a unique way. Chad Stahelski (who worked as Reeves’ stuntman in The Matrix) is behind the director’s chair to give some of the most amazing action in recent years. Sprinkled with dark, deadpan humor and suave energy from its talented cast with the likes of Ian McShane, the late Michael Nyqvist, Laurence Fishburne, Willem Dafoe, Halle Berry, and John Leguizamo. The first had a simple revenge plot, while the sequels up the ante. I mean, how can you not get excited seeing our action hero riding on a horse through the streets of NYC?

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(Source: The Wrap)

42. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)/Captain America: Civil War (2016) – After his introduction in the flawed yet entertaining origin story from 2011, “The First Avenger” returns to get caught up on American society in The Winter Soldier. This is where directors Anthony and Joe Russo introduce a more political vibe in the MCU. Although it contains plenty of humor, it surprised me on how dark it becomes. Robert Redford couldn’t be any better in a villainous role. 

Its follow-up–Civil War–ups the ante in a showdown of terrific proportions. It features characters we know as well as some new ones and some of the best action set pieces in the franchise. The titular battle showcases the most thrills and laughs the franchise has to offer. Thank goodness Chris Evans decided to play the most badass Avenger after the disastrous Fantastic Four films. Oh–and take out the tissues. You might need them.

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(Source: Vox)

41. The Shape of Water (2017) – There is a familiar theme in the films of Guillermo del Toro: the real monsters are more human than one might expect. His Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water, is a fantasy, romance, Cold War thriller, and a delightful tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood all wrapped into one. Sally Hawkins leads a talented cast as Elisa, a mute janitor at a government facility, who gains a connection with a sea creature known as the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones), which is obviously inspired by The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s Oscar-winning score are enough to carry the beauty and madness of this movie.

 

100-91 90-81 | 80-71 | 70-61 | 60-51 | 50-41 | 40-31 | 30-21 | 20-11 | 10-1

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