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Off The Shelf: The Process Trilogy

Cinema continually gives birth to ingenuity. Since Méliès crafted A Trip To The Moon in 1902 and cemented the future of film, auteurs and creators have found a way to reinvent the craft time and time again finding new definitions for perfection. For every Méliès that paves the way, there is a D.W. Griffith that finds the destination. And on and on it goes. As technology grows, so does its masters. Invention paves way to reinvention. Of course, mentioning two of the most iconic creators of film has written me into a bit of a hole when it comes to discussing The Process Trilogy, but my point is simply to allude to the obvious. The Process Trilogy is a reinvention of filmmaking. Whether or not that is a good or bad thing we will discuss in a moment, but as it stands now, the concept alone is yet another reinvention of the rules of film. And while it may not have the legacy of something like A Trip To The Moon (what film does?), it is certainly exciting to see a new idea unfold.

The conceit behind The Process Trilogy is intriguing enough to entice the average moviegoer. The idea here is essentially that the audience will answer a series of questions before screening, and the answers will predetermine slight variables within the film. Your viewing experience may differ from mine with music changes, visual alterations, and even slide title changes throughout. The concept is a unique hook that fits soundly beside the recent choose your own adventure stories that Netflix has indulged in. Of course The Process Trilogy is far more modest, and therefore the algorithm doesn’t quite adjust as drastically as one may be hoping. However, I am thrilled to report that the core narrative within The Process Trilogy is still one worth investing in.

Changes aside, The Process Trilogy follows 3 (mostly) silent vignettes that each bare thematic resemblance to one another despite having entirely separate stories. Each is roughly seven minutes, making for a fairly effortless runtime. In each film, the narrator appears in blank slides (think dialogue in an old school Chaplin film) with various levels of omniscient objectivity presiding over the characters onscreen. At times, the narrator appears as the inner thoughts. While other times, the slide cards establish meta omniscience and occasionally even existentialism. Surprisingly, this allows the slide cards to be the most interesting character within The Process Trilogy, establishing the world(s) and themes in constant rhythm with the visual stories. By the time the third act twist rears its head, the audience will find themselves thinking in a situation that otherwise would seem nothing but laughable. That’s not to say The Process Trilogy isn’t ‘funny’, of course. Whether intentional or not, this is a film made to evoke emotion through imagery. And it’s undoubtably at its best when that imagery bares a strong connection to the primary themes at work.

So lets discuss those primary themes. Of course, orders may be interchangeable depending on the algorithm in The Process Trilogy, so for this portion of the review I will have to speak solely to my experience. The first short in my sequence revolved around a man (known in the film as ‘x’) as he suffers from crippling insomnia. His counterpart (‘y’, played by the same actor) appears, seemingly representative of his demons that keep him from sleep (or perhaps from wanting to sleep). As I stated before, this is simply my experience with The Process Trilogy. My logical association to each of the storylines may not be the artistic intent of the filmmakers, but for this aspect fo the review, it doesn’t necessarily matter. My overarching point is simply that the through-line of The Process Trilogy, in my mind, is strong simply because the logical tethers between the shorts has significant meaning. In the second short, we see a female painter attempting to breakthrough her creative blocks to achieve what she knows can be impactful. And in the third vignette, we follow a couple each wearing clown makeup to symbolize the lie that pervades their inner lives: they lack happiness because they lack connection. As each fights internally for the other’s affection, we see the makeup strip away to show ethereal dreams of what the two could be if they were truly happy. But in reality they sit side by side yet still feel miles apart. It’s in this short where we get the narrator’s reveal, which I will leave unspoiled in this review. But the important takeaway from each film is the consistent urging from the narrator at the end of each short: “We’ll try again tomorrow”. The existentialism within these words bares more weight as the film persists. We’ll try to sleep again tomorrow. We’ll try to create again tomorrow. We’ll try to love again tomorrow. Yet the bleak visual aesthetic of The Process Trilogy tells us everything we need to know. We’re doomed to this life of monotonous hope. The ‘Process’ is simply our ability to cope with these internal struggles.

The biggest praise of The Process Trilogy is its ability to tether its shorts into one cohesive narrative. Within each short, there’s plenty visual tactics to appreciate. The fluctuating use of color in the Insomniac storyline allows for the aesthetic to establish the juxtaposition between X and Y. The camera embodying the POV of the painting in the artist storyline allows us to see the unique intricacies of the struggle from a perspective of detachment, making the failure all the more tragic. And as I’ve already aforementioned, the clown world allows for a symbolic metaphor that feels accessible in the abstract context of The Process Trilogy. With (what I imagine to be) a modest budget, Chew Boy Productions boasts a fine understanding of artistic ingenuity that made the surrealist films of the late 60’s so impactful.

In terms of drawbacks, there’s few worth mentioning. As I already stated, the concept behind the algorithm for which the film is based doesn’t feel like it has a lot of agency to necessarily control the outcome. As a result, The conceit behind The Process Trilogy feels more of a gimmick than a driving force behind the structure. That being said, I can (presumably) attribute this largely to the small budget behind The Process Trilogy. Who’s to say the film couldn’t change drastically depending on finances? However, the core structure of the sequences that I witnessed feel so complete and wholesome that it’s hard to imagine them having the same impact with a different assembly. Undoubtably, the filmmakers deserve the opportunity to test the limits of their obviously impressive idea.

Title cards mediate the narrative here, but that doesn’t mean they’re always necessary. The frequency at which the slides appear feels heavy handed. At times, it felt distracting for the card to overstate the inner thoughts of the characters or the abstract existentialism rather than simply letting the visuals speak for themselves. This is all (ironically) a drawn-out way of stating that The Process Trilogy is slightly overwritten. While dealing with surrealism, it feels understandable that the filmmakers wanted context to be as proportionate as possible to not allow for the film to become too abstract, but The Process Trilogy carries weight in its thematic visuals, not necessarily in its pacing. I often found myself praying for longer sequences to grow attached to the characters onscreen rather than continually getting sucked out to have the title cards tell me about what I was seeing. As is usually the case with shorts, the characters are understandably underdeveloped. Often times, they appear more as ideas than people, and as a result The Process Trilogy can feel more distant than necessary. Of course, you could attribute this to paying homage to the surrealist influences of the film, but the emotional weight of the ending hinges upon some connection to the performances. But the only connection I walked away from was to the themes themselves, leaving me to wish for a feature length version of The Process Trilogy where characters have the full potential to be characters. Often times, the direction resorts to showcase actors exhibit some idea of an emotion or basic action in an attempt to provoke the emotional response of the audience. As a result, I felt wildly detached from moments, such as a character eating aggressively, because it felt simply like eating for the sake of eating.

All that being said, The Process Trilogy is well worth your time. An important viewing experience calls for aggressive criticism, but I’m only hard on this film because I appreciate so much of what they’re trying to do here. Algorithm or no, The Process Trilogy has a poignant story to tell with a visual style that pays tribute to a classic era of filmmaking that isn’t often seen today. If this is ChewBoy Productions Trip To The Moon, I very much look forward to watching this team collaborate on their next project in the hopes that it will be bigger and even more deliberate. If I can bet money on one thing, their next work will be nothing if not unique. 8/10
To my understanding, the film is screening in the UK as of now. If you’re like me, and you’re in the states, keep a look out for this team and be sure to catch The Process Trilogy if they get some sort of distribution.


Off The Shelf: Us

Jordan Peele has cemented his legacy as a horror icon. With one stroke, Get Out proved to be not only a blockbuster phenomenon, but a rare cure for the Academy’s allergy to genre films (joining the ranks of Mad Max, and paving the way for Black Panther). Hardly two years removed from Get Out, Peele’s follow up has been one of the most anticipated films of 2019. Us is a film drenched in allegory and prophetic filmmaking with an exceptional dose of horror/comedy to boot. But has it lived up to the hype? 

For those of you unfamiliar, Us is an entirely original story involving the Wilson family as they’re antagonized by entities that bare an unspeakable likeness to themselves. As the film bares on, the stakes evolve and the Wilson’s are forced to endure a relentless amount of chaos and terror. By Peele’s own admission, the main theme at work here is that we, perhaps, are the danger to ourselves rather than external forces out of our control. But Us is filled with layer after layer of symbolism and allegory for larger pictures at work. Peele’s mind feels as though it’s stuffing the screen with metaphors that ultimately detract from the superb filmmaking at work. 

To break it down more precisely, let me first discuss the exceptional things about Us. In certain regards, this feels like a direct response to criticism that Peele’s penmanship outshines his directorial vision. Us is a visually stunning film, not only in the flawless lighting techniques and camera placement, but also the editing style that brings the picture together. Silhouettes feel effortlessly ominous in the hands of a clever filmmaker, but what Peele seems to perfectly understand is how effective the unseen can be. Simple moments like a character being stalked around a car are elevated by the camera’s point of view lingering on the hunted and never the hunter. Even early moments of the antagonists eerily positioned in front of the Wilson residence strike a cord of discomfort that viewers don’t often experience. And each sudden movement feels like an immediate threat regardless of direct violence. Credit should also be given to Mike Gioulakis who continues to prove himself as one of the greatest working cinematographers today (even just this year, Glass is masterfully shot, if nothing else). Peele’s editor on Us, Nicholas Monsour, also deserves a fair amount of credit. A standout moment in the film’s final act (one I’m very critical of for narrative reasons - more on that later) allows Monsour to flex his talents by juxtaposing an eloquent fight sequence with a significant event from the film’s past. Where Peele falls back on his comedic roots to subdue tension, Monsour wisely keeps the pace consistent enough to keep the audience at a level of unease. Danger is always lurking once the film ignites, and no matter how many times you may laugh, you will never forget it. 

Performances are also a major highlight of Us, with chief credit being given to Lupita Nyong’o for establishing convincing anxiety while also presenting what I imagine will be hailed as one of the most iconic villains of the 2010’s. The duality of Us inherently allows Nyong’o to shine, but the creation of the character certainly feels like a risk that pays off. Rather than bottling her rich emotional life in favor of a stoic, intimidating villain, Nyong’o gives both characters complete freedom to feel the height of their emotions while letting the script speak for itself. As a result, Red, the main antagonist of the film, is easily the most compelling character. Even with a spare number of scenes, Red is chilling and emotionally rich to the point of both relatability and unrest. Revelations of Red may convolute the narrative, but the pristine strides in her physical movements and the bone chilling dryness of her voice are enough to hook the audience from the moment she appears. The rest of the cast carries the film well, each nailing the relatable anxiety and comedy within the eccentric circumstances whilst relishing the creepy characteristics of their doppelgängers. But shadow characters are generally resigned to caricatures, whereas Red has a lot more to work with. Which brings me to the major pitfalls of Us

I should warn readers in advance, Us is a difficult film to discuss critically without devolving into spoiler territory. I will do my very best to explain my issues without diving deep into specifics, but my recommendation is to revisit this section of the review after viewing so you can better understand my points. 

With that, I can admit that a large majority of my complaints with Us are in the narrative itself. The first act is a gradual build of tension, whereas the second act is a tense action thriller with a slew of entertaining moments that raise a tremendous amount of questions. The third act is the most problematic because it completely disregards those questions and adds puzzling additions to them. The film’s final twist is so inefficiently expanded on that it actually acts more as a detriment than anything. You’ll find yourself revisiting elements of the film and scratching your head rather than feeling the paramount reveal in the way that it is intended. And what’s worse is Peele’s dedication to allegory within it. Us is a film so swamped in perceived metaphors that it actually ends up drowning in them. The shadow world, if taken at face value, is completely unspecific. Under any scrutiny, the world building suffers from crumbling under the sheer amount of questions it forces the audience to ask. But if taken metaphorically, the various specifics of Peele’s underworld are so vast and nondescript that they completely distract from the narrative. And even worse, if Peele intends for the allegories to be the purpose of his film, then he loses all tension and suspense as a consequence. If I was never meant to care for the character’s of Us, then they’re entirely inconsequential. This leads me to believe that the answer lies somewhere in between symbolism and sincerity. A hodgepodge of ideas struggling to breakthrough the befuddling world building. The problem is not that Us forces the audience to ask questions. The problem is that it forces those questions too soon and ends up distracting the audience from experiencing the film first. And the final twist seems to spit in the face of everything that came before it, only leaving bigger holes in the world building than before. 

The only other glaring problem I have with Us is a pet peeve I have in all horror. Sort of in line with the aforementioned issues, several characters narrowly escape death through sheer fortune of writing. Now, I don’t mean that in the sense of, “the car came *this close* to hitting them,” or something. I mean villains specifically give the heroes far too many opportunities to survive and save each other than is altogether necessary. Some of these scenarios are explained through logical conclusions and an understanding of the plan at work. But these entirely deflate tension with the understanding being that certain characters are not permitted to kill others, therefore there is no real threat. Other scenarios are never explained, and leave me frustrated at the convenient fortune of the heroes in spite of logic. 

Us is the type of movie I hate to grade. In certain regards, it’s a technical masterpiece that demonstrates exactly why Jordan Peele is hailed as a modern cinematic genius. In other regards, it showcases one of the most frustrating narratives of the year thus far. Regardless, it makes me feel guilty as a critic to prod a filmmaker that consistently makes audiences applaud mid-viewing. Peele’s films are so infectious and exhilarating that it feels almost wrong to judge. But at the same time, those praises of his ability to captivate are exactly why he must be held to a high standard. I have no doubt that Peele is a filmmaker to watch as he continues this journey in his career. And even if Us is not my most critically adored film, I still recommend experiencing it with an audience solely so you can feel the same mesmerizing quality that Peele makes look so effortless. 7.5/10

Off The Shelf: Blaze

The tragedy of the Bard is a tale as old as time. The lonesome wanderer that walks the world finding purpose in the bottom of a bottle, the eyes of a lover, and the tune of a guitar. While it may be familiar, we continually revisit this narrative because it feels romantically human, and in my mind ‘romantically human’ is the perfect way to sum up Blaze. The same tropes you may expect to find in films like Crazy Heart and Inside Llewyn Davis are alive and well inside Blaze, but the difference is in how director, Ethan Hawke, carefully edges his story into a visual poem that often allows its songs to speak with more specificity than its characters. That’s not to say that Blaze features incoherent characters, it’s merely a comment about how they each resign themselves to a rhythm in language that is not immediately obvious. These are Shakespearean figures who just so happen to be in a movie about nomadic hoodlums struggling to find purpose. In this regard, Blaze is far better than it has any right to be. 

Blaze tells the true story of a musician, Blaze Foley, in the prime years of his life as he meets his love and struggles to maintain his identity within the confines of a pervasive industry he is increasingly encouraged to pursue. We see Blaze unfold in three acts spliced within one another intermittently and occasionally without rhyme or reason. There is the story of Blaze and his love, Sybil, as they live their life of solitude in a shack-like treehouse in the woods, the story of Blaze’s final live show in the Outhouse bar in Austin, and the story told to us about Blaze posthumously by his two best friends and collaborators. The assembly allows each of these stories to contribute to one another, but the threads are rarely directly linked in a specified timeline, allowing the film to float through narrators and perspectives as effortlessly as a note in Foley’s music. The compilation of each of the narratives make the film feel less like a structured piece, and more like the experience of remembering a loved one by trying to piece together fragmented moments in time and stumbling upon golden stories and songs left behind. In this way, Blaze feels wholesomely intimate in a way that many musical films have a hard time grasping. 

The titular character is as much a mystery to the ones he loved as he is to the audience, yet somehow he feels understandably idyllic and human. Blaze Foley is magnetic from the opening beats of the film. Whether he’s waxing on philosophically behind the microphone, playing songs with the woman he loves, or piss drunk and falling flat on his face, Blaze is shockingly relatable. Blaze could so easily play as a pretentious caricature, but it doesn’t. Instead, Hawke is able to focus on exactly what made him so special despite having such glaring faults. At one point in the film, a character mentions the “two sides to Blaze”. The erratic drunkard juxtaposed with the sensitive artist. Blaze’s greatest strength is how easily these polar opposite sensibilities have been so acutely fleshed out. 

What strikes me the most about Blaze is how deeply romantic it is, not just in the sense that the movie is partly a love story, but in the way it’s story seeps through the pores of love. The warm textures of the coloration allow Blaze to feel like a careful embrace from the titular character. The way Hawke drenches every song in a profoundly felt honesty makes certain that Blaze doesn’t just feel like an ode to a forgotten legend, it feels like an ode to the love of art. And it’s that same love that tragically brought Foley to his breaking point. In every scene, he fights to regain the same beautiful inspiration he often found in the woods with the love of his life, and as the movie wears on, he slowly loses his ability to find it. Blaze isn’t the usual story of a singer succumbing to his vices. It’s a story of a bard who was never meant for the life of an artist. 

Let’s speak more specifically about what you can appreciate about Blaze without digging too deep into the symbolic filters that permeate through the film. Ben Dickey in the role of the titular character gives one of the most transfixing performances I have had the pleasure of seeing this past year. The cadence of Foley’s speech, the explosive energy flexing beneath the surface of his relatively delicate demeanor, and his understanding of Blaze’s casual prophetic phrasing all adds up to make Dickey’s performance nothing short of exceptional. It’s the kind of performance that tears your mind into two layers of thinking: I want to now see him in every movie, and I want to never see him in a film ever again. The former because Dickey clearly has an exceptional talent in regards to acting. The latter because Dickey’s work here is so exceptional that it feels like lightning in a bottle that deserves to be contained and never again reopened for fear of losing the magic. Dickey is also blessed with a talented supporting cast with Alia Shawkat, Charlie Sexton, and Josh Hamilton. Even cameos from Richard Linklater, Sam Rockwell, and Steve Zahn are fun (albeit odd - more on that later) compliments. But this is Blaze’s story through and through. And whenever Dickey leaves the screen, you can’t help but to miss him. 

Hawke also (unsurprisingly) proves himself to be a beautifully poetic storyteller. The visual language of Blaze feels so enriched with serene mysticism. As I noted before, Blazemakes great use of its warm textures and colors, often giving the feeling that it exists in a back alley bar with a performer onstage that feels too good to be there. But take note of the poignant moments that Hawke decides to strip those textures away to knife his audience with a tragic reversal. Credit should also go to cinematographer Steve Cosens who contributes to the film’s treehouse essence with just the right amount of lens flares to make you feel like you are truly in the room witnessing a moment or the magic of a song. 

As I have also stated before, Blaze’s storytelling techniques are abstract enough to make the film exceptionally compelling, but in some regards, it’s also the film’s greatest weakness. The flippant viewpoints of narrators intertwining with less and less rhyme and reason keeps the audience at a distance at times and betrays the general sense of being in the room remembering an old friend. Sometimes, the first-time audience will spend too much time watching Blaze trying to fit together pieces of a puzzle encompassing his life. It’s a rare occurrence, but Blaze’s structure very occasionally grates against itself in this way. Moments like a shot of a man smashing a guitar with intense backlight spliced within a scene give weight to the poetic mysticism of the titular character, but certain aforementioned cameos feel abstractly satirical in a way that almost feels like an out of place joke. Blaze is also disinterested in introductions. Most characters will simply come to exist in the narrative with an established relationship to Blaze that feels unearned. They quickly gain personalities of their own, but it feels worth noting that context is occasionally left by the wayside.

As with any good musical movie, Blaze’s songs enrich the experience of the film in ways that cannot be understated. For a casual audience member, the music will appeal to anyone who enjoys folk country or the brilliance of an artist like Bob Dylan. For someone more interested in Foley’s artistry, I cannot recommend listening to this soundtrack enough. Each song bares such significance to the underlying themes within Blaze. The more I hear Dickey’s renditions of ‘Picture Cards’ or ‘Cold, Cold World’, the more I am reminded of my time spent with Foley and his ambitious pursuit of happiness in spite of sanity. 

Its unfortunate that I stumbled across this film after creating my ‘Best of 2018’ list. Blaze struck a cord with me in a way that not many films do. While that may not be true for everyone that comes across it, I certainly hope this review emboldens you to view it for yourself. It’s difficult for me to talk about Blaze without rambling or philosophizing on its deeper contextual meanings. To its core, Blaze bares the identity of the drunkard in the bar. His story is palpable, but it falls upon deaf ears. In some bizarre way, the same could be said of the movie itself. Blaze is a story of a musician that you likely don’t yet know. Christian Bale isn’t attached as the star with Oscar worthy prosthetics. The story follows a non linear pattern, and has little resemblance to other plot structures you may be familiar with. And as a result, you may not have yet seen or heard of Blaze. But in this regard, I can think of no better biopic to capture the essence of its titular character. 

9/10 

Off The Shelf: Top Ten Movies Of 2018

I have always had a fondness for top tens. I’ve even considered doing an entire podcast all about “ranking” different themes. Perhaps one day, Sound Pollination...

Every year, I rank the new releases I’ve seen. Originally, I only ranked ten. Then twenty. Now I rank every new release I watch throughout an entire year. For the sake of this blog, I’m only going to detail my Top Ten of the year, with a few honorable mentions to toss out there. 

HEY READ THIS DISCLAIMER

A couple of things to note: 1) there are still a few films on my watch list that I have yet to see that could theoretically cut into this list. Most notable among them is If Beale Street Could Talk. If something you loved didn’t get mentioned in this list, it’s possible I haven’t seen it. So please, let me know what I might have missed! I’m easy to reach via email, twitter, whatever. 2) This is my favorites list. I talk all the time on the podcast about my personal belief that your favorite is not necessarily what you think is the best. If you don’t subscribe to that belief, that’s totally fine, but please refrain from any bashing just because I liked some big Hollywood blockbuster more than your favorite critical indie hit. I’ll justify all my picks, and try to summarize a quick review for each of them (rating included) so you can see how I thought about them objectively too. You’ll notice some ratings may be higher for films that are ranked lower, and that is by design. I don’t want my list to just be what I thought was the most technically or artistically masterful of the year. Overall, I’m making this list to celebrate my experiences with this year in film, so I want you to celebrate it with me! 

Honorable Mentions 

These are the movies that are just barely outside of my Top Ten this year. They’re fantastic in their own right, and I would recommend them highly for various reasons, but I’m saving actual reviews for the list itself. 

Roma

The Favourite 

Black Panther

My Honorable Mentions(theoretically) could be as long as I want, but I’m limiting it to 3 because I genuinely think these 3, on a different day, could edge their way in there. Check them out if you appreciate well shot, stylized masterpieces in their own right. Now, prepare for some hot takes...

The List

10. Mission Impossible - Fallout

This movie is debatably the most fun I had in theaters this year. Sound design and stunt work has never been more refined, in my opinion. This is a high octane, action thrill ride that deserves the praise of being one of the greatest action movies of this generation. That being said, the spectacle doesn’t always shine brighter than the writing. Like any genre film, Impossible falls prey to a lot of narrative cliches and stereotypical heroism tropes that have become customary. Bad guys will be devious for the sake for it, and good guys will lose only to eventually gain the upper hand at the last second. Still, the direction makes Fallout more than the sum of its parts, it’s just frustrating to see clunky writing in an otherwise flawless spectacle. 8.5/10

9. Deadpool 2

As I’ve sat with Deadpool 2 longer, I’ve realized that it doesn’t quite have the longevity that I wish it did. I find it’s impossible for this film, and its predecessor, to not win you over eventually with charming satirical wit and crudely abrasive style. Deadpool 2 fixes a lot of the issues with the first Deadpool. It avoids meta-textual jokes completely excusing sub par narrative choices, and instead invests considerable time into developing Wade as a character instead of a flagrant comedian. It is still overlong, and occasionally feels insecure as if it’s worried the audience will be bored if it tries to just make a fun superhero movie. Jokes begin to feel relentless in a bad way, but with each one that lands, I do find myself increasingly more fond of Deadpool. There was a time when Deadpool 2 held the number 2 spot on this list. The more I reconsider, the more the joke seems to fade. But I’d be lying if I said Deadpool 2 wasn’t terrific fun. Also Domino is the MVP. 9/10 

8. You Were Never Really Here 

Seeing You Were Never Really Here twice was a necessity for me. After one viewing, I simply didn’t have enough context for what I saw. The intensity of this film is palpable and sits with you long after the credits have rolled. But I couldn’t determine if the artistic choice of disjointed backstory made the film stand out, or too distant to truly appreciate. Upon rewatching, everything clicked. The tragic, fragmented layers of Joe slowly unravel to compliment his increasingly delicate circumstances. There’s so much to be said about how the film talks about the ignored torment inside of us, the inability to overcome our past, and the constant search for a will to live. The funeral sequence is one of my all time favorite sequences of this year, and the way Joaquin Phoenix navigates the journey of this film like a fuse seconds away from ignition will be something for actors to marvel at for years to come. This is truly a masterful film. Lynne Ramsay very occasionally allows for eccentricity to get in the way of the narrative, but all in all it’s a minor grievance (and admittedly, more of a personal preference for the most part).  For those of you fretting that You Were Never Really Here is not getting awards recognition it rightly deserves (but likely won’t get due to poor release timing), fear not. Because the attention Lynne Ramsay has received will be resulting in her stepping on that stage for whatever future project she has lined up. 9.5/10

7. Green Book 

I fully understand the criticism surrounding this film. I have read several rebuttals against Green Book, yet I still have no regret in placing it on my Top Ten of the year. This is a masterfully written dramedy with considerable heart, levity, and exploration of its characters. It feels almost streamlined right from a book on how to write. The chemistry established between these two men on a quest for one’s personal identity in the veil of a concert tour is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had all year. Mahershala Ali continues to prove himself to be one of the most expressive, emotionally impactful actors of the current age. Viggo Mortensen, once again, disappears into his role, infusing it with vitality and vibrancy that feels impossible to emulate. Together these two carry this film to my number 7 spot. I vehemently detest the trend of critical film enthusiasts to discredit a movie just because it attempts to make you feel. Cynicism has its place in cinema, but so does warm-hearted material. I fully acknowledge that this is not a perfect film. The villains are cartoonish, and the first act is slow. But if my smile has a hard time leaving my face for the bulk of a movie, I have to give credit where it’s due. 8.7/10

6. A Quiet Place 

I’m a sucker for John Krasinski. I have only ever had two ugly cries watching anything. One was during Amour, the other was during The Office. He has a special place in my heart. But so does horror. Particularly mainstream horror, which feels impossible to pull off effectively if you’re not working under the banner of A24 or James Wann (and even then...). With A Quiet Place, I found one of the most thrilling experiences in modern cinema. This is an absolutely relentless film, effectively compounding tension like a series of bricks on a balancing plate. At any given moment, this ludicrous chaos should fall to pieces but it doesn’t. Krasinski never lets you breathe. The world building is strong (save for some expository newspaper clippings that feel a bit on the nose), with each moment of reprieve potentially offering a glimpse at answering burning questions about the family and the circumstances surrounding them. Occasionally, a moment or two of character building may feel out of place in the tight wire act of the thriller, but the thing that A Quiet Place nails that I find so rare in horror films is that it made me give a shit. I wanted these people to survive the night. And Krasinski made me want that with less dialogue than a 4 minute short film. This is everything I look for in a horror film. 9.3/10

5. The Sisters Brothers 

An excerpt from my review this year, “The Sisters Brothers is an exceptionally restrained and reflective western...if you enjoy Westerns, and exceptional performances with deeply internalized characters that reveal themselves gradually, this is a movie to add to your shelf.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. I recognize that  The Sister’s Brothers isn’t perfect (if you want to hear why, go check out the full review), but I was overjoyed to see a smart, contemplative western navigate character building in such a beautifully methodical way. I want more movies that take their time, and allow the audience to breathe in the full expansive experience of the characters and draw their own conclusions. 8.7/10

4. Wildlife 

If anyone should be upset in critical circles, it should be Carey Mulligan fans. I want to know who in the fuck decided not to campaign Wildlife hard for awards season. There is no discernible reason for Mulligan to not be nominated for big awards this year, yet where is the buzz? Paul Dano has made one of the most beautiful, introspective coming of age stories of the year with Wildlife. This is a haunting tale of tragedy forcing maturity out of a child caught between two worlds. The ending of this movie rocked me to my core. The characters feel so flawed and honest, but seeing them through the lens Dano creates is what makes them so special. Joe’s father is given limited screen time to allow us to understand the flawed credibility of our main character. Joe’s dad is an impenetrable figure, a constant symbol of what Joe always wants to be. In his mind, his dad is perfect. His life with his mother is perfect. And the heartbreak of this film is growing to discover, along with Joe, that none of those preconceived notions are true. Is it somewhat of an uphill battle to understand character motivations? Yes. But Dano excites me as a filmmaker because he allows for room to be critical. He wants you to lament along with Joe, “why is this happening,” and on that merit alone he succeeds. 9.5/10

3. Eighth Grade 

An excerpt from my review this year, “The complexity demonstrated in the subtext shows Burnham to be a powerful screenwriter, but what makes him a master is the way he builds the film to subvert your expectations.” Bo Burnham has successfully captured exactly what I admire so much about his comedy: his ability to link humor and tragedy without appearing obvious. Eighth Grade is not just number 3 for me because it is a masterful example of capturing relatable drama, but also because it’s the most surprising movie of the year for me. I detail exactly what I thought was ever so slightly missing from this movie in my full review, but it becomes irrelevant this far into this list. Never in my life would I have anticipated a story of an eighth grade girl resonating with me so much, but here we are...me sitting in my kitchen writing this after watching Eighth Grade for the 3rd time, already eager to watch it again. 9.3/10

2. Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse

This is what I always wanted from a Spider-Man film: High stakes action, quick witted comedy, poignant emotion. The list goes on. And it’s gorgeously animated! This is one of the most stunning, vibrant animation styles I’ve ever seen. Most people have a hard time giving credibility to animation. Hell, I have a hard time convincing people to go see this movie. I promise you, this is worth your time. The only issue I have with this movie is its occasionally frustrating spatial relationships, particularly with fight scenes where things get somewhat difficult to follow. Having just rewatched the Rami films, this is the best Spider-Man movie by miles, in my opinion. Spiderverse wisely uses your knowledge of Spider-Man to its advantage to build stylistic ingenuity into its narrative, but it’s not necessary to know anything. I truly believe this film has mass appeal, so much so that I’m trying to get my parents to see it. And my parents are people that I don’t even try to force Princess Mononoke on because I don’t think they’d appreciate its artistic value. See this movie. Because animation deserves your attention when it’s this good. 9.4/10

1. Creed 2

If you’re someone who jumped down to number one just to roll your eyes, I won’t have any of your shit. This is my list, ok? Is Creed 2 perfect? No. Far from it. In fact, I would hesitate to say it’s top 20 BEST films I’ve seen this year. But Creed 2 is still a great movie. The first act is clunky and struggles to establish a consistent pace. It’s motivational, predictable, and melodramatic. But on the flip side, this movie features some of the most emotionally resonant scenes of the year. It’s an absolute powerhouse in sound design and choreography. I’ve loved Rocky for as long as I can remember. It wasn’t until the first Creed that I reinvigorated that love after so many years. It doesn’t take much to make a Rocky film number one on my list of favorites in any given year. But this film did more than deliver the bare minimum. Creed 2 perfectly compliments Rocky 4, making it debatably the most significant and impactful sequel in the franchise. And take note of how effectively this movie builds its villains as sympathetic humans in stark contrast to the hero’s occasionally questionable morals. This movie is doing so much right, and I swear by that regardless of personal bias. By my ranking, this is the 4th best film in the franchise, and I’m sorry if you really wanted to see something else get number one on this list, but my list was never going to be about the most flawless film I saw. It’s about what resonated with me. And the thing I enjoy the most about film is the conversation it brings. So I relish that you might be reading this shaking your head, because that means we’re going to have a hell of a great conversation about it. 8/10

That’s my list. Hope you enjoyed it, at least a little. Feel free to email me at gianni@soundpollination.com and give me your list or to argue with me about mine. And stay tuned for a write up on some Oscar predications later this month. 

Off The Shelf: Vice

Adam McKay has always been one to watch. His transition from an inspiring bro-comedy director to the creator of an Oscar winning educational, political dramedy has been astounding to observe and grow with. From the second The Big Short ended, I was eager to see his next move. Sticking with the latter of his skill set, McKay has followed up with Vice, a political satire with a dash of lunacy and frenetic drama. Unfortunately, I didn’t find Vice to have nearly the same level of appeal as McKay’s previous works.

Vice follows the story of Dick Chaney, the famed enigmatic political mastermind, so to speak, behind the Bush administration. Of course, by the movie’s own admission in the opening title card, liberties had to be taken. The lines between historical accuracy and fiction are blurred, with the approach aiming to use its self awareness to its advantage in order to separate itself from your typical biopic. From the jump, McKay guarantees a polarizing experience, knowing full well his political leanings will influence the story. I only mention this to acknowledge that certain biases exist. Some audiences will appreciate them while others won’t, but in terms of objective criticism (if such a thing exists), I believe it bares no weight on my review of the film. What does, however, is McKay’s incessant need to make his film chaotic to avoid it being boring. 

Vice utilizes an ‘objective’ narrator, title cards, and even voiceover from the inner monologue of Chaney himself. It has several sequences of entirely satirical circumstances, poking meta textual fun at the real life events. If you ever wanted to watch Chaney and his wife spontaneously bust into Macbethian soliloquy’s, you can find it in Vice. If you ever wanted to see an entire sequence of fake final credits, you can find it in Vice. And hell, if you want to see Christian Bale stare straight into the lens of the camera and talk directly to the audience in a way that would make you wish House of Cards had been remade and recast, then you will get that in Vice. The point I’m making is that McKay utilizes a lot, and I mean A LOT, of storytelling devices to keep his film new and entertaining, but it doesn’t mean it makes his film better. I’d argue it makes it worse. 

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The frenetic pace established early in Vice has no identity. The aforementioned opening title card hints at a comedic opening, but it takes nearly 20 minutes for another joke to land. Why? Because Vice can’t decide whether it wants to be a straight political satire or a dramatic character study. The occasional display of satirical showmanship detracts from the credibility of the storytelling. McKay’s previous work, The Big Short, played its hand similarly. In fact, it’s fingerprints are all over Vice. The difference is that The Big Short wisely separated it’s self referential moments from the story at work. It used those meta conversations to propel and strengthen the core narrative. Vice can’t separate the two, and as a result the audience can’t either. 

Perhaps my biggest contention with the film is that by its end, I don’t really understand Chaney. Dick Chaney is intimidating and calculated, but he’s constantly being resorted to a figure as opposed to a character. I never get to watch him think because I’m busy being told by the narrator that Chaney is thinking. Despite him dominating the screen time, I don’t exactly know much about him beyond what he’s done according to the film. As far as I can tell, the moments and decisions that propel Chaney in this film are little more than a strong desire for power. 

Rarely do characters ever sit and have a straight conversation because McKay is constantly playing with the frame, throwing images at it to see what sticks. The timeline is another point of contention. There is a flippancy to which Vice works with Chaney’s past. At any given point, we are constantly being tossed from one period in his political career to another. Sometimes, McKay finds life and significance in this choice. For example, Chaney looking upon the Oval Office after being elected Vice President juxtaposed with a memory of Chaney getting his first ever office, essentially a desk and walls and no windows. Other times, the story changes timeline with no discernible rhyme or reason and detracts from the storytelling and momentum of whatever previous scene came before it. 

My contentions with Vice aside, this isn’t a film void of impressive features. It should come as no surprise that Christian Bale is immersive and utterly brilliant. Not only is it a role with intense focus on the nuance of Chaney’s mannerisms to capture his persona, Bale also finds plenty of opportunities to pursue the character’s wants and desires with little more than a glance. This is a performance that completely elevated the character beneath it. With Bale at the helm, Chaney becomes almost appealing, despite being a villain for much of the film. This may be the most intimidating presence Bale has ever portrayed, and I’m including Bruce Wayne in that hot take. Generally, I avoid performance bashing in my reviews, because actors are so often front facing and have such little to do with the larger picture, so all I’ll add is this: The other performers do relatively well, but Bale is undoubtedly the highlight. For all that I have to say against McKay’s frantic display, he does make impressive storytelling choices. Tethering themes of fishing and heartlessness into the greater narrative takes a bold, ambitious mastermind. The handheld camera work adds to the story, creating an atmosphere of intimacy for a character that can seem so ‘larger than life’. 

The most important thing to note is that despite all my gripes, Vice still managed to keep me entertained. I enjoyed Vice more than the rating I’m giving it, and while I can’t argue that my enjoyment makes it better, I can argue that it might still be worth your time. Maybe. But Christian Bale is definitely worth your time. 

6.5/10 

Off The Shelf: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

New to Netflix this month, the Coen Brothers, who are responsible for masterpieces like Fargo and No Country For Old Men, debuted their turn to digital with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. As an avid fan of their work, I was eager to catch their latest entry. To be completely honest, I found myself disappointed in their western anthology.

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs showcases a series of vignettes in which the audience gets to experience ‘life in the old west’. The stories each have a unique identity and tone, with the only thing tethering them all together being the titular book containing the stories being flipped through by an unseen character. Buster Scruggs plays more like American Horror Story than Crash. None of the characters from the different stories intersect and enjoyment in each entry is varying to say the least. There are six stories in total. The first of which focuses on the titular character, Buster Scruggs. For me, this is where the film really hits its stride. The first story is the most unique and off putting, but it also possesses the most vibrancy. For the first time, The Coens truly seem to relish the digital medium here. Tim Blake Nelson in the role of Scruggs possesses all the camp and dry wit of a classic John Wayne picture, but tack on the fact that Nelson has the appearance of a man who would truly never hurt a fly. Of course, this makes for the picture perfect juxtaposition to have this be the most violent vignette in the film. Nelson constantly finds unique ways to utilize his two skills: bardic singing and murdering. The opening story, in turn, feels like it has the most energy. It plays up every shred of wackiness it can without ever feeling like it overstays its welcome. Unfortunately, it’s the only time the film feels this way. The second story sees James Franco as an unnamed bank robber who underestimates his bank teller opponent and finds himself in trouble with the law. Twice. It feels like a joke with a half assed punchline. Despite feeling nothing for Franco’s character or his circumstances, the second short is brief and jazzy enough that it doesn’t drain from the film’s first act or drag leading into the subsequent ones. The third story follows Liam Neeson and his traveling troupe (consisting of one armless, legless performer). Plagued with all the same problems as the first two acts, but tack on an overlong and downright dour storyline, this is clearly the turning point in the film for me. Neeson and his artist never have a chance to develop any sort of relationship. So the impact of the end is unfortunately lost on the audience. This is essentially my problem with the entire film. Buster Scruggs is the only character that ever feels like he makes an impression. And his story is done after 20 minutes. Every vignette that takes itself seriously runs the risk of the audience not caring about the people involved. And I must admit, I found myself not caring for a lot of this film and the people that inhabit it. The fourth story follows Tom Waitts as a gold miner, the fifth tells the story of a woman traveling along the Oregon trail, and the final story depicts a metaphorical circumstance involving 5 travelers on a wagon to (presumably) the afterlife (or at the very least, a nondescript location of impending doom). The gold miner has fine moments of tension and suspense, but they feel hollow with how little I get to know about Waitts. The Oregon Trail story features, I would wager, the longest short of the bunch. It’s the story I feel the most torn about, because while I do believe a solid ten minutes could be trimmed from it, it has the most well rounded story. It develops into a touching western romance with an incredibly powerful climatic shoot-out sequence, but I can’t escape the hollow feeling imparted on me by the rest of the film. The wagon ride finale has some of the Coen’s best dialogue in the film, but with so much already weighing down the film, it feels like it needs to pack more of a punch at the end. Not to mention the fact that I still don’t feel like I know anyone in it. Coming away from it, I find myself saying “oh yea that woman with the hat,” or “that guy with the beard”. Hollow characters with great dialogue...or is it just fun dialogue? I honestly can’t tell.

I keep contemplating how the order of the film shoots itself in the foot. By front loading the beginning with such brief and vibrant shorts to then expand to the somber, sobering stories makes it feel empty by the end. I keep thinking changing the order of the film’s stories would greatly change my enjoyment. Tack on the lack of impactful characters, and this results in one of my least favorite Coen films to date. But keep in mind that statement: ‘Coen films’. The worst Coen Brother’s film is the best comparatively to most. At the end of the day, the performances here are still excellent. The filmmaking, when it’s at its best, feels like it catapults the audience from scene to scene with the same love and care you’d find in any of this duo’s classics. When I really stop to think, perhaps the hardest thing this movie has to overcome is living up to the mountain of phenomenal work that came before it.

7.5/10

Off The Shelf: Friday The 13th (Reviews in Progress)

On Wednesday of last week (for anyone finding this on some random future date, that was Oct. 24), an idea dawned on me. Sparked by a love of the latest free game on PlayStation Plus, Friday the 13th, and several fan boy conversations with my brother, I decided to purchase the series of Friday the 13th movies. Somewhere amidst the stabbings, many of which I was laughing at, it dawned on me that my blog deserved a Halloween entry, and what better way to celebrate the brilliant holiday than by reviewing and ranking every Friday the 13th film that I can possibly find?

 

Quick disclaimers: these reviews may contain light spoilers. I will rank each film in the order from worst to best. Unlike my podcast episodes, these rankings may have more of a slight edge of my own personal bias. I will always acknowledge my own bias if it plays a role in my ranking of the films. This is a review in progress because unfortunately this brilliant idea dawned on me too late in October, but I will be updating it with each slasher film I watch in the series. I am not including Freddy Vs Jason or the reboot as of now, but that is possibly subject to change. Enjoy...

 

3.     Friday the 13th: Part Three

  • The one where they tried to do 3D. I’ve never liked 3D in film because it always feels like a gimmick instead of a way to better tell a story. This film is perhaps the biggest example of exactly what I’m talking about. Fling a yo-yo directly into the lens, or point a bat right at me and my only thought will be how you are wasting my time. It doesn’t tell me anything about a character, it doesn’t give me any sense of tension, it doesn’t even make me feel entertained. And yea, maybe you’re saying I’m harping too much on the 3D thing, but that’s only because it’s the one memorable thing about this movie. This movie has a slew of nonsensical characters, and if they aren’t making you roll your eyes, they’re making you say, “wait who is that again?” Seriously, why is the biker gang even in this film? On the plus side, there’s finally a smart character in this franchise, kind of. Our final girl manages to hide from, and even hang Jason, which is undoubtably clever. And jason is finally imposing! This is the Jason I think most of us think of when they picture Jason. Hockey mask, huge, menacing. I never was a fan of Jason getting knocked around because it feels like it betrays exactly how imposing he is (he crushes someone’s skull with his bare hands here), but mercifully they only do it sparingly in this film. The barn is an exciting set piece compared to Packanack and the Crystal Lake. That’s about where the positives end though. Kills are still brutal, but this is where they start to feel gratuitous. The beginning of this film shows the end of the last film AGAIN. The ending does have some semblance of finality though, so credit where credit is due. This film’s biggest downfall is that it’s the first time in this series where I am annoyed by characters. So much so that I can’t even enjoy their deaths. I’m just angry that they had as much screen time as they did in some cases, and in others I just don’t care. Also, this one doesn’t even take place on Friday The 13th, you phonies.

 

2.      Friday the 13th

  • The One that started it all...without Jason. This movie undoubtedly has huge issues. The third act is problematic to say the least. But by and large, this film has two relatively strong acts in the slasher genre. Granted, I watched the Uncut version, and am uncertain the exact differences between this and the original. Lighting is occasionally bogged down by an overuse of shadow. Cinematography ranges from well crafted wide shots, to lame overuse of POV. The kills are relatively fun and anxiety riddling. And the acting is fine. I guess what I’m getting at is that this entire film is fine. And while I think the high points of Part Two are much higher, the low points are also considerably lower. So essentially Part One and Two are interchangeable for me. I’d simply rather watch Part Two. The best thing here is the influence of Ridley Scott’s Alien at work, with the ensemble never quite giving away who the main character is that you should be rooting for. This surprisingly works wonders for the slasher genre in particular because it makes everyone feel expendable. As this series goes on, it becomes more obvious who these films want you to root for, and I preferred the approach of the original. The most disappointing thing in this film, which I alluded to earlier, is how slow and pointless things seem to become once a relatively fun twist is revealed. The killer entirely betrays her kill streak by changing tactics and confronting the last counselor for no other reason than to give her a fighting chance. What results is a lame display of Alice striking her, running away, getting found, rinse and repeat until she finally prevails. Afterwards, a confusing dream sequence makes for a good jump scare immediately afterwards, but not much else. But hey, Kevin Bacon’s in it!

 

  1. Friday The 13th: Part Two

The one that started Jason. People forget about sack head Jason before the hockey mask. And that’s because he’s far less intimidating. Jason is more of an inbred hillbilly murderer here rather than the unkillable, dominating presence we remember him as today. That being said, sack head Jason is perhaps that last time this series feels drenched in ‘reality’. The circumstances surrounding this revenge crazed family almost give the impression that Jason could be the same boy that drowned in the lake. Brought back by magical means, or otherwise, the mystery behind the killer is compelling. His shack is eerie, and feels man-made. The kills are more brutal and impressive (The wheelchair kill is my favorite in the series thus far). It’s just a more fun slasher than the first film in nearly every way. The issue is how it begins and ends. This entry starts my least favorite trend in the series: lets play the end of the previous film at the beginning. Did you miss Part One? Don’t worry, this film shows you everything you need to know in the laziest dream sequence possible. Even worse is how it immediately proceeds to kill Alice off and make Part One entirely irrelevant. The ending makes such little sense, that Part Three doesn’t even try to pick up the pieces from this catastrophe of an ending. Our new lead girl saves her own life with one of the most bizarre, out-of-left-field choices I’ve ever seen in a horror movie (for fans, I’m talking about that sweater moment). One thing I never understand with this series is why Jason and his mother move bodies, and why blood rarely travels when they do. Also why does that one girl get naked when her bathing suit is definitely right inside? Mostly though, the meat of this movie all works

Off The Shelf: The Sisters Brothers (2018)

The Sisters Brothers (2018)

Last week I had an exceptional opportunity to see this film followed by a talk back with Thomas Bidegain (the writer), Jacques Audiard (co-writer and Director), and Jake Gyllenhaal. Not only am I extremely susceptible to being star struck, but I’m also a human being that jumps on hype trains. So it took me some time mulling over this film to figure out exactly where I fall on it without allowing the personal bias of how absolutely awesome that was to seep into this review. It’s something I hope to get used to eventually.

The Sisters Brothers is an exceptionally restrained and reflective western revolving around two brothers and their bounty hunt for a prospector claiming to have a recipe for discovering gold with minimal effort. Eli Sisters (played by John C Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (played by Joaquin Phoenix) assert themselves as a formidable and effective pair. But what’s most surprising is how each man is clearly defined through seemingly basic story beats and actions. Something as simple as the elder brother, Eli, purchasing a toothbrush or treasuring a scarf works wonders in terms of the visual language that defines him as the more sensitive of the pair. Whereas Charlie can often be seen galavanting and drinking demonstrating him as the more volatile, erratic brother. It may not seem “fresh” in terms of stories with polar opposites working together, but The Sisters Brothers finds beautiful chemistry and balance in pushing each brother to a physical and emotional limit at one point or another. It stirs quite a few emotionally powerfully scenes as effortlessly as it does with scenes of genuine hilarity. My highest praise of the film, in fact, is how easily it seems to weave its way through emotional highs and lows, particularly in the second act when the chase is on and the brothers are well established. Audiard as a director masterfully avoids his film falling into one easily defined genre, and instead prefers to show life as authentic as he can reflect it through the camera lens. The performances are expectedly magnificent from these two, with Reilly effectively giving one of his best performances in years. The other core characters of the film, John Morris (played by Gyllenhaal) and Hermann Warm (played by Riz Ahmed), each do well to reveal a more optimistic, contrasting duo do the titular brothers. To say the brothers eventually catch them is perhaps a very, very slight spoiler, but nothing ever happens expectedly in this very grounded western of moral twists and turns. Morris and Warm do not shy away from their educated sensibilities, and often clash philosophically when opposed with the survivalist Sisters, but through it all the four each reflect one another nicely.

The film’s biggest flaw is without a doubt its cumbersome first act. The characters each take time to find their footing, as does the story itself. The plot doesn’t feel like it actually kicks up until the Brothers reach a town called Mayfield. Too much screen time is dedicated to Morris and Warm in the first third in an attempt to establish their characters, but the second act does a much better job of defining them with key moments and scenes that have weight beyond just their simple aspirations. And while my praise is high for the chemistry of the Brothers, that also didn’t quite land until Mayfield, before which they were seemingly just outlaws being outlaws. Occasionally, the film plays almost silently, which is neither praise nor condemnation in my eyes. To some, a quiet, contemplative western may be appealing. To others, that might be a turn off. I only mention it to establish that, while I recommend this movie very highly, I also recognize that it may not be for everyone. If Westerns aren’t your bag because you tend to find them slow paced or too methodical for your liking, this may not be the film to change your mind. However, if you enjoy Westerns, and exceptional performances with deeply internalized characters that reveal themselves gradually, this is a movie to add to your shelf. See it when it comes to a theatre near you.

8.7/10

Off The Shelf: 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Here we have a film that has been on my watchlist for years and years, but as with many films that pass us by, I kept telling myself, “eh not right now”. And it wasn’t until I was cruising through Amazon Prime Instant Video to find something to occupy my time for a long train ride that it occurred to me that I could finally cross this title off. I was finally in the right mood. And I was rewarded handsomely.

3:10 To Yuma is a remake of a film from 1957 (also on my shelf, I will perhaps get to it one day). I was attracted to this version originally after having (as I’m sure most young actors have) a severe obsession with Christian Bale in High school. But now all these years down the road, I have grown such a fondness for Ben Foster, Russell Crowe, Peter Fonda, and director James Mangold, so much so that this film has always remained on the forefront of my mind. Despite high expectations, this film managed to deliver an exceptional product. In this 1800’s set Western, Bale plays Dan Evans, a rancher maimed from the war who has been struggling to support his wife and two sons. When Evans stumbles across outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) and sees an opportunity to reclaim his confidence and earn a healthy wage, he agrees to assist in transporting Wade cross country to put him on a train to Yuma in the hopes that the criminal can be locked up for good. The performances given, particularly by the veterans Bale and Crowe, are picture perfect, to the point where each is topping the other from scene to scene. With Bale, the struggle is felt far beyond the rationality of a man struggling to keep his land, and instead we see a desperate attempt for a man to reinstate his pride. With Crowe, we see a man at the absolute height of his intelligence fighting to find excitement in the unpredictable; a masterful charmer that continually makes the audience forget how dangerous he truly is. And by god is he dangerous. Mangold manages to capture the perfect amount of brutality in this wild western where it feels gnarly and gritty while never crossing the boundary into becoming gratuitous. It makes sense that Mangold followed up with films like Wolverine and Logan (both of which are deserving of high praise particularly in terms of the superhero genre). The screenplay maneuvers through the intricacies of these characters so beautifully that it feels almost poetic. There are times when the lines are blurred between heroes and villains in ways that make the audience uncertain of who to root for. Often times character motivations are left unexplained, and while this may be a criticism for some, I found myself thankful that this movie treated its audience as if it was intelligent enough to really examine the characters and decide for themselves how they felt about the hard decisions being made. In line with this, this movie features one of my favorite film endings I’ve seen in years, culminating to the perfect gratifying conclusion that felt both inspiring and unjust.

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In terms of drawbacks, I have very few. For one thing, I feel that this film has a few side plots that lead on a road to nowhere. One in particular involving Luke Wilson feels like it’s bridging into a different film. Peter Fonda, as good as he is in the film, doesn’t feel like his character is indispensable to the narrative. When the movie rolls with exploring its two leads, and simply allowing its two leads to showcase their immense talents, it is at its strongest. I’d also mention that the movie doesn’t truly hook right out the gate. I’d wager that it wasn’t until roughly the 20 minute mark when the plot actually kicks in did I become fully invested in the story. I’d mostly attribute this to a stage coach sequence that, while not void of thrilling moments, ate up too much screen time in the first act without really involving the characters I was interested in at the time all that much.

All in all this film is a beautiful modern adaption of a classic western story, and deserves to be on your shelf as well as mine. 9.5/10

Gianni Damaia - Host of The Bad Movies Podcast

Off The Shelf: Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth Grade (2018)

     Eighth Grade is a film that struck hot with critics at Sundance this year. It had already been on my watchlist just considering I really admire Bo Burnham and was eager to see his directorial debut.

     Eighth Grade, for those who don’t know, is a movie that explores an introverted teen, Kayla played by Elsie Fisher, in her last week of middle school as she navigates the harsh realities of modern day life. Burnham’s unique voice for comedy really shines through in his screenwriting, perhaps unsurprisingly. This is a film that puts awkward teen phases under a microscope while also adding welcome commentary on the subtext of obsession with social media and how it allows us to hide from real life’s insecurities. Of course, you may be thinking, “that’s been done before,” and you’re right. But this film makes a unique and wise choice to A) show it through the lens of an eighth grader and B) allowing it to also show the benefits of that lifestyle in the way that it gives Kayla confidence and gives her a voice to try to help others like her. The complexity demonstrated in the subtext shows Burnham to be a powerful screenwriter, but what makes him a master is the way he builds the film to subvert your expectations. Naturally, there is a lot of cringe worthy, awkward dialogue reminiscent of The Office, where Kayla interacts in ways that will make you laugh while hiding your face in your hands. What I didn’t anticipate was how quickly Burnham could strip that all away and show me the dramatic insecurity lying beneath the surface, and how easily it could all be exploited. I don’t want to get into spoilers in these reviews unless it is absolutely necessary, so as vague as I can be, this film has a rather dramatic shift, and it’s not brought about in the way you might expect. No one dies. No car accidents, or cancer diagnoses. It all stays on the track of watching this teenager try to discover herself, and it hits just as hard, if not harder, than those other things I mentioned. This movie gave me a rare feeling that I relish in good film: I watched this whole theatre get hoodwinked, along with myself, into believing that this movie would simply make us laugh. The collective moments we shared not breathing during a scene in a car, and sniffling to try to mask tears in a scene by a camp fire are the reasons why I go to the movies. The shocking aspect to all of this is that Burnham has done this to me before with his last special, Make Happy (a required viewing of any comedy fan, in my opinion). To warn you in advance that this film will flip the switch on you almost does it a disservice, but I feel it necessary to add in order properly explain how engrossed I was by this movie. The film plays like a love letter to Generation Z in many ways. And while I do not identify with the generation in question, I still found myself feeling nostalgic about the various situations Kayla finds herself in. Assemblies, pool parties, mall hang outs, etc. It also features one of my favorite father/daughter relationships in all of film. The crux of the film lies on the shoulders of these two capturing the audience’s heart, and with so many memorable moments between the two of them, I think they succeeded.

     In terms of flaws, this movie is tough to criticize. Burnham, being the comedian he is, does occasionally create plots as red herrings more for the sake of a joke than an actual plot point that will shape Kayla’s story. And I do think that, while I love the campfire scene very dearly, it is overwritten in a sense. Burnham shows surprising expertise in how he handles the camera, but the campfire scene is a moment of oversharing how a particular character feels when the same could’ve been said in fewer lines and more trust in the visuals. The only other qualm I’d add is there were perhaps one or two character decisions made by Kayla that felt unmotivated.

Overall, this film is deserving of high praise and worthy of a trip to the theatre.

Add it to your shelf. 9.3/10  

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