Movie Review: High Flying Bird

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Agent Ray Burke (André Holland) attempts to end the NBA shutdown in Steven Soderbergh’s latest film High Flying Bird. (Source: NPR)

Director Steven Soderbergh has returned to the director’s chair in 2017 with Logan Lucky, an overlooked redneck version of his 2001 film Ocean’s Eleven. Last year, he brought forth Unsane, an allegory of the Me Too movement. It became his first movie to be shot on an iPhone. While I didn’t particularly care for the movie, Soderbergh did a decent-enough job giving his cinematography (using his alias Peter Andrews) a claustrophobic feel. For his latest Netflix film, High Flying Bird, the talented filmmaker (who also writes and edits his films) decided to take a different approach with his camerawork. He wanted a much crisper look with the anamorphic lens. It’s so good Soderbergh is back!

Set during the course of a lockout by the National Basketball Association, Ray Burke (André Holland, Moonlight) is a sports agent struggling to get his players paid for playing the game. One of his clients is Erick Scott (newcomer Melvin Gregg), who just got drafted by a New York team (keep in mind, the characters never mention the teams by name). His boss David (Zachary Quinto) tells Ray that his bank accounts and credit cards have been frozen through the duration of the lockout, unless Ray can come up with a solution to end the lockout once and for all. Then, he comes up with a plan that would test the entire NBA.

Writer Tarell Alvin McCraney mixes the narrative with interviews with actual basketball players Reggie Jackson (no, not THE Reggie Jackson), Karl-Anthony Towns, and Donovan Mitchell talking about the thrill of the game. It is dialogue-driven, which will throw off a lot of casual viewers. The dialogue is part of what makes High Flying Bird shine. It’s as sharp as a clean razor. It’s better not knowing too much about it before going in. The subject on race and power off the court sticks with you once the credits begin to roll.

Holland is straight-up perfect for this material, playing an agent who striving to have his rookie player earn money. One day, he gives him a package containing a “Bible”, which will come in use to him at some point. However, he is shocked to learn that he used a loan without his consent and going at it with a teammate on social media. The real scene-stealer is Bill Duke as Spence Jones, the coach for a youth basketball program in the Bronx who happens to be Ray’s trusted friend. Whenever he hears about slavery, he gets ticked off. “I love the Lord and all His black people,” he says.

Soderbergh does a great job using this cheap filmmaking technology with a clever variety of angles and techniques. I’ll definitely have to watch it again, but there is a lot to like here. High Flying Bird is the first great movie of 2019.

8.5/10

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“Call Me by Your Name”: A Friendship to Remember

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Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) develop a beautiful friendship in Call Me by Your Name. (Source: Taste of Cinema)

Movies containing gay relationships are a mixed bag. If the movies handle the subject with care (i.e. Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight), they result in being poignant movies. If the subject is being exploited, they tend to be insensitive, disgraceful, and have the characters being portrayed as stereotypes. Only a few great filmmakers would put so much authenticity into their direction and their character development.

Italian director Luca Guadagnino (who is gay) is known for casting Tilda Swinton in his movies. Ten years after his feature debut, The Protagonists (1999), he became a household name when he directed the 2009 film I Am Love, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival of that year. A Bigger Splash (2016) was a good-ol’ time being around four people spending vacation in Sicily, from its gorgeous scenery to the erotic, sensual nature of its characters. Recently, he took charge in expanding the scary world of the Suspiria remake, by making it an hour longer than its original. However, it didn’t receive a warm reception, compared to his previous films. He would join screenwriter James Ivory to give his native country a brand new light in his 2017 film, based on a novel by Andre Aciman.

Nominated for 4 Oscars including Best Picture (with Ivory winning Best Adapted Screenplay), Call Me by Your Name is more than just a gay love story. It’s a coming-of-age story about the struggles of identifying oneself. It makes us wonder why we don’t get movies like this.

It’s the summer of 1983. 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is spending a quiet summer with his parents (Amira Casar and Michael Stuhlbarg) in a village in Northern Italy. He spends most of his time reading books and listening/transcribing classical music. Unlike Chiron in Moonlight, Elio is living in his own perfect world, but he is trying to come to terms with his adolescence.

One day, he meets a ravishingly handsome college student from New England named Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is 24 years old. He arrives in Italy to assist Elio’s father, a professor of archaeology, with his paperwork. Although he is in a relationship with a French girl named Marzia (Esther Garrel), Elio becomes increasingly attracted to Oliver each day. They spend the first act teasing and flirting with each other until their friendship begins to change their lives forever.

Every single shot in this movie is nothing short of breathtaking; you can smell the grass as Elio and Oliver ride their bikes through the countryside or as they lie down to get some sun after having a quick swim. There’s a scene where Elio plays a piece of music by Bach (in three different versions) on the piano for Oliver. Kudos to Guadagnino’s smooth direction and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s stunning cinematography, the camera never cuts after each version he plays. With the focus going back-and-forth between Elio’s piano-playing and Oliver’s reactions, it gives the viewer the impression that sparks are about to fly.

The age-gap between the main characters might throw viewers off a bit. However, the age of consent in Italy was–and still is–14. The movie never suggests anything about molestation. The story about first love and desire contains a mature protagonist at its center, who is aware of his own surroundings and loves to explore. Hell, even his parents never look down his son, and they are always there for him whenever he needs a shoulder a cry on. The French story, in which the mother reads in one scene, asks the question, “Is it better to speak, or to die?”

It does take a lot of time knowing our star-crossed lovers, but everything about the movie works, due to–most importantly–the astounding performances by Chalamet and Hammer. I cannot imagine a perfect pair than these two great actors, who got along so well before, during and after making the movie. Their emotions are so raw, it makes it feel as if they are portraying actual people who love each other and embark on one helluva journey. After gaining indie stardom in Miss Stevens and Lady Bird, Chalamet is simply perfect as Elio, who, at first, has doubts about Oliver, particularly when he asks his parents if it’s arrogant whenever he says “Later”. Then, Elio puts Oliver’s red shorts around his head; foreshadowing their lust for one another.

He finds out they have one thing in common: they’re Jewish. One day, he sees Oliver wearing a necklace with the Star of David pendant. It begins to show that Oliver is not ashamed of who he truly is. Elio tells him that he and his family are only “Jews of discretion.” Eventually, we see Elio wear the exact same necklace and him celebrating Hanukkah with his parents. He shares the same feelings Oliver has. They become so attracted by each other’s statuesque appearances (notice the images of Ancient Greece) the same way their secrecy–with his religious beliefs and Oliver’s sexuality–brings the two together. When they walk around a World War I statue (representing a barrier for the two lovebirds), it becomes clear how hard it would be for them to leave each other’s side.

In one scene, Elio is eating a peach in the attic (one of his private hideouts). He takes a good look at the fruit. And then, he starts masturbating with it. Minutes later, Oliver shows up to see what his friend has been up to. Oliver sees the peach, and, playfully, tries to consume it, despite Elio’s denial. As strange as the scene is, it’s also hard not to shed a tear over Elio’s feelings. The peach symbolizes the desired intimacy between Elio and Oliver.

While the performances are superb, it shocks me, to this day, how Stuhlbarg hardly received any award recognition. Particularly his monologue near the end is enough to make cold-hearted people weep. He tells his son he would never have what he and Oliver had. “How you live your life is your business,” he says. “Just remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out. And, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it.” The writing by Ivory is simply marvelous!

Call Me by Your Name is one of the most beautiful love stories ever captured on film. Thankfully, everyone will get to see more of how the relationship between Elio and Oliver has evolved in a sequel coming in 2020, following the tradition of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. It will capture the era where HIV/AIDS is becoming more perceptible. Who knows if it will be as powerful as its predecessor, but Guadagnino sums up this movie perfectly, in an interview with The Guardian: “[This movie] encompasses what I’ve found striking about life: that you can be a better person, and you can build a bridge to go and meet new people instead of confining yourself within your own boundaries.”

Movie Review: Glass

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Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), Kevin (James McAvoy), and David (Bruce Willis) are checking into a mental institution in Glass, M. Night Shyamalan’s conclusion to his Eastrail 177 trilogy. (Source: The Atlantic)

In 2000, M. Night Shyamalan made a movie where it used the superhero genre with a twist. While a modest hit in theaters, Unbreakable became one of the greatest cult classics of all-time. Filled with originality, subtle performances by Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson as David and Elijah, two individuals who discuss a comic-book theory after David survives from a tragic train crash without breaking any bones, and Shyamalan’s clever writing and directing approach by having a comic-book feel to every shot (e.g. the greens and purples during the characters’ arcs).

After years of mishaps, Shyamalan returns to form with Split, an unnerving psychological thriller about the effects of dissociative identity disorder. James McAvoy’s wonderful performance as Kevin Wendell Crumb, inspired by the real-life DID patient Billy Milligan, will send chills down one’s spine. These three people would eventually meet each other for the first time in a third movie.

Enter Glass, a movie with every intention to become a satisfying finale to one of the best trilogies in existence. Unfortunately, this is half-true.

After the events of Split, security guard David Dunn (Willis) works at a security firm in Philadelphia. Taking the alias The Overseer, he uses his supernatural abilities to see crimes people have committed by bumping into them. He learns from his now-adult son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) that Kevin (McAvoy) is holding a group of cheerleaders hostage in an abandoned factory. After an intense fight, they are sent to the same psychiatric hospital that wheelchair-bound Elijah Price (Jackson), who has Type 1 osteogenesis imperfecta (a rare disease in which his bone breaks really easily), has been staying at for years. While under the supervision of doctor Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) specializes in patients who believe to be superheroes (which sounds far-fetched beyond repair. There is something about her motivation that makes it somewhat captivating), all hell begins to break loose,

While not a complete disaster, it’s great to see Shyamalan return to his familiar roots after the surprise of Split. Jackson and Willis aren’t given much to do, but they do have their shining moments. However, McAvoy steals the spotlight once again as Kevin. While Split showed only nine of his 24 personalities, this movie shows 20 of them. Just like before, some of his personalities–particularly Hedwig–can be funny in an unnerving way. I swear, one of his personalities almost reminded me of Nic Cage. There is also more backstory surrounding him and other characters.

Along with his cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, he uses a lot of clever film techniques (ranging from POV to its flashbacks). I love the shot where Elijah escapes in his wheelchair while a fight ensues in the background. The first two acts are gripping enough. It reunites the characters we know and love. It’s also surprising to see the return of some supporting characters from the previous entries, like Kevin’s former hostage Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Elijah’s mother (Charlayne Woodard). There is a lot of patience given as the three characters start to evolve and learn about Elijah’s theory about the existence of superheroes, in which Glass does a great job exploring deeper into. There are plenty of twists throughout the film, in which Shyamalan is known for, which is part of the problem.

Without giving anything away, the last act, while exciting, feels a little too busy. It comes off as being preposterous and pedestrian, even by Shyamalan’s standards. It leaves people scratching their heads once the credits start to roll. Despite the disappointing final act, Glass is still gripping as it is fascinating. I’m more than glad these movies exist.

7.5/10

Movie Review: The Upside

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Dell (Kevin Hart) takes care of a wealthy quadriplegic (Bryan Cranston) in the American remake of the French-language classic The Intouchables. (Source: The Wrap)

In 2011, a movie called The Intouchables came out in France. Based on a true story, it followed the friendship between a white quadriplegic millionaire and a black ex-con. It became the most successful French film; earning about $300 million worldwide. It received a lot of awards including the Cesar Award for Omar Sy’s performance and was honored at the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, where the directors earned the HOPE award for their terrific work bringing the story to the silver screen.

Director Neil Burger and screenwriter Jon Hartmere decide to bring the story back to life for American audiences. After its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, The Upside was put on the shelf amid the Harvey Weinstein scandal until right now. The movie has released during the controversy of Kevin Hart’s involvement of being the host for the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony. Talk about horrible timing!

Instead of taking place in Paris, the movie is set in New York City. Philip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston) is one of the wealthiest people in the city. A paragliding accident left him in a wheelchair. With the help of his assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), he tries to find the perfect candidate to be his caretaker.

Enter Dell Scott (Hart), an ex-convict who lives on the other side of town. He comes into his estate to get a signature for his parole officer. Without being aware, he gets the job as Philip’s caretaker. Later, they form an unlikely bond they will never forget.

The Upside recreates famous scenes from the original, as well as adding a few subplots to stand on its own. For instance, Dell tries to reconnect with his ex-wife and son, but gets thrown out of his crappy apartment. The movie also shows Philip’s dreams of his tragic accident. As a result, however, there are plenty of cheap laughs to even out the drama in this tasteless movie lacking any subtlety or grace that made the original so good.

It does have a few decent laughs, especially one scene where they both go to a hot-dog restaurant while high on marijuana. Then, there’s a gag that involves replacing a catheter that goes on for what feels like an eternity. Everything just falls apart. Cranston and Hart are trying their best here. Cranston does bring his deadpan charisma into his role of the rich quadriplegic. For Hart, he is doing the same shtick he’s known for in his stand-up. He simply sucks the life out of his character. I have no idea what Kidman is doing here.

With last year’s BlacKkKlansman and Green Book, they showcase the hardships of racism in their own distinct way; by being as authentic and faithful to their source material as possible while trying not to manipulate their audiences. They also contain a sense of humor to even out the harsh reality of their portrayal.

The Upside contains none of those. It doesn’t have the charm of the original, the humor falls flat, the characters feel like stereotypes, and hardly contains any surprises. With its 126-minute running-time, the movie is twenty minutes too long. If you will excuse me, I’m going to rewatch The Intouchables to get the bad taste of The Upside out of my mouth.

3/10

Movie Review: The Mule

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Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) makes some important life decisions in The Mule. (Source: Entertainment Weekly)

It has been ten years since Clint Eastwood directed himself in a movie. Being a filmmaker for half of a century, winning two Oscars for directing Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby (both of which won Best Picture), starring in more than half of the movies he directed, it’s hard not to be impressed by what he has done for Hollywood. Gran Torino is a prime example of his talents as an actor and filmmaker; blending deadpan humor and hard-hitting drama set outside an all-American city–Detroit–and containing a diverse cast.

After directing big hits, such as American Sniper and Sully, he is back as the director after giving us the disastrous biopic The 15:17 to Paris. Not only that, he is also the main star in The Mule. Based on a true story of Leo Sharp, a WWII veteran smuggling hundreds of pounds of cocaine from a Mexican drug cartel through Michigan, Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk make several changes to the true-life story to stand on its own.

For starters, Eastwood stars as Earl Stone, a 90-year-old Korean War veteran, who is facing foreclosure on his house and his horticultural business. Years of being neglected from his family, he is in desperate need of cash. One day, at a wedding party for his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga), he is offered a job driving trucks. Earl doesn’t find that a problem since he had experience with trucks. However, he doesn’t know what he’s in for while driving all the way down to El Paso.

Since he has no criminal history, Earl isn’t worried to earn a little extra cash to cover Ginny’s wedding and college education. He eventually finds out he’s working as a drug mule for a Mexican drug cartel. This gets the attention of DEA agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Peña). Meanwhile, Earl thinks about his life decisions, especially when his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest) falls ill.

This isn’t the first time this year where a legendary actor played a criminal. We already saw Robert Redford using his polite manners while robbing banks in David Lowery’s magnum opus The Old Man and the Gun. As Earl Stone, however, Eastwood gives another nuanced performance; providing the dry sense of humor and the charisma he is known for in all of his movies. Earl might be stubborn and ignorant, especially with the modern technology being taken over, but he tries to be there for his family after neglecting them for years. Although the two DEA agents might be on his tail, he continues to live his life especially sitting back in the driver’s seat of his truck singing along to old songs.

The movie is not without its flaws. It’s a slow-burning film that might throw off a lot of people expecting something along the lines of Sicario. Yes, the pace does drag here and there, and I would have done without the scene where Earl is invited to a pool party at an estate, run by drug lord Laton (Andy Garcia), where there lots of young women everywhere. Nevertheless, there is a great moral in The Mule about the importance of family and putting one’s own life is put at risk for something dangerous. At 88, Eastwood is still going strong. Nothing can stop him now!

3/4

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

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