The Dream-like Entanglement in MANHATTAN

“Chapter one. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. I love this. New York was his town and it always would be.”

Manhattan is not just an ideal Woody Allen prelude to the stimulating imaginative architects known to cinema as dream movies. Despite its interior, charm, and wit, the film is filled with both nostalgia and time that reincarnates itself into a city that, despite its strong hold on reality and high existential crises, is the high hope of love and surprise for Allen’s own dream movie. As the film slips away from Allen’s flawed voice-over, past the lustrous black-and-white streets that encapsulate the “hustle-bustle of the crowds and the traffic”–beautiful women and street-smart guys–slowly entangled with the illusive orchestra notes from George Gershwin, the film swiftly speaks its seriousness on living life to its fullest. Not coming off too fabricated or perplex, Manhattan speaks through imagery and sound and shapes together, through its countless shots of New York City’s twinkling lights, entangled indulgence of love, couples briskly walking through the snow-splattered streets, and swarms of crowds meeting for the same amusement. The importance of connection, most importantly human connection, and the fragility, feelings and romance that follows.

The first scene is laid out in ‘Elaine’s’ jazz-induced restaurant, where the audience are introduced to the man behind the rather comic and disorientated voice, Isaac, followed by his seventeen-year-old girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and two friends Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne). Affirming that “talent is luck and courage,” the scene dives deep into the main themes of relationships and fondness, but proceeds to saturate the film in the essence of one’s first encountered attraction. Through drinks and a prompted question that makes the foursome contemplate their integrity, Isaac proceeds to light a cigarette in his mouth, causing Tracy to grasp a muddled expression and remind her forty-two-year-old boyfriend that he doesn’t smoke. Agreeing with her, Isaac responds to his girlfriend’s scoff by stating that he doesn’t inhale as it causes cancer, but chooses to plant the cylindrical roll of shredded, ground tobacco between his two lips because he looks “so incredibly handsome with a cigarette” that he cannot not smoke one.

Woody Allen and Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan (1979) – source: United Artists

The idea that Isaac acknowledges the pretense of doing something he knows he shouldn’t, but can’t help but carry on because it looks so good, ultimately showcases the intense eruption in humankind’s selflessness. How many people find it important to present themselves truthfully, despite how they appear to others? What number of the many that walk across Central Park, sinking in the surreal landscape of its warmth and sun, are going to rely on what looks good? The characters onscreen, like Isaac, are living in a city where presentation becomes more mature than integrity, eventually becoming the embodiment of the Broadway sign that flickers on and off between 42nd and 53rd Street–shadowing their revulsion of choices from their path of uncertainty. And maybe that’s what Allen was trying to put forward: the single making of a connection with another person, whether romantic or not, is always combined through elements that sometimes aren’t entirely true. That reality is, at best, immersed by one’s fixed dream.

Manhattan is a film that dedicates its lush Gershwin montage of the city and long conversational takes on adulterous affairs and life’s confessions, to the livelihood of New York City. A picture that captures not only the lack of cabs in the dense traffic, but an unemployed, frustrated television writer whose irony and perfect wit of human behavior collide perfectly with his charming diatribes on art and love. A lustrous piece of cinema that combines the modern, bittersweet humor, and timeless romanticism through finding and retrieving compassion. It’s a memoir that, even five decades on, remains as compelling as ever. To this day, performances from the glorious Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton come off as timelessly as the low-key gems that flowed from “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Manhattan is a love letter that is, understandably, a sincere and personal confession. A confession to humanity about how one can be so immersed in their own faithful pleasure and illusory that the sole energy and excitement within reality is painstakingly forgotten. The charming litany of escapism ultimately erupting emotional and artistic crises, in a place that was once remarked as pretty when the lights came up.


Why I Can’t Stop Thinking About HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR

The 2010s horror renaissance is a pretty remarkable evolution for the genre. Tired tropes and uninteresting clichés became the most that horror in the 2000s had to offer with few exceptions. Between the rise of Blumhouse, the decline of torture porn, or unexpected success of James Wan’s The Conjuring universe, it’s not only a run that shows where this decade took us, but if the 2020s will differ. Depending on if you believe it has any meaning, “elevated horror” (which refers to scary movies that have a bigger agenda than just to scare you) has remained relevant from new filmmakers injecting more patience and craft into the horror genre rather than seeing it as commercial means.

One of those filmmakers, is AFI graduate Ari Aster, the master behind 2018’s Hereditary and 2019’s Midsommar. At age 33, he has already made two of my favorite horror movies of the decade, and possibly of all time. His method of weaving together suspense and tragedy is seamless, idiosyncratic to where he doesn’t draw too heavily on his influences. Just from two features (much like his horror peers, Jordan Peele and Robert Eggers) you gather that he uses the horror genre as a Trojan horse—Aster is interested in scaring you, but won’t stop there.

Both Hereditary and Midsommar have their fair share of similarities and differences, which makes it feel as if Aster is drawn to specific ideas, but it doesn’t feel like he made the same movie twice. With Hereditary being about Annie (Toni Collette, in a career-best performance) unraveling the secrets of her mother’s life and ancestry after she passes away, Midsommar focuses on a group of college students traveling to a Swedish village to attend a festival that happens once every ninety years for an anthropology project while Dani (Florence Pugh) is coping with the death of her family. Aster is addicted to fitting square pegs in round holes with these two movies, posing questions with no real answers which leads to reaching catharsis for his protagonists in unorthodox methods.

Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne in Hereditary (2018) – source: A24

Subtracting all the satanic cults and spiritual forces at play, this is a family drama about the misery of grief. Hereditary can’t help but be emotionally wrenching when it needs to be, while also scaring you like few others do. More than any other film I can think of, it specifically works wonders with familial tension and where it manifests. With the recent death of Annie’s mom, everyone is thinking everything, but nobody says anything, making the moment when Annie erupts at her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), in an arresting dinner scene. Tension escalates not only after the death of Peter’s grandmother, but when his sister, Charlie (Mille Shaprio), was killed in a tragic accident with himself behind the wheel. Along with the stressful sound design (which Aster makes even better use of in Midsommar), nothing traditionally scary is happening in the first hour. It’s in what is restrained that contrasts the manic energy of the second half of the film.

Midsommar sprouts its underlying tension from the devastating group suicide of Dani’s family. With the loss of one family, she slowly becomes part of another within the village, as she is sought out to become the new May Queen (or the chosen one). On top of all this, she is in a toxic relationship with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who isn’t necessarily physically harmful, just the worst kind of person to be with. It’s sometimes played as dark comedy, like when Christian forgets Dani’s birthday and only gets her a pathetic cupcake as reconciliation after he is reminded. There’s no melodramatic eruption of emotion (except for one deleted specific scene that takes place at night), but it’s what is being ignored within the relationship that adds to the tension.

Stress is something that informs both Annie of Hereditary and Dani of Midsommar, like the grief both of them face, everyday anxiety about an overwhelming circumstance fuel the horror for them and the audience. It’s the little things in either one of their performances too, like how Pugh picks at her fingernails in some scenes or Collette’s mood swings utilized as foreshadowing. Creating what is more character-driven horror than anything else.

Jack Reynor and Florence Pugh in Midsommar (2019) – source: A24

Aster is someone that believes in forces beyond our control. For Annie, it’s the summoning of King Paimon with the plan devised by her mom, further carried out by another member of the cult, Joan (the great Ann Dowd). With Dani, it’s more theorized than explicitly confirmed, but Pelle seems to be the one who orchestrated her entire journey, though, perhaps not the murder-suicide.

With both films dealing with cult themes, the obvious secret to devilish success in cults is by manipulating those who are most vulnerable. Aster has an encyclopedic knowledge of horror, so he is well aware of the red flags spotlighted in both Hereditary and Midsommar. Joan is much too emotionally available to Annie to not be normal, while Pelle and Hårga in general are a bit too angelic to be just another village in rural Sweden. These people taking control of these characters’ lives, but it’s all in the betterment of healing something they have lost.

Slowly morphing into dramatic irony, these protagonists are so wrapped up in tragedy that they’re unable to see how their susceptibility has drained. Both Dani and Annie are have lost family and are now faced with the emotional strain from those remaining in their lives, with Christian and Steve (Gabriel Byrne) now feeling like strangers instead of stable relationship partners.

Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro in Hereditary (2018) – source: A24

However, where the two differ is a comfortable homestead. Unlike Midsommar, we spend the majority of the run time in the Graham household, like a classically made scary movie. With the house being so old, feeling like it’s one creak away from collapsing, Aster makes a point in conveying that the isolation within the house stems from any neighbors and the Graham family. The film even goes a little meta with its depiction of psychological turmoil—Annie’s profession as a miniature artist is a coping mechanism, creating a version of events seen in the film (like the death of Charlie) instead of wrestling with it. Grace Yun designed the production (she also worked on First Reformed) and she managed to create a home that feels like the opposite—with a house typically providing comfort, the Graham household brings dread and despair.

Midsommar seems to bring forward the journey of seeking out a home, with maybe twenty minutes spent in America and Sweden being the new home Dani is meant to call her own. While Hereditary‘s home is dreary and prickly, Dani sees Hårga as somewhere that darkness has never been seen and comfort is peculiar yet familiar. The acceptance is what Dani sees in a new home but the distance with the Graham family is was makes theirs unbearable.

Alex Wolff in Hereditary (2018)Image result for midsommar movie

Ari Aster is part of a new generation of directors whose work will blossom and develop for decades to come, such as Greta Gerwig, Josh and Benny Safdie, Robert Eggers, Rian Johnson, Lulu Wang, Berry Jenkins, Marielle Heller, Jordan Peele, and many more. It’s very exciting to just see the early stages of their careers and not just how their filmmaking will evolve but how they will change as people. With the rising drought of original ideas, this class is the group that proves there is still hunger for something inspiring. I love horror from 2010s and Ari Aster’s mind made it even better to cap off the decade.


BIRDS OF PREY is A ‘Fantabulous’ Canon-blast of Glitter Bombs & Fun

Everyone’s favorite party girl—who is also a total psycho—is the ringleader of her own playground in Cathy Yan’s sophomore feature, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Back-flipping around the streets of Gotham City, the clown princess of crime Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) lets loose in what is ultimately a chaotic twist of glitter and violence; breaking legs, firing up the Ace Chemical Processing Plant, and relinquishing in pure giddiness at The Booby Trap’s Amusement Mile. Testing out her new identity as an unhinged singleton, now that she and the infamous Joker have broken up, Quinn lashes out with “refined” qualities—celebrating the ‘fantabulous’ insanity that binds herself and four other (not so crazy) misfits to her lively side.

First kicking off Harley’s show with a deliciously giddy voice-over that recounts the crazy gal’s color-popping insanity, Robbie embodies the character with full tilt, reprising her former role from the not-so-good Suicide Squad with an even bigger fizzing, firecracker attention span as she rattles around a timeline that takes double (even triple) twists and turns. Making madness seem a whole lot more fun than Joker ever did, Quinn narrates the story that screenwriter Christian Hodson smartly controls; tapping into the loud and enthusiastic platinum-blonde with rapid-fire fun and personality that enlightens the film with a bounce of adrenaline every time it occurs.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020) – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

There’s no doubting that Harley, as Robbie plays her to perfection, lives for the moment in Yan’s spectacular DC addition. Serving both mischief and flirtation in every scene; running a fourth-wall-breaking commentary that’s as hilarious as her ecstatic drooling while she watches Gotham’s local chef ‘Sal’ cook her up an egg sandwich—there’s no denying she steals the presence of everyone on-screen. However, despite the compelling endeavor that is Harley Quinzel, there are other women in this film that offer the same extravaganza as Quinn’s sparkling caution-tape jacket. Women that, for the most part, don’t give a f—k.

Directing her first studio feature, Cathy Yan goes all in with impeccable ferocity when it comes to the colorful rendition of an all-female team up in Birds of Prey. From the hard-headed, 80s cop show addict turned sagacious Gotham City police officer, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez); “voice of an angel” booked slick, attentive driver Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell); mysterious vigilante, socially awkward, equipped bad ass Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead); and the unfortunate, pick-pocketing youngster Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco)—the live-action superhero film culminates so much spotlight that it’s hard to focus on just one compelling heroine. Ultimately, the dark-induced tale is as triumphant as it is seeing the five-some (including Quinn) fight ruthlessly in the heart of the moment—backed wonderfully with perfect slow-mo timing to songs that tap effectively into the feminine rage. A sprinkle of the hard-hitting “Lonely Gun” and “Experiment on Me” making it even bigger and wilder when we know who these bad ass women are fighting.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020) – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Going head to head with a vicious super-heroine doesn’t at first sound all that extreme, but clashing together a group of smart, ultra-violent and wise women—fitted with a crossbow, a canary cry and a t-shirt that reads “I shaved my balls for this?”—the event sure enhances to be one big fairground ride.

Taking on the role as one of the biggest villains in DC comics yet, Ewan McGregor slays as the whimsical, wealthy, mob-connected face-flayer Roman Sionis (also known as the infamous Black Mask), right down to his comical laugh that shakes the very core of his unpredictable-state. Pinned to the arm of his suede jacket follows the silver-headed Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina)—the very sole face slayer that is merely a deranged serial killer: hooked to the idea of serving and defending his ‘superior’ henchman. The dynamic duo are undeniably a treat to see on-screen, uncovering what DC films have been hiding from their villains for the longest time. But unlike anyone else, Yan lays down the true colors of their status and perceives them in their true obsessive, psychotic-induced side. And as it shows, not hiding a damn thing when it comes to their merciless, cold-blooded, vindictive minds. Swiping the surface with Zsasz’s gaping victim counts that sprouts on his bare chest, the blood that plummets from the chests of the duo’s brainwashed sufferers, and the insane procedure that rounds Sionis’ fetish of removing his victim’s faces with a bare, gleaming knife. The DC film sure does put a lot of shock on audience’s that aren’t quite ready for buckets of blood, but Black Mask and Victor shouldn’t be viewer’s main worry. Instead they should be worrying about the five-some of girls that will kick more ass, slice more faces, and plummet more bullet holes into the very limbs of the narcissistic pair.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020) – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Birds of Prey is like a breath of fresh air when it comes to DC films. For the first time in what seems like forever, the studio that was largely mounted on poor storytelling, visuals, and perspective within their films has seemed to have taken a huge leap with Yan leading the charge. Unlike previous comic-book adaptations that foiled in their own colorless palettes, Birds of Prey dives deep into a vibrant account of our favorite crazy gal from start to finish. Flourishing in an explosive and deliciously giddy narrative that keeps the film flowing smoothly throughout, Yan’s creation of on-screen female empowerment is spectacular—and a blockbuster that’s long overdue. Alas, thanks to the pounding battles that syncs with its female-dominated pop soundtrack, there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing the girls battle Gotham’s men through a glorious, roller-skate, trampoline-bouncing sequence, besides from knowing that “Harley freakin’ Quinn” shines as a glittering head case without Mr. J by her side.


Why 1917 Sets a New High For War Movies

The first World War is fascinating from a historical standpoint. Described at the time as “the war to end all wars,” it introduced technology that was new at the time but has now become common in today’s battles. To think that this all started with the assassination of an archduke shows that even the smallest action has a butterfly effect of epic scale. It got me thinking, “Why haven’t there been more movies about World War 1?” It seems like ripe material for a compelling movie. Sure, there have been movies set around the time, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen a movie that takes us right into the heart of the war. Luckily, Sam Mendes’ 1917 not only sets the bar high for movies set during the first World War, but it sets a new standard for war movies in general. It’s easily his best work to date and, in my honest opinion, the best movie of 2019.

1917 (2019) – source: Universal Pictures

Inspired by stories told to Mendes by his grandfather Alfred, 1917 follows two young British soldiers, Lance Corporal Will Schofield and Lance Corporal Tom Blake, as they are given a dangerous mission. The mission in question is hand delivering a message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, calling off a planned attack on the German forces. The Germans have lured them into a trap and are ready to ambush them. Delivering the message successfully will save the lives of 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother Joseph. The two young men set off on this perilous journey through No Man’s Land, determined to get their message across.

Schofield and Blake are played George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, respectively. They’re relatively unknown to American audiences (some people may recognize MacKay as one of the kids from Captain Fantastic), but it makes sense that they’re cast in these roles. Casting big stars would distract from the realism when all you can see is a recognizable actor. The two of them are really good in their parts, along with bigger names in smaller parts such as Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch. I was curious as to why such big names as those three were cast in a movie where they each only have one scene, but it didn’t take me out of it completely.

1917 (2019) – source: Universal Pictures

From a technical standpoint, the entire movie is perfect. In order to get the audience completely immersed in the movie, legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins filmed 1917 to look like one continuous shot. There’s a part in the middle where it cuts to black following a character getting knocked out, but then it goes right back into the action. There are several big set pieces where the events that unfold are simply stunning, at points making me go, “How did they pull that off?” A good example appears in the trailer where a plane from a dog fight gets shot down and crashes into a barn. My personal favorite scene is when the two men are in an underground bunker that was rigged with explosives, so they make an attempt to outrun the collapsing tunnel.

1917 isn’t just a war movie out for gold at awards shows, it’s a labor of love. Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins are a match made in movie heaven, crafting the best technical movie of the year. There is a lot of haunting imagery they shoot in the movie and it’s all backed by Thomas Newman’s anxious but beautiful score. If you do see this, see it on the best screen near you. If Alfred Mendes had seen what his grandson was capable of, he would be impressed and proud.


How Wim Wenders Sees Self-Discovery in PARIS, TEXAS

Wim Wenders’ quiet western Paris, Texas isn’t all that narratively complex but it makes up for that in emotional density. We focus on a man who we soon learn to be Travis Henderson (the great Harry Dean Stanton) wandering through the desert, directionless and sporting a suit a red cap with a jug of water. Deep in thought and numb to his surroundings, Travis eventually winds up in civilization, when his brother (Dean Stockwell) is contacted to bring him home.

Travis is a man of few words, carrying with him the guilt and sorrow more than verbal thoughts and ideas. In fact, he is without any words when Walt picks him up after collapsing in a small town, reuniting after four years of exile. Pondering what he could change even though correcting his mistakes for the future becomes his goal after wallowing in what is set in the past. It’s a contemplative state of being rarely explored in cinema to carry a story, let alone celebrated.

Once Travis and Walt return to Walt’s wife, Anne (Aurore Clement), it’s then that Travis attempts to make amends with his son, Hunter (Hunter Carson). Hunter was no longer a toddler when Travis abandoned him, seeing Walt and Anne as surrogate paternal figures as opposed to being left up to foster care. Wim Wenders plays into memory in regard to this relationship—how Travis remembers Hunter as a small child and if Hunter can remember his dad at all. There’s a scene where Walt, Anne, Hunter, and Travis gather around a projector to view some old super 8 home movies of when Jane (Nastassja Kinski) was still in the picture. It’s a beautiful moment of nostalgia for not just the characters, but also the audience. Reliving the memories that now belong to the past, only furthering Travis’ journey to save his family.

Paris, Texas (1984) – source: 20th Century Fox

The journey to find Jane is both visual and emotional. With Wim Wenders being no stranger to the road trip format, pioneering it nine years earlier in Kings of the Road, he now gets to write the journey with even more meaning. The screenplay by Sam Shepard has the car in the film mean more than just transportation, and how it informs Travis’ departure from Exile, giving this feeling that this is his one shot to repair something long gone.

Not only do the final scenes with Jane and Travis strike us as emotionally powerful to build idiosyncrasies, but also Robby Müller’s (Dead Man, Breaking The Waves) stunning cinematography and choice of color. Deciding to make the reds of Travis’ hat and piercing blues of the sky in the beginning pop and contrast with the neon green soaked parking lot and the pink of Jane’s sweater feel even more sophisticated at the very end. If a film is fifty percent what we see and fifty percent what we hear, Müller, (for me) goes to lengths for composing some of the most unforgettable images I’ve ever seen. After all, if the work of Wim Wenders, Lars Von Trier, and Jim Jarmusch (whom Müller has shot for) taught me anything, they all remain visually striking as much as they do emotionally intimate with how they choose to move the camera.

Paris, Texas (1984) – source: 20th Century Fox

Wenders’ strength has always been to focus on those on the outskirts of society. Defining his career to be oriented on shining a spotlight who don’t receive attention, or have become resistant to it. Travis in Paris, Texas is a prime example, but also Jonathon in The American Friend and Damiel in Wings of Desire (both played by the indelible, late Bruno Ganz). With Jonathon, dying of cancer is brought in to be rewarded money for his family after he dies to become a hit man and angel Damiel, experiencing the world from the sky, admiring those below him but unable to connect to one living being. Like any masterful filmmaker, what ideas wrestle inside them appear in different places in their work, but looking at their filmography as a whole, a new meaning comes to light.

Paris, Texas (1984) – source: 20th Century Fox

If there is any genre that Paris, Texas—a film begging to be un-categorized and boundless to genre conventions—can be placed with, it has to be westerns. Not just the landscapes in the opening sequence, but how much Wenders is infatuated with the idea of redemption. How can one man be redeemed if his torture comes from his inside demons? Never to visualized, but merely expressed, Travis is a man who can’t admit his reasoning to others when he can’t admit them to himself.

Casting director Gary Chason (Brewster McCloud, Paper Moon) choosing Harry Dean Stanton is inspired and perfect. Harry Dean, whom we lost only two years ago, is a presence like no other here. The luxury of being a known character actor, and not a charismatic leading man, is to not have the added baggage being forced upon you when taking on something this quiet. Equal parts contemplative and grouchy, Harry Dean and Travis are interchangeable by definition. It’s a career spanning fifty years, yet he made the most of every role. He was a person born to be put on screen. 

Stanton’s last role, John Carroll Lynch’s (another character actor with an idiosyncratic presence) directorial debut Lucky acts as his goodbye to cinema. Similar but separated enough from Paris, Texas, Lucky strives to celebrate Harry Dean not only as an actor but as a person. He was enigmatic, but told you exactly what he was thinking, never trying to cover anything up on the screen or pretending to be someone else.


RICHARD JEWELL: An American Hero Vilified by the Media

I personally find it amazing that Clint Eastwood is not only still directing movies, but is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Sure, his recent movies may not be in the same league as some of his best work, but anyone who still works at the age of 89 deserves some kind of credit. Recently, he’s found himself doing profiles on American heroes. Films like American Sniper and Sully found attention around awards season, while The 15:17 to Paris had many problems that critics and audiences couldn’t ignore. He made up for it with his last film The Mule, which I found to be underrated. Now he’s gone back to spotlighting American heroes with his new film Richard Jewell, a film that both has good intentions but doesn’t hesitate to vilify the media.

Richard Jewell follows the titular character as he aspires to become a police officer. We’re introduced to him as a college campus security guard, where he’s quickly fired due to taking his job a little too far. Shortly after he’s fired, he gets a job working security at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. While on the job one night, he notices an abandoned backpack, and advises the other security guards to keep the crowd clear. This action ends up saving lives when the bomb goes off, killing two and injuring at least a hundred more. In a matter of days, he goes from being hailed as a hero to becoming a suspect in the bombing.

Richard Jewell (2019) – source: Warner Bros. Media

Jewell is played by Paul Walter Hauser, who some people may remember as Shawn the bodyguard from I, Tonya. Here, he plays a more humble character who, over the course of the film, undergoes a transformation that makes his performance the best in the movie. During the investigation he acts like a doormat, letting the FBI walk all over him and invade the apartment where he and his mother live. Kathy Bates plays Jewell’s mother, Bobi, but doesn’t contribute that much to the film aside from giving a tearful speech to the press. Sam Rockwell plays Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant, in a solid supporting performance where he’s not taking any BS from the FBI. He especially doesn’t take any crap from Tom Shaw, played by Jon Hamm, who was in Centennial Park at the time of the bombing and is quick to point the finger at Jewell.

Then there’s Olivia Wilde, who isn’t exactly a weak link in the film but is my least favorite aspect. She plays Kathy Scruggs, who is the first person to push the story that Richard Jewell is the prime suspect in the bombing. Her performance has been making headlines, especially one scene where she offers her body to Shaw in exchange for information about the bombing. If I was to add anything to this so called “controversy,” it would probably be that for a film that strives for truth and justice, her character comes off like a cartoon. One of her first lines is her talking about how she wants to get a boob job, and when her story gets published, everyone in the news room stand up and applauds her. Give me a break. It seemed to me that Eastwood was aiming for a certain kind of demographic that is also quick to make enemies with the media, but it came at the cost of realism.

Richard Jewell (2019) – source: Warner Bros. Media

Richard Jewell is strong in some sections but weak in others. It’s at its worst when it tries to show how heartless the media can be and how quick public opinion can turn on someone. It’s at its best when it focuses on Jewell and how this “trial by media” is taking a toll on him and the people who are close to him. Anchored by some solid performances, including Paul Walter Hauser at the center of it all, and you have a middle-of-the-road Eastwood film. It’s not his best, but it’s not his worst.



From the late 60s to the early 70s, the figure of James Bond changed hands between 3 different actors like some cinematic spy version of musical chairs. Within this final call for the SPECTRE brand, up until the Daniel Craig movie of the same name, we get to see Sean Connery for one final time in the well-shined shoes of 007.

STARS – Sean Connery, Charles Gray, Jill St. John, Putter Smith & Bruce Glover

DIRECTOR – Guy Hamilton

RUN-TIME – 120 minutes

Connery’s Curtain Call – Diamonds are Forever poster art

BEST LINE – This film features the zany yet gentlemanly spoken tactics of murderers Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint, who dispatch one liners for every hopeful kill. It’s a triple threat after they think Bond has been sent to death by cremation with them quipping “very moving,” “heartwarming” and “a glowing tribute” in snappy succession as the perfect villainous Laurel and Hardy.

BEST GADGET – Even with the brains of Q being around a bit, there isn’t much to go on in the way of gadgetry. The only useful yet simple method of espionage utilized is a thin skin-like material which Bond uses to pretend he has someone else’s fingerprints on his hand.

EEK MOMENT – James in Kidd and Wint’s entombed means of possible extermination is not a pleasant way of exiting this mortal realm and as the coffin shuffles along the conveyor belt to fiery quarters, the sense of claustrophobia is well used even if this sequence is over before it really begins to fill you with dread.

Coffin for Connery – source: United Artists

00 UH-OH – A mild confusion appears over you as some acting astronauts keep in zero-gravity character instead of apprehending Bond and the subsequent moon-buggy chase is shaky and comical. Yet, it’s the later moment of the British agent kicking a cat that’s one bullying and brutal tactic against Blofeld too far and I don’t stand for that feline abuse.

ICONIC MOMENT – As Bond and Tiffany Case are part of a Las Vegas car chase, they hurtle along the strip and through a car park rife with sirens and screeches, concluding with the sight of James being forced into an alley and somehow tilting his vehicle from one angle to the other as he squeezes through a tight space—a moment any 007 fan should know about.

Car Antics – source: United Artists

REVIEW – It is a shame that the emotional beat and last image of Lazenby’s solo outing is dismissed as Scottish-born Connery returns to the fold. Obviously there is some enjoyment and silliness to revel in thanks to the humor which, spoiler alert, gets increased madly by the imminent arrival of Roger Moore, but there’s something about this 007 feature that is fine, but not much else.

You’d think that getting back the director and singer for Bond gem Goldfinger would save the day, but Guy Hamilton and Shirley Bassey aren’t quite enough to make this a rocketing triumph like that gilded treat was. Saying that, there is the steady gruff charm of Connery and the campy performance of future Time Warp narrator Charles Gray, seen at some point in shocking Party City value drag to help the movie along.

This film does have some nice differences such as seeing Moneypenny out of office, and a glitzy casino set Vegas location which is practically the perfect backdrop for the suited spy. Then there’s the dual-handed efforts of Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint which spices up the henchman quota, even if they do lack any connection to Blofeld and are seemingly forgotten about before a cruise scene gets stitched on to see their characters bite the dust.

The Beavis & Butthead of Bond – source: United Artists

Along the diamond hunt plot are a good many over-egged zooms which are less dramatic and more clunky, but this cheesy technical tension is forgivable as it seems the whole film is gearing up to set Austin Powers in motion; the theatrics of Blofeld, some cloning, the schmoozing of Bond and names like Plenty O’Toole and a funeral director called Slumber, with that the mood of the film is fully summed up.

There does come strange gym happy acrobatic fighting lasses named Bambi and Thumper after desert set chases, space missiles, Amsterdam stop-offs and circus stalking which makes this movie feel somewhat disjointed as random confrontations try to amp up the tension but have you thinking the SPECTRE organisation has had its day. The diamond trail is the simple and easy excuse the filmmakers have in darting from scene to scene.

Waltz’s old face – source: United Artists

The Bond Girl is useless, Connery seems to phone it in and most aspects feel very chaotic but even with the almost pointless excursion to retrieve diamonds eventually lost to space there is fun and glamour to sit back and let wash over you.



The Best A24 Films Ranked

A24 has made a name for themselves over the past seven years, soon becoming known for their consistent output of quality independent films. They’ve given a voice to young, creative independent filmmakers and have helped them on their journey into the cinematic landscape. It’s safe to say that they have transformed that landscape since they were founded in 2012. As the decade comes to a close, I teamed up with fellow writer Jack to rank the twenty best films that A24 has distributed since their debut years ago.

But first, some honorable mentions: Gaspar Noé’s psychedelic nightmare Climax (2019); Sean Baker’s heartbreaking drama The Florida Project (2017); Bo Burnham’s generational anthem Eighth Grade; and Jeremy Saulnier’s gripping thriller Green Room.

20. The Lobster (2015), dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

The Lobster (2015) – source: A24

It is more difficult to pretend that you do have feelings when you don’t than to pretend you don’t have feelings when you do.”

Yorgos Lanthimos’ surreal dark comedy The Lobster is a peculiar look at societal norms and how we ignore our instincts and feelings to play by the rules, confining ourselves to fit in with everyone else. Set in a bleak, claustrophobic hotel where strangers must find love in the most uncomfortable of ways is a concept that could’ve gone in many directions. However, Yorgos puts his focus on Colin Farrell’s character, David, a man desperate for love who is constantly faced with rejection and cruelty from almost everyone he meets.

In Yorgos’ dystopian world, people have to belong to survive, to face the risk of being turned into an animal if they can’t find someone who they belong with. This seems to be Yorgos’ strange look at an odd obsession society has with being part of a relationship. His outlook on things may seem far from reality, but it’s probably one of the most honest portrayals of society’s cruelties that I’ve seen put to film. In our world, it almost seems like lonely people are viewed as animals or strange creatures that don’t fit in. And this film opens our minds to think about those ideas of modern relationships and established social institutions. Yorgos is able to mold those heavy-handed ideas into making something that’s marvelously bizarre and wholly unique. It’s a film only Yorgos Lanthimos could’ve made. – JC

19. Mid90s (2018), dir. Jonah Hill

Mid90s (2018) – source: A24

A lot of the time, we feel like our lives are the worst. But I think if you looked in anybody else’s closet, you wouldn’t trade your shit for their shit.

Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s is a heartfelt and nostalgic story propelled by strong central performances and a captivating emotional core. It’s an endearing movie that radiates warmth and life, taking inspiration from directors such as Harmony Korine and telling a singular narrative that captures many feelings of growing up. I remember the very first time I landed an ollie on my skateboard years ago; that feeling of building up so much emotion in your blood that you might explode, missing the land over and over. But once I landed it, I felt like I was on top of the world.

Mid90s is natural and beautifully portrays the highest highs and lowest lows of our lives. Every scene is meticulously crafted; even if the viewer can’t fully connect to Stevie (Sunny Suljic), his actions and emotions remain authentic in some form or another. Hill’s sharp writing is exuberant as it is emotional, bursting with life and charm amongst the darkness in Stevie’s world. But it’s Na-Kel Smith that’s the true standout as Ray, one of Stevie’s friends, who delivers one of the most memorable dialogue exchanges of the decade. From the sprawling emotional beats to the unique cinematography, this is a genuine and heartbreaking slice-of-life picture, and one of the finest coming-of-age films of the past few years. – OB

18. First Reformed (2018), dir. Paul Schrader

First Reformed (2018) – source: A24

I can’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty.

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed was a return to form of sorts for this veteran writer-director, going back to his roots to direct a thought-provoking and unsettling character study of a disturbed man. It’s a challenging film that dives deep into religion and environmentalism, bringing up genuinely profound statements throughout the film’s journey. This is a dialogue-driven slow burn that completely relies on the performances of its lead actors to grip you, and it didn’t disappoint.

Ethan Hawke gives a career-best performance as the multi-faceted Reverend Toller: a man that everyone sees as a symbol for hope and kindness in this cruel world. However, as the film progresses, the walls begin to close in on him and we see the facade he’s built finally begin to crack. Toller sees through the faux cheerfulness of contemporary Christianity and finally rejects those ideologies that have taken him down a path in which he’s become ignorant to the world’s true problems. Reverend Toller is someone that’s supposed to find hope in this world, but is there really hope for us? Can God forgive us for what we’ve become and for what we’ve done to this world? Those are the questions that First Reformed wants us to reflect on, questions that none of us are able to answer. – JC

17. The Farewell (2019), dir. Lulu Wang

The Farewell (2019) – source: A24

It’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.

Lulu Wang’s second feature The Farewell is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. It’s an introspective look at all members of a tight-knit family as they grapple with the various emotions that come with loss. For a film like this, Wang took her real-life story that the film is based on and transferred it to the screen in a lovely way. The way she imbues both humor and heart into her film without losing focus of the themes is perfect, and the way she examines the inner collapse of emotions as we reckon with grief is impeccable.

Wang breaths so much life into these characters, enabling you to deeply care about their emotions and feel the life seeping through every line of dialogue. Families are quirky, and there are so many of the little imperfections on display here that enable us to realize that that’s why we love our families so much in the first place. It’s such a heartwarming story that reminds us of the people in our lives that truly affect us most, and our desire to connect with them as much as we can within the time that we have. Wang crafted a remarkable film like no other, filled with memorable performances and dialogue exchanges that reflect the best in us in a touching, poignant manner. – OB

16. Krisha (2016), dir. Trey Edward Shults

Krisha (2016) – source: A24

He didn’t even want you to come, because he was scared. The whole family was scared!

What may be the most overlooked film in A24’s library, Trey Edward Shults’ directorial debut Krisha is a raw and unnerving character study of a troubled woman reuniting with her family during Thanksgiving. It’s a brave feature debut that prides itself on showing the self-destructive nature of its lead character. Using long takes, aspect ratio changes, and harrowing close-ups to transport us into the chaotic nature of Krisha’s mind. The film tackles addiction, forgiveness, and familial relationships all in the span of 83 minutes to ensure a riveting and concise feature that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Setting the film during Thanksgiving makes for an interesting dichotomy, as it’s seen as a holiday of coming together with your family and celebrating love, making the twist all the more effective when the film progresses into utter madness. The internal turmoil between these characters is palpable; you’re just waiting for the inevitable catastrophic event that lights the spark, causing the family to explode with anger. This relentless film is a true display of talent for Shults, who used elements of Krisha for his next two features. We will look back on this film years from now as one that began the career of a major talent in evocative filmmaking—a filmmaker whose work will impact the world in the same ways Robert Altman and John Cassavetes have. – JC

15. The Spectacular Now (2013), dir. James Ponsoldt

The Spectacular Now (2013) – source: A24

You think beauty’s in some classroom or some textbook, and it’s not. That’s not what it’s about. This right here. This is beautiful. All of this. That’s all you need.

When it comes to coming-of-age films, A24 seems to have it covered. But many viewers seem to have forgotten about this overlooked gem. James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now is one of the greatest coming-of-age films of the decade, a wholly immersive experience that completely understands every defining aspect of modern teenage life. It doesn’t stoop to a level that devalues teenage experiences like other films this decade, choosing instead to follow a raw and personal story that feels ripped right from the memories and emotions of this generation as a whole. Ponsoldt’s singular focus on the relationship at the heart of the film is unwavering in its complexity, and Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley’s perfect chemistry elevates the narrative. It’s an already heartbreakingly grounded story, but the realism they bring to their roles is unmatched by practically every other movie couple of the decade.

There isn’t much that needs to be said about just how authentic every scene and line of dialogue feel. It’s already impressive that it tackles issues like alcoholism and parental separation this effectively, but it goes even further and becomes even more resonant through its depiction of the divide between those who are going to college and those who aren’t (a primary stressor for teens, regardless of the generation). That’s what makes this film so special: its themes represent the current generation, but they also reflect past generations and will remain just as distinct and prevalent for future ones. – OB

14. High Life (2019), dir. Claire Denis

High Life (2019) – source: A24

“The sensation; moving backwards, even though we’re moving forwards; getting further from what’s nearer.

Claire Denis made her English language debut with High Life: an esoteric, singular work of art that will leave you in a trance. Denis dives into a genre she’s never tackled before, science-fiction, and makes one of the greatest and most unique in the genre. Denis brings her enigmatic and poetic filmmaking to a genre that truly needed something fresh. She grounds a genre built on spectacle by crafting an intimate and hypnotic mind-bender in the vein of Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Denis tackles themes she’s covered previously in her other brilliant films: the dangers of desire, the mystifying nature of the human body, and the notion of being an outcast.

However, in this environment with these mysterious characters that are all on the brink of self-destruction, the themes are able to blossom into something that will perplex audiences. High Life may not be for everyone due to its sexually-charged and philosophical way of displaying a world looming destruction, but there is beauty to discover under the eroticism and allegories; there is purpose within what some believe to be a meandering and empty film. Through Denis’ existential meditations on our universe, we’re able to uncover her views on the meaning of existence and the inescapability of our judicial system. She traps her characters within the confines of a spaceship and the eternal emptiness of space is the only thing awaiting them once they leave the blank walls that surround them. These criminals seemingly have no purpose, they’re just awaiting the dark demise that will come soon enough: just like us. – JC

13. The Lighthouse (2019), dir. Robert Eggers

The Lighthouse (2019) – source: A24

Bad luck to kill a seabird.

Robert Eggers’ gripping 19th-Century set horror film The Lighthouse is certainly no sophomore slump. Starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as a pair of lighthouse keepers stranded on an island during a brutal storm, the film wouldn’t work as well as it does without the strength and charisma of its two leads, who play off of each other with such flamboyant confidence that I could personally watch for hours on end.

Eggers’ script is fascinating to watch unfold—it’s rife with tension and has a looming sense of dread that overshadows the viewer’s perception of the film’s events. He takes classic mythology and blends it with his own twisted narrative. This is a powerful example of a film that utilizes atmosphere in deep and magical ways, but never prioritizes it over anything else. Its style goes hand-in-hand with its substance, with Jarin Blaschke’s claustrophobic cinematography working wonders in this regard. It’s one of the most unique films of the year, and continuously takes unexpected turns that veer the story in a completely new direction than what was initially anticipated. It ultimately builds up to a marvelous crescendo of a climax that’s as tightly-written as it is off-the-wall insane. Eggers is able to communicate thrilling themes of power dynamics, redemption, and even homo-eroticism. If you couldn’t tell, this is one special film. – OB

12. Under the Skin (2013), dir. Jonathan Glazer

Under the Skin (2013) – source: A24


Jonathan Glazer’s brilliant Under the Skin is a chilling and surreal film loaded with dense symbolism and visceral themes. On the surface, the story seems simple: a mysterious alien comes to Earth and seduces easily susceptible men. However, the thematic core within the film ponders deeply on the human experience, specifically the female experience. It’s a parable of sex, love, and seduction; one that intoxicates the viewer to follow this enticing alien as she discovers what it’s like to be a female in the modern world.

Glazer touches on sexism and gender roles to give way to an effective piece on society’s treatment of women, using the science fiction genre as a compelling way to express those themes. We follow Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien along a journey of self-discovery as she learns about humanity and its faults. She first came to Earth looking to feast, but as we follow her along this path she learns to love and have compassion. Perfectly capturing the curious alien’s headspace is Mica Levi’s hauntingly beautiful score. Her score verberates through your soul, elevating the dreamlike images onscreen. Under the Skin undoubtedly feels like a nightmarish fever dream, but it’s also a beautiful love-letter to humanity; a love-letter that realizes the beauty and the brutality of being human. – JC

11. Good Time (2017), dir. Josh and Benny Safdie

Good Time (2017) – source: A24

Are you feeling this? Are you feeling as good as I’m feeling right now?

Josh and Benny Safdie, New York’s favorite art house filmmaker brothers, took a deep dive into the city’s seedy underworld with their electrifying crime thriller Good Time. And while on the surface, it may look like your typical crime film, the brothers’ filmmaking gives way to something deeply sad. The way the Safdies capture the essence of New York City throughout Connie’s (Robert Pattinson) fast-paced adventure throughout one fateful night. It’s the Safdies’ answer to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, a relentless pursuit of the light at the end of a very dark tunnel. Except nobody ever reaches that light, do they?

The Safdies take you on a hypnotic journey that uses its vivid imagery as a facade among communal desperation, and their script serves as an empathetic commentary on familial relationships. Somehow Pattinson manages to make you feel sorry for a character that’s filled with so much self-interest and greed. The visual flair traps you in the movie’s grasp, giving you the opportunity to either root for Connie or loathe him, questioning your own sanity in the process. By the end, hopefully you’ve made up your mind: the ruse is gone; the night is over, and all you’re left to do is reflect on the fates of everyone involved in the narrative’s events. Good Time is the textbook definition of cinematic euphoria, a pulse-pounding ride that never lets up. – OB

10. It Comes At Night (2017), dir. Trey Edward Shults

It Comes At Night (2017) – source: A24

You can’t trust anyone but family.

Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night is not your typical horror film. It’s a horror film that pushes all genre tropes aside to make a film that tackles the dangers of collective paranoia and corrupting influence parents can have on their children. It Comes At Night is an incredibly personal film for Shults. He wrote the film as a result of the exploring and processing of regret and grief after his father’s death. Unfortunately, this personal film was subject to horrific mis-marketing.

Shults’ second feature was panned by horror fans who expected something more traditional. Instead, Shults’ take on the horror film is one built on the droning dread we all face as the lights go out. Our minds are supposed to be a safe place, but when the world outside of the mind is dangerous and full of disease, our minds begin to corrupt; there’s no escape from the dark, and soon the fear and paranoia will begin to take over. The home you sought as refuge is now a danger in and of itself. Where can you go? Who can you trust? There’s truly nothing scarier than that. It Comes At Night is a slow-paced, humanist and existential horror film; it’s free from the self-indulgence and ostentatious nature of what some would call “art house horror,” making for a true landmark in horror cinema and furthering the themes of familial terror that Trey Edward Shults has so brilliantly used throughout his work. – JC

9. Swiss Army Man (2016), dir. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

Swiss Army Man (2016) – source: A24

But maybe everyone’s a little bit ugly. Maybe we’re all just dying sacks of shit, and maybe all it’ll take is one person to just be okay with that, and then the whole world will be dancing and singing and farting, and everyone will feel a little bit less alone.

There is truly nothing like Swiss Army Man. Right from the opening scene, the viewer knows that they’re in for something deeply affecting—and incredibly weird. It’s almost impossible to put into words just how weird this film actually is. Despite its extreme quirkiness, however, it never seems like it’s trying too hard to push boundaries. It’s a hilarious, touching look at subjects like depression and loneliness that perfectly balances on the line between melodrama and slapstick comedy. Paul Dano is phenomenal here, but it’s Daniel Radcliffe who really steals the show, giving a performance that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking at once.

The way director duo “Daniels” (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) utilize a combination of vibrant visuals and a sharp script to craft a story that is almost guaranteed to make you laugh out loud more than once and leave you emotionally gutted by the end. It’s more profoundly creative than any film of the past decade, and subversive in its story beats. It’s refreshing to watch a film like this and be reminded of the undying creativity that the cinematic art form has to offer. This is easily one of A24’s most underrated films, one that is completely unconventional and unique in every respect and absolutely deserves more recognition than it’s gotten since its release. – OB

8. American Honey (2016), dir. Andrea Arnold

American Honey (2016) – Source: A24

You know what Darth Vader looks like inside his suit? He’s a skeleton, just like the rest of us.

Andrea Arnold takes us out of our routine, mundane lifestyles to transport us into the world of young, dumb, and broke teenagers in American Honey. A harsh but truthful commentary on poor adolescents within a rich nation. When we meet our lead character, Star (Sasha Lane), she’s in a situation of utter dependency as she bears the responsibility of raising her two younger siblings. She knows this isn’t the life a teenager deserves and desperately craves liberation. Hungry for this freedom, she meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his troupe of high spirited magazine sellers. Immediately, Star is attracted to the erratic and liberating nature of life on the road.

Arnold easily could’ve viewed these teens as unlikable scum, but she views them through an empathetic lens. These teens and this depiction of marginalized youth feel authentic. It’s an honest portrayal of the drifter lifestyle; a portrayal that doesn’t shy away from the sociopolitical aspects that come along with it. Arnold showcases the harsh realities of income disparity throughout the film as we follow these characters on a journey through urban sprawl. The audience gets to see the detrimental effects of economic decline in areas throughout the American Midwest. We truly need more artists like Andrea Arnold to tell stories of the less fortunate: artists that are willing to tell these stories through an empathetic lens, rather than the exploitative manner in which many others portray the poor. Arnold is telling stories that truly matter and I’m glad we have her unique talent within this current cinematic landscape. – JC

7. Lady Bird (2017), dir. Greta Gerwig

Lady Bird (2017) – source: A24

Hey, mom, did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento? I did, and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened. All those bends I’ve known my whole life, and stores, and the whole thing. But I wanted to tell you I love you. Thank you.

You may know Greta Gerwig’s 2017 directorial debut Lady Bird as that one movie that no one on Twitter ever shuts up about, but it truly deserves every ounce of the praise and hype that it has received over the past few years. Gerwig told an up-close and personal story that feels wholly fresh and original compared to so many other coming-of-age films. Gerwig’s sharp and refined script provides beautiful insight into the life of the character of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who might honestly be the most relatable character of the decade. Christine is witty, short-tempered, and selfish, like all of us were (and maybe still are) at some point in our lives. She consistently gets into fights with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) over stupid things, but Gerwig uses their arguments as focal points to the narrative to show just how alike Christine and her mother really are. This is a film built on relationships and shows how necessary they are at certain points in our lives.

Lady Bird is a masterpiece at showing the defining aspects of teen life because of the delicate touches Gerwig imbues throughout her script, allowing viewers to relate in some way or another, and to more than one character as well. When Christine is driving through her town on her own for the first time, seeing it differently, the viewer takes it in with her, as she steps out alone into the world for the first time and views the streets she drove with her family from a new perspective. It’s a film made for families to bond over, to heal generational gaps and allow parents and children to connect to a beautiful collection of fragile moments worth treasuring. – OB

6. A Ghost Story (2017), dir. David Lowery

A Ghost Story (2017) – source: A24

We build our legacy piece by piece, and maybe the whole world will remember you, or maybe just a couple of people, but you do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone.

David Lowery’s beautiful exploration of love and loss is a visual experience that wholeheartedly portrays the magnitude of existence. It’s a film that easily could’ve come off as outlandish—Rooney Mara eats a pie for 5 minutes straight and Casey Affleck walks around in a bed sheet for almost the entire film—but in reality, it’s a poetic and minimalist drama crafted with such delicacy. Lowery masterfully captures the profound nihility and complexity of death, and the eternally tedious life of a soul without unity. Lowery’s interpretation of life after death shows that even after we part from this world, we still wander around looking for purpose. As souls, we’re put in a box where we must watch as everything that we built around us comes to a crumble. The special bond you built with someone…gone; the home you shared with this loved one…gone. You can only watch as people move on to forget you and the special moments you’ve shared.

Hidden beneath each frame, you can feel that longing for human connection and the aching sense of isolation. The film allows for moments of self-reflection where our own experiences with loss, love, and grief can come to the forefront, allowing for a more immersive experience. A Ghost Story is a quiet but transcendent piece of cinema that takes you on a captivating spiritual journey. It’s truly a film that will never leave you. – JC

5. Uncut Gems (2019), dir. Josh and Benny Safdie

Uncut Gems (2019) – source: A24

This is how I win.

The Safdie Brothers followed up Good Time with Uncut Gems, another energetic, electrifying crime thriller. It’s anchored by a powerful, captivating performance from Adam Sandler, who delivers possibly his best work yet as Howard Ratner, a jewelry dealer in NYC’s Diamond District who also happens to be a compulsive gambling addict, resulting in him owing debts to loan sharks and struggling to pay them off. With this film, the Safdies broke a new record for tense, anxiety-driven filmmaking by delving headfirst into Howard’s life, combining frenetic visuals with a pulse-pounding score from Daniel Lopatin, all at the pace of a bolt of lightning. Darius Khondji’s stunning cinematography serves as an exciting accompaniment to the psychological framework of the film.

Despite all of the energy it radiates, however, it’s actually a deeply depressing character study. The Safdies show that we can never outrun the fate that we have written for ourselves. Howard’s selfish tendencies seem to haunt him at every turn, but he never learns. It’s only when faced with a true win that the prospect of being brought down is completely evaporated, until viewers are thrown for one final loop and reminded that this is not a fantasy. With actions come consequences, and it’s ultimately up to us to choose whether those consequences are good or bad for us in the long-run. Taut and unpredictable, Uncut Gems is a riveting masterwork. Plus, it’s got Adam Sandler fighting The Weeknd while “Swimming Pools (Drank)” by Kendrick Lamar plays in the background, which is pretty much everything one can ask for in a movie. – OB

4. Spring Breakers (2013), dir. Harmony Korine

Spring Breakers (2013) – source: A24

This is the fuckin’ American Dream, y’all.

Harmony Korine has never been afraid to shock audiences when delivering his message. With Gummo, he disgusted audiences while exploring poverty and alienation, and in Julien Donkey-Boy he overwhelmed them while telling the heartbreaking story of a schizophrenic teenager. His films always seem to be met with mixed reactions, and that was especially the case with Spring Breakers. His provocative and neon-drenched feature gives a satirical but honest look at the generation who’ve grown up on reality TV and its lies. It’s a film that shows this generation’s warped view of the pursuit of happiness, and the nihilism & debauchery that come along with it. You never know when to laugh, cry or feel disgusted while watching this hypnotic fever dream.

The booze, boobs, and barbarity may distract viewers from Korine’s ultimate message for our youth; that this is a film about people searching for purpose, searching and then discovering these lifestyles portrayed on TV aren’t what they seem from the outside. All of the depravity onscreen is ultimately a gateway for Korine to deliver a message that so many choose to ignore. We really weren’t ready for such a film that made us look inside ourselves and question the materialism and selfishness that has taken over our minds while showing how the consumption of lifeless entertainment has impacted our way of living, as well as portraying the consistent deterioration of importance for what we want to leave behind. Spring Breakers isn’t dubstep-fueled soft-core porn. It’s a brutally honest portrayal of youth, one that most filmmakers would be too scared to tackle. But as we all know by now, Harmony Korine isn’t scared of anything. – JC

3. The Last Black Man In San Francisco (2019), dir. Joe Talbot

The Last Black Man In San Francisco (2019) – source: A24

We built these ships. Dredged these canals. In the San Francisco they never knew existed.

With The Last Black Man in San Francisco, director Joe Talbot and writer Jimmie Fails gifted the world a moving story overflowing with beauty. It’s beautifully authentic and immersive, only made more stunningly real by the fact that it’s based on Fails’ life. Every frame is stunningly vibrant, filled to the brim with so much life and love. It’s hard-hitting on every level, asking the viewer to question whether believing in something that isn’t real is better than believing in nothing at all. The film delivers a thought-provoking, heartfelt story that is truly larger than words can convey. It tackles a wide range of subjects such as gentrification, toxic masculinity, and racial identity, balancing these themes with utter perfection. It’s indescribably exultant, filled with gorgeous shots and landscapes that capture the heart of San Francisco.

Fails’ performance is heartbreaking, and newcomer Jonathan Majors also shines in a masterfully performed supporting role that oozes warmth and compassion. The amount of care, empathy, and intimacy imbued into every line of dialogue is ineffable, reminding us of where we came from and where we’re going in our lives. This is a film that speaks to the viewer and allows them to resonate with the narrative and complex characters as if they too are a part of the story, a tribute to family and friendship. There’s nothing quite like it, and it’s without a doubt the most dually heartwarming and heartbreaking film of the year. – OB

2. Waves (2019), dir. Trey Edward Shults

Waves (2019) – Source: A24

Love is patient…love is kind…love is not rude. It doesn’t boast. Love also…forgets wrong.

Trey Edward Shults’ personal and lovingly crafted film, Waves, is one half a relentless assault on the senses, and the other, a poignant and delicate family drama. With a pulsating soundtrack, vivid visuals and frenetic pacing, Waves is a bold film within a genre full of uninspired works. Shults dives deep into the complex ramifications of toxic masculinity by following a father that emotionally suffocates his son, pushing him to his limits. It’s a dynamic that anyone can relate to regardless of race, gender, or social class. The film is unwavering in its portrayal of a toxic father-son relationship, understanding that there’s love where there’s hate in familial relationships. Shults has depicted the trials and tribulations of life throughout his work, but here, the passion and humanity that seep from the screen make for his most personal film yet.

I’ve never seen a film that portrays the tumultuous life of a teenager quite like Waves. Shults captures the confusion and anxiety of teen life so brilliantly, tapping into the personal experiences of his lead actors to ensure a story that feels real. Shults not only tackles the ups and downs of being a teenager, but he also explores how youth cope after a tragedy, showing the sorrowful but optimistic ways they look at loss. Waves shatters the hearts of audiences only to mend it together again with a cathartic final scene; a scene that’s the culmination of emotion we’ve collectively felt throughout the film. It’s a crushing film that’s full of hope and beauty, and it’ll be something special for many generations to come. – JC

1. Moonlight (2016), dir. Barry Jenkins

Moonlight (2016) – Source: A24

Who is you, Chiron?

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is not a film. It is a cinematic experience like no other, a life-changing work of art that pushed the boundaries of narrative storytelling by intimately portraying the life of Chiron, a black man growing up in Miami. By splitting the story up into three different (and equally defining) stages of Chiron’s life, Jenkins is able to delicately balance emotion throughout each scene, layering it in a way that allows the viewer to grow with Chiron as he begins to experience defining events in his life.

Moonlight is a tribute to our lives, a tribute to the people, sights, sounds, moments, and feelings that shape us as humans. Jenkins’ script, adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is rife with fluid emotion, as emphasized by the waves that rush across the screen, beautifully free-flowing. James Laxton’s gorgeous cinematography lends itself to the allure of the film, joined by the terrific, heartbreaking performances from Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert, among others. These performances feel real because everyone has felt the feeling of insecurity in their emotions, the uncertainty of how our futures will turn out. That’s what makes Moonlight so absorbing; it’s a stunningly relatable portrait of a young man coming of age in an unforgiving world where it’s impossible to feel at home in your own feelings. Moonlight isn’t just the best film in A24’s catalog. It’s also quite possibly the best film of the decade. – OB

What’s your favorite A24 film? Let us know on Twitter @simplycinephile or in the comments below!


LITTLE HANDS: Interview with Rémi Allier

A filmmaker, much like any other creator, has a certain need to address specific topics. Finding that common denominator and expressing it in bits and pieces can either result in a stale piece of art or a never-ending, but exciting, challenge. Rémi Allier, for instance, is a director who prefers exploring the world through a child’s point of view. With short films such as Zinneke and Little Hands, he strives to depict reality from a child’s innocent viewpoint. Fascinated by the lack of prejudices and this overall pure instinctual version of life, Allier seeks to investigate subjects through this standpoint in order to provide a fresh perspective. 

Being shortlisted for an Academy Award, Allier and I dive into a discussion about Little Hands to unpack certain moments in the film:

Ioanna Micha: Obviously, the first thought that comes to mind in this film is the welfare of the child actors. How did you ensure they were protected during the key scenes in the film that are quite intense and energetic?

Rémi Allier: I love kids in real life before loving them on the screen, so this wasn’t an option for me. Also, the rules are very strict in France when you are working with children. Working with child actors has been the core of my research for many years now (I did other films with kids, as a director/coach). Working with a baby for Little Hands, I had to re-invent everything I knew in order to reorganize the film-set and schedule around the welfare and safety of the baby. Emile, the child actor, is very close to me, I have known him since his birth, and his parents are some of my closest friends: his father, Martin Moulron, was the props master, and his mother, Lise Lejeune, was the Costume Designer. Then we had to build the relationship with other actors, especially with Jan Hammenecker (Bruno, the worker), so that they could get along and play. Once we had that bubble of trust and confidence around the babies (Emile, main actor, and Camille, the body double) we could explore safely.

As soon as we knew everybody was ready, our job as a film crew and my job a director was to make you, the audience, believe that the baby was going through a traumatic and violent experience, encountering those energetic and intense scenes, while in reality, he was just playing in the arms of his “friend”. The most violent thing he encountered was playing “helicopter” while running in the forest. It is all a matter of focal length, blocking, sound editing, and point of view. Most of the time when things appear the most violent, there is actually no baby involved, but just a dummy! I talked with many specialists of childhood, such as childcare workers, psychiatrists, stuntmen, actors, and directors to really understand what I would be able to do.

IM: Following on from that, how did you get the child to cry on cue?

RA: The kid was able to understand lots of things, but, of course, he wasn’t able to cry on cue. So, we had to organize our schedule in order to use the little accidents of a normal day, and record them. Throughout the day, a baby that age normally cries a few times, when hungry or tired, or upset because he dropped something. For example, after the “fall” in the forest, the baby cries loudly, in shock. In fact, he was just waking up from the afternoon nap, so he was a bit grumpy and confused, as he usually is when he is looking for his mother.

IM: Tell us about the background and context of the story which chronicles the closure of a factory. Was this based on a real-life incident?

RA: Closing factories are sadly something that happens a lot these days in France or Belgium, and I have seen it during my entire life. The film was inspired by many different actual events during which things went crazy. In 2015, a manager of Air France got his shirt ripped off during a protest. In 2014, the manager of Goodyear in Amiens was detained. Those events were signs that fear and anger against managers can lead to extreme violence. I was shocked by this, and moreover, I wanted to question that violence, where is the source of it, why do people feel such a strong pressure that they believe they have nothing to lose? Violence always has a source and it’s important to keep that in mind.

IM: Tell us about your cast.

RA: Emile Moulron Lejeune a.k.a. Léo is the baby that I have been watching growing up during the writing of the film. He had such a strong personality and generosity for a 2-year-old, and it was as if he had understood what we were doing. We had some really magical moments with him. Moreover, because he knows me and most of the crew, he knew he could be fearless. Jan Hammenecker a.k.a. Bruno, the worker abductor, is a famous actor in Belgium. I had the chance to work with him on an exercise during film school. It was one of those encounters that really change you. I think about him a lot when I write, so offering him the part of Bruno was more than natural to me. Also, he is a father and knows a lot about working with kids, so his generosity and overall involvement made him a strong ally. All the extras are actual workers from the area, whom we met there. They were so involved and professional.

IM: Where did you shoot and for how long?

RA: We shot the film in October 2016 for 2 weeks, 9 shooting days. In Aquitaine region in the South West of France, in 2 separate places, the forest in the Landes near the Atlantic ocean, and the factory in Lot et Garonne, further in the land.

IM: How did you get financing for the project?

RA: The film is a co-production between Belgium and France. (Wrong men and Films Grand huit). We received money from the Belgian and French sides. Public money from governments, Federation Wallonie Bruxelles, French CNC, Bourgogne Region, Aquitaine Region, Landes and Lot et Garonne funds, Arte TV channel, RTBF (Belgian National TV), Be TV, tax shelter. The budget was quite impressive because working with babies increases the shooting time and logistics, also everybody was paid.

IM: You came from an Editing background before you headed over to Belgium to study Directing. How do the two disciplines feed into your story-telling style?

RA: As an editor, I write in images more than words, so those shots, scenes, are already edited in my mind when I write them. This helps me a lot to feel the rhythm, the pace of my films. I think about films as if they would be one single shot, with only a string of emotion and tension. Also, my editing background helps me a lot on set to understand the way the space would be mapped or abstracted; the way the characters would be seen. I started to say I wanted to make films when I was 8, so I’m now trying to dig into that point of view I had as a kid. The idea of point of view guides my writing and my directing all the way to the editing room.

IM: How do French and Belgian culture differ in their filmmaking approaches, and do you appreciate the style of each when structuring your own work?

RA: France is a bigger country, and we can think of film as an industry there. Also, we, as French tend to take our work and ourselves very seriously, as artists, auteurs… sometimes a bit too seriously! In Belgium, film is more like arts and crafts; the audience is so tiny, as the country is. Also, there is in the mind of the population, a strong sense of humor, distance, and a way not to take things too seriously. So, I tend to mix the two cultures, trying to build casts and crews on two sides. It is a way to balance things out: having a very serious and engaged way of working with distance and questioning, and humor when needed. A set with two toddlers really changes the game because you have to juggle with making a film and changing diapers, or playing in muddy puddles!

IM: It is said that your work focuses on youth and childhood. What issues would you like to explore in the future using these as points of reference?

RA: I think our adult world is quite questionable. My next project is a feature film about a 10-year-old girl facing the end of the world as we know it. Exploring our world through the eyes of young kids is something that I find fascinating. It allows me to explore the darkest areas of our lives, but always keep the eyes towards light, hope, and can be humorous when needed.

IM: Salaud Morriset, who won the Oscar with Skin for Best Live Action Short in 2019, is representing your film. What are your hopes for it in the future?

RA: Skin is an amazing short, so having the same journey with Little Hands sounds crazy! Of course, the adventure we are having with Little Hands, with the César and all, is already crazy. I am so happy and excited whenever I think that we have new opportunities for the film to be seen by many people, and film professionals in the US. The response around the film in Telluride was incredible. The right goal for me is for the film to be seen by everyone. Plus I know that this might create opportunities for new encounters and projects, so I am very excited!

IM: Finally, would you consider expanding this short film into a feature?

RA: Definitely! I worked on a feature version of Little Hands. I think this will be my second feature! It’s a very ambitious project, and I love challenges. Also, I am always excited by creating new stories and images that I have never seen on a screen. So, yes! I’d be happy to!


5 Documentaries By Women You May Have Missed In 2019

As 2019 comes to an end, there’s a lot of great films to look back on—but there are plenty more that have gone under the radar. It’s not uncommon for documentaries to be under-seen in comparison to narrative features, especially in a pretty commanding year, but it’s a genre rife with humanity, and requires a masterful and precise approach to filmmaking nonetheless. 

These five films explore the complex universality of the human experience through niche desires and subcultures—from Instagram likes to political reform to the Satanic church and a gay porn shop—and are definitely worth your time.

Liza Mandelup’s Jawline

Jawline (2019) – source: Hulu

It’s hard to make a film about influencer culture without coming off as dismissive or insulting to an inescapable cultural moment. But Liza Mandelup manages to both be critical of the cringey at best, exploitative at worst industry while still empathizing with the young people too-often caught in the cross-hairs. Jawline follows sixteen-year-old Austyn Tester as he desperately tries to chase the allure of internet fame to forgo his boring life in Tennessee. Mandelup thoroughly examines the plights of being young, online, and in the market for validation: from being encouraged to commodify themselves and their bodies as product to using conventional attractiveness and surface-level scraps of personality as currency. It’s hard to watch Austyn flex to a webcam for affirmation, but the blame is never put on him for wanting it. Instead, Mandelup understands that the horrors of influencer culture come from the systems in place that manufacture these false promises and profit off of young people’s dreams to be seen.

Dava Whisenant’s Bathtubs Over Broadway

Bathtubs Over Broadway (2019) – source: Focus World

Have you ever had a friend with a strange collection or hobby? Or maybe you are that friend yourself? If so, you may find some solace in Steve Young, a former staffer on The Late Show with David Letterman, who has an odd pension for corporate musicals. Young feverently forages through charity shop bins and online forums to find these records—which were highly produced marketing material for popular brands like Xerox and General Motors, among others—and falls into the bathtub of absurdity as a way to subsidize the emotional hardships in his personal life. With Bathtubs Over Broadway, Whisenant puts a new spin on a largely forgotten touchstone and hones in on both the underlying joy and sorrow that comes with the pursuit of obsession.

Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House

Knock Down The House - Still 1
Knock Down the House (2019) – source: Netflix

Some of the greatest documentaries serve as a time capsule, memorializing a monumental point in history as it happens. Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House captures the momentum and energy surrounding the record-number of women who ran for elected office in 2018, but she establishes the film as a pivotal record of history with the groundbreaking election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Knock Down the House follows AOC’s campaign from the very beginning all the way through to election day, in addition to other candidates across the country. Lears’ film provides an intimate look at the personal and professional sacrifices it takes to run a progressive campaign, as well as highlighting those working towards a serious changing of the guards in our politics.

Penny Lane’s Hail Satan?

Hail Satan? (2019) – source: Hulu

At first glance, a deep dive into the Satanic church might not seem all that relatable. But Penny Lane’s Hail Satan? investigates the fringe religion that has been widely snared at, sure, but also that has gained a surprising momentum in feminist and progressive spaces in recent years. Lane breaks down the storied history of the Satanic church and how it has managed to sustain a substantial following in the modern world. Documentaries about ideologies and religion, especially one as controversial as Satanism, are hard to pull off. But Hail Satan? tries to understand the appeal of Satanism and humanizes those characterized as goat mask-wearing weirdos with a tenderness that is not often given to them. The subculture may seem perverse and taboo going in, but by the end you may find yourself rethinking your own perceptions.

Rachel Mason’s Circus of Books

Circus of Books (2019) Source: Netflix

Documentaries are deeply personal, but oftentimes the emotion is only felt on one side of the camera. With Circus of Books, Rachel Mason tears down that wall by crafting a film with unprecedented access into the lives of her subjects—who just so happen to be her own parents. Circus of Books follows the life and death of their unconventional family business—a gay porn and book shop in West Hollywood, Southern California. A story like this could easily be told through an objective and historical way, but the emotional highs and lows in Circus of Books lies in its deep familial ties—underscored by zany anecdotes, home videos and real vulnerability. It’s a film that memorializes a piece of history by contextualizing it through the personalities that made it what it was.

What was your favorite female-directed documentary that was released in 2019? Let us know in the comments!


The Simple Cinephile’s Favorite Films of the Decade

The 2010s has been one of the most revolutionary decades for all things cinema. Technology has advanced, a slew of promising new actors have been introduced in Hollywood, and there are more exciting films to look forward to than ever before. As we segue into 2020—the start of a new decade to be full of new films to enjoy—the writers of The Simple Cinephile talk about their favorite films of the past decade:

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) – source: Annapurna Pictures

Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King
Director: Barry Jenkins
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

While many place Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight on their best of the decade lists, I also include If Beale Street Could Talk. Described by the director as a series of “memories, dreams, and nightmares,” this film holds me from start to finish every time. Nicholas Britell’s score and James Laxton’s cinematography evoke just as much emotion as the story and characters do themselves. This combination brings sound and color to Baldwin’s novel, inviting viewers to truly live the experiences of Tish and Fonny. Jenkins crafts Beale Street with such sensitivity that it’s impossible not to find yourself emotionally-invested and yearning for the young couple’s happiness.

Black love is a rare thing to see on screen with it usually being side-lined, but Beale Street dives deep, and that’s one of the reasons I love it so much. Their love is celebrated. The camera dwells; we have time to study the faces of our characters, we feel every touch and are warmed by the gentle, intimate moments. Their bodies are portrayed in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative, but true. One particular scene feels so private that I held my breath the first time I witnessed it, afraid to disturb the characters I cared for so much. If Beale Street Could Talk helped me learn to love myself more and will always remain incredibly important to me.

Honorable Mention: Little Women (2019)

Written by Yazz

The Wind Rises (2013)

The Wind Rises (2013) – source: Studio Ghibli

Cast: Hideaki Anno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Miori Takimoto
Director: Hayao Miyazaki

It has been a decade of swan songs (or at least films with the feeling of finality), with films such as Twin Peaks: The Return, First Reformed, Amour, or more recently The Irishman. We see artists who have been admired for many decades take a took at themselves and their accomplishments up to this point—how their latest work ties in with the themes they’ve investigated throughout their careers. No film displays this like Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful and bittersweet The Wind Rises.

Focusing on a lifelong love of flight, Japanese aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi’s storied career includes the creation of the A-6M World War II fighter plane, Miyazaki choosing to never choose a side of anti or pro-war, but the love of creation. Jiro’s drive to design is eclipsed by the morality of eventually what the aircraft are used for. The romance between Jiro and Naoko acts as a parallel to Jiro’s career—knowing the end is near but making the most of it. Despite being Miyazaki’s first foray into real-life adaptations, it’s never bound by the limitations of trying to remain accurate to the real like engineer. Instead, it fits perfectly into the catalog of Miyazaki’s masterworks, just a little wiser. It’s a movie that is gorgeous in every frame, from the sophisticated color palette to the master sound design from Koji Kasamatsu. Joe Hisaishi’s score is melancholic and romantic, especially the theme, which is able to exist as a piece of music both for the film and on its own. It’s clear from the very beginning that this is craft shaped from many decades.

Honorable Mention: The Florida Project (2017)

Written by Jack

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The Hateful Eight (2015) – source: The Weinstein Company

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Where to watch: Netflix

That’s right, The Hateful Eight, largely considered by critics as one of Quentin’s Tarantino’s lesser films, is my favorite film of the 2010s. It’s a crying shame that the film is not considered in the same league as Tarantino’s most popular and acclaimed works such as Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Basterds because, for this cinephile, not only is it his favorite of the decade, but it is also his favorite of Tarantino’s entire oeuvre. That’s because The Hateful Eight is Tarantino at the top of his craft. Filmed on glorious 70mm, every composition in every frame receives rigorous attention to formal detail. Through careful staging, use of off-screen space, camera placement, framing, movement, and particularly the evolving utilization of foreground and background, creating those delicious deep space compositions, Tarantino can imbue his suspenseful confined take on the mystery genre, drawing from The Thing and The Great Silence, with a sophisticated formal elegance. An elegance which primarily manifests using layered wide screen composition. Each composition is filled to the brim with so much visual information consistently revealing and withholding crucial narration: an approach that would make Akira Kurosawa blush. As a result, the audience is constantly encouraged to scan the screen and unravel the layered mise-en-scène presented for any hint of subterfuge. 

The Hateful Eight doesn’t stop at just virtuous visuals and compositions. Sound, particularly Ennio Morricone’s original score, plays such an important role in this audio-visual. Morricone’s fantastic score evokes a sense of suspenseful looming dread that could manifest and burst violently onto the screen at any moment. Speaking of violence, Tarantino through this tale of these hateful, sadistic, misogynistic, and racist strangers confined to this limited space in the aftermath of the civil war has much to say about the violent, selfish, and turbulent nature of America then and now. Tarantino intelligently juxtaposes moments of warmth and potential understanding with depravity calling for compassion in the middle of a wailing storm and a boiling poisoned pot of coffee. It is a cynical cold perspective on America’s political and social landscape—a nation founded on violence. However, none of this would work if the performances were in any way lacking, and boy oh boy, they sure aren’t. Walter Goggins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Samuel L. Jackson are clear highlights, and all involved eat up the ebb and flow of Tarantino’s signature witty dialogue at every turn.

Honorable Mention: Silence (2016)

Written by Lachlan

Frank (2014)

Frank (2014) – source: Magnolia Pictures

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Director: Lenny Abrahamson

There are few films from this decade that comment on performance, identity, and modern masculinity as aptly as Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank. Based on the real story of papier mâché head-wearing musician “Big Frank” Sidebottom—Abrahamson’s fictional adaptation brims with offbeat humor, strange instruments and a real appreciation for the weird and contradictory experiences that come with being human.

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring musician who gets a gig working with an experimental, dead-end band run by the elusive, mask-wearing Frank (Michael Fassbender). Frank follows the disjointed process of the band as they work on their first album, as well as getting a sudden skyrocket to fame, thanks to the internet. But amidst the cartoonishness of Frank’s big head (metaphorically speaking, as well as his literal papier mâché head) and absurd songs, Frank is surprisingly moving and vulnerable. There are petty band disagreements and relationship dramas abound, sure, but there are deep sorrows and moral reconciliations just beneath the fanfare. At its core, Frank gets at the personal cost of building up walls and putting on masks. More importantly, it asks a compelling question of its characters and its audience: what happens when you’re deathly afraid of what’s underneath all of that?

Honorable Mention: Raw (2016)

Written by Cody

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Bill Murray
Director: Wes Anderson

Choosing one of so many great films brought to the public this decade was an extremely difficult task. Add to this the fact that, as a millennial young woman, probably 80% of my movie baggage was built just this decade. So, in order to get to my chosen one, I set some criteria: the film should be technically as good as its narrative—including editing, visual effects, etc.; its director’s style should definitely be present throughout the film; the acting of the cast should convince viewers that these characters were real within that story; and it should be as memorable to me as a bedside book.

Finally, I came to the conclusion that​ The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson, is my favorite movie of the decade. Bringing together familiar faces from previous Anderson films such as Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody—and notable new additions—Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Jude Law, and Saoirse Ronan, to name a few.​ The Grand Budapest Hotel not only meets all the requirements listed above, but also has everything one could wish for in a great story—from drama to romance, mystery, and comedy—without ever losing its essence. Besides its delightful visual aesthetic—one of Anderson’s trademarks, along with his talent for storytelling—​The Grand Budapest Hotel takes supplements of classic genres, like the chase films from the First Cinema Era, the jailbreak films and the noir films, something that honors the history of the Seventh Art, and serves as a full plate for all cinephiles.

Honorable Mention: Get Out (2017), Mommy (2014), Palo Alto (2013), Columbus (2017)

Written by Leticia

Palo Alto (2013)

Palo Alto (2013) – source: Tribeca Film

Cast: Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, James Franco
Director: Gia Coppola
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Kanopy

Palo Alto, Gia Coppola’s directorial debut, came out in 2013—a year known for its surge of teen movies, such as The Bling Ring, The Spectacular Now, the Carrie remake, and The Kings of Summer. Among all of these (and more), Palo Alto seemed to jump out at me and resonate with me so much that I just had to pick it as my movie of the decade. The simple plot line (but complex in the characters’ eyes) is quite niche as a whole, but so many of the character’s traits and side plots pull me in and almost mirror my own relationships and feelings. It’s like a comfort movie—seeing all these high school students struggling, but ultimately the main characters getting their happy ending. The beautiful cinematography makes you almost feel like you’re in a dream, or as if you’re an onlooker onto these seemingly mundane but twisted happenings. The soundtrack is also the finishing touch to the movie, filled with melancholy songs to add as a backdrop to the characters’ ennui and dark teenage angst.

Honorable Mention: Lady Bird

Written by Maddie

Ex Machina (2014)

Ex Machina (2014) – source: A24

Cast: Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Sonoya Mizuno
Director: Alex Garland
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Kanopy

A staggeringly beautiful and innovative story of technological testing from the last 10 years which holds up as one of my absolute film favorites. Alex Garland makes a grandiose debut led by the star-making turn of the truly entrancing human-esque robotics of Alicia Vikander. Ex Machina is a captivating, chilling, blue-toned science fiction feature that has a lot to say—and if that’s not enough, there’s that spectacular dance moment starring Oscar Isaac.

Honorable Mention: Sing Street (2016)

Written by Troy

Phantom Thread (2017)

Phantom Thread (2017) – source: Focus Features

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Where to watch: Crave (Canada)

Phantom Thread isn’t just an intriguing title. This is a ghost story—of the past returning to haunt the present, of letting go, and the trouble with breaking a curse. In his supposedly final performance, Daniel Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, ‘50s London’s most in-demand and highly-strung dressmaker. In absentia from work, Reynolds meets waitress Alma and embarks on a love affair that threatens to shake up the prestigious House of Woodcock for good. If only she can show him how to relax a little. This is a gorgeously conceived, seductive film with a huge appetite (for both people and food) and often belly-aching in its humor, tossing screwball energy at a twisted romance that’s far weirder and more subversive than you’re expecting. Frankly, Vicky Krieps, the film’s devilish anti-muse, was robbed. Imagine a decade without a new Paul Thomas Anderson masterpiece.

Honorable Mention: The Guest (2014)

Written by Luke

Frances Ha (2012)

Frances Ha (2012) – source: IFC Films

Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver
Director: Noah Baumbach
Where to watch: Netflix

Perhaps better films than Frances Ha have come out this decade, but there is certainly no movie from the past ten years that has filled me with the same amount of happiness and warmth. Watching Frances Ha is like wearing your favorite sweater, or drinking a nice cup of tea, or chatting with an old friend. To me, it is pure comfort. The film follows a 27-year-old dancer, Frances (Greta Gerwig), as she meanders through apartments, relationships, and jobs. Frances, it is clear, isn’t quite sure of who she is. “I’m so embarrassed,” she says in one scene, “I’m not a real person yet.” This quote is, in many ways, central to the film.

Frances Ha is about people in different stages of becoming—people who aren’t quite fully formed human beings yet. Far from shying away from the scary idea of being in your 20s without knowing where you’re headed, the film is a celebration of the state of being a work-in-progress. Its nostalgic black-and-white cinematography and charming performances time and time again ease my fears of the future, gently reminding me that it’s okay to be a little lost.

Honorable Mention: The Florida Project (2017)

Written by Saru

Arrival (2016)

Arrival (2016) – source: Paramount Pictures

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

Arrival is a masterpiece—it’s a deeply introspective rumination on human nature, our desires, our fears, and our faults. The score and cinematography are incredibly haunting, and the screenplay and use of language as a plot device is brilliant. Arrival hits you like a gut punch and stays with you long after the credits roll. Am I forgetting anything? Oh, right, Amy Adams gives one of the best performances of all time. We will never forgive and never forget that The Academy snubbed her.

Honorable Mention: Lady Bird (2017)

Written by Meg

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

How to Train Your Dragon (2010) – source: Paramount Pictures

Cast: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Gerard Butler, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, David Tennant
Director: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video, Netflix

The thing about How to Train Your Dragon is that it’s a perfect movie. I’m sorry if you don’t agree with this, but then I have to ask: what don’t you enjoy about an underdog story? Hiccup, the unlikely hero of the story and our fateful protagonist, is constantly trying to prove himself—whether that be trying to make his Viking father proud, or attempting to hold his own against the dragons that systematically invade his village of Berk. When he captures a dragon of his own, Hiccup feels that killing him is the only way to finally convey to the rest of his village that he’s not a coward—and yet, he can’t do it.

From then on, Hiccup’s relationship with his new dragon—named Toothless—is the core of the film, demonstrating acceptance and what it means to come into one’s own. Hiccup carried me through my gawky teenage years and well into young adulthood, because there’s nothing more comforting than seeing your own awkwardness mirrored onscreen and realizing that maybe, just maybe, things will get better. For those of us that never feel like the heroes in our own lives, the ones who look in the mirror and wonder if we’re ever going to conquer whatever beasts we’re fighting: take a look inside your heart, and maybe you’ll see Hiccup staring back.

Honorable Mention: Brooklyn (2015)

Written by Gaby

First Reformed (2017)

First Reformed (2017) – source: A24

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Philip Ettinger
Director: Paul Schrader
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video

If any film captures the unique yet universal feeling of existential dread that came with the 2010s, it’s Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Schrader immerses his audience in a cold and harrowing world of unanswerable questions. Through a very specific tale of existential dread, First Reformed subtly digs at blind evangelism and the damage that religious denial has aided in causing. At the start of the film, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller quotes Thomas Merton as he states “I know nothing can change, and I know there is no hope.

Although the film presents many queries, First Reformed is about the horrors that transpire when we as individuals lose hope. As bleak as Paul Schrader’s latest is, it functions as a plea to open our eyes and harden our hearts, because the damage humanity has caused will not be undoing itself anytime soon.

Honorable Mention: Carol (2015)

Written by Ella


STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is An Emotional & Ambitious Farewell

It’s not easy to take on the finale of a trilogy of trilogies that unquestionably balances one of the strongest and heart-felt franchises known to cinema, but returning once again to combat the previous degrading development in The Last Jedi, J.J. Abrams miraculously leans in with his own to force to complete the much-beloved Skywalker Saga with a thrilling eruption of both action and discovery. First uniting fans and critics with his fantastic take on the galaxy in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Abrams uncovers not only that stormtroopers can fly these days, but he starts a conversation that dives deep into Rey (Daisy Ridley)’s true lineage and the awakening of the franchise’s greatest Emperor through a series of countless new worlds and action sequences that eventually puts the epic chronicle to rest.

Following through after the events that took place in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, once again, the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance as The Resistance (still hugely outnumbered) and the First Order tighten grips for the last time. However, despite knowing all of this, the opening crawl flourishes and we are given little time to think about its information as the story gets moving quickly—barely pausing for breath. In the depths of it all, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is shown taking down unfortunate aliens on a planet called Mustafar (a place that fans will most likely recognize as the destination where Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi fought tirelessly in the final episode of the prequel series), outpacing his stormtrooper escorts as he mows his way through a path of destruction towards the crumbling ruins of Vader’s castle grounds. Depicted as quite a dark and calamitous scene for the creatures that are faced with the erubescent color of both Ren’s cross-guard lightsaber and fueled anger, the moment is ultimately a snow-driven fight that concedes the dark warrior’s possession of The Force with both determination and a temper that’s as fiery as his wielded weapon. Entering the decay of land with a purpose, the Supreme Leader discovers an artifact that will ideally lead him to answers throughout the film. From there, he goes straight to Exegol to meet the overarching return of the villainous and powerful Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), erupting us fans to witness the Dark Side’s progress through the understanding and shock that no one is ever really gone.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) – source: Walt Disney Studios
Motion Pictures

Back at the rebel base, our lovable freedom fighters Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) have evolved to become a pair of great leaders among The Resistance movement, showcasing their joyous friendship and well-hearted chemistry through the countless hugs and praises that they shower each other in after every successful quest. During all of this, Rey, in the midst of the jungle moon on Ajan Kloss, is undergoing training from Leia (the late Carrie Fisher respectably brought back with uncut footage from the prior two films)’s vigilant guidance. Still linked—bound even—to Kylo Ren, Rey expresses herself to be more confident, in not only her power of the Force, but her capacity to resist the Dark Side and its cynical manners, allowing her to work harder throughout each session of mediation while levitating and learning to wield her lightsaber through dangerous obstacle courses—a parallel that swiftly takes us back to when Yoda trained Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.

Within the first act, the central characters Rey, Poe, Finn, and good old Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), along with everyone’s favorite protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), establish an easy and humorous closeness that fits well throughout each galaxy-trotting treasure hunt that falls into their hands. Accommodating some heartfelt character moments and laughs between the fivesome, whether it be from Chewie beating Finn and Poe in the holographic battle game ‘Dejarik,’ or C-3PO constantly reminding his friends that he is fluent in more than seven million forms of communication, the bond that they all share on the Millennium Falcon makes me wish that they’d spent more time together on screen. Moving from location to location, the tour that they savor is fleshed out with action set-pieces, new characters, plenty of attractive visual detail—and did I mention flying stormtroopers? Each exposition in every scene that they spend together is a surprise, and a satisfying reflection on what Star Wars should be: making your own path and finding your family. It’s all perfect—at least before a spy within the First Order delivers a terrifying message that quickly disengages the collection of happiness altogether.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) – source: Walt Disney Studios
Motion Pictures

Among the Dark Side, it is no secret that Sith Lord Emperor Palpatine is back in frame, urging Kylo Ren, whose cracked helmet hints all too obviously pointing at his bruised inner turbulence to seek out an obsessive search for Rey in order to wipe out the Jedi for good. The Rise of Skywalker proceeds to further explore the relationship between Rey and Kylo—their deepening connection growing stronger after their battle with Snoke in the previous episode; the taunting of one another through visions of the future that intertwine with what they each believe.

Corresponding to Driver and Ridley’s heart-wrenching and extraordinary performances, the film relies mostly on how strangely well-matched the pair are to one another. With Rey heavily invested in her friendships and her cause of protecting the Jedi and Resistance; Kylo is depicted as merely the opposite: a more-or-less cynical and suspicious Supreme Leader that has the everlasting impulse to control the impossible. But The Rise of Skywalker is simply a tale that embarks on two opposites attracting—a mysterious connection that is ultimately the most intriguing aspect of the new trilogy, and a hint of ambiguity and sort of eroticism that builds against the simplistic good-versus-evil themes to something rather fresh and contemporary. A reasonable thought out story that die-hard Star Wars fans would hopefully see as an achievement within the franchise, instead of a make haste trivial fan service that many are exploiting it to be.

While the performances for both Driver and Ridley come across with absolute commitment and genuine excellence throughout, taking center stage in a large chunk of the film’s ambitious drive, there are new additions in the form of General Pride (Richard E. Grant), Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), and Jannah (Naomi Ackie) that might as well not be there. Among the snow-flecked world of Kijimi, the remnants of the second Death Star, and the towering waves that craft into a level of visual gorgeousness, there sure seems to be a lot of distraction on our heroes’ journey—much too often feeling like a swift way to harvest information for the story to move on, which often encompasses it to feel more indulgent to generate a humorous curve in the tale. But despite its too many characters and all too much pandering that results in the film feeling less than its run-time, The Rise of Skywalker still doesn’t fail to astound me. With the colorful festival of desert planet Pasaana and the cinematography that follows its stunning visuals, there was no doubt in my mind that I would leave the film without picking up adoration for what lingered on screen. And the tiny droidsmith Babu Frik did just that.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) – source: Walt Disney Studios
Motion Pictures

The Rise of Skywalker delivers the answers to the questions we’ve all been asking, and despite it not being discussed further, it ends the Skywalker Saga with an exhilaration that may be inconsistent and unparalleled to how The Last Jedi took to it. To me, I saw Abrams finale as a sequel to The Force Awakens—a thrilling eruption of high fantasy, emotional punches, final goodbyes, and a visual pan on the light winning for the last time.

Ultimately, I see this film as a love letter to Star Wars. The franchise has always been about finding who you are and finding your family, combined beautifully with the themes that lean towards heroism, sacrifice, and friendship. Abrams still stays true to that in some beautiful ways, and with his graceful outlook on the galaxy, reminds fans of the much-beloved universe that the ever-present, all-powerful force remains strong—and will be for a long, long time.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is now in theaters worldwide



It is a truth universally acknowledged that a biographical film about a well known man must not only acknowledge, but glorify, his work and personal life. Announced as an Oscar contender pretty much from the moment Tom Hanks accepted to play the part, Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood surprised audiences at TIFF for being a movie about Mr. Rogers—but not really. In fact, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is more about who is watching the screen than who is on it.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) – source: Sony Pictures Releasing

Marielle Heller’s third feature film focuses on Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist known for his often offensive pieces, who is commissioned — very much to his surprise—to profile the iconic Fred Rogers for an issue about heroes. Vogel is based on real life journalist Tom Junod who profiled Mr. Rogers for Esquire’s 1998 November issue. In the film, Lloyd attempts to cope with parenthood on all fronts—managing his father’s reintegration in his life against his will after having abandoned him during his childhood, and managing the birth of his newborn alongside his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson).

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starts quite simply. Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) enters his home in the neighborhood while singing the show’s theme song. He performs the entire ritual—takes off his coat, closes and opens and closes his red sweater, and puts on his blue shoes. At the end of the song, he takes his “picture board” and presents the audience to a photograph of a bruised-nose-Lloyd, breaking the forth wall and introducing the audience to the film’s main character. It would be wrong to say the film blurs fiction and reality. The film’s symbolic language is not used to disguise reality, but to reveal it, much like Mr. Rogers did through his neighborhood.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) – source: Sony Pictures Releasing

Similarly to her previous effort Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Heller’s new feature is meticulously orchestrated in a way that never feels abrasive, but the meta nature of A Beautiful Day gives the director more room to play with convention. The film manages to balance Lloyd’s personal issues with Mr. Rogers’ global impact by using him as an example of that same effect without ever dismissing Lloyd’s character or making Mr. Rogers look bigger than he is. Fred Rogers was, as mentioned by his wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett), just a man who also dealt with a fair amount of anger. but worked hard to not let it get the best of him.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is ultimately a testimony of Mr. Rogers’ message—that feelings should be acknowledged and talked about, a notion that might seem obvious and even corny to skeptical adults like Lloyd and, as one particular moment in the film acknowledges: us. It is difficult to watch Heller’s film without going through any sort of introspection. The meta aspect of A Beautiful Day does not rely on praising its audience for catching a reference but on asking questions, a sort of Fleabag effect that works in reverse. Mr. Rogers looks at us as he looks at Lloyd, bugging him, making him turn his investigative journalism on himself.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) – source: Sony Pictures Releasing

At the end of the day, even if A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not exactly about Mr. Rogers, it is about Mr. Rogers’ mission, and that might be the best Mr. Rogers film after all.


PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE Explores Lesbian Romance Using the Female Gaze

At the end of the 18th century, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is teaching portraiture to a group of young women when one of them asks her about a painting they discovered at the back of the class—the titular ‘portrait of a lady on fire.’ We then jump to a flashback, which takes precedence for the majority of the film, as Marianne recalls one of the most defining moments of her life.

While travelling to the isolated island of Brittany in France, Marianne’s canvasses fall overboard and, without hesitation, she dives into the turbulent sea to rescue them—showing us that she is a woman of agency. Marianne has been commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel); a young woman who is to be married off to her late sister’s ex-fiancé. However, Héloïse has refused to sit for portraits as she doesn’t wish to marry the Milanese nobleman. Because of this, Marianne is told that she will act as Héloïse’s walking companion during the day and will paint her in secret at night.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) – source: Neon

Portrait of a Lady on Fire has such beautiful direction and cinematography that the film almost feels like a painting itself. It’s made up of breathtaking shots, and has a dreamlike tenderness about it with gentle characters, soft voices, and a calming ambiance—even though we know a bittersweet ending is waiting for us. Director Céline Sciamma and Haenel are lesbians themselves, which allows the film to be coated in an authentic and compassionate female gaze.

We don’t meet Héloïse until twenty-minutes into the film. With her back towards us and running recklessly towards the cliff side, we fear that she will meet the same fate as her sister—but then she finally turns around and reveals her effortless beauty. Sciamma uses intimate close-ups throughout the film to demonstrate Marianne’s tender voyeurism towards Héloïse—after all, she must commit Héloïse’s features to memory in order to capture her likeness for the painting. During the first half of the film, Marianne quietly observes her subject, but she soon realizes that her subject is watching her back.

When Héloise finds out the truth and sees the first painting for the first time, she asks: “Is that how you see me? No life, no presence?” Marianne destroys the painting after realizing she failed to capture Héloïse’s true aura. It’s during the second half of the film, when Héloïse’s mother leaves for five days that the two women are finally able to act on their impulses, as Sciamma shows us what happens when women are given the freedom to live out their desires.

marianne and heloise
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) – source: Neon

With male characters not around, Portrait loses itself to the female experience. Marianne and Héloise’s passion grows as they spend more time together and learn the most intimate details about one another—such as how Marianne always touches her forehead when she doesn’t know what to say. “Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?” Héloise wonders. Portrait is an intimate portrayal of lesbian romance, though it’s one that heavily relies on furtive glances and soft touches. Despite this, the subsequent yearning physicality of their relationship manages to provide raw vulnerability—something that works for the film’s time period.

Marianne and Héloise also treat servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) as their equal as they all cook together, play cards, and exchange stories. They also aid Sophie with her abortion, as Sciamma makes sure to explore more of the female experience. While both lesbianism and abortion were illegal in 18th century France, these women don’t judge each other as they live freely during their short-lived period of time together. Even though the presence of a male dominated society looms over them, Portrait shows us what happens when women are left to just be.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) – source: Neon

The theme of freedom runs strongly throughout Portrait as Héloise questions if freedom is loneliness, but it soon becomes apparent that people can set you free in ways you didn’t imagine. Sciamma is also sure to show love without possession as it ditches the male view on lesbian love. In an interview with Jezebel, Merlant said: “Women fill the frame and take their freedom in a world where there is restrictions everywhere. They find their way to love. They don’t talk about men because it’s a vision of a woman writing this movie.”

The final moments of Portrait are its most powerful. Marianne knows that their love is impossible, but Héloise has not been able to recover from the heartbreak that still follows her around years later. The short time they had together were the best moments of their lives and the impact is enough to last a lifetime. While both actresses give phenomenal performances, it’s Haenel’s final moments of pure heartache that will stay with you long after the film is over.


QUEEN & SLIM’s Performances Are Its Saving Grace

It started like any other night for two young African-Americans in Ohio. They went to a diner for a first date. The young woman didn’t want to be alone that particular night, so she turns to Tinder. They make small talk about each other and they each send mixed signals about whether or not there would be a second date. On the way back from the diner, the young man gets stopped by a cop for a minor traffic violation. Being an African-American stopped by a white police officer in 2019, the stop escalates to a boiling point and the young man gets physical, eventually shooting the police officer in the throat.

This traffic stop sets off a chain of events for the young couple in Queen & Slim, which was marketed as a modern day take on the well known Bonnie and Clyde story—but it is so much more than that. It plays around with different genres throughout its run time. There’s romance, there’s drama, there’s crime, there’s even a little bit of comedy. But most importantly, it’s relevant. A film this ambitious could’ve gone wrong very easily, but the script and direction are stylish and allow for smaller, more human moments to play out.

Queen & Slim (2019) – source: Universal Pictures

For example, the names of the couple are not disclosed until a news report at the end of the movie. People don’t even refer to the young couple as “Queen” or “Slim,” like the title would suggest. Any news report that was heard in the movie would just give descriptions of the two without any names. The only hint at a name we get before the ending is when Queen stops at a cemetery to pay respects to her mother. Another small scene shows Queen having Slim stop the car to look at some horses. In the hands of anyone else, these little details and scenes would’ve been left on the cutting room floor. But here, it’s left in so their characters could be more developed.

Daniel Kaluuya and newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith have excellent chemistry with each other right from the opening scene at the diner. They would have to have good chemistry with each other in order for this story to work, since most of the time it’s just the two of them in a car. Turner-Smith was my favorite performance of the two, feeling very natural and in control given the circumstances. Director Melina Matsoukas built a career from directing music videos and found the courage to bring this story to life with her first feature film. Also worth highlighting is writer Lena Waithe, who some people may recognize for her part on the Netflix series Master of None. She shares a story credit with controversial novelist James Frey.

Queen & Slim (2019) – source: Universal Pictures

The film isn’t totally flawless, however. At 132 minutes, it does get slow in some parts. I found myself checking my watch quite a bit towards the third act. Some of the editing choices I also found to be a bit odd, starting out with some characters talking before transitioning to voice-overs and going back to showing them talk. Maybe they were trying to be a bit artsy with the style but that back and forth was a little distracting.

If there is a Bonnie and Clyde story this compares to, I would be thinking more of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. That movie, much like Queen & Slim, had a distinct style and also blamed the media for glorifying a criminal couple to the point where riots ensued. Queen & Slim is more subtle than Oliver Stone’s movie, however, and this is in part to more nuanced performances from Kaluuya and Turner-Smith. Some people may avoid it because of how it paints police officers, but they’re missing out on one hell of a movie.


KLAUS Revives Traditional Animation Just in Time for the Holidays

There’s magic in a letter. An alchemy of processes; forests to cards, pigments to ink, pen to paper. Finally jettisoned off to far corners of the country, the world, collecting the fingerprints of postal caretakers before reaching your doorstep. It’s an analogue art form, a method of communication fighting a losing battle against the virtual upholstery of instantaneous pixels, word processing, and email. Yet we keep it alive via birthday cards, thank you notes, invitations and, of course, the precious wish lists of children worldwide.

Klaus (2019) – source: Netflix

Much like communication, animation is a medium obsessed with modernity. As software becomes faster, so does the process of rendering 3D character models to poke, prod, and puppeteer. Sweeping landscapes become copy-and-pasted backgrounds and pre-production for annual Disney animated features seem more concerned with physics engines and automation than character design and experimentation.

Disney has just released its highly-anticipated Frozen II, a painterly and expressive exercise in world building, sure, but whose genuinely startling moments of pure animated innovation are few and far between. Its most stirring sequences are those that recall the abstract of Fantasia or those build upon the fantasy of the first film, but must Disney remain steadfastly bound to nostalgia to make the products the success they are?

Spanish animator and first-time feature director Sergio Pablos (along with co-director, Carlos Martínez López) thankfully birthed Netflix’s animated Christmas film Klaus in a reinvigorating 2D style. It’s a quaint, storybook film for bedtime that understands that an animated origin of the first letters written to Santa Claus could only be faithfully chronicled by the picturesque, analogue qualities of traditional animation.

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Jason Schwartzman in Klaus (2019) – source: Netflix

Set within a mythical continent that fans of Terry Pratchett, Roald Dahl, and Dr. Seuss will eat up, Klaus follows the not-so-intrepid Jesper, a trust fund kid who’s sent by his father, the head of the postal service, to the remote town of Smeerensburg so he can prove his worth. Once there, he discovers that the frozen town is fraught with a raging conflict that goes back for generations. Much like the Montagues and Capulets, the Krums and Ellingboes aren’t quite sure who started the disagreement. But, with the help of a mysterious woodsman and a cynical teacher-cum-fishmonger, Jesper tries to unite the town just in time for Christmas.

Seasoned animator Sergio Pablos has his origins in traditional animation, having contributed his fair share to the 1990s Disney Renaissance through his work on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules. More recently, he’s perhaps better known as the unsung creator of the money-printing factory, Illumination’s Despicable Me and Minions franchises. However, with Pablos’ directorial debut, his return to the second dimension marks the arrival of a potential savior for animation. By making Klaus the streaming platform’s first original animated feature, Netflix are making a statement—2D is here to stay.

The premise of Klaus is remarkably basic with the potential to become maudlin and overly precious had it been rendered with the bouncy, automated animated styles we’re more used to today. There are certainly some questionable needle drops of contemporary tunes, inexplicably fighting against the hand-crafted, archaic aesthetic constructed in the first act. These operate purely as mass appeal in the wake of animated studios’ current modus operandi, and we can only be thankful that Pablos and co. opt for the likes of “How Do You Like Me Now” rather than the latest annoyance from the Top 40.

Rashida Jones and Jason Schwartzman in Klaus (2019) – source: Netflix

Accompanied by Jason Schwartzman’s bratty drawl as Jesper, there are a few hurdles to get over before you can totally succumb to the warm, fire-lit embrace of Klaus. Rashida Jones is brilliantly cynical as a disheartened schoolteacher, familiar to anyone who has ever tried to make a career out of the unforgiving profession, and Joan Cusack is having heaps of fun as Mrs Krum, the most fanatical devotee to the town’s violent traditions. Thankfully, sardonic Schwartzman is also offset by a scabrous, complicated performance by J.K. Simmons as a mournful Santa Claus. His is a refreshing take on the character, as Christmas films of late have seemed eager to modernize Saint Nick (Arthur Christmas, Noelle), or portray him as a fleetingly untouchable, impossibly magical figure (The Polar Express).

Animated Santas especially haven’t had the strongest track record. A Nightmare Before Christmas’s Sandy Claws remains mostly mute and spends the majority of the film being impersonated by a skeleton; trying to recall what exactly Alec Baldwin was attempting with his Russian Santa for Rise of the Guardians just leads to headaches. In fact, the only 2-dimensional Santa that comes to mind for the most recent comparison is Futurama’s decidedly kid unfriendly RoboSanta—a malfunctioning, foulmouthed psychopath.     

Simmons is perfectly cast, therefore, as the ideal introduction to the character of children’s legend. Initially acquainted to Jesper as a mysterious woodsman, a former toy maker with a withering exterior, the titular Klaus soon becomes the soul of the film. Klaus is front and back-loaded with fun yet distracting action set pieces along with rote slapstick, but Simmons’ gentle growl narrates a somber and humanizing origin for the character during the second act’s moments of downtime that makes Netflix’s first animated original an essential viewing for the holidays.

This Santa Claus is very much human, with all the emotional baggage and regret that comes from years of living a human life. But, much like Edmund Gwenn and Richard Attenborough both understood in their performances as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street and its 1994 remake, it’s not the flying reindeer or light-speed present delivery that makes Father Christmas magic. Like the best versions of the North Pole’s most famous resident, Simmons’ Klaus is won over by the innocent creativity and boundless potential of children. A parental figure conjured by generations of families to do the things that real parents can’t, Santa Claus is rendered here in soft and inviting traditional animation to secure his place as the world’s most magical grandfather.

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J.K. Simmons in Klaus (2019) – source: Netflix

Santa Claus is a character quite literally gift-wrapped for animators to mold, adapt and take advantage of. However, as studios like Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks have thrown us into the next generation of animation for the 21st Century, we’ve yet to see a definitive take on the character for the computer generated era. Perhaps Klaus should serve as a reminder that Saint Nick simply doesn’t belong in algorithms, programs, or engines. Much like a child cannot send his Christmas list in an email, a faithful Santa Claus adaption needs handmade craft and care to win the hearts of young audiences. Paired with one of J.K. Simmons’ most genuine vocal performances, we finally have an animated Santa trustworthy enough to sneak down our chimneys and steal our cookies in the middle of the night.

Klaus is available to stream on Netflix


BROTHERHOOD: The Calm Before the Storm

Previously known for her short films Gods, Weeds and Revolutions, and Born in the Maelstrom, Meryam Joobeur returns once again to mesmerize audiences with her short Brotherhood. The film premiered at TIFF and took home the award for Best Canadian Short Film in the Short Cuts Awards section.

Set in a rural region of Northern Tunisia, Brotherhood follows a family of six: mother Salha (Salha Nasraoui), father Mohamed (Mohamed Grayaâ), their three sons Malek (Malek Mechergui), Chaker (Chaker Mechergui), Rayene (Rayene Mechergui) and Malek’s Syrian wife, Reem (Jasmin Lazid). Joobeur is known for her approach on wider political issues via the exploration of familial dynamics. From unveiling the Tunisian experience of Ben Ali’s dictatorship by pairing a young woman with her Alzheimer-ridden grandfather and demonstrating her attempt to discover who he used to be before in Gods, Weeds, and Revolutions, to her investigation of a mother/daughter relationship as the daughter, a biracial woman, struggles to fit in within a modern, segregated society due to her inability to be placed within the African American/Caucasian binary, Joobeur utilizes her distinctive style to effectively narrate convoluted stories. 

Brotherhood (2018) – source: Meryam Joobeur

Though a son coming back home with his pregnant wife is usually a joyful moment, Malek’s comes with an underlying tension. Having fled to Syria to take part in the war, Malek’s character brings to the forefront the effect that religious radicalization has had on Tunisian youth. Following the lead of her previous short, Joobeur signals the strain of family ties in silent and transparent stares. Mohamed doesn’t welcome Malek. The moment he sees an unfamiliar white car in his yard, he takes a pause, and after he crosses his doorstep, unlike Chaker and Rayene, he neither hugs Malek nor smiles at him; his unblinking glare is that of shock and disdain. From then on, the family engages in silent and verbal disputes without resolution. Every performance follows through, whether it’s that of the acting veterans Nasraoui and Grayaâ, or the three Mechergui non-actor brothers.

Aside from the actors’ take on their characters, tension also rises from the film’s sound design. The short’s opening shot looks at a flock of sheep, which, after a car-door is shut off-camera, immediately scatter as if they sensed danger that is near. Even prior to the family’s introduction, the message is clear: Malek’s arrival will bring unease. This is a motif that keeps resurfacing each time Mohamed confronts Malek or his daughter-in-law Reem. From handmade chimes moving dissonantly and the wind blowing through the window’s curtain or through a bloody shirt that’s hanging on a string outside, Joobeur constantly uses signifiers of perpetual agitation. Tranquility is nowhere to be found until that climactic moment when silence becomes ominous rather than serene, followed by a breathless Mohamed running after a mistake he cannot fix.

Brotherhood (2018) – source: Meryam Joobeur

Brotherhood is about the importance of mending wounds within the bounds of a family. It’s about the happy memories made while playing with the waves in a shore. But most of all, it’s an open display on how failing to forgive and forget can have terrible repercussions.


Which Friday The 13th Film is The Best?

Open up your windows and hark at the sounds of screaming teenagers! Do you know what day it is? Why, yes. It’s Jason’s day—Friday the 13th!

Friday the 13th, through stellar makeup, gnarly kills, and delightfully corny franchise gimmicks, prevails as a seminal piece of the slasher craze puzzle, spawning a long-enduring franchise and one of the most recognizable horror icons of all time. Regardless if you’ve seen them, you know who Jason is; he’s a figment, like most 80s slashers, of the moral-fixturing, Reagan-era cinematic folklore. Slay the air-headed teens on the cusp of adulthood, while leaving the headstrong, quick-thinking good girl, who abstains from passed-around paraphernalia and other promiscuous proclivities, and lives to see another day.

The Friday the 13th films may not be as immediately well regarded for its very 80s sub-textual layering, amid the creative slaughtering of hormone-infused teenagers, of other slashics like John Carpenter’s Halloween or Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it means a lot to me as a formative piece of my long-standing love affair with horror. I learned from a young age who Jason was, yet had never seen any of the films, that is, until I stumbled upon the 8-film DVD box set at a pawn shop. For years, I hid the collection from my folks, waiting until they went to bed to watch them. I still own that set and have no plans to ever get rid of it; I owe way too much to it.

The series is currently strung up in a seemingly never ending legal kerfuffle between Friday scribe Victor Miller and director Sean S. Cunningham claiming true ownership of the property, essentially prohibiting another movie from getting off the ground until the dust clears. Who knows when Jason will don the mask once again? But in the meantime, we have 12 films, each of varying quality, to look back on.

In the midst of smashing mirrors, walking under ladders, or getting a novelty tattoo, why not take a few moments to scroll through another ranking of the Friday the 13th films? And I’d be tickled blood red if you did. We wouldn’t want to upset our machete-wielding slasher of ceremonies, now would we? Note that these rankings change almost every year in my head, so consider this my in-the-moment ranking. With that out of the way, *SPOILERS AHEAD*.

12) Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993) – source: New Line Cinema

Jason Goes to Hell is a great example of stellar marketing for an awful film. Jason melting away in a New York sewer hardly seemed like a proper (second) finale for such an iconic villain. Where Jason Goes to Hell goes wrong is its opening prologue. A hoodwinked Jason (Kane Hodder) rummaging through the woods of Camp Crystal Lake is ambushed by the FBI who essentially lure him out into the open by exploiting his own formula against him (a beautiful woman making herself comfortable in an isolated cabin). The squadron then proceeds to blow him to kingdom come until all that’s left is a still-beating heart. What a finale! Oh, there’s a whole movie left? Wait, he’s not “Jason” Jason, he’s a slimy slug monster that possesses one body after the other until he inhabits the body of, let’s see if I’m reading this correctly, another Voorhees? Okay… 

You know you’re in trouble when your horror movie peaks within the first ten minutes. I suppose it was a bold decision to suppress the franchise’s icon in favor of taking a bizarre new turn for the character, but the majority of Jason Goes to Hell struggled in bringing me over to its side of the table. New additions like Steven Williams’ Creighton Duke, an insightful bounty hunter type who constantly unleashes Jason intel out of his ass, and Steven, played by John D. LeMay of Friday the 13th: The Series fame, are stiff additions to the series even for Friday the 13th standards. All the talk of a Voorhees prophecy only makes Jason significantly less interesting and/or intimidating. Just ask Michael (see Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers). 

New Line Cinema’s first entry of the series after acquiring the rights from Paramount really fumbles with super lame characters, a botched attempt at mythology, and the worst crime of all—endowing the definitive Jason, Kane Hodder, with one of the character’s coolest looks (mask grafted onto his face) only to immediately can it for, I repeat, a slime worm. Surprise Freddy tease or not, this one’s a dud.

Most Memorable KillDeborah’s impaling in the tent is a solid gore effect on its own, but the Jason-possessed coroner (Richard Gant) immediately splitting her in half with the rod is the icing on the cake. 

11) Friday the 13th: A New Beginning

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985) – source: Paramount Pictures

It only took a year after The Final Chapter, but Friday the 13th emerged with another franchise black sheep that ultimately ranks towards the bottom of my list with A New Beginningthe film that proves that slasher villains only stay dead if their box office does. The film’s inciting incident isn’t someone disappearing in the woods or even a teenage Tommy Jarvis (John Shepherd), reserved as ever, arriving at the forest halfway house for troubled youths, but rather one of the home’s inhabitants, the comically adult-sized Vic (Mark Venturini), cleaving fellow resident Joey (Dominick Brascia) with an ax after a meaningless dispute about wood chopping and candy bars. The kids go missing, there’s a killer on the loose and it must be Jason, you know the drill. 

A New Beginning is the first Friday film since the original to incorporate a mystery killer, and despite the honest attempts at setting paths for multiple red herrings (Tommy plagued by visions of Jason looming over his shoulder, mysterious drifter, etc.), the suspicious close-up of the distraught paramedic Roy (Dick Weiand) standing over Joey’s body lingers way too long for a supposed throwaway character we’ve just met. As it turns out, he’s our killer, masquerading as Jason with blue stripes instead of red ones. The revelation that Joey was his son is a different change of pace, but its unveiling only makes you question Roy’s motivation to slaughter innocent teens instead of focusing all his efforts on Vic. The idea is to make everyone believe Jason did it, but with Vic already imprisoned, there’s no clever method to his revenge scheme. And I’m not even going to get into the egregiously obnoxious Ethel (Carol Locatell) and her dim-witted son Junior (Ron Sloan) whose personas are reduced to yelling and screeching until they’ve exhausted all the oxygen out of the scene (“You big dildo, eat your f***ing slop!”). Their deaths are easily the most cathartic of the bunch. 

Once the Roy nonsense is dispatched of, A New Beginning attempts to provide a reason to continue forward with a final scene including Tommy that ultimately proved as influential as Halloween 4’s finale set-up—not very. It also doesn’t help that director Danny Steinmann was notoriously recognized as a sleaze. Otherwise, the only real contribution A New Beginning brings to the series, besides the energetic Reggie (Shavar Ross) and a prologue with the only glance of Corey Feldman post-The Final Chapter, is the reaffirmation that Tommy really has the worst luck.

Most Memorable Kill—The kills of A New Beginning are largely unimpressive, save for the leather strap Roy wraps around Eddie’s eyes against a tree, tightening it until it inevitably crushes his skull.

10) Jason X

Jason X (2001) – source: New Line Cinema

Welcome to Jason X, the tenth installment of the Friday series in which director James Isaac (Skinwalkers) asks ‘what if we took the foreboding threat aboard a claustrophobic space convoy structure of Alien, and made it mind-numbingly stupid?’ Indeed, this is the one where Jason goes to space. It’s almost a rite of passage for the slasher villain stretched far beyond their initial intent. Eight movies prior, Jason was a sack-covered hermit in the woods, and now, with his chrome-plated upgrade, he could go toe-to-toe with the Terminator if he really wanted to. Pinhead (Hellraiser: Bloodline) and Leprechaun (Leprechaun 4: In Space) already took that leap years ago so it makes sense that Jason would aim for the stars while New Line figures out how to get their then ‘in production hell’ Freddy vs. Jason off the ground.

In the far off future of 2010, we’ve reached the Crystal Lake Research Facility stage of Jason’s rampaging because he’s just so enigmatically unkillable, there’s really no other option than to dedicate an entire building just to study his decades-long endurance. Of everything that could be remembered about this entry, it’s that Jason X, nevertheless, holds the distinct honor of awakening its titular antagonist from cryogenic freezing—not by any sort of futuristic resuscitation, but the sonic waves of an intergalactic orgasm halfway across the spaceship; welcome to the 25th century! The standout, by default, among a sea of some pretty lackluster performances is Lisa Ryder’s KM-14—a sentient, fully capable AI who, in addition to wanting to be treated as if she were human, spends the film’s most entertaining bits in an altercation with Jason (pre and post-chrome upgrades) with some mildly amusing bits of humor thrown in the mix.

For the longest time, Jason X ranked towards the absolute bottom. I dreaded rewatching it, and while it’s bad (like, really bad), I have to admit I found myself settling into its cheap 90s movie groove a bit more this time. You can’t help but laugh at the absurd scenarios it pushes Jason into. It even finds a way for the still-frozen Jason to hack off a limb without moving a literal muscle. It’s an immediate step up from New Line’s first Friday venture if only for a pretty rad David Cronenberg (The Brood, Videodrome) cameo as an unimpressed superior who attempts to free 2010 Jason for his own means only to have that backfire in the ‘spear through the chest’ way. When he’s not doing his thing, however, Jason X plods.

Most Memorable KillJason + Adrienne + liquid nitrogen + counter *SMASH* =

9) Friday the 13th: Part III

Friday the 13: Part III (1982) – source: Paramount Pictures

Friday the 13th: Part III is the ‘nothing more, nothing less’ stage of the series, setting the template that would remain a constant for the years the Friday films were produced under the Paramount banner. Part III rode the waves of the 80s 3D revival, Jaws 3D and Amityville 3-D following suit, utilizing the effect to hurl as many objects towards the camera in the hopes that they would make audiences jump—a yo-yo, a laundry pole, apple juggling in the living room, detached eyeballs, etc. Funnily enough, of all the tricks that would only really work if you had the glasses, the best 3D effect was Jason (Richard Brooker) harpooning Vera (Catherine Parks) from across the dock. Even without the 3D, the way it whizzes by the camera makes me instinctively flinch every time.

Part III’s most notable contribution to the series, however, is endowing Jason with his iconic hockey mask by way of the insufferable Shelley (Lary Zerner), one of the most reviled characters of the Friday series, if not number one. In addition to his whining when the group shares their mutual animosity towards his pranks, Shelley often turns to incel-ish behavior when Vera shows no interest in sleeping with him (“Being a jerk is better than being a nothing.”). Jason takes what’s rightfully his from the annoying prankster, and steps out for the first time onto the docks with a confidence that would define the slasher for years to come; still an amazingly simple reveal. 

As a collective, the group dynamic of Part III, despite most of them being friends prior to their arrival at Higgins Heaven, is lacking. Nothing particularly stands out about final girl Chris (Dana Kimmell) either, besides her backstory with Jason prior to the film’s events. Jason aside, the characters that were the most fun to watch were the trouble making, leather-clad bikers (Gloria Charles, Nick Savage, and Kevin O’Brien). I always love that little smile Nick Savage gives before smashing Shelley’s driver’s side window. As a sequel to Part 2, it pales in comparison, but takes on its own gimmicky accords, Friday the 13th: Part III is an average, enjoyable entry of the Friday canon.  

Most Memorable Kill—Performing an impressive handstand feat while Jason’s about proves fatal. I especially love the brief perspective shot underneath when Jason swings the machete down on Andy… and his crotch.

8) Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) – source: Paramount Pictures

Hear me out before you hang me out to dry. At one point, I would have found it sacrilege to rank Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan above any of the previous Fridays, let alone Part III,  but this re-watch made me appreciate it a little bit more. Let me repeata LITTLE bit more. After securing another hockey mask complete with the ax gash from Part III for some reason, I like to imagine Jason (Kane Hodder), as he’s grabbing hold of the anchor, thinking to himself, “yeah, you know what? I think I’ve earned a little vacation.” I always thought the S.S. Lazarusthe massive ship that somehow docked in the shallow Crystal Lakewas a fun, claustrophobic set (complete with a disco dance floor) that gave Jason plenty of room to play as he tortured Rennie (Jensen Daggett) and her graduating classmates of Lakeview High.  

You’re essentially getting two Friday films for the price of one with Jason Takes Manhattan. The issue is that by the time the remaining survivors abandon ship and make their way into a New York City harbor, a full hour into the movie who’s poster featured Jason looming over the city, it’s easy to feel exhausted before some of the film’s most iconic developments even get going. I always found it amusing how Jason is more of a casual nuisance to New Yorkers than a looming threat. He looks amazing in the center of Times Square (Hodder thought so too while fans shouted to him during production), and the one thing he does in the famed tourist attraction (kick a boombox owned by some ‘tough’ street punks) is one of the series’ funniest bursts of humor.  

Not a fan of the finale in which Jason is ultimately defeated by the toxic sludge of the NY sewer system, highlighting the character’s goofiest makeup design. It’s probably best that the Friday series took a much-needed break after this one. Considering its lesser stature among the Paramount films, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan is a *little* better than it’s reputation would suggest. 

Most Memorable Kill—The death of Julius plays like a well-told joke. Over and over, he throws blows to an otherwise unfazed Jason who only really takes the ‘beating’ out of pity. Julius is the only Friday victim, if I recall, that actively submits to a Jason punishment (“Take your best shot”). Voila, the scene arrives at a literal PUNCHline as Jason knocks his block off, tumbling down the side of a building and into a dumpster. *chef’s kiss*

7) Friday the 13th (2009)

Friday the 13th (2009) – source: Paramount Pictures

Of the heavily saturated Platinum Dunes remake-era, the 2009 addition of Friday the 13th doesn’t exactly stand up to Marcus Nispel’s previous Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake from 2003, but it’s a decent Friday film in its own right. The re-imagining shares the same issue with Jason Takes Manhattan in that it does feel like two different Friday films back-to-back. The difference being that the lengthy prologue heavily plays into the momentum of the actual plot even if that stretch of the film never matches the sheer urgency and ferocity of its opening. I really appreciate how the narrative structure is slightly akin to Psycho. The prologue hoodwinks us by having us believe Whitney (Amanda Righetti) will be the film’s sole survivor only to have her disappear after Jason’s opening rampage, prompting a loved one, her brother Clay (Jared Padalecki), to search the area for any sign she’s still alive. And then you have your usual brand of college-aged mischief-makers ringing Jason’s dinner bell, rounding out to a pretty significant body count.

It’s difficult to label this version as an outright remake because it really isn’t. Nispel conceives this stuffed amalgamation of the first three films as a “best of” display of the series’ most iconic beats (i.e death of Mrs. Voorhees, Part 2’s sack, and, of course, Part III’s discovery of the hockey mask). The best part about a Friday the 13th re-imagining is that, with core franchise elements intact, it slips in nicely as an extension of the Paramount films, slightly altering an integral development in Jason’s mythology. There’s nothing too drastic here besides the unconventional structure and inner workings of Jason’s underground dominion. It assumes you get the gist of what these movies are and doesn’t pretend to be anything but. 

Derek Mears embodies a relentless, ruthless Jason who swings his trademark machete and other sharp instruments with ease. Make no mistake, the kills are brutal. The 2009 remake of Friday the 13th is a gruesome return-to-form that, while feeling extraordinarily lengthy, reignites the flame of Jason’s bulking menace. I recommend sticking to the Killer Cut for extended sequences that really accentuate the ferocity of the gore effects. 

Most Memorable Kill—Almost went with the prologue’s ‘sleeping bag roasting on an open fire’ setup, but it’s ultimately more satisfying to see Jason giving Trent, the movie’s resident prick, his grisly comeuppance, utilizing his trusty machete and the back of a tow truck.

6) Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988) – source: Paramount Pictures

The New Blood abandons its tongue-in-cheek approach from Jason Lives, yet replaces it with an overall “let’s get nuts” vibe where it asks ‘what if Jason went one-on-one with Carrie?’ Traumatized by the accidental death of her abusive father caused by her telekinesis, the shy Tina (Lar Park Lincoln) takes a trip out to her old home out by Crystal Lake with her mother (Susan Blu) and the duplicitous Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser) to try to get her gift under control. Of course, when Tina takes out her frustrations after a bad session, she couldn’t have known that the rotting Jason was lying at the bottom of the lake. Cue the party kids at the house next door, and you have yourselves a decent slasher with a slight sci-fi bent.

What makes The New Blood a monumental slice of Friday history is the glorious, intimidating introduction of stuntman Kane Hodder donning the hockey mask for the first time. He’s the favorite for a reason, despite appearing in some of the series’ lesser entries. The man can take hours of makeup, falling through stairs, being set on fire, having a roof dropped on him, and make it look like just another day at the office. And to think, once the mask is disposed of in the finale, his excellent facial makeup gives the character a whole new intimidation factor. 

The film’s most glaring detriments are its limited gore and off-screen kills, an issue largely attributed to the flawed ratings system. Other Friday films were butchered by notes from the ratings board, but none as heavily as The New Blood. Director John Carl Buechler shot some gnarly kills, no more gruesome than what was depicted in previous films, only to have the pinheads at the MPAA, ironically, slash this movie to pieces in order to secure an R rating. It doesn’t help that the extra bloody cuts of these death scenes are only available in poor quality, rendering an unrated director’s cut pointless. It’s extra sad considering that Buechler sadly passed earlier this year in March. 

Nevertheless, The New Blood claims the #6 spot if only for the finale in which Tina unleashes the full extent of her repressed telekinetic abilities to ward off Jason at every turn. And then, to top it all off, the battle royale concludes with one hell of a mighty in-camera house explosion by Crystal Lake. What a sight. While the final product was heavily botched in the editing room, Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood is still a worthy, if not watered down, extension of Jason’s evolution post-Part VI

Most Memorable Kill—Ah, the sleeping bag—a Friday staple. Jason’s a simple beast. He sees a sleeping bag, he bashes the poor person inside of it against a tree. 

5) Freddy vs. Jason

Freddy vs. Jason (2003) – source: New Line Cinema

It took near forever for the two slasher titans to go toe-to-toe with one another but Freddy vs. Jason somehow managed to pull it off. From the perspective of the opening prologue, this is no doubt a Nightmare feature with Freddy (Robert Englund) plucking the dormant Jason (Ken Kirzinger) from the bowels of hell to do his bogeyman bidding on the unsuspecting children of Springwood, that is, until the machete-wielding mama’s boy gets a little too carried away. When you get down to it, this movie is essentially the lazy half of a group project outsourcing the work only to discover the overachiever getting all the credit, but the project is slashing teenagers for slasher supremacy. 

Freddy vs. Jason is by no means a great movie. Bar Englund and Kirzinger, the lead performances, 20-somethings masquerading as teenagers, range from passable to laughably terrible. There’s even a double hitter exchange in the otherwise rousing finale that features distracting casual racist/homophobic comments revolving around Kia (Kelly Rowland) and Freddy’s ultimate confrontation. Otherwise, the fun remains prevalent throughout. Luckily this isn’t a case of saving the goods for the ending. This is a slasher movie, after all. Kirzinger’s silent, slightly pitiful (as one can be for an infamous serial murderer) Jason receives an arc that essentially makes Freddy look like even more of a ghoulish dream exploiter than he already is.

The entire foundation of Freddy vs. Jason is the promise of a spectacular slice-and-dice showdown between these two reigning horror heavyweights, and on that front, it’s as glorious as any gore hound could ever dream of. Each slash, punch, stab, and impale is spectacularly brutal, especially when they utilize each other’s signature weapon of choice on one another. And the best part is that the final altercation isn’t the only time the two titans square off. There’s plenty of bodies to go around. Freddy vs. Jason’s aspirations to entertain at all costs, amid the drawn-out drama within the group of slasher fodder, ensures its re-watchability and its placement on this list. 

Most Memorable Kill—Jason shoving Freddy’s signature through the serial murderer’s chest, followed by Lori’s decapitation maneuver, would have occupied this spot had Freddy ACTUALLY died and not, you know, give a knowing wink to the camera. So we’re going with Jason’s first kill on Elm Street. Post-coital Trey (Jesse Hutch) doesn’t even get a chance to finish his beer before Jason repeatedly plunges his machete through the bed before (back)cracking a cold one of his own.

4) Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) – source: Paramount Pictures

You see, this is where it gets tricky. Arranging these next four slots is like asking which child I love more. I unequivocally adore the remaining four Friday films in the same manner; they’re easily interchangeable depending on which week you ask me. However, it would happen that Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter lands in fourth place, ironically enough, this week. The opening recap indicates that this was to be the film where Jason (Ted White) involuntarily hangs up his mask after one last slaughter of some promiscuous teens renting a house in the vicinity of Camp Crystal Lake for the weekend. They should be fine.

From start to finish, The Final Chapter is loaded with memorable moments, most of which belong to the alleged ‘dead fuck’ Jimmy (Crispin Glover). It’s no wonder Jason has it out for him. Glover steals every scene he’s in. His enigmatic, possession state dance in the living room could provide enough material for an entire essay in and of itself. Corey Feldman is also fantastic as a young Tommy Jarvis, the quick-thinking neighbor kid with an affinity for crafting intricately detailed masks, puppets, etc. He’s the only character besides Jason himself that keeps up with appearances despite the heavy rotation of actors between films. What the remaining teens lack in fully-fledged personalities, they more than make up with an immense sense of likability. Well, not Ted (Lawrence Monoson), the designated prick of the assemblage.  

Of all the ways to momentarily incapacitate Jason prior to his zombification in later installments, having the killer land on his proverbial sword, face first, after Tommy takes a good whack, is a great way to ‘kill’ him for the time being. After the slightly lackluster kills of Part III, effects wizard Tom Savini returns to put a little oomph back into some of Jason’s slayings. The FINAL bit of the Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter may mean jack in context of the series’ future, but the remarkable cast, amusing deaths, and satisfying conclusion altogether establishes this entry as an exceptional 80s slasher.

Most Memorable Kill—Crispin Glover, yet again, lands another Friday achievement with a humorous, well-timed death scene involving Jason’s machete and a corkscrew.

3) Friday the 13th (1980)

Friday the 13th (1980) – source: Paramount Pictures

It appears that, as the years have passed, the original Friday the 13th from 1980 has slowly started creeping towards the bottom of some lists. I was fully prepared to knock it down a few spots after this recent viewing. And not only did it rank among my favorites, it even made me appreciate its low-budget simplicity that much more. Friday the 13th, for all its unintentionally goofy eccentricities brought on by some of the lead performances, is an effectively moody slice of horror cinema that relies on the long stretches of silence to create a foreboding atmosphere that, while never reaching Hitchcockian heights, remains consistently eerie. 

Harry Manfredini’s Psycho-inspired composition, a reliable constant throughout most of the series, brings the film to life, maintaining the uneasy significance of the unseen looming threat just off the corner. It’s as sharp as the bloody instruments themselves. The twist regarding Betsy Palmer’s Pamela Voorhees obviously doesn’t hold the same weight on repeat viewings. But the way she flips on a dime, reciting the story of her drowned son, Jason, to a shaken Alice (Adrienne King) in the form of one of the great screen villain monologues, is chilling stuff.

And just when you think Alice is safe, she’s struck by one of the quintessential jump scares, the decaying Jason (Ari Lehmen) arising from the lake to avenge his fallen mother, that’s still pretty freaky even by modern standards. Friday the 13th may have been born out of the attempt to make a quick buck off of the post-Halloween slasher craze, yet its engrossing atmosphere, tangible characters, and killer revelation is always a perfect reminder of why I fondly regard this series so dearly. 

Most Memorable Kill—Mrs. Voorhees’ decapitation, complete with Tom Savini’s hairy knuckles, is an all-timer, but the inaugural Friday slaying award goes to Kevin Bacon’s gushing arrow through the throat from beneath the bottom bunk. Nasty stuff.

2) Friday the 13th: Part 2

Friday the 13th: Part 2 (1981) – source: Paramount Pictures

While structurally similar to the first film, there’s something about Friday the 13th: Part 2 I find more to love with. There’s a scene early on with all of the counselors of Camp Packanack gathered around the campfire as Paul (John Furey) recounts the legend of Camp Blood’s unofficial mascot himself. If there were one scene to embody the spirit of Friday the 13th, this would be it. Bar a few exceptions laden throughout the films, this is the first Friday feature where anticipating the deaths, except for Scott (Russell Todd), actually disheartened me, notably the blossoming connection between Mark (Tom McBride) and Vickie (Lauren-Marie Taylor). You just can’t catch a break when you’re slasher fodder in a Friday the 13th film. Friday the 13th’s Alice (Adrienne King) learns this the hard way in a prologue that wraps up the last loose end of the previous film.

Part 2 also contains the series first match cut that indicates a wry sense of humor behind the camera showing a small dog walk over by Jason’s boots with an immediate hard cut to sizzling hot dogs on a grill. It’s simple, yet effectively funny. The sack Jason wears, despite his similar appearance to the slasher from The Town That Dreaded Sundown, is a good look on him (complete with pitchfork) as the first step in the series’ continuing trend of Jason’s gruesome upgrades/transformations with each new film. The early Friday films are a pleasant reminder that, yes, there really was a time where Jason was vulnerable. 

Of the Friday final girls, Amy Steele’s Ginny is, without a doubt, my favorite. The only reason why the cat and mouse game between her and sack Jason (Steve Dash) lasts as long as it does is because Ginny can really think on her feet, deceiving Jason by putting on Pamela’s blood-stained white sweater to momentarily distract him. If Jason were headed in my direction, Ginny is the Friday MVP I’d want by my side. Friday the 13th: Part 2 refines everything that worked about the previous film, offering an array of likable, mischievous camp counselors, creative deaths, and the expansion upon the legend of the infamous Jason. 

Most Memorable Kill—Nearly went with Sandra (Marta Kober) and Jeff (Bill Randolph) being shish kebab-ed to the bed, but then I thought about poor Mark (Tom McBride) minding his own business. Next thing you know, he receives a machete to the face before rolling backwards down a flight of stairs about as steep as the Exorcist steps.

1) Friday the 13th: Part VI – Jason Lives

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) – source: Paramount Pictures

At last, we’ve arrived at the absolute pinnacle of the entire Friday saga—Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. In the character’s final appearance, adult Tommy Jarvis (Thom Matthews) is on a mission to properly dispose of the hockey mask menace once and for all. Little does he know that his little stunt, impaling the maggot-infested corpse with a graveyard fence post, revives the zombified Jason (CJ Graham) à la Frankenstein when a bolt of lighting falls from the sky. Oops.

Predating the self-aware Scream wave of the late 90s, director Tom McLoughlin gets a head start, employing a much needed sharp, satirical edge to the Friday series that only pushes the level of meta parody so far. Jason Lives was very much ahead of its time in regards to lampooning the tried-and-true tropes that dominated most horror films around that time without sacrificing the bare necessities of a Friday feature. It’s extremely funny from start to finish. “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that a weirdo in a mask is never friendly,” the concerned Lizabeth (Nancy McLoughlin) says before foolishly bargaining with Jason through the promise of her American Express card. Clever match cuts (“Do they think I’m a farthead?”/“Yes!”), darkly comical deaths, breakneck pace; you name it, Jason Lives has it in spades. 

There’s nary a moment wasted. From Jason’s resurrection onward, Jason Lives maintains a breakneck pace in which the danger is always present and its humorous sensibilities are consistently on point. I always appreciated how this was the only Friday that actually featured children in the crossfire at Camp Crystal Lake (or Camp Forest Green). There comes a point where a few of them accept that, yeah, there’s a likely chance they’re about to die in a horror movie (“So, what were you going to be when you grew up?”) All in good fun, the film features a bevy of laughs directed towards Jason to the point where even he’s in on the joke. I’ll never forget the sheer awe and confusion upon seeing Jason’s 007-inspired gun-barrel sequence.

And lest we forget, Alice Cooper’s The Man Behind the Mask is easily the greatest 80s rock ballad Jason could ever hope for. After the unimpressive proceedings of Part V, Friday the 13th: Part VI – Jason Lives is a thoroughly excellent slasher flick that never squanders the opportunities presented before it, humorous or otherwise. 

Most Memorable Kill—Sheriff Garris bent over backwards for a heroic death scene, but it’s Hawes who takes the glory. When you’re Jason and you’ve been resurrected by the lightning bolts of Zeus himself, you’ve gotta get back to work, and so Jason does, brutally ripping Hawes’ heart out of his chest within the first two minutes of reanimation.

And we’ve made it to the end! You survived! As a reward, may I present my personal favorite moment in all 12 films. It’s so pure and Hodder’s body language sells it beautifully:

What’s your favorite movie in the Friday the 13th franchise? Let us know in the comments!


SIN CIELO: Interview with Jianna Maarten Saada

Sin Cielo is a short film written and directed by Jianna Maarten Saada. Prior to the project’s creation, Maarten Saada visited dangerous parts of the country on her own. She stayed with underprivileged families, many of whom knew someone whose daughters had been abducted, who feared for their lives.

As a result, Maarten Saada produced a film that demonstrates a very real and significant problem with the intention to bring the issue at hand to the surface. The film has competed in high profile festivals and has won several awards such as the Grand Jury Prize at the Seattle International Film Festival, the Young Jury Prize at Palm Springs Shorts Fest, the Grand Jury, Audience Award and Best of Fest Prize at Ivy Film Festival.

Being under Oscar Consideration, Maarten Saada spoke about Sin Cielo and the urgency of acknowledging human trafficking as a prominent problem.

Sin Cielo (2018) – source: Jianna Maarten Saada

Ioanna Micha: So, before we delve into more details, could you tells us a bit about Sin Cielo?

Jianna Maarten Saada: Sin Cielo is at its core a love story between two teenage kids living in a Mexican colonia bordering El Paso. The boy Memo does these low level runs with his best friend for the local gang faction—”Uncle’ Juan” as they call him—in the neighborhood. He doesn’t even know what is in the bags he buries at checkpoints, it’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation. So, he makes this date with Delia to walk her to school. She waits for him, but he oversleeps and they miss each other. On her walk to school, she is abducted. He goes looking for her but is warned pretty early on to keep his mouth shut—don’t ask, don’t tell. When he doesn’t listen, they drive by and shoot at his house. The film ends in a parade, a kind of visual final moment on what has been emotionally occurring throughout this story to these people.

IM: I really enjoy the pace of the film and that it is at its core a love story. We see how Delia and Memo interact in the beginning, for instance, and we root for them! How come you framed the film as a love story?

JMS: Thank you so much! Young love is so inspiring because it’s so honest and overwrought. It feels so sweet and simple and then right in the middle of it is this huge hand that swoops down and steals it; it just rips it right to shreds. I love these kind of love stories. I love the Romeo and Juliets of the world in terms of structure. It’s such a fated structure. I’ve read and watched Romeo and Juliet probably a hundred times and each time I root for their love to overcome all even though I know it’s going to end badly. I know they will both die but here I am shouting ‘don’t take the poison! She’s alive!’ That’s great storytelling. We wanted to see if we could accomplish that in twenty five minutes. At the beginning of the film Memo tells you this is going to end badly. He says the walls are listening in and you can’t trust people, and the ominous beginning is a pretty big tip that this will not end well. But, it’s our job, as storytellers, to make you forget that and get attached, so that later these two teens can break your heart. That’s the goal.

Sin Cielo (2018) – source: Jianna Maarten Saada

IM: There’s great chemistry between Fenessa Pineda and David Gurrola. What made you decide on these two actors?

JMS: The moment I met them in the room I knew. I was in love with both of them. They just had the perfect bit of sweetness. Total naturals! I think they are both superstars, no joke. David was fifteen when we shot Sin Cielo. He carries with him all the reality of being this fifteen-year-old kid in high school with girl problems, you know the whole nine yards and yet he’s a total heartthrob! Fenessa is pure gold. You put a camera on her and it’s as if the camera isn’t there. They’re both just so easy; it makes my work pretty effortless. I mean the fact that they are not fighting off major movie roles right now blows me away. We really do need to open the path for more latinx starring/lead roles. Both of these young people can hold a movie.

IM: You shed light on a very real and crucial issue that exists in the world, that of human trafficking. You have called it before a ‘collective problem’ and I believe that this is an undeniable truth. What inspired you to tell this story?

JMS: The people in the towns I visited while doing research inspired this story. This is their story. These are their heartbreaks, their children being stolen, their fears, their worries. The words the characters are saying are really their words.

IM: I find the title so intriguing! Why is the film called Sin Cielo?

JMS: It means without sky. Or without heaven to be really interpretative with it. The idea that that’s all there is—this never ending sky, felt apropos.  It’s like being trapped in a prison of air.

IM: Sin Cielo has won several awards from film festivals, such as Calcutta International Cult Film Festival, the Seattle International Film Festival and Palm Springs International ShortFest,. How does it feel to know that the film has had such a great response?

Sin Cielo (2018) – source: Jianna Maarten Saada

JMS: We’re very happy to be received so well. I think it’s always surprising when it happens, but it’s one of those right movie right moment things, and we are so grateful to the audiences who expressed their affinity for the film.

IM: You have another short at its post-production stage called Mermaids. Would you like to reveal anything about it?

JMS: Mermaids is a total fave of mine. It’s finished, but for some reason it shows up on IMDb that it’s in post-production. It’s under five minutes and a total tonal piece I shot with Pallavi Reddy on 35mm. Reddy did this beautiful processing on it. I love that short. It’s tonally my favorite piece. We never really got it out there to fests, which we should because it’s very surprising I think. It’s entirely silent, no dialogue at all. The framing is very specific. I was just so much fun to shoot!

IM: Do you have another future project in mind?

JMS: Yes, several! My writing partner Cara Lawson and I have a feature of Sin Cielo as well as a psychological horror, a sci-fi piece, and a character driven drama. There are more stories we want to tell than folks willing to give us money to tell them. Ha! Sometimes we have to slow ourselves down!

IM: Is there something I haven’t covered yet that you would like to mention?

JMS: We would definitely like to get the word out there about folks taking a serious look at femicide and trafficking to be part of a solution going forward. Trafficking is alive and well in our world, making billions of dollars. I truly believe there’s another way, another path, that does not result in selling your fellow human into bondage.

If you’d like to help make a change, please visit the following websites to donate—every little bit helps a victim in need: 3StrandsGlobal, Anti Slavery International, and Free The Girls.


SIN CIELO: Open your Eyes

Encouraging as it may sound to say “sky’s the limit,” the truth is that sometimes there’s no control over the restrictions life may deal. Maybe a black van is just around the corner, for instance, and everything that was taken for granted before has now become an idyllic past. Sometimes the limit might be way below the sky; it can be the end of a house’s front yard. 

Sin Cielo (2018) – source: Jianna Maarten Saada

For years, cinema has attempted to tackle issues such as abduction and human trafficking—from John Lee Thompson’s Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects and Lukas Moodysson’s Lilja 4-ever, to Marco Kreuzpaintner’s Trade and Danny Boyle’s multi-award winning film, Slumdog Millionaire. Film as a medium tries to function as a constant reminder of this universal problem. Boyle’s feature, for example, has definitely achieved that end as it was praised not only for its horrifying depiction of the world, but also for its inspirational love story. 

In a similar approach, Jianna Maarten Saada’s Sin Cielo contributes to this effort with great skill. Looking into the lives of Memo (David Gurrola) and Delia (Fenessa Pineda), two teenagers in a town close to a Mexican border, Maarten Saada brings the terrible reality of human trafficking front and center. Every day that every child or woman steps outside, there’s a risk of them being abducted and never heard from again—it’s a threat that’s always lurking, even during the light of day. 

Creating a multi-layered narrative, Maarten Saada initially allows only partial access to the town’s organized crime. The voice-over opening the film suggests that most of the story is told through Memo’s point of view, and seeing that he spends the first moments blindfolded, there can be no full disclosure yet. After all, even with such a narrow entry, Memo is putting his life on the line since as he says: “people die because they talk too much… I think the walls could listen to what I’m telling you.” He is kept in the dark, so that even if he decides to speak he can never reveal the actual location of the stolen items. Memo lives in a dangerous place—it’s no wonder the information shared in the beginning is given from a safe distance as an extreme wide shot follows two dark figures, presumably Memo and his friend, hustling in the dead of night. Hardly noticeable at this point, but out there just enough to be seen, crime is present.  

Sin Cielo (2018) – source: Jianna Maarten Saada

Likewise, the danger of human trafficking first enters the screen through the news on Memo’s TV warning that “7 women a day are abducted, often by someone they know,” but it goes unnoticed; it’s a ‘these things never happen to us really, it’s always other people’ type of reaction. It turns out, however, that Memo becomes part of the people affected by this peril when Delia, the girl he has fallen for, is taken away in a black jeep on her way to school. The abduction happens off-screen, but Delia’s shrieks are heard loud and clear. The film doesn’t provide subtitles for this part, but fighting for your life doesn’t need any; every cry and every scream in Pineda’s compelling performance is inherently understood, regardless of one’s linguistic background.

Besides Pineda, Gurrola brings a lot into the character of Memo not only in the awkward moments of a teen falling in love, but also in the painful realization that Delia is gone and he is powerless in overturning this tragedy. While the film is mostly quiet, with the only exceptions being scenes of absolute despair such as Delia’s kidnapping, Maarten Saada closes with a bang when Memo silently takes Delia’s place in the town’s parade. Cutting between Memo and Delia standing in two different lines, the parade’s lines and rows of captured women inside a truck respectively, the director draws a parallel between two situations: where Delia, as a teenager, should have been, and where she, among other girls, has ended up unfairly.

Sin Cielo (2018) – source: Jianna Maarten Saada

By accompanying this injustice with the parade’s celebratory drum noises, Maarten Saada builds up a tension and in turn this tension creates irony which signals that this problem has been ignored for far too long. Besides dedicating the film “to 1000s of women in Mexico who have disappeared and the families who still look for them,” Maarten Saada takes one step further: she includes the names of women and girls who have gone missing in Mexico over the years. In a way, even if those women were deprived of their lives, they are offered a form of immortality in black and white; they’re gone, but they’re not forgotten. 


END OF THE CENTURY: Interview with Lucio Castro

Isn’t life just a series of moments with different weather conditions along the way? Lucio Castro’s feature debut, End of the Century, is a film about summer days in Barcelona. The film focuses on the character of Ocho (Juan Barberini) and the life-changing experience of meeting Javi (Ramon Pujol)—twice. Looking into these two different encounters, the film sheds light on the weight that our life choices carry, and how timing is a key component of that equation. Unable to find each other at a more appropriate time, Ocho and Javi choose to stay apart on both occasions, even if each moment leaves an impression on both men.

In an Autumn moment of my life, I had the chance to meet up with Lucio Castro and discuss End of the Century during Film Fest Gent 2019! 

Ioanna Micha: What made you want to write this particular story?

Lucio Castro: Well, it basically started when I thought of the title (laughs). The truth is that that title just stuck with me. I was intrigued by it, and I needed to discover what it was all about. So, I started in a very simple way. I thought ‘okay, a character arrives in a city he doesn’t know. He goes to some tourist sites and then he sees this guy on the streets. He gets interested in him and they end up having sex.’ It’s after, when they started talking in my script, that I thought ‘okay maybe they know each other.’ So, I went to the past and I started thinking about their first encounter. If you really think about it, I wrote it almost in the way you’re watching it! I was discovering the story as I was writing it. Maybe you could say that I was writing it as if I was watching it! (laughs)

IM: So you’re saying it was basically an instinctual process?

LC: Yeah! It was about what felt good!

IM: Were the actors chosen in the same way then? By following your instinct?

LC: Well, you could definitely say that! I gave the screenplay to my casting director (Maria La Greca) who mainly does theater, and she knew both actors. First, she recommended Juan because she had worked with him before. I decided to meet with Juan, so I watched his movies and I discovered something that I really liked about him! Juan feels very confident at first, but then once you get to know him, he’s quite insecure! I liked that about him because I feel that it gives him a duality that works very well for the character of Ocho. And here is where Ramon connects perfectly to the story; he’s the opposite! He feels very insecure in the beginning. He’s almost sensitive and a bit scared. But then, once you get to know him, there’s a very strong cord in him that’s actually quite confident. So, yes! I chose these actors because they felt like a good addition to the film. After all, they are almost complementary and opposite to each other! The one is darker, the other is lighter. Of course, one of them is handsome and it’s good to have a handsome guy (laughs)! All these things came together and kinda worked I guess.

Juan Barberini in End of the Century (2019) – source: Cinema Guild

IM: Well, every decision brings about a different end product. So, how come you started the film with such a long take that has no dialogue?

LC: Yes, It’s a very long intro. It’s almost 13 minutes with no dialogue. I did that for a few reasons. Firstly, when I am in a city that I don’t know, and I’m walking alone, I’m very aware of the city, its buildings, the wind, even the people walking around me. I like listening to what they’re saying. I enjoy watching everyone’s faces. For me, it’s almost as if time sort of slows down when I’m by myself in a new city. When I’m with somebody else, however, the city kind of disappears because we’re always talking. And this is what happens with these characters; after they start talking that’s all they do! So, I wanted to show how one feels when you’re alone in a new city in relation to how it is when you’re with somebody else. I also like the gradual flow. First Ocho is kind of lost in the city with no particular aim,  but then once he sees Javi, he gradually starts to focus his aim on him, and I thought that this was a nice juxtaposition: from focusing on the beauty of a city to the beauty of a person.

IM: You have definitely succeeded in bringing the city to life in that initial silent sequence. Actually, it feels as if the city becomes a character in itself because we get to experience it so vividly even though we’re never really there! Plus, it’s their meeting point, so time doesn’t really matter; it’s more about the space.

LC: Yeah, that’s also true! The film is a lot about space. First, it’s the city; it carries a lot of meaning, even if Ocho is not initially aware of it, because that’s where they met before. Then, there’s the space of the Airbnb which is so strange. It’s a weird transient space. It’s not a hotel and it’s not someone’s home; it’s something in the middle. Now, when I stay in an Airbnb, I always look at the books, if there are any, because they give you an idea of the owner. But then of course, you’re not sure if it’s the owner that’s left them behind; it could be other guests that left them there. What’s more important about the film’s setting, however, is that no one has any roots in this space, and to me that was a nice background or place for this thing to happen. You know things are a little more volatile and a bit looser. If I had made a movie about their whole lives, I feel that it would have been very different. On vacation, you have a temporary space. You go there for a few days and then you leave. I feel that this is something that went well with this story.

Juan Barberini and Ramon Pujol in End of the Century (2019) – source: Cinema Guild

IM: It’s like a neutral space because they don’t have specific roles to conform to! Is there a particular reason you chose Barcelona?

LC: Yeah! I chose Barcelona for many reasons. Firstly, Barcelona has a lot of tourism and it definitely brings out that feeling during the film. Plus, I wanted a summer city. A city that had a beach, but also one that is a city by itself, not one that’s just about summer vacation. And Barcelona is exactly like that! People live there all year round! Of course, there were also some practical reasons such as weather. Barcelona is known for its good weather conditions and I thought that it would be a great and easy place to shoot. Of course, it rained the whole 12 days that I shot there (laughs). There were also financing issues as it’s quite expensive to rent space in summer cities. So, I wanted a place that was more approachable! Lastly, I wanted to tell the story in a city that I didn’t know personally. I wouldn’t have done it in Buenos Aires, for example, because I know that city too well, and it would have been hard for me to write a movie on someone who just arrived. When I wrote the movie in Barcelona, I didn’t know it at all. I actually wrote it with like Google Maps and top ten attractions! (laughs)

IM: Well that is exactly what a tourist would do! Why did you decide to let Ocho remember the whole interaction with Javi on his own? How come Javi doesn’t say anything earlier on?

LC: I think that Javi’s intrigued. I think that he would feel vulnerable to just say it. When they’re in the beach I think he realizes that Ocho didn’t recognize him because he doesn’t say ‘hi,’ he just goes into the water. So, I feel that in this moment he starts thinking ‘he doesn’t remember me, so what’s the point in telling him? Oh, we met 20 years ago, remember?’ So, I feel he’s a little bit shy, or that he doesn’t want to intrude too much. And, once they start talking and have sex, he never finds the right time because he really likes him and the moment they’re sharing. And I feel that he doesn’t want to ruin that with the weight of the past; the weight of the ‘we actually know each other.’ It’s a thing that changes the subtlety of flirting and, no matter who you are, it’s almost like a political war, you know? Everything you say will illicit a reaction. You have a lot of back and forth. So, adding to the equation a shared past would have destroyed the whole thing; it would have transformed into something else. I think that’s why he doesn’t do it. And by the moment he says it, it’s okay. Also, let’s face it! Javi is playing a little bit with Ocho too! The movie has this sort of playful vibe, and I think he’s playing with the whole idea. He puts on the Kiss T-Shirt after he sees Ocho the night before, and tries to see if that will help him remember. He’s trying to antagonize him in a way.

Juan Barberini and Ramon Pujol in End of the Century (2019) – source: Cinema Guild

IM: So you think it’s some sort of power-play?

LC: Yes! I definitely think that there is a form of seduction. It doesn’t even have to be a sex thing. But, you know, when you’re trying to entice another person there’s definitely a power play. A lot of things are happening at the same time. There’s a bit of anxiety and some sort of fear. Actually, I see their reactions like a chess game! Think of beach scene: there is this atmosphere of I move, you move. There’s some power struggle, and there’s no doubt about it.

IM: So you’re saying there’s some sort of action and reaction going on?

LC: Right! Exactly that!

IM: Does them not ending up together have anything to do with the title?

LC: Well not exactly! I think that the title mostly refers to these 20 years in their lives and how they’ve changed. Ocho, for instance, wanted to be a writer in his 20s and he has achieved that, but he’s also an airline employee. So, the film definitely touches upon this change from 20 to 40. Now, about the ending! Well, for me I can’t see how they could have ended up together. There’s a beautiful quote that says ‘every love story is a ghost story.’ I’m very moved by this quote because it’s basically referring to a connection between love and loss and I find that very fascinating. Love is about attaining something beautiful. It’s so powerful that it shakes your whole body, and your whole life. And when you lose that, you’re influenced in an intense way. We see that with Ocho. The moment Javi leaves the Airbnb, he’s questioning his past life choices. I find it more intriguing to follow the life of a character who has lost something. I prefer to experience how certain characters act when they lose rather than when they win. Not to say that meeting someone and getting married is not a beautiful thing. It can happen and it is definitely love. If Ocho and Javi would have ended up together, however, I feel that they would have been in a comfortable space, which, in a way, is place that is a little bit less affecting; all your feelings are kind of secure. When you lose something, the story becomes more riveting because the characters need to act. I’m just enchanted by the unattainable and how that can change your life.

Ramon Pujol in End of the Century (2019) – source: Cinema Guild

IM: So you’re not into passivity. You feel that things have to be intense?

LC: (laughs) No, I also like passivity! I love movies where nothing happens, but I think that for this story the idea of loss makes Ocho a much more interesting character in the end!

IM: It certainly does! I mean I really like the ‘what if they had stayed together?’ scene in Ocho’s imagination because it’s not ideal!

LC: Exactly! (laughs)

IM: I feel that’s very realistic! That after 20 years it’s not going to be the same as when you first met. You show that love is not perfect; it’s work!

LC: Right! Exactly!

IM: Is there something that I haven’t covered yet that you want mentioned?

LC: No I think that we covered every interesting part of the film! I’m happy you didn’t ask about the sex scenes! (laughs)

IM: (laughs) Yes! I find it somewhat tiring after a certain point. I mean of course it’s an integral part of the film. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t become obsessed with it! Well, then, I have one final question: do you have another project in mind for the future?

LC: Yes; I’m working on a film that’s shot in the mountains. It’s a female lead. It’s not a queer story. And, it’s shot next year. That’s all I can say for now! (laughs)


The Highs and Lows of THE AERONAUTS

It’s not uncommon knowledge that some movies claiming to be “based on a true story” aren’t always accurate. Sure, the broad strokes are there and make for a story compelling enough to be green-lit by the big shots in Hollywood, but everyone takes creative liberties when telling these types of stories. A few years ago, I went to see a movie called The Danish Girl, which starred Eddie Redmayne as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe. That movie claimed to be based on a true story, despite its source material being mostly fictitious, going as far as to make people up specifically for storytelling purposes.

I bring this up because Redmayne has another movie coming out called The Aeronauts, which also claims to be based on a true story despite once again taking creative liberties. It’s a shame because the movie itself is a solid adventure film with some good performances and visual effects whenever they are up in the sky.

The Aeronauts (2019) – source: Amazon Studios

The Aeronauts comes from director Tom Harper (I honestly had to double check to make sure they didn’t mean Tom Hooper) and tells the story of James Glaisher and Amelia Rennes, two young adventurers who go up in a hot air balloon to study the sky. Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) believes that by going up into the sky, he can predict the weather. This idea is laughed off by The Royal Society. He seeks out a pilot to help him prove his theories and meets Rennes (Felicity Jones) who agrees to help him out. Throughout the movie, people try to persuade the two aeronauts to give up and go for something more conventional.

The movie open with the two at a festival about to go up in their balloon. Rennes decides to put on a bit of a show for the audience before going up, much to the dismay of Glaisher. This, along with the flashbacks that are sprinkled throughout the movie, give the audience an idea of what kind of adventurers they are. Both are determined, but Glaisher comes off a bit more serious than Rennes. The two play off each other really well, which makes sense since this is the second time Redmayne and Jones have starred opposite each other (the first time being The Theory of Everything, which earned Redmayne his first Oscar).

The Aeronauts (2019) – source: Amazon Studios

Whenever the two are up in the air, the movie is at its most breathtaking. They’re boasted by some visual effects that are quite impressive given its budget. When the film flashes back to scenes of them meeting on the ground, however, it becomes another dull British period piece. I know its purpose is to establish their characters, but I found myself dozing off whenever these scenes were happening. Thankfully, the majority of the film takes place in the balloon, and some scenes of peril in the third act make up for the boring people on the ground.

Now I mentioned earlier that the film takes creative liberties with this true story. The most major one is that the character of Amelia Rennes is just that; a character. She was made up for story purposes and for the sake of giving the audience a female character to relate to. James Glaisher is a real person, but he took this journey with an aeronaut by the name of Henry Coxwell, who would later help save Glaisher’s life during the ascent and descent. I thought that creating a female scientist for the sake of connecting to contemporary audiences was some form of pandering, especially when there are plenty of female scientists who are not only real, but probably have an equally compelling story to tell.

The Aeronauts (2019) – source: Amazon Studios

Regardless of historical accuracy, The Aeronauts is still a solid adventure movie. At 100 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It was nice seeing Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones back on screen together, and I can appreciate that the movie didn’t try to force a romance between these two. Serious issues with pacing keep me from calling this a great movie, but its visual deserves to be seen on the big screen. If it’s playing in a theater near you, seek it out. In the end, I’m glad I got to see it on the big screen before it hit Prime Video. I don’t know if it would’ve had the same impact if I was watching it at home.

The Aeronauts is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video


Revisiting THE LITTLE MERMAID 30 Years Later

1989—the year before I was born, and also when the House of Mouse dove into what is now known as their Renaissance period. So, before the live-action wand is waved over the story that is now set to star Halle Bailey, I’m going back Under the Sea to delve into why this animated feature is both a classic and favorite of mine.

The poster child for wanting more – The Little Mermaid (1989) – source: Buena Vista Pictures

Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy-tale is the loose inspiration for Ariel’s tale (tail), and it’s through delving back into past fictional writings that re-captures the magic first unearthed when Walt Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Sure, the animation company takes the original plot and sprinkles the Tinkerbell magic of family friendliness over a bleak ending originally penned by the original Danish author, but the core idea is there, and what do you expect from a distributor known for being appealing, bleeding feet and a suicide? Of course not!

There is great simplicity in following the narrative of this foray into an underwater world. The plight of teenage Ariel desiring a chance to see what life is like above the waves is the driving force, and sees us clash with a fantastically theatrical villain and ultimately have her falling in love—the age old Disney trope. However tired that model of a princess needing a man may look now, and however good the red-headed mermaid may have it in Atlantica, you sort of forgive her moaning, because there’s a fun atmosphere presented.

Colorful Currents – The Little Mermaid (1989) – source: Buena Vista Pictures

During the timeline of ’89 to ’99, most Disney films share the common theme of being encouraged by legends, fairy-tales, and stories already penned. This watery-based closing curtain to the 80s is a fun and fancy-free yarn which is spun with bubbles of color and charm, and it is very easy to see why, with effortless storytelling and a new musical direction, that The Little Mermaid holds up over 30 years later.

The hiring of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are two massive reasons why The Little Mermaid holds up as a buoyant, brilliant animated film. After their work on Little Shop of Horrors, Disney realized that their influence could inject a Broadway vibe into their films and this is a musical staple of pretty much every release since then. The toe-tapping sounds and memorable lyrics stand the test of time and are why, for me at least, I can’t stop singing if a track from this film comes on somewhere!

From the likes of Sebastian’s groovy, reggae inspired “Under the Sea” to Ursula’s intoxicating, dark, and campy “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” you’re submerged into a world of catchy music and if nothing else Jodi Benson belts out the famous “Part of Your World” number, which gets everyone lamenting having twenty thingamabobs in the most perfectly adolescent decree of wanting what you don’t have. And here I am not even mentioning possibly my favorite ditty; “Kiss the Girl,” which comes from the crustacean wing-man of the century and builds to a sea-life crescendo.

Sha la la la la la, my oh my – The Little Mermaid (1989) – source: Buena Vista Pictures

I share similar nerves to this 1989 gem getting the tedious live-action treatment as I did for The Lion King—there’s something so wonderfully cartoon-ish about the environment that Ariel, Flounder, and Triton roam in. Seeing it handed off-putting photo realistic imagery is just one concern, on top of them likely ruining infectious songs. The film is a classic and sometimes it’s best to leave it that way.

I grew up with a sister and my mum, so Disney movies were a primary component of my growing up and it’s possibly why to this day, however gigantic and monopolizing the company gets, I’ll still always like to see what emotions or enjoyment I’ll find in their newest animated flick. The Little Mermaid is one from their back catalog that I find a clear sailing pleasure to the eyes and ears. If you want a short, simple and sweet movie with a bright palette and insanely feel-good tunes then this movie should be Part of Your World.

Part of Our World – The Little Mermaid (1989) – source: Buena Vista Pictures


ASHMINA: Enough is Enough

Films set in Nepal have a tendency to explore the Man vs. Nature conflict with the peak of Mount Everest as their crowning jewel. Whether documentary or fiction, features such as J. B. L. Noel’s The Epic of Everest, which was re-released in the UK following its digital restoration in 2013, George Lowe’s The Conquest of Everest, and Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest depict the deadly trials of previous real-life expeditions.

Behind the scenes of Ashmina (2018) – source: IMDb

Whereas western productions have their eyes on the world’s highest mountaintop, Nepalese cinema doesn’t concern itself with Mountain films as much. Min Bahadur Bham’s The Black Hen (Kalo Pothi) and Nischal Poudyal’s Riingata, for instance, focus on the impact that the 10-year-long Nepalese civil war had on people.

Dekel Berenson also takes an alternative route with his short film, Ashmina. Set in Pokhara, Nepal, the world’s center for paragliding, Berenson writes and directs a story inspired by a past trip about a 13-year-old girl, Ashmina (Dikshya Karki). Following her life, the plot dissects issues that arise not only from within, namely the restrictions women experience within the confines of a patriarchal society, but also from outside, as tourists enter the Nepali borders and have a somewhat negative effect on its culture.  

Ashmina (2018) – source: Blue Shadows Films

Having visualized Ashmina as a social realist film, Berenson cast only non-actors and worked mostly with the available light on location. In close collaboration with a semi-professional crew comprised mainly by locals, he was able to blend in and capture on camera the natural behavior not only of the natives, but also of the tourists.

Besides that, Berenson gets the audience’s undivided attention as elaborate frames fill the screen, leaving the viewer in a state of stupor. It’s almost as if each shot is part of a fabricated reverie designed for the sole purpose to hypnotize every set of eyes fixed on them. The secret behind the spellbinding quality of Ashmina is not only Nepal’s nature, but also Vasco Viana’s cinematography.

The titular character of Ashmina, however, is neither hypnotized nor confused during the three-day period Berenson puts on display. Working at the landing field, she packs the parachutes of tourists in exchange for small tips, and tries to bring some form of financial stability to her home. This is not a sacrifice, but a duty. Forced to forget about her education, or any type of delightful detail in life, Ashmina is meant to follow orders—no questions asked.

Ashmina (2018) – source: Blue Shadows Films

It’s no surprise then, that a rare query here and there is met with disdain; every act of disobedience is worthy of a slap in the face, and nothing more. Perhaps that is why, after what she perceives as the final betrayal, Ashmina goes beyond the Nepalese socially constructed script of female subjectivity; a violent, but silent, outburst that even though it leaves the viewer startled, it also raises the question: “who’s really at fault here?”


DUNYA’S DAY: Death of a Party

Prior to the end of the cinema ban in Saudi Arabia in 2018, film distribution was limited to sparse screenings of educational documentaries or dubbed cartoons accessible only to women and children. Of course, few Saudi Arabian features such as Izidore Musallam’s How Are You? (Keif al-Hal?), Saudi Arabia’s first big-budget movie, and Abdullah Al-Eyaf’s documentary Cinema 500 km managed to be completed, but weren’t shown within the Saudi Arabian borders.

Behind the scenes of Dunya’s Day (2019) – source: IMDb

With the turn of the century, the Saudi female experience became a main theme for many filmmakers, the most controversial of all being Haifaa al-Mansour, the first Saudi female filmmaker, whose feature debut Wadjda was the first film to be selected as the Saudi Arabian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film.

Another filmmaker who tackles this theme with his short film debut Dunya’s Day is Raed Alsemari. Alsemari takes a different approach on the subject by employing satire genre conventions in his investigation of the affluent diva. In a golden room with red detailing sits Dunya (Sara Balghonaim), the Queen Bee of a suburb household in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Abandoned by her staff, Dunya and her minions, Deema (Rahaf) and Dalal (Sarah Altaweel), have to throw the most memorable college graduation party to keep Dunya’s image intact.

Dunya’s Day (2019) – source: Raed Alsemari

Dunya’s obsession with flawlessness is made clear non-verbally from the get-go. The impeccable symmetry of the setting’s design almost emulates the immortality of a momentary photographic click; everything has been petrified into perfection to frame Dunya as the face of a royal portrait. With her staff on the run, however, the estate’s metaphorical foundation is cracked, and Dunya’s world comes crumbling down. Looking for them in every corner of the manor, she gradually starts throwing tantrums as she realizes she’s left on her own.

This mental health crisis takes a visual manifestation as well through Olivier Theurillat and Alsemari’s precise editing. Temporarily replacing the initial smooth cuts with abrupt ones not only enhances Dunya’s distress, and consequently the film’s comic effect, but also signifies the tiny glitches in her spotless image. Having established that Dunya is almost compulsively fixated with her public persona, the film moves on to pose its vital question: How far is Dunya willing to go to get the social validation she so desires? The answer is: too far.

Considering that Alsemari has stated that he drew inspiration from Michael Lehmann’s Heathers and Mark Waters’ Mean Girls, Dunya’s ruthlessness is to expected. After she takes a step too far for her, yet too hilarious to us, Dunya stands before a mirror scouting for imperfections on her face and body. A clear parallel between Dunya’s Day and Mean Girls as women are literally unable to see that their appearance—but more significantly their lives—belong to them and them alone.

Dunya’s Day (2019) – source: Raed Alsemari

Besides her inner demons, however, Dunya is constantly confronted by a mean rival, Anoud. Anoud is more than an adversary; she is the standard against which Dunya measures her worth. This never-ending battle has taken a toll on Dunya as her nearly unbearable vulnerability inevitably cracks in front of that mirror. Here is where Balghonaim’s talent is indisputable—while the humorous aspects are skillfully handled to say the least, she thrives in Dunya’s subtle despair. It’s a layered performance that gives her character a sense of humanity that no one can ignore.

Alsemari’s aim was to go beyond the Saudi female experience previously shown on screen, and he succeeded. His take, albeit an undoubtedly male perspective, offers a different type of adversity. As a satire, Dunya’s Day is providing social commentary on the type of victimhood created by ideological confines that keep Dunya from realizing her inner value shouldn’t be calculated in monetary terms.

Even if Dunya is no Regina George, as a bus never runs her over, she has definitely learned a lesson through experiencing social ridicule. That final shot, however, in all its hilarity, is not addressed to Dunya alone; the punchline is dedicated to every eye staring at the screen, and screams that keeping up with the Joneses can only make you one of the herd.

Watch the teaser trailer for Dunya’s Day here!


MISSING A NOTE: If Memory (Doesn’t) Serve(s) us Well

Memory can be defined as the brain’s capacity to accumulate and remember information. Or as the recollection of a past point in life. Or even, in the technology obsessed societies of today, a card inside a computer’s motherboard that keeps data in an invisible space. Memory is a tricky thing—there needs to be an acknowledgment that it isn’t a static set of mental images that can be trusted, and it’s also vulnerable to the passage of time; the mind stretches and memories, along with a person’s understanding of who he/she is, fade.

Missing a Note (2019) source: Fact Not Fiction Films

This theme of loss is the main topic of Beth Moran’s short film Missing a Note. The director and writer, inspired by her grandfather’s illness and in collaboration with Dementia Matters, strives to raise awareness on the initial signs of dementia. So, instead of telling the story of a senile old man in the character of John O’Connell (Ian McElhinney), Moran decides to portray those other times when loved ones are still recognized, but can be fleetingly lost as whole worlds crumble within a momentary confusion visible only in the eyes. Those moments of temporary perplexity that family and friends laugh away tenderly either to protect themselves, or the elder one, from a terrible truth.

At least that’s what John’s wife, Angie O’Connell (Elaine Paige), does minus the laughter, as she hides clues from her husband of his dying short-term memory. A misplaced remote control here. Or the complete erasure of the first encounter with a high school girl, Molly (Darcy Jacobs), who, in order to avoid making John aware of his diminishing mental state, has two auditions for a scholarship report he is meant to write as a retired and acclaimed opera singer.

Missing a Note (2019) source: Fact Not Fiction Films

McElhinney incarnates once again a grandfather audiences will love, but instead of offering entertainment with the sharp sassiness of the Irish Granda Joe from Lisa McGee’s hilarious Derry Girls, he appears on screen as an affectionate husband and an even kinder artist who doesn’t revel in his past fame. Rather, he wants to encourage young Molly, as a true mentor would—to evolve and succeed. Besides the warm smiles of a sweet old man, McElhinney’s facial expressions reach a new level of expertise in instances of subtle disorientation.

It is Paige, however, who makes the film even more real. In all of her scenes, she either exudes a tremendous amount of love for her husband, or an unbearable, and most of the time concealed pain for the inevitable day that his eyes, although blinking, will look back at her with emotional emptiness. It’s not only the chemistry between McElhinney and Paige that render this story genuine, however; it’s also the unexpected reveal of John’s illness itself. While overrated films that deal with this topic, such as Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook go for grandiose gestures and reactions, Moran’s take gives a quiet slice of everyday life; John’s sickness creeps up on the audience just as it can in reality.

The title alone hints at the plot twist, but it’s so faint that it’s initially overlooked. On the one hand, it works as a metaphor for John’s minor everyday mistakes. On the other, it can point back to how easy it is to ignore the early symptoms of dementia: they can go unnoticed like the missing of a note. Many wish for a clean slate in life; Moran pays homage to those that, even if they do so involuntarily, they gradually walk towards a date of tabula rasa. 


21 BRIDGES Does Nothing New for Cop Thrillers

The cop thriller is a genre of movie that isn’t going away anytime soon. As long as certain kinds of cops make headlines for all the wrong reasons, Hollywood wants to churn out their own take on those cops. There was a cop thriller earlier this year called Black and Blue that dealt with corruption in the police force. I skipped it because the premise felt a little too close to the headlines. At the risk of being slightly hypocritical, I was looking forward to seeing 21 Bridges, which boasts an impressive cast led by Chadwick Boseman.

Casting Boseman in the lead makes sense, in a way. Cops in general are seen by the public as heroes who, at the end of the day, are just as mortal as we are. With Boseman hot off the cultural phenomenon Black Panther, he now has the opportunity to expand his acting chops that were previously showcased in a handful of biopics he did. Even as the best part of 21 Bridges, however, he can’t save the movie from hitting all the cliches of any other cop thriller.

Chadwick Boseman in 21 Bridges (2019) – source: STXfilms

21 Bridges follows Chadwick Boseman as Andre Davis, an NYPD detective haunted by his father’s death in the line of duty. He gets a call in the middle of the night about a robbery gone wrong. When he arrives on the crime scene, he finds a large stash of uncut cocaine and eight officers dead. In an attempt to catch the two cop killers, he shuts down every exit off the island of Manhattan and is given until daylight to find them. Every now and then, the film focuses on the two killers trying to get away alive.

I’ve been a fan of movies taking place in a shortened time span since the first time I saw Michael Mann’s Collateral. In this movie, the shortened time frame raises the stakes. When Andre first requests a city wide lock-down to the FBI, they look at him like he’s crazy. But they know he’s determined to bring these criminals to justice. It’s this kind of drive that powers Andre through the film. Getting an actor like Chadwick Boseman was smart because he elevates the character from these cliches. The supporting cast of Stephan James, Taylor Kitsch, Sienna Miller, Keith David and J.K. Simmons also make the most of what they’re given, but they can only do so much for their familiar characters.

21 Bridges (2019) – source: STXfilms

The manhunt in the movie is pretty engaging. The tension is always cranked up by the cat-and-mouse chase, some pretty cool shootouts and (as mentioned before) setting this in the span of a few hours. What doesn’t work, however, is a reveal towards the end about a couple of the cops involved in the manhunt. The criminals hold a jump drive containing information that could sink most of the precinct. When Andre gets a hold of this information, he confronts one of the cops at the end of the movie. I won’t give away what the information is or who is involved, but the confrontation took me out of the film.

A tighter movie could’ve been made just about the manhunt and kept at around an hour and a half. Hell, make it longer and give us some character development. But as it stands now, 21 Bridges is just another cop thriller elevated by Chadwick Boseman’s lead performance. There are plenty of better cop movies out there, even some cop shows on TV are more memorable. I have a feeling I’ll forget this movie pretty quickly because nothing else really stood out for me. If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll be entertained enough. But like me, you’ll be wishing for something better.


A Gen Z Lesbian’s Top 10 Performances of 2019

Call me young or uncultured—that’s fine. I may be only 17, but I’m positive these performances in film and television this year are some of the absolute best. Or, I’m just a girl in love with Bill Hader and cute women. Either way, I love the following people for their work and for who they are.

10. Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo Betzler in Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit (2019) – source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Opposite beloved actors such as Taika Waititi and Scarlett Johansson, it’s 11-year-old Griffin Davis that shines the brightest in Jojo Rabbit. The film is an absolute triumph, excelling in humor and heartbreak alike. Though I found Johansson and Wilson to be one-note and awkward, the rest of the cast—Waititi and Davis included—delivered marvelous performances. Davis goes beyond being a simple, cute kid; and while he is plenty adorable, he’s just as dynamic and emotional, more-so than his esteemed costars. I hope he loved doing this film and wants to continue on in the industry.

Film Rating: 5/5
Performance Rating: 4/5

9. Maya Hawke as Robin Buckley in Stranger Things

Stranger Things (2016-present) – source: Netflix

Listen—I am a simple young lesbian, so I acknowledge my bias. Maya Hawke’s Robin is hilarious, but she also accesses her deeper, more emotional moments with ease. Additionally, fan-favorite Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) met his direct match in terms of charisma and wit, and the pair carried season three by the sheer momentum of their rarely seen 1980s wlw/mlw solidarity. Thank you, Robin, for my rights!

Season 3 Rating: 4/5
Performance Rating: 4/5

8. Billie Lourd as Gigi in Booksmart

Booksmart (2019) – source: Annapurna Pictures

There’s something in these genes. Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, and now Billie Lourd—three of the most dynamic and versatile actresses in my lifetime. Gigi is eclectic, idiosyncratic, and unapologetically herself. Lourd’s own uniqueness adds incredible dimension to what might otherwise be considered solely the comedic relief of the film. She exudes power in every scene, she’s hysterical, and I’m just obsessed with everything she brings to the table.

Film Rating: 5/5
Performance Rating: 4/5

7. Bill Hader as Richie Tozier

It: Chapter Two (2019) – source: Warner Bros.

It: Chapter Two isn’t a perfect movie by any means; it’s messy, slow at times, and changes scenes from the book that left audiences disappointed. Luckily, the film is saved by the stellar cast. The seven kids and their counterparts are perfectly cast—especially Bill Hader’s Richie Tozier.

Hader had big shoes to fill following Finn Wolfhard’s acclaimed portrayal of Richie, but ended up exceeding my expectations as a fan of the book and the 2017 film. Richie is iconic in the horror community, both for his comedic ability and his sexuality. Hader’s delivery lead to the biggest laughs, as well as the saddest moments in either film when [spoiler] the man he’s in love with is killed by Pennywise. It: Chapter Two finally gave Hader a chance to show mainstream audiences the spectrum of his abilities as an honest and sympathetic actor. If you want to see more of this, watch The Skeleton Twins ASAP.

Film Rating: 4½ /5
Performance Rating: 4/5

6. Emily Hampshire as Stevie Budd in Schitt’s Creek

Schitt’s Creek (2015-present) – source: ITV Studios Global Entertainment

If you haven’t watched season five of Schitt’s Creek, stop reading this article and do it. It’s on Netflix now, so you have no excuse. Stevie is one of the most complex female characters I’ve ever seen. Schitt’s Creek develops each character beautifully, showing their best moments—and their worst—as they try to become a little bit better every day. Emily Hampshire’s performance is honestly hard to define; Stevie steps out of her comfort zone by becoming the lead in the town’s community theater production of Cabaret. Her Maybe This Time at the end of the season is just beyond words. Do yourself a favor and watch it here.

Season 5 Rating: 5/5
Performance Rating: 4½ /5

4 & 5. Michael Sheen as Aziraphale and David Tennant as Crowley in Good Omens

Good Omens (2019) – source: Amazon Studios

Thank you, Good Omens, for giving us the biblical apocalypse Romeo and Juliet-style love story starring England’s sweethearts that we never knew we needed. It shouldn’t come as a shock that Sheen and Tennant are amazing actors, and Good Omens is no different. I put them together because, while their respective performances are wonderful, it’s really their shared scenes that make the show what it is. Their chemistry is unlike anything I’ve seen—hell, the episode where Michael Sheen plays Aziraphale playing David Tennant’s Crowley (and vice-versa) is just unsurpassed.

Series Rating: 4½ /5
Performance Rating: 5/5

3. Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson & Red in Us

Us (2019) – source: Universal Pictures

Lupita Nyong’o as both leads in Jordan Peele’s Us is a prime example of my problem with The Academy Awards. Horror films, despite their excellence, rarely get any nominations at The Oscars (see: Hereditary). I can only hope that Us and Midsommar get the nominations they deserve following Peele’s debut Get Out, because Nyong’o absolutely deserves it. Her roles were polar opposites—her fear and desperation surrounding her family as they get hunted down made the film. Wake up, Academy!

Film Rating: 4½ /5
Performance Rating: 5/5

2. Bill Hader as Barry Berkman in Barry

Barry (2018-present) – source: HBO

You might be asking yourself, “really, Mia? Bill Hader’s on this list twice? Surely he isn’t that good.” If you’ve missed the first two seasons of Barry, this is understandable. Barry is my favorite show at the moment. Season two proved that Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s phenomenon is only getting started, spearheaded by Hader’s run as the titular character. Really, this entire list could be the IMDb cast list for Barry, but it’s Hader that acts as the glue that holds an award-winning supporting cast together. The Year of Bill Hader is everything I’ve ever wanted, and I love that he’s getting the attention he deserves outside of SNL’s Stefon. If you’ve never seen Barry, start with this season one clip that continues to stun me, even though I’ve seen it countless times. (Also… Shoutout to Anthony Carrigan as Noho Hank, one of the funniest characters I’ve seen in recent memory.)

Season 2 Rating: 5/5
Performance Rating: 5/5

Honorable Mention: Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame (2019) – source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Don’t mistake this as a recommendation of the flaming train wreck that is Avengers: Endgame—but I wanted to give a shout out to Robert Downey Jr. as he ends (or… doesn’t?) his decade-long career as both Tony Stark and Iron Man. It’s rumored that he’s going to be in the upcoming Black Widow movie, but for the sake of this mention, let’s ignore that and focus on the exit of everyone’s favorite billionaire, genius, playboy, and philanthropist. I love Marvel (usually), and Iron Man has been my favorite hero since I was a child. Robert Downey Jr. has also, in turn, been one of my heroes, as I didn’t know how to differentiate between characters and actors as a kid. Thank you, RDJ, for your service. 

1. Florence Pugh as Dani in Midsommar

Midsommar (2019) – source: A24

Midsommar is a folk horror acid trip exploring grief, bad boyfriends, and William Jackson Harper being typecast as a philosophy nerd—and holy hell, is it wonderful. It’s disturbing and gory, all overexposed under the bright sun so every detail is seen. This was the first Florence Pugh project I’d ever seen, and I found myself Googling her extensively on the way to my car after seeing the film. I’m constantly in awe of women like Pugh or Toni Collette, who, unlike actors such as Joaquin Phoenix or Jared Leto, are able to deliver shocking and horrifying presentations but remain unaffected outside of their workplace. Florence Pugh is flawless as Dani and a heavenly May Queen. Watch a clip here (content may be disturbing for some viewers).

Film Rating: 5/5
Performance Rating: 5/5

What’s your favorite performance of 2019? Let us know in the comments!


DARK WATERS Tells More Than Just The Truth

From its opening scene, it is very clear that Dark Waters isn’t your typical whistle-blower drama. Young teenagers sneak around late at night to go skinny dipping in a forebodingly eerie lake—it’s a scene where the ambiance and score provoke a feeling of horror straight out of Jaws. It’s ominous, as if at any moment a shark will come out of nowhere and devour the swimmers. Instead, a boat from the nearby chemical plant appears to urge them out of the water while spraying a mysterious substance onto the grim-looking waves. 

There is no shark lurking in rural West Virginia; the horrific truth of the matter is much more subtle and devious. Dark Waters tells the true story of the ongoing environmental lawsuit against the DuPont chemical company, a result of the negligent and knowing poisoning of a West Virginia community over a handful of decades. Starring Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who switches teams to fight for the little guy, and beautifully directed by Todd Haynes (Carol, Far From Heaven), Dark Waters is a legal drama that is somehow both by-the-numbers and unconventional. 

The lilting, light-hearted opening notes of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” purposefully and masterfully contrast a bleak landscape and harsh grey tone that lords over the entire film. “Almost Heaven, West Virginia”, Denver croons, though it’s quite obvious that there is something seriously wrong in this small town that sits in the shadow of a powerful chemical plant. Heightened by Haynes’s creative direction, no message is overly concealed in this film. From the moment Bilott sets foot in West Virginia, it isn’t too hard to figure out that something is off.

Mark Ruffalo and Bill Camp in Dark Waters (2019) – source: Focus Features

The film is slow-paced and purposeful just like the slow poisoning of the water supply and the resident’s bodies over time; it’s a thriller without the big thrills and a far cry in terms of structure compared to something like Haynes’ non-linear biopic I’m Not There. The pacing is even, the story linear. Just when you think something big is about to happen, a major breakthrough in the case or even a car bomb going off, the screen goes black and picks up again two years later without much actual progress having been made. It is both realistic and frustrating, which is intentional but does render the film rather tedious at times.

The slow passage of time with no real light at the end of the tunnel is meant to emphasize that the fight is long and eventually to reveal that it still isn’t over. We don’t get to see big “aha!” moments or major turning points in the investigation that define so many other films like this, just the slow but steady rifling through mountains and mountains of paperwork to discover the truth. The story celebrates Bilott but it doesn’t necessarily pat him on the back for doing the right thing. It is clear how easy it is to give up in these long battles against powerful institutions that have more resources but lack a conscience. 

The movie does slightly delve into Bilott’s personal hardships as a result of his fight against DuPont (pay cuts, health issues, a deteriorating relationship with his wife and family), but that’s not the story that’s on display here. Ruffalo is strong and authentic in the role, his own passion for environmental and social activism shining through despite the rather dispassionate and stereotypical script. The real heart of the film is Bill Camp’s Wilbur Tennant, the instigator of the lawsuit and the victim that the audience grows most attached through throughout. His story is a reminder that even those who do the right thing can be scorned and is reflective of how, often, we would rather ignore something bad happening if we don’t think it affects us. How twisted is it that the man fighting to keep a community safe is ostracized because others believe in a corporation that is poisoning them over their neighbors?

Anne Hathaway in Dark Waters (2019) – source: Focus Features

A story like this can’t help but fall into cliches. Anne Hathaway does the best she can with what she’s given as “the wife,” though she seems desperate to be anything but. The quintessential cries of “How could they do that?” and “The system is rigged” echo from All the President’s Men through Erin Brockovich to more recent entries like Spotlight and The Post.

What is made abundantly clear is that this film was made by people who are passionate about the battle against corporate corruption. No amount of cliches can diminish that truth. Nothing here is a newsflash of brand new information—it’s a simple, terrifying reminder that these kind of things have been happening and are happening every single day and we can’t and shouldn’t ignore them. It asks what you have done lately to help make the world a better place. What have you done to fight the greed and corruption that infiltrates our homes, continuing to poison our bodies and our planet?  

It may seem contrived to make a film about something like this nowadays. Why would we need a reminder of corruption and deceit when we see it in our news cycles every single day? But this story feels even more urgent in the current sociopolitical climate. The kind of reactionary anger it depicts is nothing new but it serves well to remind us all that the outrage we feel so often has been lurking beneath the surface for decades.

In a time when we’re constantly being called upon to do something to fight back against corporate giants and corrupt infrastructure, movies like this can be the perfect catalyst to inspire action if we can move past the heavy feeling of dread and defeat they deliver. Dark Waters doesn’t let you off the hook with a perfect happy ending that makes you believe in the power of one man against the establishment. It is simultaneously optimistic and depressing; it will make you feel like giving up but hopefully inspire you to get out and do something, anything.


So, What Do We Know About The 2020 Academy Awards Race?

November is coming to an end—the fall film festivals have had their premieres, and the annual “for your consideration” posters are popping up all over Hollywood. Best Picture is coveted, despite the difficulty of judging art in the first place. This year’s annual Academy Awards will take place on February 9th, the earliest it has been in recent years. So with The Academy’s push to early February, everything will be happening more urgently than if it were later in February or early March. Even though films like Clint Eastwood’s journalism drama Richard Jewell or Tom Hooper’s live-action take on Cats have not yet officially screened or been reported on, we do have a sense of the names who will have a shot at competing for the biggest awards.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

source: Sony Pictures Releasing

The ninth film from Quentin Tarantino displays a more jaded and mature director than ever seen before in his career, but also one of the first films in a narrative to unite many Oscar contenders. The cynical outlook of DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton on the current entertainment industry could be read as a metaphor for Tarantino himself—looking back knowing that his days of relevancy are numbered, and that he can’t hang with the fresh crop of talent despite leaving behind a very valuable legacy.

It’s not uncommon, of course—some of the greatest movies of all time are self-portraits of artists looking back on themselves with sorrow and melancholy. Nevertheless, Tarantino’s love letter to Los Angeles in the 60s is going to get himself, the film, and Leonardo DiCaprio nominated, because it’s about the very idea that The Oscars are celebrating (it’s no secret they like to be self-congratulatory).

The Irishman

source: Netflix

Martin Scorsese’s latest gangster epic is out in theaters right now and is coming to Netflix soon, but not without its variables. The Irishman almost garnered unanimous praise coming out of this year’s New York Film Festival, and has the elegance of a swan song from one of the greatest directors to ever live, along with one of the greatest ensembles of the decade. The film spans over a period of time to tell the story of a lifetime, Robert De Niro’s character, Frank Sheeran, was digitally de-aged rather than recasting someone else who resembles his younger self. It was an expensive and ambitious decision that paid off in both Scorsese’s and Netflix’s favor.

All of these qualities make The Irishman a threat for a slew of awards. Scorsese has only one Oscar win (Best Achievement in Directing for The Departed), a win that felt more like a legacy award for so many other missed opportunities rather than something he deserves it for. With The Irishman, he’ll have felt like it’s his. Netflix desperately yearns for one of their original films to win, as it would finally silence the people who still consider films with a “Netflix” logo to be less than.

Marriage Story

source: Netflix

Critics have praised Noah Baumbach ever since his debut film Kicking and Screaming, and he has accumulated many fans over the past twenty-four years of filmmaking. His films are never dramatic enough to qualify as dramas, nor funny enough to count as comedies—he’s always working in this grey area and that’s what makes him stand out. It was only his film The Squid and the Whale that garnered him a Best Original Screenplay nomination, which is another divorce dramedy, much like this year’s Marriage Story.

With Marriage Story, Netflix has used the same strategy they adopted with Roma—screening the film at every major fall festival so word of mouth can spread before its theatrical release in November and its Netflix release on December 1st. It’s very clever and will likely result in quite a few nominations. Personally, I have Adam Driver winning Best Actor and Laura Dern winning Best Supporting Actress (it’s crazy to think she doesn’t have one already!).


source: Neon

Speaking of acclaimed auteurs who are just now receiving proper recognition for consistent work since the beginning of the millennium, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is unarguably the most beloved of the year (and my personal favorite). Parasite has not only thrown him into the mainstream—not even his other English language features Snowpiercer and Okja made this level of an impact—but no other foreign film has come close to receiving this type of reaction in this decade (besides Roma, as mentioned above). If Parasite were to be nominated for an Oscar it would be historic, as a Korean film has never been up for an Oscar (Lee Chang-dong’s Burning was short-listed for the 91st Academy Awards, but ultimately never made the cut).

Like many of Bong’s films, Parasite is never defined to one genre or tone, but it always remains satirical and comedic. These two things are what Bong has perfected throughout his career and culminates here with a level of craft rarely seen nowadays—or ever. Bong’s idiosyncrasy may work in his favor, hopefully resulting in him being a dark horse in the running for Best Director, along with a Best Picture nomination and possibly Song Kang-ho for Best Actor (a longtime star of Bong’s films).

Little Women

source: Sony Pictures Releasing

Unlike the other four possible contenders mentioned above, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women has a unique campaign and release strategy altogether. Gerwig’s modern take on the classic novel has a considerable amount of hype surrounding it, given the love for the all-star cast and Gerwig coming off the success of her outstanding debut Lady Bird in 2017. Little Women has skipped all the festivals this fall, opting now to screen for critics given its Christmas Day release date and wanting to keep the screenings closer to the premiere (VicePhantom Thread and The Post all opted for similar strategies in the past).

Little Women has enough going for it to guarantee a Best Picture nomination, least of all having Meryl Streep and Laura Dern in supporting roles with success carried over from Lady Bird. More interestingly would be either Florence Pugh receiving her first Best Supporting Actress nomination, or Saoirse Ronan landing a Best Actress win, considering she’s only 25 with three previous nominations (which is wild).


source: Universal Pictures

Sharing the same release date as Little Women, Sam Mendes’ 1917 also shares a similar narrative to building hype around itself. The Academy loves war films—they’ve never been reticent about this, and who’s to blame them? Platoon, Dunkirk, The Hurt Locker, Saving Private Ryan, and American Sniper have all done considerably well during awards season and given the genre, it’s very easy to assume that 1917 can sit comfortably in a Best Picture slot.

The film is made to look like one long, continuous take without any noticeable edits to distract from the illusion. It may even play well in below the line categories with a win in Best Cinematography. 1917 may have the same fate as Dunkirk, being the only Best Picture nominee without any acting nominations, since it’s much more experiential than theatrical.


source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Todd Phillips’ Joker has the most fascinating narrative of any Best Picture contender by far. Before it even came out, Warner Brothers seemed to have a considerable amount of faith in the film, going as far as to use the same strategy that was previously used for A Star is Born last year. Premiering at every major fall festival (Telluride Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and the Venice International Film Festival, where it then won the prestigious Golden Lion award), it signaled a shift in how seriously everyone should be taking Joker, despite knowing already that it was a strange film to be coming out in the first place.

Nevertheless, taking away any roller coaster ride from hype, to controversy, to profitability, Joaquin Phoenix is a very strong candidate for Best Actor and will challenge Adam Driver’s performance in Marriage Story. Joaquin is Joker, not just for being in every scene and undergoing a classic physical transformation that The Academy traditionally rewards, but Phoenix is so good that he’ll carry the movie to compete for Best Picture. Joker is simultaneously an orthodox and an unorthodox choice, given The Academy’s known resentment to comic book films but also how hard Joker tries not to be one. Only time and press coverage will tell if this is successful in the long run.

Jojo Rabbit

source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Writer/director Taika Waititi, known for comedies like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows, has always been clever without crossing into any unwanted boundaries. Waititi has been a voice in modern comedy who hasn’t faced backlash and has been known to provoke with taboo material. Which is why it came at a surprise when his latest film Jojo Rabbit won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival—a prize that has been reserved for every Best Picture nominee or winner since 2011. It’s a film about a boy’s imaginary friend being Adolf Hitler during the height of World War 2, similarly to Joker in how it’s simultaneously traditional and nontraditional “Oscar material.”

Winning the audience award at TIFF may have sealed the deal on a Best Picture nomination for Jojo Rabbit, just by following the pattern seen from the films that have previously won the award. While not being the source of any major heated online discourse, the film isn’t being showered with praise like other predicted nominees, but clever marketing may keep it into relevance.

Who are you rooting for at the 2020 Academy Awards? Let us know in the comments!


FORD V FERRARI Speeds Ahead With Style and Heart

When it comes to sports movies, there are plenty of essential movies to look at depending on which sport you’re a fan of. Baseball fans have movies such as Bull Durham, football fans have Any Given Sunday, and boxing fans have Raging Bull. Oddly enough, racing movies are pretty niche in the genre, coming by once in a while in different degrees of quality. The last great racing movie came in 2013 with Ron Howard’s Rush, which chronicled the Formula One rivalry of James Hunt and Niki Lauda. I’m pleased to tell you that another director has thrown his hat into the ring for racing movies.

James Mangold has, in my opinion, always been underrated. Films like Walk the Line3:10 to Yuma, and Logan have stood out as his best. For a while, he seemed like he would go on as a good director who doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. The aforementioned films earned some nominations at Oscar ceremonies, but Mangold has never been nominated. With his latest film, Ford v Ferrari, Mangold not only reaches a new high in his career, but he also crafts one of the most entertaining films of the year.

Ford v Ferrari (2019) – source: 20th Century Fox

Ford v Ferrari (packaged outside the US as Le Mans ’66) tells the true story of two men in the world of racing. Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) previously won Le Mans in 1959, but retired due to a heart condition. His post racing life is spent designing sports cars meant for speed and high performance. He’s hired by Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca (Tracy Letts and Jon Bernthal, respectively) to make a car designed to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Shelby is on board and hires driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a British hot head and struggling mechanic. Shelby believes that Miles is a natural driver and can help bring glory to Ford, but the higher-ups at Ford don’t believe he is the ideal fit.

The whole movie consists of men butting heads with each other with one endgame in mind: beat Ferrari. All of these men involved are driven (no pun intended) and determined to make the best car possible. There’s an old saying I like that goes “If you tell a committee to make a horse, they will make you a camel.” This rings true in the movie and is the source of the drama that takes place off of the racetrack. It may not be as exciting as the races, but it still holds your interest and allows Damon and Bale to have some great scenes both separately and together.

Ford v Ferrari (2019) – source: 20th Century Fox

The climactic race at Le Mans takes up the majority of the third act, but is in every way exhilarating. Not knowing the events going in, I found myself on the edge of my seat the whole time. I didn’t want it to end, and the way it does was not what I expected. When it does eventually end, the film keeps going to an extended epilogue that didn’t kill the momentum completely, but I would’ve been happier with on screen text telling me what happened.

Above all, the best compliment I can give Ford v Ferrari is that it did not feel like a two and a half hour movie. The time went by quickly and that’s a testament to Mangold’s direction. Movies of this caliber don’t come often enough. Great performances, tight editing and some surprisingly funny lines make this movie a must watch for racing enthusiasts. Even if you’re not into racing like I am, you’ll still be able to enjoy it for its impressive technical work and compelling story. This is a movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

Ford v Ferrari is now in theaters worldwide


KNIVES OUT is a Clever Puzzle That Puts Discrimination Under a Magnifying Glass

Rian Johnson can do it all. He’s directed a space opera; episodes of a neo-western drug-fueled crime drama; an action, time jumping caper; a neo-noir mystery; and now a whodunnit. While the whodunnit trope is still popular in novels, party games, and escape rooms, this comedic guessing game of crime is a type of detective story that is no longer a plot that is utilized as much as it used to be. And Johnson’s latest film, Knives Out, questions why it doesn’t get a revival. Toying with the classic elements of films like Clue, Murder By Death, and the countless Agatha Christie adaptations, Johnson crafts a clever puzzle that is relevant and political. 

Not only used as the centerpiece of crime novelist Harlan Thrombey’s study, sharp knives are out all through his eclectically designed Victorian mansion, as each of his family members takes a stab at the other throughout the course of the film—a reminder of why we hate family gatherings. But the pain inflicted with these knives turns literal when the wealthy author (played by Christopher Plummer) is found dead with his throat slit after his 85th birthday celebration. All eight of his family members were there, and all eight are suspects. 

The Thrombey family in Knives Out (2019) – Source: Lionsgate

There’s Harlan’s real estate mogul daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), and her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), who helps run his wife’s business. Then there’s their son, Ransom (Chris Evans), a spoiled playboy who doesn’t know anything about responsibility, but knows how to pick a nice sweater. Walter (Michael Shannon) is Harlan’s youngest son and is responsible for running his father’s publishing company. His wife, Donna (Riki Lindhome), is there with him, but she’s one of the characters that’s the most forgettable as she’s basically used as a background piece. As for their son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell) doesn’t get much to do like Lindhome, but it’s by design, as he plays your typical teen who’s constantly glued to his phone. Described as a “little nazi” by his relatives, he loves to insult his SJW cousin, Meg, calling her a “snowflake.” Played by Katherine Langford, Meg seems to be the least obsessed with acquiring her grandfather’s wealth and has the most heart of her family. Her mother, Joni, played by Toni Collette, is the widow of Harlan’s deceased son. She’s a lifestyle guru who runs her own skincare line, and her spot on valley girl accent makes you forget, once again, that Collette is actually Australian. 

Some other key players also feel as underdeveloped as Walter’s wife. There’s Fran (Edi Patterson), Harlan’s housekeeper, Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield), a local detective investigating the suspected suicide (and possible murder) of the celebrated novelist, along with police officer Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). With the acknowledgment that it’s impossible to give the same amount of attention to each character in two hours, each actor does their best with how much screentime they are given. There really isn’t a weak link or any character that feels unnecessary, despite how underused some may seem. There are two standouts, though. Joining Lieutenant Elliot and Trooper Wagner on their investigation is private detective, Benoit Blanc. He’s a mysterious figure, especially because the identity of who hired him is as unknown to him as is it to the audience until Knives Out’s denouement. The script that Johnson crafts is as much comedy as it is drama, with much of its humor coming from Daniel Craig. Evans’ Ransom remarks that the investigating feels like “CSI KFC” because Craig gets the opportunity to play with a new accent: A southern Kentucky drawl. That characteristic is naturally hilarious considering his name is as French as can be. Despite tucking away the Queen’s English, Craig’s still as suave as Bond, and you begin to wonder when Blanc is going to make a martini. But he shakes the investigation just as well, with most of his time spent acting alongside Ana de Armas. 

Ana de Armas in Knives Out (2019) – Source: Lionsgate

As Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s caretaker, Ana de Armas is central to the film, with the writer-director describing her character as its heart. De Armas carries the movie with confidence, and as the film’s leading character, she is able to add the most to her performance. Marta’s the one most affected by Harlan’s death, as she loved him like a father—something she doesn’t have. Her struggle to cope is affecting, but her performance is powerful, too, as Marta must deal with the fear that comes with protecting a parent who came to the country illegally. The Thrombey house is a symbol for the rich, white and privileged America, but through Marta, Knives Out’s story puts the politics of immigration under a magnifying glass. Johnson touches on the opposing sides of the immigration discourse; the liberal and conservative views about whether or not we should build a wall, or if putting children in cages is deserved or immoral.

The most conservative members of the family, like Don Johnson’s Richard for example, say that Marta is like part of the family, but will hand her their plate like a servant anyway. The Thrombeys open their home to her and say they appreciate how she took care of their father, but like most Americans, once she’s seen as a threat, they revolt, saying she’s stealing what’s rightfully theirs (whatever Americans believe that is). Despite being hardworking and honest people, immigrant stories always go the same way. They are treated as lesser because they’re not “real” Americans. But as Johnson shows through his writing of Marta, America is their house, too.  

While the plot feels quite straightforward for the most part, luckily Knives Out delivers the classic whodunnit twist you can’t see coming, as all the pieces of this investigation, shown mostly in flashbacks, are meticulously executed. Steve Yedlin’s cinematography is tight and precise, with its many character close-ups allowing the audience to judge for themselves who may be guilty and who may be innocent. The film is sharp and entertaining, but while its dialogue isn’t Madeline Kahn level of iconic, you can’t help but think back to films like Clue because, whether it intended to be or not, Knives Out is a nostalgic experience. 

Knives Out will be released in theaters on November 27th, 2019


PARASITE Wants to Get Under Your Skin

Here’s the thing: everyone has been telling you to go see Parasite, and they’re right. Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winning film is indescribable—not because there’s a shortage of adjectives, but because it’s literally impossible to describe. Many people have probably told you to see the film without knowing anything about it. No trailers, no reviews, no hot takes. They’re right about that, too.

Parasite seeks to change you. Bong’s film, showcasing absolutely exceptional talent and craft, is everything all at once: it mutates from comedy to thriller to horror, all the while providing unnerving commentary on class and symbiotic relationships.

The Kim family – source: Neon

Our first act begins as a comedic con mission being put on by the Kim family, who, when we first meet them, are folding pizza boxes in their small, shabby basement apartment. Unemployed driver Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) are sustained by odd jobs—humble, meager ones—and don’t have much initiative to change the direction of their lives. When they see that a pest control company is doing fumigation outside, they leave their windows open, saying that they’ll get a treatment without having to pay for it themselves. Immediately, noxious fog engulfs the family, leaving them coughing and choking. We laugh. It’s funny, mostly; we haven’t yet seen the dangers of what might be hidden.

When the eldest child, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), inherits a job tutoring the daughter of a rich family from a friend who’s studying abroad, he can’t believe his luck. The Park family is inordinately and disgustingly wealthy—the kind of people with a house full of spotless windows and modern, clinical floor plans, which is quite a contrast from the underground apartment shared by the Kims.

With the help of his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) and her impressive design skills, all it takes is one forged university letter and an interview with the Park matriarch (Cho Yeo-jeong), and Ki-woo has a new job teaching their daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), English. 

The Park family – source: Neon

However, after realizing that the Parks’ son, Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon), is suffering from clear post-traumatic stress regarding an unspeakable incident at one of his birthday parties, Ki-woo slyly suggests a teacher he knows who specializes in art therapy who might be able to help: his sister, Ki-jung.

And thus begins the systemic take-over of the Park household. Ki-jung, now Jessica (only child, from Illinois, Chicago), and Ki-woo infiltrate the Parks’ trust—and through the combined use of cheap underwear left in the backseat of Mr. Park’s car and the capitalization of the housekeeper’s (Lee Jung-eun) life-threatening allergy (the second most iconic use of a peach in the past three years of cinema), the entire Kim family soon begin to receive paychecks from the Parks. Ki-taek becomes the driver and Chung-sook begins her work as the new housekeeper.

As audience members, we feel a little twinge of sympathy for the fired driver and the ever-loyal housekeeper, Moon-gwang—but mostly, it’s amusing to watch the Kims invade this sterile and perfect home. At this point, we find ourselves nodding with intellectual authority, saying, “ah, yes. I understand the title. The Kims are the parasites! How metaphorical, indeed.” They live a life of luxury during the night they all spend drinking and gorging themselves on the Parks’ food when the wealthy family is away camping for Da-sung’s birthday.

They’re rich, but still nice,” Ki-taek says at one point, echoing what many of us might be thinking. It does feel a little unfair for them to be taking advantage of a family that, really, has shown nothing but kindness.

They’re nice because they’re rich,” Chung-sook fires back. 

Choi Woo-shik as Kim Ki-woo

Still, they lounge and they eat, and they remain oblivious to the storm throwing rain against the giant glass windows. So, when the door bell rings, the family freezes—the living room looks like a war zone, a mess of broken glass and booze—because the sound is unexpected and intrusive, a ding reeking of wealth; a signal that the Kims aren’t safe. 

Because, after all: they do not belong there.

But it’s only Moon-gwang, dripping wet from the storm and desperate, on the doorstep. She needs to come in because she left something in the basement before she was fired. If you’re in the audience, maybe you let out a small sigh of relief, because for a moment, there was the unthinkable breath of panic that the Parks had arrived home early (until, of course, twenty minutes later, when they do in fact arrive home early). The rest of the family scatters, hiding where Moon-gwang won’t see them.

After Moon-gwang leads Chung-sook (and the rest of the family, tip-toeing behind) down into the basement, Parasite changes. It morphs into an entirely different film, where nothing is off the table and answers are indiscernible.

Park So-dam and Choi Woo-shik – via iMDb

As the film progresses, we come to understand what the title means. Parasite, among other things, is about class—which is a simplistic term for a much more complex issue that Bong Joon-ho explores within the Kims and the Parks. There are layers upon layers of analysis within the film regarding the idea of the upstairs/downstairs trope. Parasite’s nature of parasitism is cyclical, with the downstairs rising to conquer those above, before they must return below ground once more. It’s a vicious cycle of class struggle and wealth disparity, but one that is found to be unnervingly effective in the final half hour of the film.

These ideas are exhibited most strongly in the character of Ki-taek, as shown in an exceptional performance by Bong’s frequent collaborator, Song Kang-ho. After Moon-gwang’s secret emerges and the film is at its most adrenaline-filled, there is a quiet moment where Mr. Park makes a comment to his wife about Ki-taek specifically: that although he’s a good driver, he reeks of an unfamiliar smell—that of poverty. We watch as Ki-taek tenses from a poorly chosen hiding spot, his scent right under the Parks’ nose as they sit on their couch in their silk pajamas, completely oblivious to the horrors lurking within their own home. 

Mr. Park’s remark about Ki-taek’s smell serves as an unexpected catalyst for the events that transpire in the last half hour of the film. Set to a cheerful score and a beautifully illuminated sunny day, what emerges can only be described as a final battle. Within what feels like seconds, the audience watches in transfixed horror as the parasite destroys its host, before becoming a parasite once more. It will leave you breathless and disgusted; mesmerized and deeply, deeply unsettled.

Song Kang-ho as Kim Ki-taek – via iMDb

It’s a dystopian idea, that those subordinate can truly never rise above, but when we take a look at Parasite’s glossy exterior, it feels only natural that something underneath seeks to destroy it from the inside out. And when we can’t look away, we have to wonder what that says about ourselves.

Parasite asks more questions than it answers. It seeks to rattle us, like imagery of snakes eating their own tails. It raises disturbing questions within ourselves about where, exactly, we would fall if we were placed into Bong’s world. How dare we laugh at people being schemed out of their livelihood because of the Kim family’s own greed? And yet, how can we not feel a bit of euphoria when the four of them eat and drink the Park’s food and alcohol the night that everything changes—because they did it, they did it, they won

We ask ourselves: in our own lives, are we the parasites or the hosts? 

And above all: is it possible for us, like each of the characters in the film, to somehow be both?

Seen at North Carolina FilmFest 919Parasite is now playing in select theaters nationwide


Why SCOOB! is Already Making A Lot of Fans Angry

Hollywood has a big problem in the form of a pup named Scooby-Doo. It seems ridiculous, as we enter the final hurdle of the year, the idea that certain subsections of the internet would be spending their time ferociously arguing about a big screen reboot of the beloved Hanna-Barbara property. Yet, for 2019, if anything we’re staying pretty on-brand where film discourse is concerned.

Shaggy Rogers (Will Forte) and Scooby-Doo (Frank Welker) in Scoob! (2020) – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Scooby-Doo, the canine sleuth with a nose for danger and a heart of gold, was last seen in cinemas back in 2004. Neil Fanning stepped in for voice work as casting for the iconic character underwent a transitional period following the passing of Hanna-Barbara veteran Don Messick. Fanning was accompanied by a cluster of 90s and early ‘oughts stars; Matthew Lillard (Scream, Hackers), Freddie Prinze Jr. (I Know What You Did Last Summer, She’s All That), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cruel Intentions), and Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks, Legally Blonde).

The two films performed admirably and, while critical reactions were a couple of miles south of Coolsville, their reappraisal over the years has widely accepted the live action iterations of Mystery Incorporated as being just about as close as you can get to picture perfect representations of iconic toons. In fact, Lillard’s infectious, vocally fried Shaggy, originally portrayed by radio host Casey Kasem, was so uncanny that he was asked to take on the voice in television and direct-to-DVD films since Kasem’s retirement in 2009, and has held the role ever since.

As a big Scooby fan, especially of the work that Matthew Lillard has been doing with Shaggy for the last ten years, I was cautiously yet naively optimistic way back in 2014 when a new animated film was announced. Surely, by sticking to its animated roots, there would be no need for a big screen Scooby feature to replace its existing and entirely capable vocal staff.

Mystery Inc
Fred Jones (Zac Efron), Velma Dinkley (Gina Rodriguez), Scooby-Doo (Frank Welker), Shaggy Rogers (Will Forte), Daphne Blake (Amanda Seyfried) and the Mystery Machine – source: Warner Bros.

If anything, Scoob!’s promise to revitalize Hanna Barbera’s lesser-known properties for a new audience should impose some sense of brand synergy for the property. Kids who are comfortably familiar with the performances of Lillard, Kate Miccuci and Grey DeLisle may find it disconcerting hear new voices. And, bear in mind, other than the short-lived prequel cartoon A Pup Named Scooby Doo back in the 80s, we have never heard Mystery Inc.’s leader and trap-extraordinaire Fred Jones voiced by anyone but Frank Welker.

When Forte was announced alongside Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried, and Gina Rodriguez, the controversy of the film’s production slowly but surely began to unravel. Despite being helmed by Scooby regular Tony Cervone, upon the announcement of the cast and release date of the new film Matthew Lillard revealed there had been absolutely no good will shown to the current cast by the production team. Not only had Lillard not been asked back to a job he’s held since 2009, Warner Bros. had not even informed the cast that their voices would be given the Hollywood treatment and replaced for the big screen.

By 2019, I had grown older. My optimism in cinema’s future had dwindled and any flicker of hope I had that the grounds on which the institution of the Scooby-Doo franchise walked would not be desecrated by obligatory Hollywood casting mandates had been replaced by grim acceptance. Yes, a big screen reboot of a kids cartoon ideally needs some big names to throw up on posters and billboards. But Warner Bros., I must ask you, sincerely: is anyone seeing the new Scooby-Doo movie for Will Forte?

Don’t get me wrong, Forte is always a welcome presence. He’s an endearing comedian with the sort of puppy dog energy that any cartoon franchise would be lucky to have. But, unless some Warner Bros. exec genuinely thought the scenes with Kaitlyn Dever’s parents were the best part of Booksmart, or perhaps fondly remembers his guest spots on 30 Rock, there really should be no reason why the official voice of Shaggy—or any members of Mystery Inc.—should be unceremoniously shafted for the potential of a few more ticket sales.

Add this to the fact that the casting of Gina Rodriguez as Velma has still not been reconciled after the actress has been criticized heavily for her use of racist slurs and poor behavior, and Scoob!’s cast of so-called box office draws is starting to look like the first in a long line of missteps for the upcoming reboot. The Jane the Virgin star has already burned bridges among her fan-base, so the decision to introduce Rodriguez and her ongoing baggage into a family-friendly franchise is turning a lot of fans away.

Mystery Incorporated
Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010-2013) – source: Warner Bros. Animation

While no 21st Century Scooby series has yet reached the heights of the 2010-2013 series Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated, the franchise is still going strong. For nostalgic fans, tuning into the latest TV and DVD offerings might be a safer alternative.

Outside of the film’s troubling casting calls, the latest trailer released by Warner Bros. has done little to stifle the concern emanating from the resilient Scooby fandom. Frank Welker, mercifully, has been kept as the mystery solver’s loyal mascot. The voice is still spot on, if a little long in the tooth, but the decision to boost Scooby’s vocabulary by having him speak in grammatically coherent and snarky full sentences in this instance feels cheap.

The Scooby-centric episodes of Mystery Incorporated saw the doggy detective speak longer than we’ve ever heard before, but that series was expressly conceived to flesh out the archetypal characters and explore their dynamics with one another. Here, it feels like a shallow move to reinvent Scooby as a marketable sidekick, indistinguishable from the referential playthings churned out by Illumination or Blue Sky. I’m not quite sure what items would appear on my wish list for a blockbuster Scooby-Doo film, but a reference to IKEA sure ain’t one of them.

As a lifelong fan of the talking dog and his mystery solving friends, I will be loyally purchasing a ticket to Scoob! come May 2020. I hope my predictions for the lackluster cast will be proven wrong and I’ll realize that my disinterest in any Hanna-Barbara property that doesn’t feature a flower power camper van is completely misinformed.

But even watching the trailer on mute, imagining the dialogue uttered by voice actors with the rightful claims to those characters, the homogeneous and familiar 3D animation style is missing that Scooby magic. Gone are the washed out, spooky tones of the 60s and 70s original series and the angular, retro look affectionately updated by Mystery Incorporated. What began life as a show whose animation style, kooky character design and occasionally unsettling atmosphere could genuinely frighten children introduced to the show just a little too early has been abandoned for plush, squeaky clean character models and uninspired settings.

Hassle in the Castle
Mystery Incorporated and the Ghost of Vasquez Castle (1969) – source: Hanna-Barbara

Sure, I’m excited to see a new take on the Scooby property next year, hopefully in a cinema full of fans just as dedicated to the enduring characters as I am. But it will be with the same misplaced diligence I apply whenever a new season of Doctor Who rolls around. If Raja Gonsell’s live-action takes on the cartoon (and, to a much lesser extent, the two live-action sequels which, yes, I have seen) were intended as crass yet affectionate continuations of the classic series, Scoob! feels like rewriting history.

At least fans can look forward to a more faithful shot of nostalgia, with anticipated sequels to franchise favorites Scooby Doo! Return to Zombie Island and Scooby Doo! and the Curse of the Thirteenth Ghost out now on DVD and digital.

Scoob! hits theaters in 2020


LITTLE HANDS: Through the Eyes of a Child

The point of view of any given text, whether visual or written, is the lens provided by a creator to experience a piece of work. Different frames of references point to alternative versions of reality, which in turn carry distinctive sets of meaning. Cinematic experiences such as David Fincher’s Fight Club or David Lynch’s Lost Highway may come to mind, seeing that both of them showcase the significance of viewpoint.

Little Hands (2017) – source: Salaud Morisset

The same can be said about Rémi Allier’s short film Little Hands, a short film that tells the story of a factory closing down through the point of view of Leo (Emile Moulron Lejeune), a two-year-old toddler. For a quarter of an hour, the plot follows Leo, the child of the factory’s acting manager, as he is kidnapped by Bruno (Jan Hammenecker) who, in a moment of poor judgement, believes he can negotiate his inevitable unemployment. Needless to say, Bruno’s impulsive plan doesn’t pan out, but this wasn’t the short film’s point to begin with.

Allier’s decision to present the story through a child’s eyes investigates a man’s resort to violence in moments of crisis through an angle that allows him to manipulate an audience’s response in heightened extremes. On the one hand, the abduction becomes even more cruel as the camera movement mimics the harsh motions of Bruno running with Leo in his hands. On the other, when Bruno feeds the infant, he is portrayed as any other caregiver; a provider of comfort. This dynamic is established visually as rays of sunlight beam on both characters’ faces framing the scene with serenity, but also through Leo’s innocent curiosity as he caresses Bruno’s hand and explores the finger that has been cut off most probably during the line of work. This affectionate touch is accompanied by Leo’s insistent repetition of the word “broken”, and perhaps that is the most crucial point of the film. Children speak the truth because they haven’t shaped a socially constructed filter yet, so a mere word takes an added emotional weight. Of course Bruno’s finger isn’t broken, but, in a sense, he certainly is; it’s despair that made him kidnap Leo. That, however, doesn’t justify his violent reaction and in recognizing this, Bruno ends the conflict by returning Leo to his parents.

Little Hands (2017) – source: Salaud Morisset

Overall, Little Hands stands against violence, but while the objective is clear, the source behind that crude hostility, a question posed by the film, is somewhat evasive. Visually vivid and intense with an access to a child’s inherent kindness and beauty (a connection that’s desperately needed so that Bruno isn’t just the heartless antagonist), the film presents dark life moments while managing to stay on the side of light. Somehow, however, with an underdeveloped answer as to why violence is the first response for Bruno, there’s a tiny piece missing.


In HARRIET, an American Hero Gets the Biopic Treatment

Up until 1865, slavery was the norm for society, and nobody in America gave a second thought to owning a slave—they were just part of the land and knew how to work it. Many slaves tried to escape north to freedom, but only a fraction of them were successful. Even after 1865 and still to this day, African-Americans have had to keep fighting in order to be seen as equals. This period of time will always leave a mark on American history.

One of the most iconic heroes of this time period was Harriet Tubman, who was a leader on the Underground Railroad—a passage used by slaves to escape to freedom. Surprisingly, it took what seemed like forever for a movie about her to be made. It’s unclear whether they were waiting for the right actress to come along or Hollywood writers were fine tuning a script, but Tubman finally gets her due in Harriet, a compelling slave drama watered down in an effort to appeal to a wider audience.

Harriet (2019) – source: Focus Features

Harriet begins with Tubman (Cynthia Erivo) as a slave by the name of Minty. Her husband, John Tubman, is a free man and they ask her owner for her freedom so their children can be free. Her owner declines and Minty is later confronted by the owner’s son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn). Later, Minty makes her escape and after eluding hunters by jumping off a bridge, she makes her way 100 miles north to Philadelphia. She meets up with William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), an abolitionist who is connected to the Underground Railroad, as well as a boarding house owner named Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). After changing her name to Harriet Tubman, she works her way back down to the plantation to rescue more slaves, including her family, earning the nickname “Moses.”

With many historical dramas, writers have a tendency to adjust historical events for dramatic purposes. Historical inaccuracies don’t bother me that much unless it completely changes the heart of the story, but what does interest me about Harriet is how safe it is. Director and co-writer Kasi Lemmons doesn’t offer anything new to the legacy of Harriet Tubman. I felt that a lot of the information presented in the film was already taught to me in various history classes over the years. I wouldn’t be surprised if history teachers across America showed Harriet during their classes.

Harriet (2019) – source: Focus Features

The acting across the board is actually pretty good. Erivo plays Tubman with authenticity, balancing out fear and confidence while eluding slave owners at every turn. I wouldn’t be surprised if Erivo earns her first Oscar nomination for this role. Alongside her in smaller but equally important roles are Odom Jr. and Monáe as Still and Buchanon, respectively. Joe Alwyn plays Tubman’s owner Gideon with some moments of depth, but is just another slave owner at the end of the day.

I saw this movie twice in theaters. Not only was it a full house both times, but the audiences I saw it with loved it. In the end, I must admit that I did enjoy the movie even if it is a victim of the biopic formula. It’s a better than your average movie because the acting is so good. A PG-13 rating makes sense in this case because not every film about slavery has to be as brutal as 12 Years a Slave, but there’s a part of me that also thinks that Harriet could’ve been a great movie if it took more chances with its story.


LAST CHRISTMAS Gives You Its Heart, But Not Much Else

Emilia Clarke stars in Last Christmas, a sweet but contrived comedy from director Paul Feig, along with screenwriters Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings. Like a beautifully-decorated Christmas cookie in the window of a bakery, Last Christmas is lovely to look at, but doesn’t actually taste like much. 

Last Christmas (2019) – source: Universal Pictures

Kate (Clarke) is a self-proclaimed “mess,” bouncing around London and sleeping on friends’ couches. Hoping to reinvent herself as a singer, she changes her name from Katarina in order to separate herself from family baggage and a past illness. But with strings of failed auditions, random hookups, and no real place to live, she feels stuck in her dead-end job as an elf at a year-round Christmas store owned by Michelle Yeoh’s “Santa”—a comedic highlight of Last Christmas. 

Enter Tom Webster (Henry Golding), a handsome and mysterious do-gooder who encourages Kate to “look up,” to get her life in order and to be kinder to others. He inspires her to make better choices, and she gradually gets into the holiday spirit of giving while dealing with her own family conflicts. 

Last Christmas (2019) – source: Universal Pictures

The photography is gorgeous, bringing London to life at Christmastime. Cinematographer John Schwartzman also worked on Feig’s A Simple Favor, plus Saving Mr. Banks, Seabiscuit and The Rookie. As a result, Last Christmas is beautiful, save for its cluttered and unnecessarily complicated plot. Storylines involving Kate’s overbearing mother (Thompson), complicated relationships with her sister and friends, plus little nods to Brexit and British immigration politics make the story feel as overstuffed and unsteady as Kate’s life. It’s surprising considering Thompson’s track record of writing Sense & Sensibility, Nanny McPhee and Bridget Jones’s Baby

The best aspect of Last Christmas is its underlying message of goodness and giving. Ultimately, it’s about Kate figuring out the meaning of life and Christmas. But what could have been an admirable examination of life after overcoming illness and answering life’s big questions ends up feeling like a lost opportunity. Its loving message is executed sweetly, but it gets buried underneath other plot lines concerning her sister, mother, and love interest. Clarke has proven her versatility with her most notable roles in wildly popular franchises—Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones and optimistic Lou Clark in Me Before You being two to remember. She is the biggest draw of Last Christmas, disappearing into Kate’s messy life and making her journey believable. Golding is equally compelling, but he ducks in and out of Kate’s life in frustrating fashion, making the film’s third act feel forced.

The underlying story of Last Christmas seems incredibly predictable from the marketing alone—but there were several people in my screening room who were visibly moved by the progression of the plot. Maybe Clark Griswold was right when he said Christmas “means something different to everybody,” in my favorite holiday flick.

Last Christmas is visually gorgeous, well-meaning, and well-acted. But its story falls short, at times feeling as messy and cluttered as Santa’s Christmas shop—a cozy place to be, but not for long. Part comedy, part family drama, part romantic Christmas film, Thompson and Kimmings admirably strove to tell a unique story. But there are just too many glittering ornaments on this tree, weighing it down with plot instead of heart.

Last Christmas (2019) – source: Universal Pictures


An Inaugural Season of Shudder’s CREEPSHOW Unleashes Bloody, Low-Budget Charm

Six episodes and twelve terror tomes later, Shudder’s attempt at reviving the spook-tacular 1982 horror gem Creepshow for television has been an incredible success as it garnered the good will of fans and secured a second season. It’s been a fun six weeks. A show with this format (2 stories across 44mins) could have been released in the form of an easy 4 ½ hr binge but the weekly release schedule really assisted Shudder in enhancing promotional anticipation with each new episode. It’s astounding how quickly they flew by, leaving you begging for more once they were finished. 

Whether you’ll fall for Creepshow’s disposition will all depend on your standards for time-honored horror conventions. I wouldn’t exactly label the stories on display as groundbreaking, some retaining the timbre of that old school EC horror comics, but they’re comfortably familiar, a few based off of short stories from Joe Hill and OG Creepshow scribe Stephen King. You get used to familiarity in horror because it’s all about the twisted, bloody, or psychologically terrifying journey to get there. Its tone doesn’t exude the nasty confidence of Tales from the Crypt but as with most blooming flowers, it demonstrates an eagerness to attain that trophy of horror anthology griminess.

In addition, you have to swing with the show’s low-budget aesthetic. You either find it charming, distracting, or a mixture of both in my case. It detracts from some stories more than others. The show is comprised of a team of many talented people along the likes of Greg Nicotero, Tom Savini, and David Bruckner doing what they can with what they have. And even if a monster doesn’t quite look fully realized, there’s a lot of love on the screen for keeping the spirit of the original film alive. While no story ever reaches the heights of Something to Tide You Over or The Crate, Shudder’s Creepshow still manages to curate a fun collection of monsters including werewolves, slimy alien beer, sentient scarecrows, Republicans, etc. 

Shudder’s Creepshow features no segment that I outright consider terrible, but as is the case with most anthologies, some rank higher than others. Not every vignette is a bonafide winner, but I found something within each of them to admire, however small. Without further ado, I present my personal ranking of all 12 stories from the show’s inaugural season. A fair warning that a cretinous cavern of slithering *SPOILERS* await you ahead.

Creepshow (2019) – source: Shudder

12. Bad Wolf Down (Ep. 2)

Hate to do this to the snarling moon howlers of the night but it’s true. As cathartic as it is to witness sharp-toothed werewolves eviscerate Nazis (never fails to see them receive a grisly comeuppance in any medium), Bad Wolf Down, beyond the nifty costumes and an appropriately hammy appearance from Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs, disappoints on the follow-through with an insignificant thrashing that’s over just as quickly as it commences. I have to reiterate that the werewolf body suits, however, look spectacular, and I love how each one is designed in homage to 3 of the screen’s most infamous full moon-emerging beasts (The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, and The Wolf Man.)

Creepshow (2019) – source: Shudder

11. By the Silver Water of Lake Chamberlain (Ep. 6)

When you have Tom Savini in your roster, you don’t want to play that card too early. You save your legendary effects wizard to direct the big finale, the ‘happy trails’ until next season. There’s much to admire about the Joe Hill-adapted By the Silver Water of Lake Chamberlain—a surprisingly somber segment about a young girl searching for the lake monster that drove her father to madness. There’s an air of quietness that permeates the story, but this isn’t a narrative that best suits Savini’s true talents. As Lake Chamberlain draws to a close, it doesn’t bring the emotion all the way home. It oddly feels out of place in comparison with the series’ other segments, and doesn’t make a strong enough case for taking that detour under the Creepshow model, ending the season on a languid note.

Creepshow (2019) – source: Shudder

10. Times is Tough in Musky Holler (Ep. 5)

Unabashedly the most political of the bunch, Times is Tough in Musky Holler has a killer, bloody finale but therein lies the problem. The resistance briefly elaborates how they got to this point through comic panels, while strapping them into their Saw-like contraptions. Watching the corrupt mayor scream “I am the fucking goddamn king!” (in view of a fisheye lense no less) and get his entire face chewed off by the festering undead he negligently helped cultivate, is a nice touch but it ultimately means little without the sense of any gradual anticipation.

Creepshow (2019) – source: Shudder

9. Lydia Layne’s Better Half (Ep. 4)

Workplace hierarchy takes a nasty turn in Lydia Layne’s Better Half where a highly successful CEO accidentally murders her subordinate then tries to dispose of the body, only to find herself trapped with the corpse in the office elevator without anyone coming for them. The segment’s strongest section is the promotion confrontation in which the younger candidate, Celia, skews the titular Lydia Layne for her poor decision, promising to do whatever it takes to obtain that position someway, somehow. The tension diffuses slightly if only for Lydia’s comic incompetence. Lydia Layne’s Better Half, bar the few times Lydia catches a glance at Celia’s cold, dead eyes staring right back at her, isn’t as darkly funny or claustrophobic as it aims to be.

Creepshow (2019) – source: Shudder

8. The Companion (Ep. 4)

The Companion follows in the wake of the surprisingly gruesome scarecrow from this summer’s feature adaptation of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark with a surprisingly simple story of a bullied teen stumbling across the ghastly-designed straw man (with its own exposed rib cage) on an abandoned farm that tells an entire story by the remnants of what its left behind. The eeriest moment transpires when you see the scarecrow, as part of the deceased farmer’s tragic flashback, standing over the fresh corpse of a girl scout with blood dripping down its elongated branch fingers. As per Creepshow fashion, credit once again to the creative team behind the scarecrow’s creature design, the one consistently dependable highlight of each episode. The segment goes full Creepshow in paying homage to the film’s wrap-around segment (in which a devious child exacts turns his father, the great Tom Atkins, into his own voodoo doll) as Harold utilizes the scarecrow to exact vengeance on Billy, concluding before we even get a glimpse of what he’s about to command his new friend to do.

Creepshow (2019) – source: Shudder

7. The House of the Head (Ep. 1)

Toy Story invited us to experience a world where we finally see the extraordinary antics of our playthings when we’re not looking. The House of the Head expands upon that premise but instead of going off on family-friendly adventures, it asks ‘what would it be like their owner watches these toys (which you never implicitly see move) experiencing their own Amityville haunting?’ The House of the Head appears to be many fan’s favorites and it’s easy to see why. There’s a palpable dread when young Evie, unphased by the miniatures moving about on their own, opens the play manor only to discover that her miniature family are literally losing their heads. It makes for an effectively moody piece that unfortunately fizzles out before it reaches a satisfying conclusion. It just kinda ends right when the stakes are at their highest, providing the young girl with an easy out after the creepiest moment thus far—the rotting, dismembered head expanding to life size under her bed.

Creepshow (2019) – source: Shudder

6. Gray Matter (Ep. 1)

As a gateway back into the Creepshow model, the inaugural Gray Matter (based on Stephen King’s short story of the same name) is pretty successful at getting the fun started. Any scenario that puts Tobin Bell, Giancarlo Esposito and Adrienne Barbeau, another returning Creepshow alum, in a room together is immediately in my good graces. On a cold, stormy night like this one, it be prime spooky story weather, and that’s what a shaken teen brings—a slithering account of watching his father go from grieving widower to blue slimy alien parasite. Beyond the big “here’s what you’ve all been waiting for” creature showcase in the finale (which looks amazing, Gray Matter is an admirably simple creeper of dangerous consumption that upholds the Creepshow spirit.

Creepshow (2019) – source: Shudder

5. The Finger (Ep. 2)

DJ Qualls absolutely sells the unconventional relationship between a lonely web designer and his feral, yet adorable pet from hell in the first Creepshow story that I immediately fell into the groove of. A decomposing finger Qualls’ Clark discovers on the street gradually grows until it takes the form above of the one and only Bob, the surprisingly cute miniature fusion of the Cloverfield monster with the Xenomorph chestburster. Whether it be his ex-wife or a random telemarketer in Texas, when Clark expresses a personal distaste towards an individual, Bob does what any normal severed finger turned alien best friend would do: extract their heart and present it to his master. In addition to gruesomely fetching body parts like bones, Bob has an affinity for frigid temperatures, soap operas and popcorn which, to it, is more than enough compensation for a long night’s slaying. What more is there to say, really?

Creepshow (2019) – source: Shudder

4. All Hallows Eve (Ep. 3)

With the peculiar roundabout of mischievous children in All Hallows Eve, one thing’s for sure—casual trick or treating is not on the docket tonight. One by one, the kids intimidate the frightened local neighborhood occupants until they arrive at their final destination, unveiling the rationale towards their seemingly invisible stronghold. It turns out that a local drunken bully jokingly set fire to their treehouse with the Golden Dragons still inside with no means of escape. The ultimate revelation that we should have embraced them rather than feared them makes the following proceedings even more disheartening. All Hallows Eve is, first and foremost, a ghost story of karmic reckoning, and one with quite an emotional punch as it wraps itself up. The absence of a last minute gotcha or macabre punchline as they saunter over to their graves gave the once-punitive spirits a gratifying conclusion. With that said, the moment where one of the children, dressed as a ghost, lifts up his sheet to the bully to reveal a bloodied, screaming skull is *chef’s kiss*.

Creepshow (2019) – source: Shudder

3. Skincrawlers (Ep. 6)

A picture speaks a thousand words, and doesn’t the above image just say everything you need to know about the season’s penultimate tale, Skincrawlers, an entertainingly nasty parable on those ‘lose weight quick’ schemes? The smooth-talking, square-jawed Dr. Sloan has discovered the medical weight loss procedure of the future—South American leeches. He iterates over and over that his treatment is 100% painless, and that makes me, a longtime gore hound, squeal in anticipation for the entire operation to go to shit. Sure enough, Sloan and his unfortunate human test subjects are unwilling participants in a gloriously messy newsroom bloodbath. One minute you’re feeling proud of your new body, and the next, a slithering leech with a ferocious set of chompers is piercing through your iris. It’s essentially if Cochran’s fiendish plan from Halloween III: Season of the Witch came to fruition. You love to see it.

Creepshow (2019) – source: Shudder

2. Night of the Paw (Ep. 5)

You can never go wrong with a Monkey Paw story, and Night of the Paw upholds that tradition. A mysterious woman on the run, cloaked in full black trench coat attire, passes out on the doorstep of a funeral home run by an eccentric mortician who’s been anticipating her arrival. The segments unravels a tale of a grieving husband who utilizes a mystical, shriveled monkey’s paw to take steps in wishing her back to life and, in true Creepshow fashion, to have it backfire tremendously. What follows is an excellent back-and-forth between the two regarding the paw’s influence over both their lives, and how it ultimately manipulates their fates, upheld by the engaging performances of Hannah Barefoot and Bruce Davidson. In addition, I also want to note how much I love the homage, intentional or not, to the way Barefoot’s eyes are lit in dark environments, the same visual trick Barry Sonnenfeld employed on Anjelica Huston’s Morticia in The Addams Family. Night of the Paw takes the components found within The Companion, merges it with the popular legend, and utilizes them for a wholly more gratifying story.

Creepshow (2019) – source: Shudder

1. The Man in the Suitcase (Ep. 3)

Oh how I love this one. Of every story presented this season, The Man in the Suitcase is easily my favorite of the bunch. It cleverly plays on the prospect of obscene wealth made possible through the pain and suffering of those in poor, uninhabitable conditions and how that sort of living only gets you so far before the money devours your moral self, except the cash flow derives from a literal contorted man in a suitcase. No, really. If he feels pain ever so slightly, gold coins emerge from his mouth. In other words, it’s really unlucky that he was accidentally snagged at the airport by Justin, a student collapsing under the weight of hefty, interest-heavy student loans.
The prospect of a never ending cash flow leads to the biggest laugh I’ve had from the show so when Justin’s roommate Alex, upon learning of the contorted monetary gain to be had, places the suitcase at the edge of the hallway, and kicks it down a long flight of stairs, resulting in a profuse jackpot of gold coins spilling out—an easy $10,000 in one kick. One minute, you’re throwing around gold coins, and the next, you’re stuffed inside your very own suitcase by a clever Djinn who’s tossing you onto a luggage conveyor belt that leads to god knows where. The comic lunacy of The Man in the Suitcase is in full form throughout with a winning premise, huge laughs, an unsightly image, and a killer twist ending.

All six episodes and twelve stories of Creepshow are now available to stream on Shudder


DOCTOR SLEEP Bridges the Gap Between Kubrick and King

Believe it or not, when The Shining was first released in May of 1980, the film wasn’t well received by critics. The late Gene Siskel initially described it as “a crashing disappointment. The biggest surprise is that it contains virtually no thrills.” The film, despite more than doubling its budget at the box office, was nominated at Golden Raspberry Awards in its first year (Stanley Kubrick for Worst Director and Shelley Duvall for Worst Actress). Much like Kubrick’s other films, the film was received more favorably over time.

But one person has been persistent about his dislike for the movie—Stephen King. King has gone on record numerous times saying that it was a poor adaptation of his novel, despite some memorable visuals. He was also critical over the casting of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. He disliked it so much that he executive produced a miniseries that follows the book more closely. Though he has lightened up since its release, he still expressed his dislike for the movie in the afterword of his 2013 sequel novel Doctor Sleep. He said:

…of course there was Stanley Kubrick’s movie which many seem to remember—for reasons I have never quite understood—as one of the scariest films they have ever seen. If you have seen the movie but not read the novel, you should note that Doctor Sleep follows the latter which is, in my opinion, the True History of the Torrance Family.

Doctor Sleep (2019) – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

So when a film adaptation of Doctor Sleep was announced, I was a bit skeptical because of these clashing visions. It’s no secret that Kubrick’s ending is much different than King’s, so I was curious how this would effect the film’s ending. In short, the ending works for fans of both the novel and the film.

Doctor Sleep takes place almost 40 years after the events of The Shining, and follows a now adult Danny Torrance (now going by Dan) still haunted by the ghosts of The Overlook Hotel. He relocates himself to a small town, joins Alcoholics Anonymous, and gets a job at a local hospice. At the same time, he meets a young girl named Abra Stone, who has a Shining stronger than his own. Dan and Abra find themselves being hunted by a cult of quasi-immortals known as the True Knotled by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). The cult feeds off of dying people with The Shining by taking in their steam in order to slow down the aging process. Only Dan and Abra have the power to stop the True Knot and quickly find themselves in a showdown with the cult.

The film was directed by Mike Flanagan, who previously directed another Stephen King adaptation, Netflix’s Gerald’s Game. In Doctor Sleep, Flanagan uses callbacks to Kubrick’s film simply because it is the more well known version. The result isn’t nearly as scary as Kubrick’s version, but it’s more chilling and contemplative. Some early scenes show Dan using alcohol to self medicate his trauma, showing that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Little things in the film also added to the story, such as the True Knot recognizing that parents are more protective of their kids now than they were in 1980.

Doctor Sleep (2019) – source: Warner Bros. Pictures

The acting in the film I found to be very goodEwan McGregor plays Dan as an adult, perfectly capturing the torment he’s going through and how he represses his demons from when he was a kid. He’s one of my favorite actors working today and doesn’t disappoint, and Rebecca Ferguson is also pretty menacing as Rose the Hat. The surprise to me, however, was newcomer Kyliegh Curran as Abra. A role like this would’ve been very easy to miscast or come off as wooden, but Curran makes the most of her part. She has a way of being equal parts scared and determined to stop the True Knot. I hope that she gets more roles to sink her teeth into.

Doctor Sleep doesn’t come without its faults, though. At two and a half hours, the pacing can be a bit off. There’s a scene early on where Rose the Hat is recruiting a young woman to be part of the cult that I think could’ve been cut down a bit. Some viewers may also find the fan service to Kubrick a bit much, especially in the third act which is radically different from the book. The ending didn’t bother me that much, and ended up growing on me the more I thought about it.

In the end, Doctor Sleep ranks fairly high among King’s best adaptations. It’s less of a horror movie and more of a supernatural thriller, but it works thanks to Flanagan’s direction and the performances from its main cast. The third act may make or break the film for some people, but I found it staying with me days after watching it. I’m glad that Stephen King adaptations are getting a resurgence, and I’ll be in line for more.

Doctor Sleep is now in theaters worldwide