Movie Review: Green Book

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Tony Vallelogna (Viggo Mortensen) takes Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) through the Deep South in Peter Farrelly’s exceptional Green Book. (Source: Vanity Fair)

A movie like Green Book sounds like another version of Driving Miss Daisy. This time, the roles are flipped; where the white person is driving the black person. Two people from completely different backgrounds. They learn about their prejudices and eventually becoming best friends. Peter Farrelly, known for directing such funny comedies with his brother Bobby as Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and The Three Stooges, offers so much more than that in his first solo feat that couldn’t have come out at a much better time.

The year is 1962. The Civil Rights Movement is in full swing. Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black pianist, is about to go on a two-month tour through the Deep South. Tony Vallelogna a.k.a Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a white bouncer from New York City with a lovely wife in Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and two kids, is in need of a job while the Copacabana bar is temporarily closed for reconstructions. He reluctantly accepts to be Don’s chauffeur throughout the tour after receiving The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide for black tourists containing segregated places throughout the South.

Despite their snobbish attitudes, they eventually begin to learn about the reality of the South and hard imagining not having each other’s back.

As Don and Tony, Ali and Mortensen (who gained 45 pounds for the movie) are pitch-perfect playing off each other. Don is a Cuban immigrant, polite and well-educated, while Tony is Italian-American, ignorant and thinks violence would get away with anything. Tony begins to follow Don’s rules and talk to about where they come from, and in need of Don’s help to write more expressively in his letters to Dolores. On their first night in Pittsburgh, Tony is impressed by Don’s piano abilities, he goes far as saying he “plays like Liberace but better.”

There are a handful of laugh-out-loud moments. Throughout the trip, Tony introduces Don to the popular music that consists of black artists including Little Richard and Aretha Franklin. However, Don has no idea who they are. Later, Tony offers Don a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken, in which Don reluctantly accepts. It comes to show that because his race enjoys those foods, doesn’t mean he has to. There are small moments that make the movie shine. I don’t see why these two great actors won’t earn Oscar nominations.

To quote Christy Lemire, “Green Book is the kind of old-fashioned filmmaking big studios just don’t offer anymore. It’s glossy and zippy, gliding along the surface of deeply emotional, complex issues while dipping down into them just enough to give us a taste of some actual substance.”

I couldn’t say it better myself. This is a buddy road trip film and a history lesson that works on both of those levels, kudos to Farrelly (who served as a co-writer) for bringing the 1960s to life through his confident direction. There’s a great message about no matter what color your skin is, the only way to view them is as one. This perfect film for the Christmas season is another contender for one of the best films of the year.

4/4

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Movie Review: Roma

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A middle-class family living in Mexico City during political turmoil in Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece Roma. (Source: Variety)

Alfonso Cuarón is one of the most gifted filmmakers in the world. He is known for directing family feats, such as the 1995 fairy tale The Little Princess and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, arguably the best in the franchise. He also did blockbusters aimed for the older audience, such as the 2006 dystopian film Children of Men and the 2013 space thriller Gravity, in which he won an Oscar for directing. His latest, Roma, is the first Spanish-speaking film since 2001’s Y Tu Mamá También. This is the first time where he served as his own DP when Emmanuel Lubezki, his frequent collaborator, was unavailable.

There is no other movie released this year that affected me more–on an emotional level–than what Cuarón brings to life, through his marvelous screenplay and camerawork.

Set in the early 1970s, this Netflix original centers around a middle-class family living in Mexico City. The primary focus is Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid who works for Sofia (Marina de Tavira), a mother of four whose physician husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) is in Canada on business. The audience sees her do her chores while watching the children–from cleaning dishes to cleaning the courtyard after their dog does his business.

Cleo is optimistic about her future, despite the harsh reality she lives in. With a selfish boyfriend in Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), who is a martial-arts aficionado, she is in for one helluva young-adult life.

Giving away too much of the plot would ruin the surprise for everyone. And rightfully so. Everything about Roma works. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, Cuarón knows what he wants to shoot and direct. With its long tracking shots, the grays really pop out that it looks like an Ansel Adams photograph in motion (e.g. the forest fire during a family’s Hacienda). The attention to detail is so vivid, it would make Roger Deakins blush. Cuarón recreates the Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971, where a group of student protestors are killed by the police. People in a furniture store watch outside as the riots occur. It’s an unflinching yet beautifully-choreographed sequence that sends chills down my spine (even as I’m typing this review).

In order to make the movie feel as authentic as possible, Cuarón decided to cast non-professional actors. Aparicio is such a natural presence as Cleo. Even though she might have fallen for the wrong person, it’s hard to resist her free spirit. In one scene, early on, Fermín shows her his impressive martial arts skills by being completely nude while using a shower pole. He talks about how his obsession helped him escape his rough childhood. “Everything came into…focus,” he says. “Just like when you look at me.” I’ll never forget her facial expression and the eventual acts of bravery she endures. I sense Aparicio will have a good future in acting.

A lot of people will probably end up watching Roma on television, which I understand. My suggestion is to watch it with surround sound. It might not be the same as seeing it in theaters, but it’s close enough. If you prefer seeing it in theaters, that’s great! Even director Edgar Wright demands everyone to see it on the biggest screen possible to get the full experience. No matter where you see it, Roma is an unforgettable film about class and the importance of family. Easily the best film of the year! No other movie will come close!

4/4

Movie Review: Widows

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Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) decides to finish what her husband (Liam Neeson) started in Steve McQueen’s heist-drama Widows. (Source: IndieWire)

British director Steve McQueen received fame with 2008’s Hunger, about the 1981 hunger strike in a Northern Ireland prison, and the 2011 erotic thriller Shame, which earned a rare NC-17 rating. He would eventually go back in time for the Oscar-winning 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, following Solomon Northup’s fight for freedom in the South during the 1800s. His latest film, Widows, is his first time heading into the mainstream. Co-written by Gillian Flynn (author of Gone Girl), this is a film of female empowerment and betrayal in contemporary America. It’s a revenge thriller, political and human drama wrapped into one exhilarating picture.

Set, like in every great movie, in modern-day Chicago, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) leads a group of criminals to pull off a heist that goes tragically wrong when their van explodes in a safe house. Four widows–Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Amanda (Carrie Coon)–are all affected by the accident.

One day, crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s running as the alderman for the 18th ward on South Side against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) whose father (Robert Duvall) was once an alderman, enters Veronica’s apartment to tell her about her husband’s next heist that was worth $5 million. He wants her to get part of the money for him to use in his political campaign. With Amanda not present, Veronica stops at nothing when she assigns Alice and Linda to pull off the heist.

I have never seen a movie this year that contained plenty of thrills, authenticity, and sheer poignancy all at the same time. Kudos to the excellent screenplay by Flynn and McQueen (easily one of the year’s best) and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, there is not a single wasted moment. Davis leads a terrific cast and gives another miraculous performance as Veronica, a member of the Teachers Union who decides to finish what her husband started. The movie opens up how the four families live their lives prior to the heist–either as an owner of a dress store, a stay-at-home mother with a four-month-old child, or a wife with an abusive mother (Jacki Weaver). Everyone–particularly Duvall, Farrell, Neeson, Debicki (also terrific), Daniel Kaluuya, and Rodriguez–has their big moment.

The audience learns where these three-dimensional characters are coming from as the film progresses. Every bit is just as gripping as it is truly devastating. With Chicago as the backdrop, the movie brilliantly explores the prejudices and the corruption taking place in one of the biggest cities in the world. Containing enough twists and turns, Widows is one of the most unforgettable heist films to come out this century.

4/4

Movie Review: Boy Erased

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Jared (Lucas Hedges) is attracted to boys in Joel Edgerton’s sophomore directorial feat, Boy Erased. (Source: Variety)

In 2015, Joel Edgerton made his directorial debut with The Gift. A movie, that sounded like a generic thriller, defied all expectations. It was an unnerving Hitchockian psychological thriller about a young couple’s world turning upside down when someone from the husband’s past comes into their life. Not only did Edgerton deliver a harrowing performance as the creepy stalker, but it also showcases a good future in filmmaking for the Aussie star. Now–he returns to the director’s chair for Boy Erased, a film that has a chance to generate award buzz.

Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name, the movie is set in Arkansas in the early 2000s. Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the only child of Marshall (Russell Crowe) and Nancy (Nicole Kidman). He’s living a happy life. He goes to church every Sunday, works at his father’s car dealership, and dates one of the prettiest girls in his school.

One day, Jared tells his parents he is attracted to boys. Due to their dismay, they force him to attend Refuge (formerly Love in Action), a gay conversion therapy program run by chief therapist Victor Sykes (Edgerton). While Jared befriends some of the attendees, including Gary (Troye Sivan, the Aussie pop star who also contributes the film with his original song “Revelation”), he learns about the program’s secrets while on his journey to faith and redemption.

Boy Erased is one of those movies where it might go into soap-opera territory. What Edgerton does–thanks to his sublime direction and screenplay–is something raw, beguiling, and poignant. Like Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name, and the more recent Love, Simon, the movie never exploits its message about self-discovery. The audience is with Jared every step of the way begging for his parents to accept him for what he truly is. Although conversion therapy seems to be a great opportunity for him, at first, it doesn’t turn out what it seems. “The truth cannot be converted,” helms the tagline.

Fresh from starring in two award-winning films Manchester by the Sea and Lady Bird, Hedges gives his most mature performance. The audience sympathizes with him and his struggle of coming out, which is shown in subtle yet harrowing flashbacks where he hangs out with some boys while attending college. The supporting cast–mainly Crowe, Kidman, Edgerton, and Flea (of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame)–has their “big moment”, but Hedges is the one who makes this thoughtful and devastatingly powerful film shine bright. One of the year’s best!

4/4

Movie Review: The Old Man and the Gun

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Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) aims for his target in David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun. (Source: Cinema Blend)

In 2003, best-selling author David Grann wrote an article in the New Yorker about Forrest Tucker, the most charming criminal who ever lived. He writes about how Tucker was a troublemaker all of his life; serving time in jail constantly. His first crime was stealing a car at the age of 15. He successfully escaped from prison more than a dozen times. What brought the attention to the public was his most famous escape from San Quentin in 1979. Heading into the 1980s, Tucker goes back to rob banks with sheer politeness.

Fast-forward to 2018. Writer-director David Lowery adapts the stranger-than-fiction story with the legendary Robert Redford as the titular “old man”. If The Old Man and the Gun is his last role before retirement, he’s going out with a bang!

The movie opens up in 1981, where Forrest Tucker (Redford) escapes from the authorities after robbing a bank. He sees a woman named Jewel (Sissy Spacek) with her truck broken down on the side of the road. As he gives her a hand, we see the police cruisers speeding past them. This is not the only time he gets away with it.

After pulling off a series of heists with his partners–Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits)–throughout Texas, as well as Little Rock, St. Louis among other cities, the bank tellers, the authorities, and the general public are pleasantly surprised by Tucker’s manners. This sparks the attention from Detective John Hunt (a superb Casey Affleck), who is on his tail. As Tucker and Jewel develop a relationship, it won’t be long until Tucker is caught.

From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to The Sting to All the President’s Men to The Natural to All is Lost, Redford has had a memorable acting career. His performance as Forrest Tucker marks another remarkable performance in his long repertoire (he might earn his first Best Actor Oscar). It’s damn near impossible not to smile at our protagonist when he gets away with pulling off his bank heists or when he says “riding a horse” is on his bucket list. Tucker is so optimistic in his hobby, but he is aware it might lead him into jail and planning on his escape. His sense of humor is as sly as a fox. His chance encounter with Detective Hunt is simply priceless.

Spacek–who also had a long, memorable acting career, and is still going–provides as much charm as Redford’s as Jewel, the love interest who might not believe in what Tucker does for a living. Elisabeth Moss makes a brief yet effective appearance as Tucker’s daughter, Dorothy, who is interviewed by Hunt about her father, whom she has never met.

There will never be a movie like The Old Man and the Gun. Compared to Lowery’s two previous indie films, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story, the movie might not move at the fastest pace. However, it’s never boring. Thanks to Lowery’s confident direction and witty screenplay, it takes its time wisely to move along to root for our protagonist. Joe Anderson’s stunning cinematography and the wonderful music–from Daniel Hart’s score to the songs by The Kinks and Jackson C. Frank–give the movie that warm, vintage feel while throwing in some subtle nods to Redford’s early work. This is something that will stick with you for the rest of your life!

4/4

Movie Review: First Man

Film Title: First Man

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) takes one step closer to enter the Apollo program in Damien Chazelle’s biopic First Man. (Source: Time Magazine)

In 1961, JFK announced before Congress a goal. A goal to send American astronauts to the moon before the end of the decade. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union sent satellites into orbit before everyone else, not to mention Sputnik becoming the first ever satellite going around the Earth. They sent their first man to the moon that same year. Years after numerous failed missions, Neil Armstrong stepped into make history in 1969 with Apollo 11.

Almost 50 years after the historic landing on the moon, it’s brought to the big screen. Director Damien Chazelle has directed two of the best films so far this decade with Whiplash and La La Land. He showcases his talents as a filmmaker with both films about the protagonist’s anxieties of going to new heights. His latest film, First Man, with a screenplay written by Josh Singer (the Oscar-winning Spotlight), continues this streak.

Based on James R. Hansen’s biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, the movie opens in 1961, with the NASA test pilot (Ryan Gosling) flying an X-15 into space. We get a beautiful, quiet moment in space, with Justin Hurwitz’s amazing score playing the background, until Armstrong heads back into the atmosphere with nerve-wracking, shaky camerawork making the audience feeling as if we are in the cockpit with Armstrong (same when he’s in the spacecraft).

Set from 1961 to 1969, Armstrong is depicted as a devoted father and husband to the loving Janet (Claire Foy). Along with their children, they move to Houston as Neil is offered to be in space programs, such as Gemini 8 and Apollo 1, after impressing everyone at NASA including Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler). It’s not until the historic day in 1969, where Neil joins Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) to be a part of the Apollo 11 program.

First Man has received controversy for its political stance and, more importantly, a scene where the American flag being planted on the moon not included in the film. Chazelle wanted the movie to focus on the emotional journey of Neil Armstrong. It might throw people off, but I don’t think it’s fair to miss out on an excellent, visceral biopic of an American hero for that particular reason (because of this, it only earned $16 million in the box office over the weekend). It’s a character study about entering into the unknown and the hardships of going the extra mile.

From Half Nelson to Drive to La La Land, Gosling proves he can portray nuanced performances. Leading a terrific cast, his performance as Neil Armstrong is the best performance of his entire career. He and his family make the ultimate sacrifice when he is offered to go into space. He loves his job so much that he wants to prove the Soviets their rival can bring a man safely on the moon. Look at his face during the scene where he watches a recording of JFK’s speech about sending a person to the moon. Foy is a tour-de-force as Janet, the housewife who roots for her husband every step of the way. She gets just as enough screen-time as Neil. Their scenes together will make you weep.

It’s refreshing to see a movie where the scenes in space are filmed with practical effects as opposed to CGI. It adds more to the film’s realism. The climactic moon landing sequence is like a dance, kudos to the cinematography by Linus Sandgren, who also collaborated with Chazelle in La La Land. It’s a moment that will be with me for the rest of my life.

There is never a dull moment in First Man. Gosling and Foy deserve attention this awards season. While it might have a tough run this past weekend, I hope more people will see it with an open mind and not worry about the controversy. It’s one of those movies where it should be seen on the biggest screen possible!

4/4

Movie Review: A Star is Born (2018)

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Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and Ally (Lady GaGa) hit the high notes in the third remake of A Star is Born. (Source: Philly.com) 

Once the talkies have come into play, there have been three different versions of A Star is Born. The 1937 version, starring Janet Gaynor; the famous 1954 version, which it received six Oscar nominations including Best Actress for Judy Garland and Best Music; and the 1976 version, starring Barbara Streisand, which didn’t receive a positive reception.

A fourth one was in production hell since 2011. Clint Eastwood was originally going to direct with Beyoncé as its star. Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Tom Cruise were among the actors in talks to play the tortured musician. Eventually, Bradley Cooper not only took the role, but he also made this as his directorial debut. The new version can’t come out at a better time.

Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a popular musician with a big problem with drugs and alcohol, who offers support from his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott). One day, at a bar, he meets Ally (a barely recognizable Lady GaGa), an aspiring singer/songwriter who quits her job as a waitress. As they develop a relationship and start writing songs together, problems begin to get in the way.

A Star is Born is the most impressive directorial debut by an actor since Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age story Lady Bird. It’s a film about the hardships of making it big in the music industry while facing personal demons. There has never been a more dynamic duo than Cooper and Lady GaGa. Jack is drinking himself to death until sparks fly when he meets Ally, who is hesitant to perform her own songs. They begin performing together–all the songs are all originals; no covers of songs from the previous films. However, they slowly face the consequences of their relationship. Its portrayal of Jack’s drug addiction and alcoholism is not easy to watch. It’s still captivating, poignant, and never once drags. I’ll lose my faith in the Academy if Lady GaGa doesn’t earn her long-awaited Oscar (either for Best Actress or Best Original Song). One of 2018’s best films!

4/4