Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Cold War Review (2018, director: Paweł Pawlikowski)

Cold War is a 2018 film from Polish art house director Paweł Pawlikowski, whose previous film Ida became the first Polish movie to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. Pawlikowski won the Best Director for Cold War at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It also got shortlisted for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar and is practically certain to score a nomination, although it will probably lose to Roma.

The main selling point here, in my opinion, is clearly the cinematography. Like Ida, Cold War was shot in the boxy 4:3 ratio and in crisp, high contrast black and white. I especially enjoyed the snow scenes with blindingly stark white that looks almost otherworldly. Also, the camera movements and framing are always precise.

This style perfectly matches with the bleak environments the film takes place in. The characters are often given lots of headroom and placed in the lower half of the frame, which fits with their oppressive surroundings.

As far as the narrative goes, it’s pretty sparse and simple. The episodic story is about a romance that begins in communist Poland in 1949. The film jumps a year or two at a time, spans multiple countries, and ends up in the mid-1960s. Major events happen offscreen and there are really no important subplots or supporting characters. What happens during the time jumps is hardly spoonfed to the audience and cause and effect is loose at best, which some may find frustrating.

The two leads are named after the director’s parents as well as loosely based on them, so this is clearly a very personal story. Their romance is tender, but never sappy or cliche.

There’s no traditional score or non-diegetic music, but folk music and dancing play a large role and we get extended performances of both.

The acting is fantastic, especially from the magnetic Joanna Kulig as Zula.

Cold War is relatively short for an art house film at only 85 minutes so it may be accessible for those new to this type of cinema. There are a few moments of humor, but generally, it’s quite serious.

Overall, I don’t have any criticisms of the film. I definitely recommend to this anyone who has an appreciation for art house film or cinematography.

Cold War has a strongly positive Rotten Tomatoes rating of 93 percent.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) Review

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the newest Marvel adaptation from Sony and is unusual in being a theatrically released animated film based on such a big superhero.

I was a little skeptical of the visual style going in, but it ended up blowing me away. More so than any comic book movie, this really feels like a comic come to life, largely due to the unique, highly stylized animation. There are comic style thought bubbles, split screens that look like panels, and sound effects written out as words.

Spider-Verse stays true to the anything can happen nature of comic books, which is something that’s much easier to get away with in animation. The characters from different universes are portrayed in wildly different animation styles that match their themes, which is something that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to pull off in live action.

I was surprised by how trippy a lot of the animation ended up being and the kinetic, kaleidoscopic imagery results in one of the most creative animated films I’ve ever seen.

There are a massive amount of references and easter eggs, including a hilarious Spider-Man 3 joke right at the beginning, but they never feel shoehorned in. The fourth wall gets broken and there are some meta jokes, but these never take away from the emotional stakes.

Despite showing many different universes and a ton of characters we haven’t seen before in film, Spider-Verse is never convoluted. I’m very excited to see what comes next in this continuity and given the alternate dimensions the possibilities are almost literally endless.

Spider-Verse also manages to balance many different characters while still having plenty of time for character development and fun, high-energy action set pieces. There are plenty of jokes, but not at the expense of the film’s heart and it’s serious when it needs to be.

The 100-minute film is perfectly paced and never slow but doesn’t feel rushed either. There are a few cheesy lines, but overall the dialogue is quite well-written and witty.

I highly recommend this to any fans of comic book movies and this might even appeal to those who aren’t that crazy about superheroes.

Spider-Verse got nominated for a Golden Globe for best animated film and is basically a lock to get nominated for that category at the Oscars. I don’t know if I see it winning, as that award will probably go to Incredibles 2. For me though, I just might slightly prefer Spider-Verse to Incredibles 2 as the best animated film of the year.

It’s also the 2nd best comic book movie of 2018 after Infinity War and the best Spider-Man movie. I’d even go as far as to say it’s one of the best superhero films ever made.

The critics are loving SpiderVerse as it has a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 87 on Metacritic.

The film is doing decently well at the box office as well, and will probably end up with an opening weekend of around $40 million. It also has an A-plus on Cinemascore.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

If Beale Street Could Talk Review (2018, director: Barry Jenkins)

If Beale Street Could Talk is the newest film from acclaimed director Barry Jenkins, whose previous film Moonlight won Best Picture at last year’s Oscars. It’s based on the novel of the same name by author James Baldwin and is about a man falsely accused of rape and his pregnant wife in the early 1970s and set in New York.

The highly emotional and powerful Beale Street is easily one of the best films of 2018 I’ve seen so far, and is up there competing with First Reformed for my favorite of the year. This is about as good as Moonlight and it’s hard for me to pick one over the other at this point.

The highlight of this film for me was probably the evocative, string-heavy score from Nicholas Britell. The music is a huge part of Beale Street and there are several scenes where the plot slows down and we mainly just hear music as opposed to dialogue for a bit. This just might be the best score of 2018 from the films I’ve seen.

The cinematographer from Moonlight, James Laxton, returns and this film is shot just as beautifully. The fluid camerawork always serves the emotion of the scene and there are never cool shots just for the sake of cool shots. The straight-on close-ups from Moonlight return and are used to a very powerful effect.

Beale Street’s story is small but with the way it’s presented, it never feels that way. The story is quite heavy, but yet there are still moments of genuine humor. It uses a nonlinear chronology and the shifts between time periods are always smooth. The film is paced well and while it slows down a bit at times, this definitely feels necessary.

The production and set design are excellent as it lets the audience know when it takes place without hitting you over the head with it. The film, in general, makes some mentions of the era, but isn’t overly referential and tells a somewhat timeless story that could take place today. There’s some social and political commentary, but again this is subtle and not heavy-handed.

Jenkins’ screenplay contains some very well-written dialogue, especially in a family argument towards the beginning with some great back and forth exchanges.

The acting is solid all-around and the leads have great chemistry together. Most of the main characters aren’t big names, but a few more famous people fill smaller roles.

I really don’t have any complaints about Beale Street. Make sure to go out and see this as soon as possible, especially if you like Moonlight, as this solidifies Jenkins as one of the best filmmakers today.

The critics have been loving this movie and it has a 94% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Beale Street is absolutely going to get multiple Oscar nominations as it’s basically a lock for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Regina King will surely get a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination and I can easily see it getting in for cinematography as well. I don’t think it will win Best Picture, as at the moment it seems like that’s between A Star is Born and Roma. Obviously, we can’t count out Barry Jenkins after last year’s dramatics, but Moonlight seemed to be getting more buzz going into awards season.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Halloween (2018) Review

Halloween is the eleventh film in the iconic slasher franchise that started in 1978. It was co-written by Danny McBride, who starred in Pineapple Express and the show Eastbound and Down. He wrote the script with Jeff Fradley and David Gordon Green, who also directed and previously made Pineapple Express and Your Highness.

It was also produced by Blumhouse, famous for making highly profitable and often critically well-received low budget horror, like Get Out, The Purge, and Happy Death Day.

I had relatively low expectation for this as I actually thought the trailer looked super cheesy, but this was way better than I thought it was going to be. It’s leagues ahead of the Rob Zombie versions and easily the best since the original. It’s also probably the best straight-up slasher film to come out recently, at least that I’ve seen.

The 2018 version is decidedly more comedic than John Carpenter’s film, but it didn’t overdo it. It took itself seriously when it needed to and the funny parts were well done. Green’s sequel is predictable for the first half or so, but has some surprises towards the end. It mostly avoids cliches and characters are rarely bumbling idiots like in so many slashers.

This portrayal of Michael Myers is pretty solid. He looks great and we don’t get extensive explanations or backstory, and his true nature is wisely left ambiguous. This is much like the 1978 original as is how he’s not invincible and explicitly supernatural like he was in some of the other sequels.

Jamie Lee Curtis is fantastic as I was a bit unsure at first about how strongly they were emphasizing how much the traumatic experience affected her over the next 40 years, but her performance sold it for me. The Laurie Strode character is written as very intelligent and capable.

There’s a new doctor introduced who studied under Donald Pleasance’s character Dr. Loomis, but I don’t really care for his subplot. It goes in a weird, unnecessary direction and doesn’t have any sort of satisfying payoff. This is a pretty minor complaint, though. A few other minor characters were kind of annoying as well, but none of them detracted too much.

The kills are gorier than the original for sure, but they never go too crazy with the violence. John Carpenter returns to do the score, which I loved and listened to on its own as soon as I got home.

Halloween moves along quickly. It’s only around an hour and 45 minutes, which I think is about the perfect length for a horror film like this. Slashers generally don’t need to be over two hours.

It has a somewhat rocky start but gets better towards the end and leads to a very tense conclusion.

Green and McBride decided to ignore all of the sequels and reboots and I think this was a smart decision. The Rob Zombie reboots were poorly received by a lot of fans and critics and only hardcore fans care about the other sequels. There hasn’t even been a film in the original continuity since 2002.

Almost absurdly, the Halloween franchise now has 5 different timelines, in what has to be some sort of record. There’s a continuity with the original Halloween, Halloween II, and 4 through 6, one with the original, Halloween II, H20, and Resurrection, the reboots, Halloween III, which was an entirely unrelated story, and now this timeline with just the original and the 2018 version.

I definitely recommend this to any fans of the series and really just horror in general. Even some non-horror fans could get into this as it’s pretty accessible to general audiences.

Right now it has an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is 30 points higher than any other film in the franchise, excluding the first’s 93%.

Halloween only cost $10 million to make, less than both Rob Zombie versions. It’ll also outgross both of them before it’s even been in theaters a full week as it’s currently looking at a domestic opening weekend of at least $75 million. The would be the second biggest October opening weekend ever.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Tetsuo Trilogy Review (director: Shinya Tsukamoto)

Tetsuo: The Iron Man is easily one of the most unique films ever made and a landmark of experimental cinema. It has a singular style. even in the world of avant-garde film.

Tetsuo was released in 1989 and directed by Japanese filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto. It’s still his most well-known work, but he’s also garnered accolades for his other films, especially A Snake of June from 2002. Tetsuo is the first feature Tsukamoto made as an adult and he had previously only worked with 8mm film. It’s a good example of auteur theory as he was also credited as writer, producer, editor, art director, and he did the cinematography with Kei Fujiwara. He even stars as the Metal Fetishist and did all the animation himself. Tsukamoto has gone on to have a pretty notable acting career, working with acclaimed directors like Martin Scorsese in Silence and Takashi Miike with Ichi the Killer. He also lent his voice to the Japanese version of Metal Gear Solid 4.

The first Tetsuo film is an insane, visceral experience dripping in style. It was shot on grainy black and white 16mm film, which leads to a very gritty look. Tsukamoto uses high contrast imagery, extreme camera angles and frenzied, hectic editing to overwhelm and bombard the viewer. At times, the camera will even go completely sideways.

Stop motion photography is used throughout and is a distinct part of Tetsuo’s aesthetic. These effects are technically impressive as well as visually stimulating and the prosthetic work is equally skillful. Dialogue is kept to a minimum as Tsukamoto chose to tell the story more through visuals and this sometimes makes Tetsuo feel more like a music video than a movie.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Hold the Dark Review (2018, director: Jeremy Saulnier)

Hold the Dark is a Netflix exclusive and the newest film and fourth feature from Jeremy Saulnier, who’s currently one of the best up and coming directors out there. His first feature was 2007’s Murder Party, but he gained a lot more respect in 2013 with the tense thriller Blue Ruin. His third film Green Room was even better than Blue Ruin and got a 90% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

I still haven’t seen Murder Party, but I loved Blue Ruin and Green Room, so I was highly anticipating Hold the Dark. Like Saulnier’s previous two efforts this is a violent thriller full of dread. It’s a slight step down from Green Room, but about as good as Blue Ruin. It just doesn’t quite have that same intensity as Green Room that kept you riveted throughout. Hold the Dark has some gore, but isn’t as brutal as Green Room was. However, it is a much more philosophical and ambiguous film than Saulnier’s prior work.

I won’t give away much of the plot as it’s very difficult to describe without spoilers. It begins with a wildlife expert and author being contacted by a woman who says her son was abducted by wolves. It’s a little hard to tell where it’s going at first, and I think this worked. The plot isn’t super complicated, but there are some interesting twists. I recommend watching this knowing as little as possible.

Hold the Dark is leisurely paced and over two hours but I never found it boring. The slow build up increases tension and the impact of the sudden violence, which is a trademark of Jeremy Saulnier, who proves yet again he’s great at creating atmosphere.

The cinematography is good but doesn’t bring attention to itself. There are slightly long takes,
but nothing too crazy. The film is set in the Alaskan wilderness are there are certainly plenty of beautiful shots of the scenery.  The wide nature shots drive home the isolation of these small towns.

This is the first Saulnier film that he didn’t write the script for, and it’s not quite as tightly written as the ones he penned. The dialogue is at times cryptic or unnatural, but this fit the feel of Hold the Dark, so this wasn’t a huge negative.

The characters are fine but we don’t really get to explore too deep into any of them to care much what happens to them. The main character, played by Jeffrey Wright, is mostly passive, but I know by now not to expect a traditional protagonist from a Saulnier film. The performances are all good and pretty subtle and there’s definitely no overacting, but none of them will blow you away.

The ending wasn’t that satisfying, especially compared to the director’s earlier films.

While Hold the Dark is certainly a solid film, I don’t anticipate it ending up among my favorites of 2018. But since you don’t have to leave the house or pay any extra money if you already have Netflix, I highly recommend giving this a chance. And unless I’m forgetting something, this might just be favorite Netflix original film so far.

Right now Hold the Dark has a decent Rotten Tomatoes score of 73% and a 64 on Metacritic.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Cinema

The nation of Japan has been one of the most significant in terms of cinema, and quite possibly the most important in the continent of Asia. Japanese films have won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film four times, and they also have five wins of the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Both of these are more than any other Asian country.

Japanese movies have often been very experimental and broken many boundaries and taboos. Their influence on the world of cinema is simply undeniable.

The biggest icon to come from Japanese film is easily Godzilla. It started with the movie Gojira in 1954 and has impressively gone on to over 30 Japanese installments as well as multiple American versions, notably in 1998 and 2014.

Godzilla is part of the kaiju genre which focuses on giant monsters. Other notable examples from Japan include Mothra and Gamera, and it’s inspired Hollywood movies like Pacific Rim as well.

The Godzilla series was mainly produced by Toho studios, the famous Japanese distributor and production company that was also involved with well-known anime from people like Hayao Miyazaki as well many of the biggest art house directors.

While the franchise has a reputation for being silly monster movies, Godzilla started with a deeper meaning. The original film came only a decade after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla was created by nuclear radiation, and it also echoes the mass destruction of those events.