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

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 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

The Lighthouse (2019): The Haunting Light

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     “The Lighthouse” is worth the hype. This is a film that feels that taps into the human psyche and the terror of both isolation and the monsters people are capable of being. It does all this while still having nuance within the script and giving us complicated characters. It helps that it is beautifully filmed. I really hope we see more films like this. It certainly feels like a film that Hitchcock would make or any of his contemporaries. From the almost stage nature and the symbolism and depth that carries the film, beyond the amazing performances by Pattinson and Dafoe. Before I get into spoilers, I highly recommend this film.

The film was directed and co-written by Robert Eggers, with Max Eggers being the other writer.

The story follows Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) who is contracted out to be wickie for 4 weeks on an Island of the coast of New England. He meets impatient man in charge Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), and begins to experience strange visions after finding a statue of a mermaid buried within his bed.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematography – This film is beautiful. The use light in black and white is used to create a haunting and isolating environment. Jarin Blaschke truly did a beautiful job.

The Writing – The script feels like a stage play at times while still being natural. Characters will give monologues and the two of them read from a book, and that book becomes part of the theme and narrative. Myths and legends are weaved into the lives and lies of our characters. This is all used in the theme of the dreams tied to what the characters preach about. There is a sense of the supernatural through the entire narrative.

The Characters – Dafoe and Pattinson fully inhabit their characters. You have the superstitious Wake whose story about his bad leg is all lie but clearly is connected and worthy of the light from the Lighthouse. Both of them are so incredibly flawed and seeing them build trust with one another that falls apart is tragic and powerful. Each of them carries lies from their past and origins and over the course of the story those truths are revealed and come at costs to the different characters. Each of them are people who wouldn’t have a relationship as colleagues unless they had to. Wake likes his solitude and has committed crimes to keep it and has regret from it just as Winslow regrets what has driven him here. He clearly doesn’t want to be a drifter but feels as if he has no choice and because of it he can’t trust. Neither of them are good people but them being complicated makes their going mad all the more fantastic to witness.

Isolation, Loneliness and Lies and delusions – Some of the major themes of the story involve the isolation of our characters, the lies they tell one another and the loneliness they each face. The characters are consumed by visions and delusions. Winslow dreams of a mermaid and killing or having sex with it and sees visions of tentacles rising from Wake and him looking like a sea deity. The only time the characters aren’t alone is over meal time or when Winslow finally drinks with Wake. It is here we see the connection they come to share that is destroyed by the truth of their actions and past and the all consuming madness of the light.

The Consuming Truth – What ends up being a major theme of the story is consuming truth. As the characters go mad they learn more about one another see in the end the revelation of the lies and truth destroys their sanity and lives. It is powerful as both characters are murders and in turn meet their ends as they attack one another and give mortal injuries that signal that there is no escape for either from the truth.

The Haunting Light – The light from the Lighthouse is used hauntingly throughout the film. Winslow goes from not caring about it it becoming his obsession. He kills to see the light and in turn it leads to his eyes burning and him being punished by the gulls. The light is never peaceful and even when there is ecstasy it always has a dark implication. Wake masturbates to it and it is when Winslow watches him do it he sees tentacles above for the first time, an early sign of his madness. It is unknown if the light brings about the madness or simply reveals it but it is center to the story and I loved it.

I loved this movie. It is truly worth the hype. I really want to see Pattinson’s Batman now and this easily one of the best performances Willem Dafoe has done. If you like movies full of rich themes, psychological horror and are beautifully filmed, this is the film for you. This film doesn’t feel long at all. This might be my favorite film of the year and I can’t wait to see what Robert Eggers creates next.

10 / 10 The film is perfect and well worth your time.

Joker (2019): Can More Batman Rogues Get This Treatment?

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        “Joker” is a film that has received both a lot of hate and love. I can understand both perspectives but find myself on the liking side. I’m a huge fan of the Batman Rogues gallery and how different they all are psychologically is what makes them so compelling. Hell, they are more compelling than Batman. It is one reason Warner Brothers always casts big name celebrities in the roles. There is so much to do, even if we only get a glimpse into their psyche. This film is a deep dive into the Joker and it works.

The film was directed and written by Todd Phillips who co-wrote it with Scott Silver.

The story follows Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill clown for hire in Gotham City. As his life falls further apart he aspires to be a stand up comedian. Secrets tied to his past combined with social collapse in Gotham forever change him.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

Gotham – Gotham is so wonderfully portrayed in this film. The city is dark and grimy and you see the build up of trash (from the garbage men strike going on at the beginning of the film) contrasted with the Wayne’s version of Gotham where you have fundraisers at beautiful hotels and Wayne Manor, which is so far away from the city that they feel barely connected. You also get taste of the everyday life from the comedy clubs to Robert De Niro’s talk show host Murray. This is a version of Gotham I hope we see more of as it makes that it is a city where unless you are wealthy you will get eaten up and spit out. Which does help explain the rise of Joker and all the Batman rogues to come.

Isolation – One thing the film portrays will is isolation. Arthur Fleck doesn’t have any friends and the film follows his point of view. We see how alone he is with his mother, when he’s working and any large social event he is invisible, except for at the end when he’s embraced his new identity as the Joker.

Joker / Arthur Fleck – This is a story told from the perspective of Arthur Fleck. We don’t really see any of Gotham besides what we see from his point of view. This is great as we come to see how isolated, alone and ill he is. He’s medicated, has a tick where he laughs uncontrollably, lives with his mom who is also mentally unstable and is in a job he hates where he has no job protection or security. I wish there’d been more of a push for him to become a killer. This version of Joker is already broken and unstable and when he does kill for the first time in self-defense has no regret, but loves the attention it is getting him in the revolution taking place in Gotham. Joaquin Phoenix portrays this sociopath really well. From his dancing when he feels freedom and his lost within himself and delusions that we see through the film. This is a character completely alone and that combined with everything else just makes this character’s already unstable mind, so much worse to the point that he adopts the Joker identity.

Dreams, Delusions and the Unreliable Narrator – One of the reasons I think this film works as a Joker film is because it still gives us the unreliable mind of the Joker. Throughout the film Arthur has visions of being with his neighbor and to him they are real until reality comes crashing down on him. This brings up the possibility of this being all a lie told by the Joker at the hospital, as the final scene is him being interviewed before he kills the person interviewing him. This film is his justification, his life where he abused and bullied, the inequalities in Gotham and self-defense, in the case of his first murders. The versions of the Joker from the comic would tell some version of this, as the Joker is never responsible for anything. It is how he gaslit Harley Quinn. For me this is what works even though the writing had a lot of tell when it needed more show.

The Cons:

Themes Needed to go Deeper – There are a few themes the film touches upon, but isn’t willing to go deeper. We see wealth inequality and the detachment of the wealthy like Thomas Wayne and how insulated the rich are from the poor even as they cut their resources. Again, it is touched upon but there was so much they could have done with this. How was Arthur and his mother affording their apartment? What were some of the policies that Thomas Wayne wanted to enact? What is the history of the Waynes to Gotham? Who are the people protesting? These are all questions that would have enriched this theme. Same with lack of mental health care, Arthur loses his social worker but we never see him interact with others in his state or hear about her other clients. These are all great ideas that exist and the film briefly touches, but it needed so much more to elevate the film and better flesh out the world.

Too Much Tell, Needed More Show – This film has some dialogue that isn’t great. Joker literally blames “society” on the talk show, which is a living meme at this point given how Disney and other studios have used the vagueness of society to try and make their films appear more progressive, without actually addressing any issues. The dialogue at times feels unnatural, which is one reason why the best scenes are simply Joaquin Phoenix quietly acting. The guy truly deserves an Oscar for this role as he elevated a film with his performance. The telling rather than showing was easily my biggest issue with this film and I wish we had gotten more show.

This was a controversial film and I have friends who loved it and hated it. I really liked it and it was a film I’d highly recommend to any Scorsese fan (Phillips clearly takes inspiration from a lot of his work in how he frames Gotham and presents characters). I hope more of Batman’s rogues get this treatment as Scarecrow, Riddler, Penguin, Bane and countless others have stories worthy of the big screen. They are much more compelling than Batman (as Batman’s rogues usually are) and I hope this film inspires more of their stories to be told. This film didn’t achieve its full potential, but I appreciate what it did accomplish.

9.3 / 10. I really enjoyed this flawed film and I hope more Batman rogues get this treatment.

Midsommar (2019): An Amazing Film About Grief and Isolation

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   “Hereditary” was one of my favorite films last year and this year “Midsommar” has the potential to be that too. This is a psychological disturbing horror film that delves into the depths of grief. The only thing that really holds it back is the only likable character is our main character.

The film was written and directed by Ari Aster.

The story follows Dani (Florence Pugh) after her sister kills herself and her parents she finds herself isolated and alone. When her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends when they travel to an isolated Swedish village that is the hometown of one of the friends for the village’s midsummer festival.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

Cinematography – The cinematography is some of the best I’ve seen all year. There are wide shots that suck in just how isolating open spaces can be. The film largely takes place in daylight and Pawel Pogorzelski uses this to give an ethereal alien feel to our characters as they are drugged by their hosts and the midsummer 9 day festival begins.

Soundtrack – The music uses lots of chants and quick strikes on the strings and drums. This plays beautifully into the isolation and the nature focus of the cult and it plays into the isolation. The music is striking and it makes the scenes and experiences of the characters stand out.

Dani’s Isolation – Dani’s isolation is our primary perspective in the film. It is done beautifully and nature is used to portray it. She is alone, even when she is with people and this is reflected in wide shots of wherever she is (her college or the village) and her visions. The drugs cause some of those visions as well which compounds how alone she is feeling. In the end she is the Cult’s mark and her isolation she feels from the beginning the film is what is taken advantage of.

The Terror of the Cult – The cult is creepy. They view themselves as part of nature and will kill themselves when they reach a certain age or to keep the balance of how many people are in the village. This extends out to people bringing sacrifices to keep alive longer and to sustain the village bloodline. The creepiness is there the moment you enter the village. The villagers never give much information and there are hints in the art on what will happen to the tourists. They are the scariest part of the film and seeing it from Dani’s fear and isolation only makes it more powerful especially as she chooses Christian as the final sacrifice for the festival showing just how in the cult she has become.

Facing Grief – The main arc of the story is Dani facing her isolation and grief over her sister killing herself and their parents. The cult has a life built around the seasons and villagers willingly give up their lives for the cause. This acclimates her to death to the point that by the end she smiles even as her friends and ex are now all dead. For her the breaking scene is when she finds Christian in a sex ritual with a girl from the village. It is here the village women cry with her and in the burning of the past she is reborn in the village and smiles for the only time the entire film.

Okay:

The Characters as Expendable Tropes – The characters are all jerks except for Dani. Her boyfriend doesn’t want to be in the relationship and never listens to her, his friends are a partier and the one who is studying the village for his Thesis and never shows kindness to anyone. The friend who brought them there is terrible as well as he knew he was bringing them there to be sacrificed. The one reason it isn’t a con is it does play well into Dani’s isolation and her eventually becoming the May Queen and a member of the Cult.

If you enjoy horror films or Ari Aster, this is a film I highly recommend. The film is long but it doesn’t feel that way at all. “Midsommar” has has a Kubrickesque feel as it has you sit with characters and scenes so they sink in and you feel uncomfortable by what is happening or what might be about to happen. This is the kind of horror enjoy and the fact that the film uses the theme of grief as an exploration adds another layer to an already great film.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10 If the other tourists with Dani had been likable it would be perfect.

The Dead Don’t Die (2019): Clever Ideas in an Empty Story

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       The type of comedies I’m usually into are British style or dark comedy. This is a film that truly wants to be a dark comedy but I’m sad to say I didn’t laugh once. The premise is intriguing, the execution looks good but the writing just doesn’t work and none of the jokes landed for me. Comedies are a strange thing to review given how subjective it can be. There is such a thing as a film believing it to be more clever than it actually is, and this is that film. I think was the story was going for was calling out the tropes in horror but it forgot to give character arcs and a compelling story in the process.

The film was written and directed by Jim Jamusch who wrote and directed a different film I like in “Only Lovers Left Alive.”

The story follows Sheriff Cliff (Bill Murray) and Officer Ronnie (Adam Driver) as they deal with the zombie apocalypse in their small town of Centerville.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful. The colors are stark and it does a good job of paying homage to classic zombie films by using red when death is happening and giving a little bit of light and day. Frederick Elmes really did a great job. Within the film you can see what inspirations he pulls from. It is really well done too.

The Cast – Bill Murray, Adam Drive, Tilda Swinton…this is an amazing cast who really deserved a better film. They act the hell out of their tropes, the problem is there isn’t much of a story to hang it all on, so they are wasted.

The Tropes of Zombie Films – We got the zombie invasion of a small town, survivors holed up in the Police Station, Hardware Store and a fight in a cemetery. All of these are so common and if they’d been played it straight like in “Shaun of the Dead,” I think this film could have worked.

Okay:

The Writing and Characters – The writing is all tell and can’t help but referencing itself. We have hipsters from out of town who all get killed (no surprise in a horror film) we have the mysterious owner of the funeral home who is an alien we find out at the very end, the hero cop and the veteran cop who doesn’t care anymore. Somehow the script thought making this about consumerism would give a greater point? The writing is just awful. The jokes fall flat and the characters don’t have arcs. They are static tropes reacting to the situation.

The Cons:

Poor Use of Meta-Humor – Early on Officer Ronnie references the song “The Dead Don’t Die,” as the theme song. He knows it will end badly because he read the script and Bill Murray’s Sheriff Cliff feels that he should have known some of what was going to happen because the director owes him. This is the kind of film that feels like an extended vacation that a director and his friends take in an Adam Sandler film.

An Empty Point – The point is about consumerism but there is nothing to show this beyond a gas station with a lot of horror memorabilia that is being sold. If you want to make a larger point about society you can, just work it better into the script. This film failed at that.

The more I talk about this film the more I dislike what this film is. This film could have worked as a meta-take on consumerism and movie culture but it doesn’t even have that as part of the world of the characters beyond one person. This one person isn’t integrated enough in the plot to illustrate the point either. What also sucks is it is a horror comedy but it wasn’t scary or funny. I can’t recommend this film and saying it okay is being generous. Don’t waste your time and just watch “Shaun of the Dead.”

Final Score: 4 / 10

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) – Bringing Closure to the Amazing Show

    I loved this film. “El Camino” is the perfect Epilogue and closure for Jesse Pinkman and “Breaking Bad” as a whole. “Breaking Bad” is one of my favorite shows of all time, and this film captures so many of those reasons why it is. Like the show the filming is stark in coloration, the music also gives it that intensity and the writing is the perfect example of showing and not telling. No wonder Vince Gilligan created a masterpiece in the show, as he does this so well again here. If you are a fan of the show, you will at the very least enjoy the film. I highly recommend it.

The film was directed and written by Vince Gilligan.

The story follows Jesse after his escape from the Neo-Nazis as he tries to find a way to freedom away from all that has happened as he seeks out his friends and connections for help.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – As a fan of the show, it was great finally getting closure. I enjoyed seeing all the characters still alive interact and their connection to Jesse as well as those who were dead and how they were defining the way he would live. The world of “Breaking Bad” is harsh and cruel and there isn’t much hope. Most of the series involves Jesse taking a literal and metaphorical beating so it was wonderful seeing that there were still moments of light in the dark. The soundtrack and cinematography bring this to life too with how stark scenes are shot and even the brightest day can be one of complete isolation and claustrophobia. Dave Porter’s soundtrack brings this world to life to the point that it is like being back in the show once more.

Jesse Pinkman – Aaron Paul is truly an underrated actor. This is a film where we get to fully know the depths of who Jesse is. Jesse is complicated, but in the end he is someone who wants to do good by others. We see that he only kills in self-defense, he wants to give everyone a chance and will surrender if he is ever caught while still doing all he can find freedom and start over. In the end he gets that when he gets revenge against those who built his cage for the Neo-Nazi Meth Game who had enslaved him and when Ed keeps his word and grants him a new identity in life in Alaska. Leading up to this we see Mike talk to him about Alaska being the best place to start over, Walt talking to him about going into business and college, Jane talking about meaning and making your own choices and the support from his friends Skinny Pete and Badger who risk everything for him as he retraces the cook for the Neo-Nazi’s Todd to reclaim his money. It is powerful and I love how much we learn about Jesse.

Is Redemption Possible? – The major theme of the film is redemption and if it is even possible. Jesse has hurt a lot of people and this is a film where we do see him try to make amends. He tells his parents it isn’t their fault he is who he became, and the cleaner Ed he gets him the money and kills to do so, knowing what it will cost him inside, even if revenge is still part of it. Jesse is so broken when he first escapes and it is Skinny Pete and Badger’s compassion that even gives him a chance at a life again and chance for redemption as they do a car swap and give him money to keep the police off his back. Jesse carries that with him. All he has is his life and the desire to live and to not hurt anymore, and in the end the film says there is a chance. The last conversation wouldn’t have been with Jane talking purpose otherwise.

Responsibility and Moving Forward – How redemption is possible is through responsibility. This is fulfilled in the show in Walter sacrificing himself to atone to Jesse and getting the money to his family and we see it once more with Jesse in how he doesn’t kill and at every chance the law accuses him he is surrenders willingly. Ed, giving him his out shows it too as he calls the cops but leads them away and tells Jesse, once he has the money the deal for a new life will happen. They even have a great talk at the end and Ed talks about how he doesn’t care about Jesse’s feelings, he made his choices. He is the closest thing to a father for Jesse in the end and I love their relationship as his stubbornness and in the end helping Jesse does help him to heal. R.I.P. Robert Forster, you were one of the best parts of “Breaking Bad” and this film.

Okay:

Film to Show as New Trend? – The fact that this is a film that is based off a streaming show is a trend that I’m putting as okay, as in I’m a little worried. I look towards Disney plus and see how they could you this trend to gain an even greater monopoly on television than they already have. This is a horrifying thought and I really hope that in the competition between streaming services we get more gems like this that are in no way tied to Disney.

This is a character study of Jesse Pinkman and in that it fully succeeds. We get the beautiful score and cinematography of the show and a bittersweet ending, showing us that maybe there can be hope even in the worst of despair. Like the ending of “Breaking Bad,” this film works. It completes Jesse’s story and I’m glad it was made. Aaron Paul’s Jesse and the amazing supporting cast appearing in this film make this an unforgettable ride. The only way I could see this working again is with a character like Saul Goodman who also has so many characters tied to his story. I don’t think that will happen and that I think that is good. This epilogue gives the show a completion I didn’t know it needed. It was a great ride and one I would highly recommend.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10 The near perfect television film. I wish it had been longer.