The Irishman (2019): A Good Reflective Crime Drama

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      “The Irishman” is a film that would have worked better as a show or focusing in on one story. Scorsese is a master of his craft and the film is beautiful, but I also ended up watching this film over 2 days. This film has some really strong stories within the narrative but at times drags and almost spends a little too much time in a time and place. Without getting into spoilers this is a film I’d recommend though, especially to any Scorsese fan.

The film was directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Steven Zaillian.

The story follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he recounts his time in the mafia.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematography – Scorsese has an eye for scenes and this film is beautiful. At times it feels like a documentary capturing snapshots in history, while other scenes become a drama and the tension is palatable and the scenes are personal. Rodrigo Prieto did a great job.

The Soundtrack – Robbie Robertson composed a fantastic soundtrack. It is kinetic when it needs to be and slow when it fits the narrative too. I loved his work in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and he is once again collaborating with Scorsese to wonderful results. I felt in among the characters because of how involved the music was and I definitely plan to use it for writing in the future.

The Core Character Relationships – The core relationships are what make the film work. Frank and Russell (Joe Pesci) have a mentor relationship that turns into a partnership after Russell brings him into the mob and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and Frank have a best friendship that the mob ends when Hoffa becomes a threat.

The Exploration of Time – The film begins in the 50’s when Frank is a truck driver but spends most of the time with Jimmy Hoffa in the 1960’s to the 1980’s. The strongest part of the narrative is our time with Hoffa and I wish that was the story that they had chosen to tell. It is where we see Frank face a dilemma and his choices really change him, besides that he is an enforcer and later leader within the mob and that just isn’t as interesting as his complex relationship with Hoffa.

The Cons:

The Third Act and Pacing – The Third Act and really anytime we are with an old Frank really drag. I didn’t really see the point of it beyond it showing that he in the end he died alone. Whenever we are in the present the film goes really slow and at it was already dragging at points prior. As said above I wish they just could have chosen Frank’s time with Hoffa as everything else doesn’t feel as compelling and is more flavor rather than story. This film is over 3 hours and even with me taking an intermission before finishing it the next day felt like nothing was missed in the interim. That really is what brings it down the most.

I thought this was a really good film. It isn’t as strong as Scorsese’s other work but I loved that he got to work with many actors who he had worked with before. De Niro, Pacino, Pesce are all in their A game and in roles that play to their strengths. The film is also beautifully filmed and the soundtrack is breathtaking. If you are a Scorsese fan, I highly recommend this film. It could have been more but I was still happy with what I got.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10

 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019): A Great Exploration of Insecurity

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      “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a great film. This is a film that stays on the theme of exploring insecurity, while giving us a glimpse into the lives in Hollywood right before the 70’s hit. You can clearly see how passionate Tarantino is about his work and the performances and cinematography are amazing. For my non-spoiler thoughts, I think if you are a Tarantino fan you will probably enjoy this film but there are some areas that I wish had been explored further, which was why this film didn’t make my Top 5 this year.

The film was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

The story follows Rich Dalton (Leanardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff (Brad Pitt) as Rich’s career is coming to an end and he struggles with what to make of his life. The story follows the rising star of Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) and the actions of the Mansons in the surrounding area.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematography – Tarantino has such a good eye for scenes and this film is a great example of this. Robert Richardson the cinematographer does a beautiful job capturing this as Hollywood feels alive, grimy and fully realized in an era of time.

The World – The world of late 60’s going into the 70’s Hollywood is fascinating. You have the Manson cult running around, you’ve got spaghetti westerns in their hayday and the rise of Italian Cinema and of course the mixture of poverty and excess. Tarantino is clearly passionate about this time period and you can see it in the set designs and characters as well as the catchy soundtrack. This film made me want to check out some more of the films from this era to see more of what Tarantino pulled inspiration from.

The Characters – The characters in this world are complicated and it makes them compelling. Rich is a falling star making sense of himself in a world that doesn’t need him anymore, Cliff is trying to survive in a world where he blacklisted (there is a belief he killed his wife in the film from the Hollywood community), and Sharon Tate is making sense of her own rising star and the world of Hollywood. Robbie, DiCaprio and Pitt are all fantastic in their roles and I’d watch a show of this film to see more of these characters.

The Action and Alternate History – This is one of Tarantino’s alternate history takes as in this the Manson followers who killed Sharon Tate instead go to Rich and Cliff’s house and end up getting killed in the process. The action is brutal in true Tarantino action and getting revenge against terrible people is a Tarantino trope I enjoy. This alternate history leads to Rich possibly getting a second boost in his career too as at the end he gets to meet Sharon Tate and with it becomes part of the new Hollywood that she is a part of.

An Exploration of Insecurity – The common theme of the film is that of insecurity. You see it in Rich’s monologues and breakdowns, in Cliff’s interactions with others where he always has to win, in Bruce Lee starting a fight with Cliff, Sharon Tate in her self-discovery as an upcoming star and in Hollywood itself, always chasing the next big dream. Tarantino explores this through all these characters. Character actions are driven by how people view them and by their own doubts about themselves. It is wrestling with this that characters find balance and some semblance of peace by the end.

The Cons:

Motivation of the Murders – We don’t get to see how the Manson girls got brainwashed and how he kept control and that was something that would have added another layer to the film. The Mansons were cult and we only really get glimpses of how that cult worked. Exploring this further would have strengthened the film and could have been worked into the theme of insecurity as well.

One of the rightful issues with the film was the treatment of Bruce Lee. I can appreciate that perspective but in this case I disagree as it fit the theme of the story. Lee like every person in the story is dealing with insecurity and it is that theme that keeps the story so strong. He isn’t in any lesser light than the other characters who aren’t evil like the Mansons. This film was a joy to watch and I can’t wait to see what Tarantino does next. This was a great film and a huge improvement over Tarantino’s last film “The Hateful Eight.” Seriously, if you are a Tarantino fan, this film is well worth your time.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) – Enjoyable but Weakest of the New Trilogy

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      ‘The Rise of Skywalker” is a mess with a ton of flaws and is easily the weakest out of all the new Trilogy. I felt that the things that were strong helped elevate the mess enough to the point that it still managed to be an enjoyable film, even though I hate how derivative it is of “Return of the Jedi.” A lot of my fears about Abrams return were certainly validated in this film but due to actor performances and character relationships that really made it work for me, as extremely flawed as it is.

The film was directed by J.J. Abrams who co-wrote the film along with Chris Terrio.

The story picks up a few years later with Leia training Rey as a Jedi as Kylo Ren finds Emperor Palpatine alive with his hidden fleet. From here it is a race against time as our heroes must stop Palpatine and Kylo Ren before they conquer the galaxy.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Soundtrack – John Williams is once again showing why he heads this series. He is once against the master of his craft here. I will definitely be listening to this soundtrack again and all his work with the prior films.

The Action – The action is good but nothing stands out like the fights in the prior film. There is emotional resonance to some of the action, specifically anytime Rey and Kylo fight one another. This film is primarily action though so it had to be at least serviceable. In that I’d say it succeeds but it isn’t as good as the action in “The Force Awakens” or “The Last Jedi.”

The Core Characters – The core characters are what makes this film work, even though I disagreed with some of the character choices done with them. For the characters I feel like were the strongest I’ll be going into more depth below as it was really these characters that made the film work enough for me in the end.

Poe – Poe takes up the leadership role that was left in the last film as we see him leading the Resistance after Leia’s death. He is made more like Han Solo in this film (which annoyed me) but I liked us seeing him clash with Rey. Both are headstrong so it’d make sense they’d clash. It also got away from shipping them, which I appreciated. Oscar Issac’s is of course wonderful as always.

Finn – John Boyega is one of the strongest of all the new actors and that is once again demonstrated here. Here we get hints that Finn might have the force (he senses things, especially when Rey is in trouble). I wish this could have been explored further, but I did enjoy him playing such a key role in the final battle and fully embracing his role as a member of the rebellion. He even meets a former stormtrooper in this who he forms a friendship with. He is my favorite of the new characters besides Kylo Ren / Ben Solo and I would like to see what is done with him in the future.

Leia Organa – Leia finishes Rey’s training from the unused footage from prior films. It worked for me and I like that her last act was reaching out to Ben Solo so he could return to the light. It was strong and you see that Rey’s healing in the force probably came from Leia’s training. R.I.P. Carrie Fisher. I’m glad we got to know her more in this. One of the strongest scenes is when Luke tells Rey that when Leia finishes her training from Luke she realizes what becoming a Jedi will do to her son. The consequence of having the power is recognized and I like how that shaped her and made her choose to stay the politician and general instead.

Kylo Ren / Ben Solo – Ben Solo’s arc is the biggest re-tread of prior films but it is also one of the things that works most about the film. In this it is in the act of Rey healing him and his mom reaching out to him with the last of her life force that change him to the light. After this he speaks to Han in his memory before casting away his red lightsaber. Adam Driver is acting the hell out of this film and he is a huge reason the film works. His redemption story is predictable but the way Kylo versus Ben carry themselves is noticeable and the steps to the transformation are rushed but worked. It was that heart of the film that I really felt anything and I appreciate that Ben dies to save Rey. It brings the story full circle and makes him the most developed character in the entire series.

The Cons:

Knights of Ren – The Knights of Ren show up and have no payoff. They don’t feel like a threat. Phasma did more and I felt like she wasn’t fully utilized or explored. We don’t learn anything about them and they have no interaction with Kylo beyond being enforcers and fighting him at the end. They are missed potential in a big way and could have been worthy foes.

Palpatine and his Plan – We never lean how Palpatine survived “Return of the Jedi” except that the Dark Side cult is probably tied to the reasons and maybe he did have a contingency like his hidden fleet with Death Star weapons. Ian McDiarmid is of course amazing in the role, but his existence is just a re-treated of “Return of the Jedi” as we never get what his plan was for the First Order, since he created Snoke.

Rey’s Origin – I wish Rey’s parents had been nobody. Her being a Palpatine makes this universe so small, with everyone being related to everyone. Plus it is hard to imagine someone who wants to live forever (Palpatine) ever having a kid. In the prequels and original Trilogy he shows no interest in romance or sex at all. So her origin story becomes nonsensical and meaningless. She’d have fought Palpatine anyway regardless of her bloodline so it changes nothing.

Force Bloodlines and Return of the Prequel Problems – Rey being a Palpatine and Ben being a Skywalker bring back the prequel problem of the force and bloodlines, when it looked like the “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” were trying to get away from that. Leaning all in just elevated the problem of the origin story in the first place and takes away the mystique of the force. I hated in the prequels and I hate it once again here.

This film is a mess and I do wish they’d been more original than re-treading “Return of the Jedi.” If you are a Star Wars fan chances are you will find something to like, though the things I hated might be a bigger deal for you as well. The Skywalker story is the strongest part of the film (Ben, Luke and Leia) and really what makes the film good. The characters are who carry this frenetic mess and elevate it to an enjoyable experience. If you liked the prior 2 films, you will probably enjoy this one. The flaws are huge and I wish Disney had been more original, but for a Trilogy that only really took risks with “The Last Jedi,” this worked but could have been so much more.

8.6 / 10

Parasite (2019): A Thrilling Deconstruction of Class

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       “Parasite” is a film that stays with you. This is a film that explores class in South Korea as well as the complicated nature of the human psyche. None of the characters you meet are really likable but they are compelling and I found myself drawn in through the entire film. I wanted to see what would happen next, and the film did not disappoint. This is an amazing thriller and the beautiful cinematography and soundtrack elevate it further. I definitely recommend this film.

The film was directed and co-written by Bong Joon-ho who co-wrote the story along with Han Jin-wan.

The story follows the Kim family who cons their way into fulfilling roles needed by the wealthy Park family. All is not as it appears to be though as the history of the house and the weaknesses into con begin to be revealed.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematography – The cinematography is absolutely beautiful and does a good job of pulling you in. Light is used to illustrate tension or discomfort as even the Park household never feels fully lit. This does a great job of growing the tension between characters, be it love, friendship or distrust. The use of light and dark helps illustrate the class divide between the characters as well as the Park house is filmed primarily during the day, while the Kim house is filmed primarily at night. The areas that are darkest is the hidden basement which feels like a horror film in how it shot and it is here where the Climax of the film really begins. This area of the house is filmed in sickly yellows and greens. Hong Kyung-pyo did an amazing job.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack like the cinematography keeps you drawn in. There are sharp string instruments used at certain points and most of the soundtrack gives a sense of foreboding and melancholy. This plays into the theme and feel of the film and elevates it. Jeong Jae-il’s composition is absolutely beautiful.

The Characters and Nuance – This is a film that is full of character nuance. Most of the characters are more complicated than they appear to be. The father from the Kim family Ki-taek forms a friendship with the wife of the Park family Yeon-gyo and seems to care about her more than her husband does. The Kim daughter Ki-jeong helps the Park boy Da-song who she is art teacher for to calm down and there are little moments like this between characters scattered through the film. It is beautifully done. I kind of hated most of the characters at first until I noticed that nuance, which makes the con falling apart all the more tragic as everyone in this film suffers or dies in the end when the con comes crashing down.

Deconstructing Class – One of the lines in the film is that the Park family is kind because they are rich. There is truth to this in that they aren’t desperate to live so have formed relationships beyond survival, while the Kim families relationships are entirely based on eating and keeping their house. Why the class structure that exists is never explored but the consequence upon how people behave is. Desperation leads to selfishness and living well off can lead to a level of detachment.

The Ending – The climax starts when the former housekeeper returns after the Kim family is celebrating and drinking while the Park family is away. What we discover is her husband worked for the home’s prior owner and has gone insane. When the con is revealed the former housekeeper after the Kim mother refuses to help. This leads to the housekeeper ending up accidentally killed and her husband breaking out and attacking the Kim son and killing the Kim daughter. Kim Ki-taek kills the houskeeper’s husband and attacks the Park father after the Park father reacts to his “smell,” and escapes. After the Kim son Ki-woo recovers in the hospital he learns that his father survived and is living in the underground area where the housekeeper’s husband had been. He vows to earn money to get the house so that someday his father can be free and the story ends. There is so much that happens and it stays with you.

The Cons:

Backstory and Motivation of the Mothers – I wanted more story on what had brought the Mothers to be in the situations they were in. The con mother Chung-sook used to be an athlete, but we don’t know why she is so harsh on the housekeeper. What drove her to be the meanest of her family? How did Yeon-gyo end up in the relationship with a husband who never admits to loving her? They both love their children and that clearly drives them, but I wanted more on how they came to be in the places they were. I feel like that would have defined more of the choices they make in the film.

This was a film I came to love the more I thought about it. The characters have nuance and humanity to them, even as they do horrible things and in the end there is growth for at least 2 of the family members who did the con as well. This film could have easily just clearly painted one side as wholly bad but it doesn’t. Instead you see what greed and desperation do to people as well as how money changes how people view one another. This is powerful and relevant and the only thing keeping it from getting a higher score is I wanted more backstory from the mothers. They really needed more development for what defined who they were.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10

Jojo Rabbit (2019): A Masterpiece of Satire and Heart

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     Taika Waititi is brilliant. “Jojo Rabbit” is one of the best satires I have ever seen as it mixes the feel of a Wes Anderson film with the biting edge of a Mel Brooks comedy. This film has so much heart and the powerful message alone are reason enough to see it. This might be my favorite film from Taika and will most likely make my Top 5 Films at the end of the year.

The film was directed and written by Taika Waititi and based off the story Caging Skies by Christine Leunens.

The story follows “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a German child at the end of World War 2. He’s fully bought into the Nazi propaganda and has an imaginary friend Hitler (Taika Waititi). His world is soon changed when he finds his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is sheltering a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Characters and Performances – The main characters are wonderful. You have the naive Jojo who grows out of the fascist propaganda over the course of the film. You have his mother Rosie who is fighting against the Nazis trying to spread the word of resistance through Berlin, this is one of the best performances I’ve seen Scarlett Johansson do. Elsa is the heart of the film as the Jewish refugee who forms a friendship with Jojo over the course of the film.

The Satire – The satire is brilliant. Like Mel Brooks mocked Hitler in “The Producers,” Taika does this hear with a cartoonish Hitler who acts like a child that is eventually seen by Jojo to be the insane man he is. It is gradual but we see how it is from made up mythological stories that Hitler built his brand on in the lies told about what it means to be German and the lies about anyone considered an enemy of Germany. Be they Jewish, Romani, Russian, etc. Over the film you see this revealed in the people fed up with the lie or those embracing it even as it ruins their lives and those of the people around them.

Dangers of Fascism – One of the strongest themes of the film is the danger of fascism. In it you see how the populace suffers and only a very small group of the delusional are those who profit from the status quo they create. A women’s role becomes to bear children for the Empire, minorities are killed off and anyone who is injured or damaged is cast aside and forgotten about. Any difference from the ideal has no place and it is this ideal that is used to blind enough people to fulfill the will of those in power. This film illustrates all this beautifully and it is part of what gives the film so much power.

The Emotional Core – The emotional core of the film is in witnessing everything Nazism has destroyed and our heroes finding life at the end. Elsa lost her betrothed and family to the Nazis. Jojo goes from “Othering” Elsa to becoming her friend and it is powerful seeing him go through deprogramming himself from all the fascist propaganda. Jojo’s mother is hung for fighting against the Nazis and in the end one of the Nazi soldiers who protects Elsa risks his life to save Jojo. These moments lend the film so much power. It is this heart that makes it more than simply a brilliant dark satire.

The Cons:

Ending Length – This was a film that could have gotten to the final scene faster. The last third of the film drags at times, which does a good job of putting you into Jojo’s mindset but also hurts the narrative flow, since before this I never noticed pacing at all. This is the only con I could find though, which says a lot for how great this film is.

This is a powerful film that is well worth your time. The message of fascism’s danger and the evil in “Othering” people is relevant as ever now. I hope more people see this film and that the message is taken to heart. This film is a masterpiece and I can’t wait to see what other films Taika Waititi makes in the future.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10 Near perfect.

 

The King (2019): Feels Like a Pilot to a Show

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      The best thing I can say about “The King” is it made me want to read more about the “Hundred Years’ War.” The film is adapted from Henry IV and Henry V written by William Shakespeare. I haven’t seen the plays but this story did a great job of sparking that interest and honestly, I wish it had just chosen one of the plays. There is a lot of story in this film and it does feel like we don’t get the full picture of what is going on. I would say if you like historical dramas, it is worth checking out, just don’t go in expecting anything great. There isn’t enough story fleshed out so it feels like the pilot of a show versus a complete film.

The film was directed and co-wrote by David Michôd with his other co-writer being Joel Edgerton.

The story follows Prince “Hal” and his rise to power after the death of his father King Henry IV and the politics surrounding his rise in the Hundred Years’ War.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Action – The fight sequences that exist are fantastic. The war is brutal and we see characters we know die as well as different tactics being used on the battlefield. The action really brings you into this brutal world, which honestly keeps the film from sucking.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful in this film. I’ve come to expect this from Netflix, so this is more of the same but the wide sweeping shots of France and England really give scale to the war and battles.

The Politics – The politics could have been expanded upon more but I love that we see that the United Kingdom isn’t united and just how complicated the war for power and control is. I would have preferred more politics, especially getting more of the French point of view, but what we see in the court with Henry IV is intriguing and I liked the different voices represented on King Henry IV’s council.

Okay/Con:

Historical Accuracy – This is a film adapted from a play that was already changing history, so when adapting Shakespeare I don’t expect historical accuracy. All the same I would have liked to see characters developed further. There is so much within history to pull from and not much was done in how the characters were presented or the screen time they received.

The Cons:

The Role of Catherine – Catherine convinces “Hal” that his Justice Gascoigne lied about the assassin and he believes her. We don’t see any of her perspective prior to this and when the conflict starts so “Hal” suddenly trusting her comes out of nowhere. This was a waste as since this is adaptation, she could have played a much bigger role in the narrative and in turn we could have been given reasons earlier to know she is trustworthy.

Underdeveloped Reasons for the War – Beyond Hal’s father having been fighting for territory we don’t really get any reason for the invasion of France beyond the false assassination attempt. There is so much history here that I wanted to hear why France and England had been at war. I wanted more reasons and history and this film did not give it.

For such a fascinating time in history I would have loved more history and context. This a film that chose to keep things simple with the characters and in the process we don’t get the deeper motivations of what drives them, and that hurts the film. The film isn’t historical because Shakespeare himself shaped history to tell his dramas, and this story adapted from his stories is no difference. This is a case where the nuance of history would have strengthened the narrative. We are asked to assume to so much or given the base of motivation. This is enough for the film to be fine, but isn’t good or great. It needed more than great action and cinematography.

Final Score: 7.5 / 10

The Art of Self-Defense (2019): An Amazing Critique of Toxic Masculinity

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    “The Art of Self-Defense” is a film that was so close to the film I wanted. If you like black comedies and thrillers, chances are you will enjoy this film. This film is good, the cast is great, the writing and plot structure is solid. Most of the issues I have are with the larger world the story takes place in and how consequences are expressed. This a film that should have been longer given how much I found went unexplained. Before I get into spoilers though, I definitely recommend it.

The film was written and directed by Riley Stearns. This is the first film I’ve seen him do, so I hope he makes more.

The story follows Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) who after being attacked and nearly killed by bikers joins a Karate Dojo in order to learn self-defense. He soon learns all is not as it appears as he transforms under the tutelage of the Sensei.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

Casey’s Arc – Casey’s story is strong. You have a guy who is afraid and at one point doesn’t even want to leave his house after he is nearly killed by a group of mysterious bikers. After he joins the Dojo he improves from Sensei in that he stands up for himself and starts to finally form connections with others. Where it falls apart is that his Sensei is a fanatic and his whole philosophy is based on dominance and destruction over others. Casey loses his job because he punches his boss in an asserting his dominance and Sensei uses this to make him his accountant at the dojo. When Casey realizes this and that Sensei was the one who had beat him up in the first place he gets revenge and finally changes the dojo. Jesse Eisenberg is wonderful in this role as the character he plays is anti-social and it is only among the other anti-social people of the dojo that he finds friends. Anna is his ally in the dojo and after learning her story and seeing how she saved his life when Sensei and the motorcycle gang almost killed him, he makes her Sensei after killing the prior one with a gun.

Toxic Masculinity – The main theme running through the story is that of toxic masculinity. Sensei believes that everything should be masculine and that masculine things are the only things men should like. This is expressed in that he believes in not just as martial arts as the only way to truly fight but also that heavy metal music, choosing to start fights and make others like you or destroying them and that women aren’t capable of this and are weaker in all things (she is up to brown belt but will never be black belt even though she is the strongest person in the dojo). This is all in reaction to the loss of his wife and him abandoning his “feminine” name.

The Cons:

Unfocused on the World Being Personal or Large – The main con in this film is that there is a larger story going on in the sidelines that never truly becomes part of the main narrative. Casey kills an undercover cop for the dojo but there aren’t any consequences for it. The dojo is so impenetrable from consequences outside of it that it comes off as unrealistic. This unfocus also related to the theme of the film in toxic masculinity. I wish the story had been told through Anna’s eyes, because it is through Casey’s we only get see so much of the ideology of Sensei and because he is new we don’t see why the others follow him so mindlessly. Why does Anna stay? These are all things I wanted to know that should’ve been fleshed out. There needed to be more reasons for motivations and beliefs beyond Sensei’s.

This is a solidly great film. The writing is sharp and the story flows. If the problem of consequences and it either staying focused on the small world of the dojo or truly making the world feel large the problem would have been solved. In the end scale is really what kept the film from landing higher on the list. I definitely recommend this film. It won’t make my Top 5 at the end of the year but I can’t wait to see what this director does next.

Final Score: 9 / 10