Movie Review: Justice League

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Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and the rest prepare to kick some ass in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. (Source: IMDb)

The DC Extended Universe has finally released a great movie this year with Wonder Woman. Not only did it become the highest-grossing film ever to be directed by a female, but it sparked a new light into popular culture; as it did back in the 1970s. Wonder Woman teams up with Batman and new group of heroes in Justice League, the shortest film in the franchise (clocking in at two hours). Zack Snyder returns to the director’s chair to give a big, beautiful mess. Surprisingly, however, I find it to be quite solid.

After Batman’s (Ben Affleck) fight with Superman (Henry Cavill), Gotham City is in mourning after Superman’s death. Bruce Wayne recruits Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to save the world from a group of mythical aliens, led by Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). They assemble the Justice League. This includes Barry Allen a.k.a. The Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry a.k.a. Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone a.k.a. Cyborg (Ray Fisher). All of them work together to show Steppenwolf who’s boss.

I will never forget what Snyder did to ruin Batman vs. Superman. He has a tremendous visual style, but he never has enough substance to carry through. While Man of Steel had a different take on Superman, Batman vs. Superman fell apart after the first 30 minutes. The biggest problem with DCEU is how their movies (except Wonder Woman) take themselves so seriously. While Justice League can draw comparisons to The Avengers, I had a good time with it. With a screenplay written by Joss Whedon (of all people), the movie manages to have somewhat of a sense of humor. While the cast does a good job, Miller is the one who steals the show. He maintains Barry Allen’s geeky personality almost to perfection.

While there is a lot of kick-ass action to feast the eyes (how can you not get pumped during the scene where Wonder Woman takes down those terrorists in London?), the movie falters with its bland villain and dull subplots surrounding Superman and Lois Lane (Amy Adams). It’s riddled with holes and it should have been a little longer. But–at least we all got a taste of the upcoming Aquaman. And boy–does it look good!

2.5/4

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Movie Review: Lady Bird

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Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) with her boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges) in Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig. (Source: IMDb)

Ah–how refreshing it is to see something totally original.

Lady Bird marks the directorial debut of Greta Gerwig. The offbeat actress is known for collaborating with Noah Baumbach in movies such as Frances Ha, Greenberg, and Mistress America. For her first film in which she also wrote the screenplay, she makes a coming-of-age tale based on her own life living in Sacramento, California, set almost exactly one year after 9/11. I have never seen a movie this touching all year.

Set during the 2002-2003 school year, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan)–who chooses to go by “Lady Bird”–is a senior going to an all-girl Catholic high school. She really wants to move out of her parent’s house to go to college in New York City. Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), a hard-working nurse, disapproves of her daughter leaving Sacramento and wants her to be close to home. Because she works double at the hospital, she struggles to give her enough support for Lady Bird and her unemployed husband Larry (Tracy Letts).

Throughout the school year, Lady Bird slowly begins to learn how to be accepted by those around her including best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), her boyfriends Danny (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea) and Kyle (Timothée Chalamet, the upcoming Call Me by Your Name), and her teachers.

The most rewarding aspect about Lady Bird is how Gerwig avoids any coming-of-age cliches. She puts the post-9/11 factors to fair use (“9/11 Never Forget” are the words on the bulletin board early in the film). For instance, the father is laid off at his job and is there for his daughter every step of the way about her decisions after high school. Every character feels like they are real people we see every day.

From delivering stellar performances in movies such as Atonement, Hanna, and Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan dazzles once again as our protagonist. She’s not upset about the politics, but she wants to be accepted by her family and peers. Most importantly, her mother (Oscar-worthy performance by Metcalf). The dynamic between the two is easily the highlight of the film. They do argue with each other every now and then, but they love each other very much. When her mother tells her daughter to be the best version she can be, Lady Bird replies: “What if this is the best version?”

With Sam Levy’s smooth cinematography and a great soundtrack, Lady Bird is filled with twists, turns, and humor. There is one particularly hilarious scene where a priest (who is also a football coach) takes charge of the theater company. In preparation for the school’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, he shows the kids a play-by-play of how the play is going to turn out. What a delightful love letter to Gerwig’s hometown and one of the best films of 2017!

4/4

Movie Review: The Florida Project

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Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) see a rainbow over the motel in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (Source: IndieWire)

Director Sean Baker brought attention in 2015 with his indie film Tangerine. Shot entirely on an iPhone, it follows a transgender prostitute finding out her lover has cheated on her. On a $100,000 budget, its groundbreaking film techniques mixing with tough issues were enough reasons to make it the talk-of-the-town at its premiere at Sundance.

His new film, The Florida Project, gives the audience a glimpse of poverty through the eyes of a child. The results are simply electrifying!

Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) is an optimistic 6-year-old girl living with her selfish, unemployed mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) at the Magic Castle, a run-down motel run by manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), which is located near Walt Disney World. Set during the summer, Moonee and her friends–Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera)–spend their free time getting into trouble, from spitting on a stranger’s car to setting an abandoned house on fire. This is a summer she will never forget.

The characters in The Florida Project feel like real people. Without any adult supervision, Moonee begins to see the world around her despite the situation she has to go through. With a breakout performance by Prince, she carries through providing the film’s humor and heart. Vinaite’s Halley takes zero shits from anybody while struggling to give the support she needs for her daughter (whom she loves with all of her heart), especially by earning spending her time selling cologne to tourists. The legendary Dafoe has delivered great performances over the years. He gives one of his finest of his career as a manager who always runs into problems at his motel.

There is irony when it comes to the “Happiest Place on Earth”. While not an easy movie to watch, one thing that makes The Florida Project so powerful is its message about the joys of childhood, even in an unpleasant environment. Shot almost entirely on 35 mm film, Baker’s wonderful direction and Alexis Zabe’s cinematography make every scene look like a painting coming to life. I love the scene where Moonee and Jancey sit on a tree while eating bread topped with jam. It might not be a movie I’ll watch again really soon, but seeing it once in theaters is an unforgettable

Movie Review: Victoria and Abdul

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Queen Victoria (Dame Judi Dench) and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazan) of India strike up an unlikely friendship in Victoria and Abdul. (Source: Vogue)

This is not the first time Judi Dench has played Queen Victoria. Her first outing was in 1997’s Mrs. Brown, in which she received her first Oscar nomination. It simply follows a servant helping her recover from her husband’s loss. Twenty years later, she is back as an aging yet wiser version of the Queen in Victoria and Abdul. Stephen Frears (who has been directing for more than 40 years) and screenwriter Lee Hall recreate the “mostly” true story if the Queen’s friendship with Abdul Karim, an Indian Muslim. The result is quite disappointing.

Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has held the reign for 63 years. Her Golden Jubilee is coming up. Since India is ruled by Britain, she decides to call upon Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a prison clerk, to participate. He–along with Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar)–arrive in Britain by ship. He eventually develops a beautiful friendship with the Queen. This pisses off her royal family, including her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), to no end. For the Queen, however, this is one of those moments she will never forget.

Dench has been in a lot of movies for a long time. Some of her greatest performances are M in the James Bond films, Lady Catherine in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, and an Irish woman looking for her son in Philomena (also directed by Frears). This is yet another miraculous performance to add in her long repertoire. As Queen Victoria, I just love how she is in control of everything. Nobody can stop her! It’s hard not to laugh or crack a smile when she is being taught by Abdul about his native language and the Qur’an. Their chemistry is so infectious.

While the movie is amusing at best and Danny Cohen’s cinematography is gorgeous (one scene involving having dinner in the hills of Scotland reminded me of The Queen), this movie is underwhelming. The tone shifts all over the place from very funny to very dramatic. The movie only pinpoints who Abdul is. The audience hardly know a lot about their friendship. Believe me, I know you want to Google about the entire story on which the movie is based. Hell, even the texts are rather vague. At the end, Victoria and Abdul feels incomplete. Now–I’m in the mood to watch Mrs. Brown.

2/4

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

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Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is on the search for some answers in Blade Runner 2049. (Source: Vox)

In 1982, Ridley Scott introduced a world unlike any other. From its imaginative sets and thoughtful allegory on life, Blade Runner is one of the best sci-fi films imaginable. It features Harrison Ford playing a quiet hero (as opposed to Indiana Jones or Han Solo) where he must get rid of a group of bioengineered people from the Earth. Since its release, people have been debating whether Deckard is a replicant or not. There’s no real answer to the debate; other than it’s up to the viewer.

Today, Scott returns to his futuristic world as producer, while Denis Villeneuve–whose Arrival has returned to the traditional, thought-provoking science-fiction–is in the director’s chair. Blade Runner 2049 is certainly up his alley!

30 years after the events of Blade Runner, newer replicant models are now becoming a part of society. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) works as the new “blade runner” for the LAPD. He is assigned to take down (or “retire”) older replicants. One day, he sees the remains of an adult replicant and their child. Preventing a possible war against humans and replicants, K begins to investigate the murder, which might connect to Officer Deckard (Harrison Ford), who went missing all these years.

What I love about Villeneuve’s direction is he never wastes anyone’s time relying on mindless action or manipulative emotion. With Blade Runner 2049, it keeps the similar tone and themes of the original while giving a fresh take on the futuristic world. Roger Deakins’ cinematography feels like a painting coming to life. From the 3D holograms to the impressive architecture to the scene where K walks through the ruins of erotic statues, this contains some of the most visually stunning visuals I’ve ever seen (Deakins has a good chance of winning an Oscar).

While the movie can be quite brutal at times, the movie contains the theme of nostalgia. It asks the important question: Are memories artificial memories implanted in our heads? Or is it the exact opposite? As a replicant, this is what K tries to figure out. In one particular scene, he explains his only childhood memory involves getting bullied as he plays with a toy horse.

Gosling is familiar playing characters who can be violent yet have subtle emotions (i.e. Drive). He and Harrison Ford lead a marvelous cast including Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Barkhad Abdi, and Jared Leto. Let’s hope Villeneuve crafts more original sci-fi films in the near future. Not only is Blade Runner 2049 one of the best sequels in recent memory, it surpasses the original by a slight margin.

4/4

Movie Review: Gerald’s Game

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Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) prepare to have some sex in Gerald’s Game. What could possible go wrong? (Source: Phoenix New Times)

Netflix is releasing two Stephen King film adaptations. Gerald’s Game, which came out last Friday, and 1922, which is coming out on the 20th. They both can be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home during this Halloween season.

Recently, I watched the home-invasion thriller Hush, directed by Mike Flanagan (Oculus). I was really impressed what he did with the movie. Featuring minimal dialogue; not to mention a deaf protagonist (different for the horror genre), he never lets up the suspense. Everyone can relate to this movie about having the feeling that somebody maybe watching you. However, in Flanagan’s latest, Gerald’s Game, the main fear is losing someone close, as well as the past.

Jessie (Cara Gugino) and Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) are a middle-aged couple struggling to keep their marriage afloat. They decide to spice things up a bit for the weekend at a lake house in the middle of nowhere. While having sex, Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the bedpost. She thinks Gerald has taken things too far. “This is turning into some rape fantasy I never knew you had,” she tells him.

Then, the unthinkable happens. Gerald dies from a heart attack; leaving Jessie still in handcuffs. Spending hours on end yelling for help with any lack of thirst, Jessie begins to hallucinate and have terrible dreams.  She begins to fight for her life.

Since its 1992 publication, Gerald’s Game has been deemed as “unfilmable”. Fast forward to 2017, where anything can be possible. Flanagan simply breaks that barrier, and turns one of King’s least popular books into a disturbing work of art. His bag of tricks come to good use here. For instance, the use of the red filters during Jessie’s shocking flashbacks of her as a little girl anticipating the solar eclipse with her father (Henry Thomas, Elliott from E.T.) over the lake.

Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood are at the top of their game here. Greenwood, an understated actor, has starred in plenty of films for many years, from Racing Stripes to Eight Below to Star Trek to Flight, among others. His turn as Gerald is one of the best of his career. As for Gugino, it’s hard to imagine the physical and emotional pain she had to endure.

While Gerald’s Game is far from perfect (the final act is a little weird), this white-knuckling psychological thriller is what 50 Shades of Grey should have been.

3/4

Movie Review: It (2017)

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In It, Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) is out to get you. (Source: IMDb)

It by Stephen King is one of my all-time favorite books. It features humor, scares, and memorable characters (not to mention an iconic villain who smells people’s fears) that we get to know and sympathize with. The first attempt at adapting Stephen King’s ambitious magnum opus about good vs. evil into a film happened in 1990 on ABC, starring Tim Curry as the titular monster. With a gifted ensemble cast, it started off alright during the first half. Then—it derailed in the second half resulting in becoming more as a sitcom/soap opera than a straight-up horror movie.

Now, the second adaptation is the first to be released in theaters. After last year’s clown epidemic, I can’t think of a more appropriate time for people to be terrified of clowns again. Well—it finally happened! Argentine director Andy Muschietti (Mama) and three screenwriters have crafted something scary, hilarious, and heartbreaking while keeping the nature of Stephen King’s book without any of the ridiculous stuff. Even Stephen King stated how much he loved this version of It. “I wasn’t prepared how good it really was,” he said in an interview. “It’s something that’s different, and at the same time, it’s something that audiences are going to relate to.”

Every 27 years, an extraterrestrial creature, known as It, preys on children and their fears. It takes the form of what they fear the most, and brings them to their doom.

This happens to one of the kids in the beginning of the film; where it opens up on rainy fall day in 1988 in the town of Derry, Maine. Bill Denborough (Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special and St. Vincent), a 12-year-old with a terrible stutter, has finished making a paper boat for his young brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). He chases it to a storm drain and meets Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a seemingly cheerful clown, in the sewer, who…well—you know what happens next.

Eight months later, school is out for the summer. Derry seems to be a little quieter after Georgie’s death. A lot more kids have either disappeared or pronounced dead. Bill decides to team up with his friends—asthmatic germaphobe Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), trashtalking Richie (Finn Wolfhard, Stranger Things), tomboy Beverly (Sophia Lillis), new-kid-on-the-block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), homeschooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and Jewish kid Stan (Wyatt Oleff)—to defeat It.

It is a lovely tribute to the 1980s culture. Focusing more on the kids than on the clown, their interactions are reminiscent to Stand by Me, another Stephen King adaptation. The adults are mostly absent, but whenever they appear, they are portrayed as either abusive or overbearing. The kids are grown up in a time where they are neglected by their parents, and need to escape from their troubles to stand up for one another. The audience fears what the children fear (which is what horror is all about).

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The kids are out to get It in Stephen King’s latest adaptation of It. (Source: Horror Freak News)

I can’t imagine a better cast. Finn Wolfhard’s Richie is a laugh riot; he tends to get out of every situation by wisecracking or doing voices. Sophia Lillis is the new Molly Ringwald (even one of the characters calls her that); her Beverly has the kind-hearted bravery like the boys. Although she is the outcast at school (her classmates call her a slut) and goes home to her abusive father (Stephen Bogaert), she feels more at home with the boys. If Tim Curry’s goofy yet eerie portrayal of Pennywise was to Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman, Bill Skarsgård’s is to Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Whenever he is on screen, he is terrifying; from the buck-toothed grin to the vintage clothes to his line deliveries (i.e. “You’ll float, too”).

What makes It shine is the imaginative sets, clever angles, Benjamin Wallfisch’s eerie score, and Muschietti’s direction and atmosphere. It’s hard not to get a tingle down one’s spine whenever the kids’ fears come to pure life, ranging from a Leper to a child walking with its head blown off. The scary stuff is a ton of fun to watch; even The House on Neibolt Street is the haunted house you wished you have ever been a part of. I can’t ask for anything more perfect. It is officially one of my favorite horror movies.

With the sequel coming out sooner than everyone hoped, it wouldn’t work without Bill Hader cast as Richie and Jessica Chastain as Beverly.

4/4