2018 Summer Movie Review: Lean on Pete

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15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) begins helping jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) in Lean on Pete, Andrew Haigh’s first American film. (Source: Collider)

I wrote it once, and I’ll write it again: A24 is killing it!

From the Best Picture winner Moonlight to last year’s astonishing coming-of-age film Lady Bird to the haunting tearjerker A Ghost Story, the studio keeps bringing forth some of the most unique and the most amazing films in recent memory. They never do it better when they distribute films about poverty. Last year’s The Florida Project was a gritty yet unforgettable film about poverty from the point-of-view of a 7-year-old girl, who spends most of her time getting into trouble. It features natural performances from the kids and showcases one of Willem Dafoe’s best performances of his long career.

Since the 20th century, films about poverty have always been the most endearing because we see the characters struggle to live on a day-to-day basis. Lean on Pete (the first of two films coming this year featuring a horse) is nothing compared to what we have seen in National Velvet, The Black Stallion, or even War Horse. British filmmaker Andrew Haigh (45 Years) delivers something dark yet totally real.

Based on Willy Vlautin’s novel of the same name, Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) is a 15-year-old living with his single father/warehouse worker Ray (Travis Fimmel) in Portland, Oregon. But–they are struggling to earn enough money because the loving yet irresponsible Ray is spending too much time at the house with women. One morning, while on his run, Charley comes across the Portland Downs nearby. Eventually, he is offered by horse owner Del (Steve Buscemi) a summer job at the racetrack. He becomes attracted to a failing horse known as “Lean on Pete”. When he learns more about the horse from Del and jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny), Charley decides to take Pete on a hectic journey to Wyoming.

This movie goes in ways I have never expected! Plummer’s Charley has never made any friends in Portland until he connects with Pete. He cares about his father very much, but his main motivation is to find a permanent home with meals he can endure, and get a proper education while probably earn a football scholarship. He tells Pete stories about his whole family situation, particularly one where he wishes he lived in a nice home like one of his friends back in Spokane, Washington. The 18-year-old actor is a straight-up natural! Definitely one to look out for in the future!

Leading an excellent cast including Buscemi (providing some dark comic relief) and Steve Zahn as a homeless alcoholic who lives in a camper, Lean on Pete avoids melodramatic cliches to bring forth a subtle, unflinching, astounding film of U.S. poverty. Who knew another British filmmaker would make a future American cult classic? Haigh’s wonderful writing and direction are the icing on the cake. By far, the best movie of 2018!

I’m looking forward to seeing The Rider very soon.

4/4

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2018 Summer Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War

 

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It all comes down to this in Avengers: Infinity War! (Source: The Wrap)

It looks like the summer movie season has arrived early this year. After a long, rough winter in Maine, it’s about time to see these superheroes try to save our planet once again.

Can you believe it has been ten years since Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) started to form the Avengers Initiative? A lot of superheroes have been introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe–from the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to Captain America (Chris Evans) to Asgardian god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, and Bradley Cooper) to Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). With every single one of them teaming up to face their biggest challenge yet, it makes the scale of Avengers: Infinity War all the more gargantuan.

While this year brought us the future classic Black Panther, Anthony and Joe Russo are back in the director’s chair since Captain America: Civil War. They hit it out of the park once again in this hilarious, dark, action-packed, visually stunning epic that goes in many unexpected way and brings an emotional punch into its complex narrative. Josh Brolin’s Thanos is easily the most powerful villain in the franchise, who goes on his own mission to collect all of the six Infinity Stones, in order to not only take over the world, but the entire universe. While the movie is far from perfect, fans are most certainly in for a treat!

The MCU is far from over!

3.5/4

Movie Review: Isle of Dogs

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Atari Kobayashi joins a team of dogs to find his lost dog in Wes Anderson’s delightfully odd animated film, Isle of Dogs. (Source: IMDb)

Wes Anderson is one of the most original filmmakers working today. His deadpan sense of humor juxtaposing his unique visual style, his films are one-of-a-kind. After Bottle Rocket bombed in 1996, he continues to create some of the best movies ever made. Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are the ones that made him gain attention in Hollywood. While The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited are very good yet uneven, I think the coming-of-age romance Moonrise Kingdom and the screwball comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel both showcase his talents behind the camera.

However, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is his most ambitious film of his entire career. Not only did he adapt and expand Roald Dahl’s book (in which he loved as a kid), it brings forth stop-motion animation like no other. Isle of Dogs, his ninth film, is his first–and probably, not his last–animated film aimed towards teens and adults (given it’s rated PG-13).

Set 20 years into the future, cats have become the most dominant pet in the Japanese city of Megasaki. Interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand) translates the meetings of Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), who has banned dogs to a garbage dump called Trash Island due to a canine flu virus. His 12-year-old nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a plane to find his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), the first dog ever to be exiled to the island. Once his plane crashes, he is rescued by five dogs–Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and Boss (Bill Murray). Together, they embark on a journey to find the missing dog.

Meanwhile, Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) tries to produce a cure for the virus, and foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) becomes the leader of the dog-ban protests. All the hijinks will decide the fate of Japan.

For someone who has enjoyed all of Wes Anderson’s films, this movie still proves why Anderson is a genius! It’s another movie that has come out at a perfect time. It’s unusual for a Wes Anderson film to contain a political background including protests against a powerful mayor. It also contains a heartfelt message about the means of a man’s best friend. Top it off with flawless animation (developed by hundreds of animators), a massive voice cast, cartoonish yet occasionally gritty action violence and the fast-paced, witty dialogue, this is Anderson at his most beautiful!

It’s hard not to give Alexandre Desplat a break! He brings forth another great film score! Those taiko drums–which play during the opening and closing credits–sound spectacular!

This movie couldn’t have picked a better voice cast. Bryan Cranston is PERFECT as Chief, a stray and leader of the pack. He fears Atari will do something bad to him and his dog friends. Things do get rough (no pun intended) on the island whenever the dogs fight (which hilariously produces a cloud of smoke). But–he eventually gives in and learns how to be a normal, everyday pet. While the other actors playing the dogs are wonderfully deadpan, especially the circus dog Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), Cranston’s timing hits it home.

Isle of Dogs is far from perfect. There are some narrative flaws and the use of the narrator–when introducing the proceeding chapter (while the words appear in English and Japanese)–becomes a little redundant. Nevertheless, this movie is a painting in motion and something I’ll revisit time and time again.

3.5/4

Movie Review: A Quiet Place

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Regan (Millicent Simmonds) tries to have her father’s (John Krasinski) attention in A Quiet Place. (Source: The Hollywood Reporter)

The offbeat comedic actor John Krasinski is widely known for playing Jim on The Office and the fifth incarnation of Jack Ryan on the upcoming Amazon Prime series. A Quiet Place is his third movie–and the first horror movie–he has ever directed. It raises the question: What can you do to protect your family? I have never seen a horror movie so smart and suspenseful.

In the not-too-distant future, the world is overrun by creatures who are blind yet highly sensitive to sound. The Abbots are the only surviving family who live on a farm and communicate through sign language. Lee (Krasinski), the father, has great survival skills, from growing crops to catching fish. He would go out of his way to protect his pregnant wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds, Wonderstruck), and son Marcus (Noah Jupe). Once the creatures begin to invade their house, they must keep quiet.

Two movies that easily come to mind while watching this movie are Tremors and Signs. While they similar regards to the main concept, what co-writer/director/star Krasinski brings to the table is something fresh for this day and age. This movie contains minimal dialogue and it’s high on suspense. Krasinski and Blunt (who are a married couple in real life) are at the top of their game here. While communicating through body language and sign language, they do express their love for one another. The movie is perfectly described as a metaphor about, as Krasinski says in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “what family is and the extremes you go to as a parent to protect your kids.” Evelyn makes a good question to her husband in one of the film’s most emotional scenes: “Who are we if we can’t protect them?”

I don’t think this movie would contain any authenticity if a non-deaf actress played the deaf daughter. Simmonds, who is actually deaf, is truly one-of-a-kind! Casting a deaf actress is the smart way to go. If the family didn’t have a deaf child, how would they survive on this terrible planet?

What carries A Quiet Place through is the atmosphere and building up tension. The scene in the bathtub (among other scenes) will make audiences squirm. I had my hand on my mouth throughout the entire movie. It’s difficult to look away from one of the best horror movies of this century!

4/4

Movie Review: Ready Player One

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Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) escapes into the virtual reality in Steven Spielberg’s ’80s pop-culture saga, Ready Player One. (Source: IMDb)

Over the years, Steven Spielberg has directed some of the most imaginative movies ever made. From Jaws to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to E.T. to Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park to Minority Report, those blockbusters are what stand out the most. He never ceases to amaze when he captures history with movies such as War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, and last year’s The Post.

It’s obvious he has come a long way since the 1970s. This time, he gives ode to ‘80s culture in Ready Player One, based on Ernest Cline’s book of the same name. Set in a futuristic world where the only magical place on Earth is located beyond reality, this is what Pixels should have been.

The year is 2045. The real world is becoming a junkyard. Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teen from Columbus, Ohio, lives with his aunt Alice (Susan Lynch). He spends most of his time in the OASIS, a virtual world where he can interact with other users and engage in numerous activities. After learning about the death of OASIS creator James Halliday (Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, becoming Spielberg’s frequent collaborator), Wade–as avatar Parzival–embarks on a dangerous treasure hunt to find three different keys left behind. Whoever picks them up first has complete control of the OASIS and possibly save the real world. He teams up with his friends–Art3mis (Olivia Cooke, Bates Motel and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao), and Daito (Win Morisaki)–to help find them, or else the evil Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) will take over OASIS.

For someone who has never read the book, it’s hard to imagine how long it must have been to approve all of the copyrights. The amount of pop culture references is overwhelming; I’m definitely going to watch it again and again to catch all of them. Thanks to Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, it’s easy to become immersed with the virtual reality more than the actual reality (not surprisingly, the least interesting part of the entire movie). The movie puts, as Halliday says, “the pedal to the medal” during the three climactic action sequences, which contains an amazing soundtrack featuring some popular songs of the ‘80s. With Alan Silvestri replacing John Williams (who decided to do the score for The Post instead), he provides another great score in his repertoire.

All of those qualities do overshadow its flaws. While it features likeable characters and a surprising amount of humor, their character development is limited. Mendelsohn’s Sorrento is, more or less, a stereotypical antagonist expecting to take over the world.

Nevertheless, Ready Player One is a treasure to behold! Step into the OASIS and see for yourself what ‘80s hijinks are thrown out there.

3.5/4

Movie Review: The Death of Stalin

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Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the rest of the Central Committee set up a funeral for Joseph Stalin in Armando Iannucci’s political satire The Death of Stalin. (Source: IMDb)

Scottish filmmaker Armando Iannucci is known for making satires of American politics (HBO original series Veep) and British politics (The Thick of It and the spin-off feature film In the Loop). This time, he tackles a bit of Russian history in The Death of Stalin. Based on a series of graphic novels (originated in France), this political satire/dark comedy got banned in Russia by the Minister of Culture, who found the subject matter to be too offensive. “He said its satire was part of a Western plot to destabilize the country,” Iannucci said in The New York Times. “Now the Russian presidential election is looming, and we all know how vehemently Vladimir Putin despises the idea of anyone interfering in the elections of a foreign power; so onto the blacklist my movie went, and no one in Russia is officially allowed to see it.”

With the entire ordeal aside, the movie is beginning to expand throughout the United States. The Death of Stalin came out at a good time.

In March 1953, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) has been running the Soviet Union for years, and is responsible for the lives of millions. One night, he unexpectedly dies from a stroke. He’s soon surrounded by the Central Committee, which includes Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD (Simon Russell Beale), Deputy Gnl. Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin, Monty Python), and Minister of Agriculture Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi). Hijinks ensue while they make funeral arrangements and invite Stalin’s son Vasily (Rupert Friend) and daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) to give their condolences.

It’s been awhile since I laughed at a new comedy. Nowadays, comedies are becoming tiresome and cliched. Kudos to Iannucci and his team of wonderful actors, they offer enough to make the audience laugh. The jokes and one-liners come lightning fast yet they are perfectly timed. Buscemi’s Khruschev is portrayed as Stalin’s comedian turned “funeral director”. He leads a wonderful cast who are at the top of their game. Notice how none of the actors play their characters in a Russian accent. If they ended up doing that, it would have push things over the edge just a hair.

While the twenty minutes might run out of steam, The Death of Stalin is, nevertheless, a wild ride that is funny as it is unnerving. Who knew Stalin loved classical music and Hollywood movies so much?

3/4

Movie Review: Unsane

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Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) serves time at a mental institution in Steven Soderbergh’s iPhone thriller Unsane. (Source: IndieWire)

It’s quite something to see a great filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh to discover new filming techniques. For Unsane, his latest film, he shot (under pseudonym Peter Andrews) the entire movie with an iPhone on a budget of $1.5 million. With Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer (a native of Portland, Maine) writing the screenplay, the movie sounds like it has a crazy concept. While, at times, the movie can be appropriately unnerving, it’s also uneven and lacks the surprises and thrills for it to be any good.

Soderbergh’s movies feature some great names for the characters. Erin Brockovich, Big Dick Richie (Magic Mike), Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan (Ocean’s Eleven), and Joe Bang from Logan Lucky is a classic! Sawyer Valentini (from this movie) definitely joins the endless list of one of the best character names in a Soderbergh movie.

Valentini (Claire Foy, The Crown) is a business woman who moves to Pennsylvania from Boston to get away from her mother (Amy Irving) and the man (Joshua Leonard) who keeps stalking her. One day, she accidentally commits herself to voluntarily serve at a mental institution for 24 hours. Those hours turn into days when the doctors question her sanity. While trying to get along with her ward mates, including the dreadlocked Violet (Juno Temple) and the smooth Nate (Jay Pharoah), Valentini begins to freak out that her stalker might be working at the facility.

I have to admit this movie did come out at a perfect time. We are at a day and age where women are struggling to be heard (hence the #MeToo movement). Kudos to a miraculous performance by Foy, she unwillingly fights against her will in order to escape this madhouse. She and Irving are the saving graces of this sluggish, by-the-numbers, silly psychological thriller. The iPhone camerawork gets a little tiresome after awhile. It’s a bit of a disappointment.

1.5/4