“Red Sparrow”

After seeing Atomic Blonde, the Kingsman movies, and Daniel Craig’s 007 movies, the last movie I expected to see was a slow burn spy thriller that doesn’t glorify espionage. Red Sparrow is that revisionalist spy film!

Dominika’s (Jennifer Lawrence) ballet career ends after she breaks her leg on stage. In order to take care of her ailing mother (Joely Richardson), she becomes a Russian spy called a ‘Sparrow’ – a master in seduction and manipulation. She then meets CIA operative Nash (Joel Edgerton) and falls for him, despite him being her new target. Will Dominika complete her mission or go rogue?

Red Sparrow has a lot of controversy surrounding it due to its sexual and physical violence. This is disturbing and bleak film, but I admired it. I normally hate movies that feature excessive sexual violence and torture; however, Red Sparrow kept me intrigued because it uses that content to debunk the spy genre. These spies don’t drink martinis and seduce the princess after stopping world domination! They’re traumatized and broken afterwards.

There’s no glorification in watching Nina seduce her would-be rapist classmate in front of their class. There definitely isn’t glorification in watching someone get skinned alive. Instead, Red Sparrow explores the uncompromising nature of being a spy. Dominika is trained to be soul less, so she has to seduce and torture. She doesn’t want to, but she needs to for her survival. Frances Lawrence’s (no relation to Jennifer) slow burn direction adds more tension to the violent scenes in Cronenberg-like fashion.

Jennifer is committed in her performance as Dominika and continues her streak of fearless performances. She at times plays a convincing survivor, but also has calculated moments. Is she playing both sides? Or looking out for herself? Her relationship with her incestuous uncle Ivan (a creepy Matthias Schoenaerts) adds more complexity to the film, not only exploring abuse, but gender politics and control. Ivan clearly has an infatuation for his niece, so it’s not surprising if he’s using his power to get closer to Ivanka. Ivanka’s cat-and-mouse game with Ivan takes some surprising turns that will discomfort and surprise viewers.

While Red Sparrow is gory, fascinating, and haunting, it’s also occasionally silly. There’s an extended sequence involving Dominika and a drunken US politician (Mary-Louise Parker) that derives from the film’s tone, briefly turning the film into a buddy comedy. Parker is a nice comedic relief, but it’s an additional twenty minutes that serves no purpose to the story.

Screenwriter Justin Haythe has come a long way from his previous film (the equally ambitious-though-awful A Cure for Wellness). Haythe has a point with his grisly content this time, but he can work on shortening his scripts. Still, Red Sparrow is a daring thriller that treads on both political commentary and exploitation film.

Grade: B

Advertisements

“Annihilation”

We’re only two months into 2018 and I’ve already seen two movies that will most likely be on my best of the year list. The first was last week’s exceptional Black Panther; the second is Alex Garland’s (Ex-Machina) latest sci-fi thriller, Annihilation.

Biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is stunned when her missing husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) arrives home ill. Shortly after, both taken to a military base outside a mysterious portal called “The Shimmer.” Lena then joins an expedition led by Doctor Ventriss (Jennifer Jason Leigh) into The Shimmer to find answers; however, the laws of nature and physics don’t apply in The Shimmer.

Annihilation is a great example of a film with a mediocre trailer that throws you off guard. I expected a standard B-movie filled with more gore than ideas. There are a couple of gory moments reminiscent of The Thing and Alien, but Annihilation has lots to say. This is a provocative mindtrip.

We don’t get all the answers to what The Shimmer is or its purpose, but Garland trusts the audience enough to make their own interpretations. For me, The Shimmer feeds off of self-destruction. We learn Lena, Ventriss, and the other explorers’ back stories as they encounter mutant creatures and witness The Shimmer grow; none of these characters have an optimistic look on life.

Portman and Leigh both deliver grounded, complex performances as Lena and Ventriss. We see that they’re not only terrified by The Shimmer, but also mesmerized. Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok) is also terrific as Radek, a depressed physicist who has a spiritual view of The Shimmer.

Garland shows growth with AnnihilationEx-Machina was just as narratively intriguing and challenging, but Annihilation is far more ambitious and contains more attention-to-detail. Between composer duo Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s transition from a calm acoustic guitar to a menacing synthesizer and the simultaneously beautiful and nightmarish imagery, Garland creates a haunting world filled with beauty and terror.

Annihilation is one of the few sci-fi films of this decade that I’ll call an instant classic. It ranks with The Thing and Alien as one of the best sci-fi/body horror mashups of all time.

Grade: A+

“Black Panther”

As excited as I am for Infinity War in May, I have a feeling it’s not going to top Black Panther. This is the best MCU film since Civil War.

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is crowned king of Wakanda a week after his father’s death in Civil War. He then faces moral dilemmas when a radical terrorist named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) appears and challenges T’Challa for the throne.

Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (the great Creed) delivers an incredible MCU installment with Black Panther. Instead of focusing on gadgets, fight scenes, origin stories, or leading up to another MCU movie, Coogler focuses on the world building and politics of Wakanda.

Wakanda is a majestic city with advanced technology and vibrant costumes. The political system is progressive yet libertarian, considering Wakanda’s leaders want to remain separate from the rest of the world. Killmonger’s authoritarian ideal clashing with T’Challa’s libertarian views add a refreshingly subtle political depth.

Boseman and Jordan both deliver charismatic and multi-layered performances. Boseman portrays T’Challa as the confident good guy who becomes disillusioned when he learns dark secrets about Wakanda while Jordan plays Killmonger as a vengeful-yet-sympathetic villain. When they clash, it’s a battle of pride, anger, legacy, and honor.

The supporting cast also has dynamic characters with Danai Guira (The Walking Dead) as T’Challa’s fiercely loyal bodyguard Okoye who puts Wakanda before friendships, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) as T’Challa’s disillusioned best friend, and Letitia Wright (Black Mirror) as T’Challa’s genius younger sister Shuri. Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman also reprise their roles from previous MCU films as terrorist Ulysses Klaue and Agent Ross respectively in fun supporting roles.

Coogler once again directs a spectacular character driven action film. As much as I loved his one-shot casino fight and the brutal hand-to-hand combat scenes where T’Challa defends his throne, I was more intrigued with his visual storytelling. The scenes with T’Challa and Killmonger having visions of their past and the afterlife heighten their ambitions and their flaws. They’re both equally capable of being either good or bad men, so when they come face-to-face, it’s hard to pick a side.

I’m a big comic book fan, but I put film criticism first. Black Panther is one of the few MCU movies I consider flawless. It’s heartfelt, realized, kinetic, and inspiring.

Grade: A+

The Classics – “(500) Days of Summer”

Welcome back to The Classics and Happy Valentine’s Day! I took a vote on my Facebook over which of my favorite romantic comedies to review and (500) Days of Summer got the highest vote (sorry to those who voted for True Romance).

HEAVY SPOILERS! IF YOU’RE READING AND HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE, GET OFF THE INTERNET AND WATCH THE MOVIE!

A narrator (Richard McGonagle) tells us the story of two young lovers, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel). “This is not a love story. This is a story about love,” the narrator says.

Hopeless romantic Tom becomes smitten over Summer when she overhears him listening to The Smiths and sings along. They become friends, argue philosophical differences in dating, and Summer makes out with him in a copier room, leading to a relationship. However, Summer doesn’t believe in love, which prompts an ongoing conflict between the two.

I first saw (500) Days in college fell in love with the movie instantly. As a naive teen, I understood Tom’s logic. He grew up on romantic pop culture and didn’t quite have a grasp on reality. I didn’t understand the flaws because I was looking for my soulmate.

The thing I love about (500) Days is my interpretation changed over time. I hated Summer when I first saw this film and felt she was toying with Tom’s emotions. As I matured and dated more, I realized Summer was in the right and that Tom is the villain. He’s a guy who needs to date himself to feel whole, leading to self-destructive behavior.

In a scene where his friends set him up on a blind date, Tom bluntly lets his date know he isn’t interested, venting about Summer their entire date. She rightfully ditches Tom in the middle of drunkenly singing The Clash’s “Train in Vain.” Now despite this scene and me saying Tom’s the villain in his relationship, he isn’t a bad person. Neither is Summer! They’re just dumb.

If anything, Tom shows us the flaws, heartbreak, disillusionment, and humor in a relationship. This is done brilliantly in a nonlinear narrative where he’ll list what he loves about Summer then later hate those same things. Tom captures the disillusionment well in a brutally honest monologue when he angrily explodes in a meeting over the realization that everything he believed in is wrong.

Summer on the other hand, doesn’t believe in love because she wants to go with the flow. She believes there’s more to life than dating and that her love can change at any minute. She also grows since she influences Tom to focus on his architecture and changes her views after watching The Graduate. Their brief reunion in the final act is bittersweet as Summer tells Tom he helped her grow (she’s married) and that she wants him to be happy.

By the end of the film, Tom is put together and made peace with the fact that he wasn’t the one for Summer. Though it’s quite obvious by the smug grin on his face after meeting a rival architect Autumn (Minka Kelly) that he’s going to repeat the same mistakes, we still take a good lesson from Tom.

(500) Days is an important romantic comedy because it’s honest; common interests doesn’t make someone “the one,” and expectations and reality are different (another incredible sequence highlights the importance of this)!

I know I’m selling (500) Days as a film about two twisted, selfish people, but this is still a delightful film. I can’t go to Ikea without wanting to reenact the Ikea sequence or listen to “You Make My Dreams Come True” without wanting to break out dancing.

Grade: A+

“The Cloverfield Paradox”

“Paradox” is a well-suited pronoun for The Cloverfield Paradox, considering it doesn’t answer the questions it was supposed to.

Like in Lost in Space and Danny Boyle’s great Sunshine, Earth is suffering an energy crisis, prompting a space odyssey. Like in Sunshine, GravityMoon, and Life, the crew members are grieving, withdrawn, and headstrong. We have an astronaut who lost her kids (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a scientist who prefers being in space over Earth (Daniel Brühl), and a noble captain with a military background (David Oyelowo). There’s also the wisecracker (Chris O’Dowd), an astronaut who loses his mind (Aksel Hennie), and a caricature (the talented and underused Zhang Ziyi).

Like in Event Horizon, the crew travels into another dimension, then the crew turns on each other, the ship becomes possessed, and a giant monster attacks Earth. None of this is explained other than they went into an alternate dimension.

I admire the Cloverfield franchise because we don’t have many anthological film franchises and the previous entries were unique. Cloverfield combined the found footage and giant monster genres, resulting in a thrilling experience. 10 Cloverfield Lane established the film’s anthological style by acting as a psychological horror film set in the same universe (it’s the best of the trilogy). Paradox tries to establish a chronology to no avail.

SPOILERS OF PREVIOUS FILMS AHEAD!

Cloverfield was set in 2008 and revolves around a monster attack. 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t clear on when it’s set, but an alien invasion occurs. There were also small references in 10 Cloverfield Lane implying they’re in the same universe. Paradox has some small connections such as featuring a minor character from 10 Cloverfield Lane and featuring the Cloverfield monster.

However, if the film takes place in 2028, why is this monster attack happening without any reference to Cloverfield? This is due to a bad move on the studio’s part – turning a movie last minute in to the newest Cloverfield movie.

Paradox was originally titled God’s Particle and had no mention of Cloverfield until J.J. Abrams purchased the film and ordered rewrites and re-shoots to fit in the Cloverfield universe. Given that Paradox was already riddled with cliches and lazy writing, it wouldn’t have been any better, but it would have at least been more contained.

Because of the studio interference and setbacks, Paradox is overstuffed with too many ideas, conflicting tones, and cliched characters. I would have liked to know why a character’s severed arm came to life and how the ship became possessed rather than focus on a monster attack that was better executed in the first Cloverfield film.

In terms of film making, Paradox is amateur. It’s dimly lit with no color scheme, we have characters tell us what we’re seeing as it’s happening, and we even get a cheesy opening credits sequence that belongs in a 1990’s sci-fi channel show. Well, at least the cast tries.

I’m worried about genre films at this point; Netflix bought Paradox since Paramount had a packed schedule this year and studios are already selling films to Netflix for “similar reasons.” Do they really have packed schedules, or are they turning Netflix into the dumpster diver?

Grade: D- (only because the cast tries).

“Phantom Thread”

Goodbye, Daniel Day Lewis! I’ll miss you. Welcome back, Paul Thomas Anderson! I missed you.

Set in 1950’s London, esteemed fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Lewis) has a routined life. He eats breakfast quietly while sketching his ideas, he walks after work to recharge, and if just one thing is set off, his whole day is ruined. Reynolds’s life becomes complicated when he falls for a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who disrupts his routined life both unknowingly and knowingly.

I’m a huge fan of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. Boogie Nights and There Will be Blood are two of my very favorite films, Magnolia is a misunderstood masterpiece, and I consider Punch-Drunk Love to be one of the best romantic comedies ever made. Anderson’s scientology epic The Master and noir comedy Inherent Vice were fine, but I was fairly underwhelmed during both. Anderson returns to his roots in Phantom Thread.

Like Anderson’s earlier work, Phantom Thread is a period film about dysfunctional relationships. Reynolds is an artist and prioritizes work over his love life. Alma doesn’t understand this at first, but later finds ways for Reynolds to show affection. In one fascinating scene involving a drunken customer ruining Reynold’s dress, Alma convinces an angry Reynolds to steal back the dress he designed, which balances passions for work and Alma. It’s one of many darkly funny character-driven moments.

Krieps brings a nice touch of darkness as Alma. What could have been another cliched underused love interest, is instead a clever, manipulative, and occasionally deadly femme fatale character. She loves Reynolds, but isn’t afraid to put him in his place. Krieps is every bit as good as her costar, Lewis.

In his final performance, Lewis is more subdued as Reynolds. He’s not yelling manically or talking in an overly masculine voice. He speaks quietly and relies more on facial expressions to convey emotion. Lewis captures the complexity of an obsessive artist. I understand his need for order while also understanding his need for solitude (even if he’s being a raging jerk about it). Anderson gives subtle visual queues to let us know when Reynolds loses control when he goes from well-groomed and sharp-dressed to having uncombed hair and a mismatched, wrinkled suit.

The final act of Phantom Thread is a brilliant piece of genre splicing. Though we’re watching a romantic period film, the final act contains moments of dark comedy and psychological horror, resulting in a haunting conclusion. It may drag in places, but Lewis and Krieps make the slow moments rewarding. Phantom Thread is a great return-to-form for Paul Thomas Anderson and a great send-off for Daniel Day Lewis.

Grade: A

2017’s Best Films

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It’s time to talk about my favorite films of 2017! ItMother!, Wonder WomanSpider-Man: HomecomingSplitYour NameLogan LuckyThe Lost City of ZDetroitThor: RagnarokThe Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Wind River were all standouts, but these next ten films are my personal favorites of 2017.

10) The Shape of Water – Guillermo Del Toro’s latest fantasy film is as stunning and bizarre as his previous films, but more restrained. Del Toro focuses on an ensemble of outcasts played wonderfully by Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, and Octavia Spencer. The Shape of Water also excels as a romantic comedy and cold war thriller.

9) A Ghost Story – Arguably the artsiest film on my list, David Lowery’s self-financed supernatural drama is an unforgettable experience. A Ghost Story follows a ghost (Casey Affleck) trapped in an endless time cycle and we’re stuck with him. It’s a mesmerizing little film that explores time, loneliness, and love, bending our minds in the process.

8) Logan – We had a handful of great comic book films in 2017, but Logan is my  favorite! Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s final outing as Wolverine and Professor X is a glorious one. Jackman and Stewart both shine as broken versions of their beloved characters; newcomer Dafnee Keene also rips up the screen as young mutant, Lara. Fans of the Old Man Logan comic should be pleased since Logan has its dread, gore, and Apocalyptic Western aesthetics.

7) The Big Sick – The Big Sick is a gem. Kumail Nanjiani delivers a moving-yet-hilarious performance as a selfish comedian torn between culture and love in this insightful semi-biographical comedy. I’m picky with rom coms, but The Big Sick is the best one I’ve seen in the last five years.

6) The Disaster Artist – The versatile James Franco directs and stars in this chaotically funny Tommy Wiseau biopic. The Disaster Artist follows the troubled production of The Room, and doesn’t just poke fun at the film or the eccentric Wiseau. It also honors Wiseau’s passion, resulting in a surprisingly inspirational comedy.

5) Baby Driver – The summer’s best movie didn’t have superheroes, intelligent apes, or aliens. It had a likable getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) who relies on his iPod to outrun the police in a series of thrilling car chases. Reminiscent of True RomanceHeatDriveThe Blues Brothers, Point Break, and La La Land, Edgar Wright’s explosive jukebox musical thriller is for fans of musicals and crime films alike.

4) Lady Bird – Greta Gerwig brings new life to the coming-of-age genre with the emotional roller coaster, Lady Bird. This is a film that balances humor, warmth, and sadness by focusing on a teenaged Lady Bird’s (Saoirse Ronan) complex relationship with her hardened mother (Laurie Metcalf). Ronan and Metcalf are the frontrunner contenders for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress due to their powerful work.

3) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Leave it to Martin McDonagh to craft an unconventional revenge film that doesn’t have revenge in it. This is a scathingly funny character study of broken people seeking both redemption and retribution. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell deliver the best performances of their respective careers as an angry, grieving mother and a redeemable sociopathic cop. Don’t miss Three Billboards!

2) Blade Runner: 2049 – The masterful Denis Villeneuve carries on Ridley Scott’s legacy in this mesmerizing sequel. 2049 continues Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) storyline, leads to some brilliant twists, and introduces us to Ryan Gosling’s mysterious protagonist, K. It’s a mind-bender that makes us question our perception of reality, and it’s packed with amazing visuals (courtesy of Roger Deakins).

1) Get Out – What? Because Get Out has an A, it can’t be #1 over the A+’s? Grades are arbitrary and Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is the best film of 2017. It’s a bloody, creepy, and darkly funny commentary on racial politics. Every time I rewatch Get Out, it gets better because I notice more easter eggs and certain details. Watch it once for the entertainment value; watch it a second and third time to catch all of the subtleties. Either way, you know a movie is number one due to its rewatch value.

This was a terrific year for film and I can’t wait what next year has in store. What were some of your favorite films?