It’s often difficult to translate a stage play into a motion picture. Although the mediums may seem similar at a first glance, there are several factors which can make a successful theatrical production seem hollow on film. The two major factors stem from temporal and spatial manipulation. A play must proceed linearly, with a number of factors such as visual effects, timing, and physical stage space limiting the extent of immersion for the viewer. A film, on the other hand, can openly create and invite you into a fabricated reality where anything can be manipulated. Think of Memento, Mulholland Drive, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Time, space, and memory themselves are abstract concepts, so in the hands of a deft filmmaker, they can be used as tools to draw you into a novel story. This brings us to Florian Zeller’s filmmaking debut, The Father, adapted from his own 2012 play Le Pére. Despite being his first film, there is remarkable intuition displayed which elevates the material past linear constraints.
The Father follows the story of an elderly Welshman as he struggles with the increasingly bleak effects of dementia. Anthony Hopkins, at the age of 82, gives the performance of a lifetime as the film’s protagonist, Anthony. Despite being in nearly every frame of the taut 97-minute runtime, he constantly reveals new layers to his character. In a particularly astonishing sequence of the film, he enters a room and charmingly wins over a potential caretaker, before launching into a merciless tirade against his eldest daughter (who is in the room with them), lambasting those who he believes are trying to tear him away from his beloved flat, and then curtly dismissing the shocked young woman. Hopkins is a master like no other of the mood shift. Throughout his career, he has been able to swing the tone of conversations with a single look or line, and that remarkable power is in full display here.
Although this film could likely have functioned just off Hopkins’ devastatingly empathic performance, the rest of the crew rises to the challenge of matching him. Olivia Colman is reliably fantastic in the role of Anthony’s eldest daughter, Anne. She is caught between a rock and a hard place. She loves her father and respects his drive for independence, but she can no longer see him continue down a path where he can genuinely no longer function on his own. Anthony’s caretaker Laura, played by Imogen Poots, also finds it difficult to deal with his mercurial disposition. She resembles his youngest daughter (and favorite, as he makes no secret of), he says, but he can switch between doting on her to rejecting her on a dime.
This, in fact, is the greatest strength of the film. Although we have seen many films centering around memory loss, many of them were from the perspective of a loved one or caretaker. Zeller places us squarely into Anthony’s perspective, and we see how his world is crumbling around him. Despite his protestations that he can live independently, we see him, again and again, flailing about to find some constant he can tether himself to. Everything which he takes for fact - the appearance of his daughter, the identity of her husband, the whereabouts of his wristwatch - is revealed to be something entirely unknown. He cannot even take time as a constant. What he believed to be 8:00 AM was, in fact, 8:00 PM. Or was it? Zeller’s editor, Yorgos Lamprinos, is an invaluable contributor here. The presence of cuts is nearly invisible as we wander around this labyrinth of unreliable memory along with Anthony, unsure of what is real or false anymore.
Zeller, however, is not even content with the nonlinear temporal shifts or the excessively unreliable narration. He embraces the medium of film and pushes it to its boundaries. With no foreshadowing, he changes the space of Anthony’s flat itself. The living room, the kitchen, the doorway, and every other feature in the house can change in an instant. Anthony believes he is living in his own flat, but then why is his daughter’s husband saying he’s living in their flat? He looks out his bedroom window, but why does he see something different today? Every single element of this film - the layout of furniture, the presence of Anthony’s hiding spots for valuables, the color of paint on the kitchen wall - serves to further disorient the octogenarian. While he attempts to fight back at first, and reassert what he knows as the truth, we see him increasingly lose himself in despair as he no longer has the strength to question his surroundings. He knows he is walking a fine line. By questioning the madness around him, he can either assert his independence or convince those around him that he is truly beyond their help. He can see it in their eyes; they question his sanity as he tries to rationalize his surroundings.
The Father, in short, is a truly remarkable feat in filmmaking, as deserving of praise as Memento or Pulp Fiction. In the pantheon of films about dementia, it stands far above its competitors. Reality and fiction, opinion and fact, family and stranger blend together and contradict each other as both the audience and Anthony attempt to orient themselves. Just as we think, ‘Aha, I understand what is going on now,’ Zeller delights in pulling the rug out from under us again in a completely new way. This is the potential cinema has to offer that no other medium can. For 97 minutes, we enter a world which may well be an entirely different reality, and yet is no less precise than our own. Hopkins continues to remind the world why he is one of our greatest living performers, and we look enthusiastically towards what Zeller does next.
Score: ★★★★½ / ★★★★★
It's always about this time of year that we start hearing buzz about certain films: dramas that have swept festival awards circuits, typically starring an older well-regarded actor, etc. I try not to subscribe to the notion of “Oscar bait,” because to me that implies a world in which none of these movies are fueled by artist vision or passion of any kind, and, for the most part, it's easy to find something to like in most of these kinds of films, whether it be a strong lead performance, a fun pastel color palette, or extravagant, period-appropriate costuming. However, every few years, there comes a film that feels so squarely lobbed at garnering critical appeal and exclusively that which always leaves a nasty taste in my mouth as I come out of the theater. Nomadland is one of these films. In a savvy attempt to land somewhere between Terrence Malick and Kelly Reichardt, director Chloé Zhao has sorely misunderstood the inner workings of films by both. Where both aforementioned directors often wield non-narrative to create achingly beautiful thematic journeys for nomadic, quiet protagonists (see Days of Heaven and Wendy and Lucy), Zhao has used this formula to shoot her film in the foot, extracting all engaging thematic content in favor of emotionally devoid silences and weighty exposits of monologue, which often come in the form of confusing ramblings by non-characters. Additionally, the topic of financial struggle feels strangely romanticised here, as if some flimsy half-attempt at tackling a politically centrist agenda, only insomuch to satisfy mainstream audiences. Her strict adherence to a baffling anti-style does not help the film either; despite its marvelous locationwork, little of this comes through on screen, even in a gigantic IMAX theater, as the film refuses to show the audience any larger perspectives on the deserts, mountains, or cliffs, instead opting to show McDormand or her van in most shots. McDormand, while still the strong point of this film, feels misdirected, as she fails to land some comedic and emotional beats when the film could have desperately used them. While the story can have engaging moments, and McDormand does some commendable work, Nomadland otherwise comes up entirely short, as it fails to provide an interesting non-narrative character study and bores with its flat aesthetics.
Score: ★½ / ★★★★★
Joker is the only movie that has ever made my jaw physically drop. DC Comics has historically managed to produce quality films based off of their comic book properties when said films are simply character studies, and not intended to set up the plot of a future film in the DC Extended Universe. Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, supplements this statement. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, and Zazie Beetz, Joker is sure to become the new widely-accepted origin story of Gotham’s favorite killer clown.
On a technical level, Joker is brilliant. The score is fabulous, the script is sharp, and the cinematography is simply incredible. The framing of certain scenes in the film produces pockets of artistic masterpiece. However, the visuals in Joker aren’t even the film’s best feature. Throughout the entire movie, Phoenix was basically saying “Hey Academy, look over here!”. His performance was riveting, dark, unsettling, and raw. He even got the Joker’s laugh right! It proved to be a sight to behold, and was so mesmerizing that I’m having trouble finding the words to describe its nuances and complexity. I would not be surprised if Phoenix proves to be an awards contender, along with De Niro, who performed with such subtle artistry, capturing pure emotion. However, make no mistake: Joker is Joaquin Phoenix’s movie.
Although the plot of Joker feels corny and drawn-out at times, the film is, overall, a fresh take on the Clown Prince of Crime. We certainly haven’t seen this story, with all of its gore and intensity, told through the Joker’s previous cinematic incarnations. DC films are dark, but Joker is pitch-black. The film has enough twists and turns to keep even the most hard-core of fans unsure of what was to come. The Joker, named Arthur Fleck in the film (or A. Fleck, which sounds...familiar), proves to be quite the unreliable narrator, effectively peppering jarring surprises throughout the haze that is Fleck’s perception of reality. Joker is a drama, thriller, comedy, and slasher-esque horror film all in one.
Furthermore, Joker attempts to make the viewer sympathize with a killer, and Phoenix’s performance allows this attempt to prove successful. Joker boasts a questionable portrayal of mental illness, along with graphic violence, that hits a bit too close to home in the modern era. Yet, it is not the violence itself that makes Joker uncomfortable to watch, but rather its realism. Joker is set in a decrepit city that ignores the poor, and follows a man-turned-clown that feels cast out by society, who, due to his anger at the world and lack of emotional support from his family and government, feels driven to kill. This narrative feels all too familiar, and all too much like it might just happen in the real world. The movie, overall, pushes the limits of what audiences can manage to sit through, but not in a distinctively bad way. Whether or not the film is making a commentary on society itself (in which case, it might be trying a bit too hard to seem deep), or rather serving as a physical representation of the mind of the everyman, is a question for individual, personal pondering. Yet, despite its flaws, Joker still manages to get the last laugh.
Abominable, the newest adventure from Dreamworks, strikes an agreeable balance between predictable plot devices, stunning visuals, and child-like charm. In the film, Yi (Chloe Bennet), a young girl dealing with the death of her father, and her two neighborhood friends take it upon themselves to return a Yeti possessing magical powers to its home on Mount Everest.
The plot, essentially, follows the tried and true Dreamworks/Pixar/Disney storyline: the protagonists get swept up in an adventure, try to fight the bad guys, and ultimately discover the power of friendship (or any other value) before finally getting their happy ending. In this aspect, Abominable isn’t particularly groundbreaking. We’ve seen this all before. What makes this movie stand out is its beautiful representation of modern and rural China, as well as the particularly relevant motivations of its antagonists.
The film’s villains, unassuming zoologist Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson) and her employer Mr. Burnish (Eddie Izzard), set out to capture the Yeti for personal gain. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to achieve this goal, even if it means attempting to straight-up murder Yi and her friends (yes, this is a children’s movie). The antagonists, who see nature as something to be exploited, hit particularly close to home, considering the relevance of issues like deforestation and the general degradation of the planet.
Throughout the film, which follows the characters on a road trip from their home city to the Himalayas, the viewer is able to witness the awesomeness of the natural world Dreamworks has created. Particularly impressive scenes include one in which our protagonists surf away from the enemy on a sea of golden flowers and another where they listen to music under a solitary blossoming tree in the middle of a frozen tundra (both courtesy of our deus-ex-machina Yeti, who can manipulate nature). The enchanting landscapes are incredible to witness, and just may make Abominable worth watching.
Abominable is definitely for a younger crowd; yet, adults watching can still have an enjoyable experience. Aside from the great visuals, the film has a considerable, yet not annoying, amount of charming quips and jokes. Additionally (though derivative) the story does a great job at creating sympathy for the Yeti while evoking strong emotions from the audience. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t shed a tear by the end of the film. These emotional elements, as well as the incredible artwork and design, push me to forgive some of the film’s flaws.
Overall, Abominable is spectacle heavy and originality light. But, if one looks close enough, the film has the heart to produce a satisfactory story for its target audience. Kids will love it, adults will like it, and everyone will end up feeling protective of the silly and adorable Yeti, who is easily comparable to one’s own pets. See it, enjoy it, forget it, then see it again in 6 months when the next Dreamworks movie is released.
The original Men in Black film is excellent. The chemistry between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones is infectious, such that it was the movie that launched Smith to super-stardom. The comedy is sharp, playing into the radically different styles of the two lead actors. Smith does his signature “babble in a charismatic way” thing. Jones does his “dry to the point of barely acting” thing. It’s buddy-cop perfection. Combine that with fun gadgets, interesting aliens and cool late-90’s good practical effects/bad CGI action, and you’ve got a wonderfully goofy comedy. The sequels are...tolerable. They ride on the chemistry of the lead actors, but skimp on the clever writing of the original. Josh Brolin is a great stand-in for Jones in the majority of Men in Black 3, but the film still lacks a lot of the punch of the original.
But the MIB universe is one that seems perfect for spin-off films. There are tons of possibilities in a world that is effectively about creating fun alien-fighting buddy cop movies. And with Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson as the lead MIB agents, who have already proven their chemistry and comedic timing in the wonderful Thor: Ragnarok, it seems like Men in Black: International had a halfway-decent chance to succeed. Unfortunately, International completely misses the mark and delivers a wholly boring and same-ish summer blockbuster. The film follows Agents H and M (Hemsworth and Thompson, respectively) as they attempt to uncover a conspiracy to assassinate a member of an alien species’ royal family. Things become more complicated when H, M and the head of MIB London named High T (Liam Neeson) begin to suspect there is a mole in the Men in Black.
At its core, Men in Black: International falters in the complete lack of chemistry between its two lead characters. Agent H is a blatant James Bond archetype, solving all of his problems through hyper-violence, suave charm and occasional fucking. But this isn’t a character type that seems comfortable for Hemsworth, who succeeds far more as the doofus that the recent MCU films have made Thor. Agent M seems like a weird mix between a Tony Stark-like quip machine and a nerdy Hermione-esque know-it-all, a combination that comes out more confusing than interesting. These two awkward characters make for some dry and lifeless interaction, which pretty much kills the mood of the rest of the film. The only character who really comes out of the movie in a positive light is the cute, comedy relief character Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani). I’d say he’s about 50% funny and 50% annoying and unnecessary, which is the best I can say for any character in the film.
And there’s not much else to the movie than that. It’s filled to the brim with generic plot devices, tired action sequences and confusing/disinteresting alien designs. There is one scene in particular that felt like it could have been funny with better editing and pacing, but fell completely flat. When Agents H and M first encounter the villains, two alien twins who can manipulate matter, they find that their standard issue guns aren’t doing any damage. H tells M to pull on the gas cap and out pops a larger firearm. What follows is a sequence of the Agents grabbing increasingly ridiculous weapons from increasingly ridiculous parts of the car. This is a simple gag, but one that could have been very funny if timed well. But the editing feels so jumpy, the guns so boring and the interactions between the characters so lifeless that the scene is immediately forgettable as just another tired special effects laden romp.
It’s just boring. Like, the movie is just really fucking boring. The twist is insanely predictable. Everything is super generic. It just sucks the life out of a property that had a ton of potential to reinvent itself in an interesting way.
"Shazam!" flawlessly captures the playfulness and creativity of being a kid. It follows fourteen-year-old foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) — who receives magic powers from a wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) — and his foster brother and superhero fanatic Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), as they fight a villain named Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), who harnesses the power of seven deadly sins, in the form of large demonic creatures, and aims to steal Billy’s powers for himself. The film also features many of Billy’s other foster brothers and sisters who, along with Freddy, end up getting magic powers as well.
"Shazam!," the latest film in the D.C. Extended Universe, solves many of the problems that critics and fans identified in the series’ previous installments. Most notable is that in “Shazam!” the characters are actually relatable. We learn in the film that Billy’s mother had left him at an early age, after which he shuffled from foster home to foster home. As a result, Billy is motivated by a desire for a family and a sense of belonging. Billy’s motivations are grounded and sympathetic, making him an engaging and endearing protagonist. Moreover, while previous installments like “Justice League” and “Suicide Squad” juggled too many tones and couldn’t settle on an overall character and feel for their films, “Shazam!” sticks to a silly and playful tone (the continuous stream of well-paced jokes will keep viewers laughing throughout), which fits the original tone of the character Shazam from D.C. comics — unlike “Man of Steel” which took the inherently optimistic and happy character of Superman and placed him in a dark and gritty film.
Additionally, the film humanizes the villain, Dr. Sivana, and doesn’t portray him as a one-dimensional, uniquely evil stock character. The very first scene of the movie shows us a young Dr. Sivana, who just like Billy, doesn’t feel at home, and is hated by his family. In Billy’s case, these experiences of being without a home gave him the desire to help people. In Dr. Sivana’s case, very similar experiences made him angry and resentful, which inspired him to harness the power of the seven deadly sins. As a result, viewers can sympathize will Dr. Sivana, and understand what motivates him.
It was really hard for me to find anything bad about "Shazam!," but there are a few things that could be improved. The special effects could be better, but on a relatively low budget (at least for a superhero movie) of only $80 million, the shortcomings are understandable. As a regular watcher of C.W.’s “Arrowverse” shows, I can sympathize with having to pull of a lot of big scenes with superheroes on a shoestring budget. The soundtrack didn’t blow me away either, but it still fit the movie well. The positives overwhelmingly outweigh the negatives; taken as a whole, “Shazam!” is a fun, nostalgic movie that will make viewers feel like they are a 14-year-old kid having fun again.
In case you couldn’t tell from the train wreck of a title, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is an utter mess of a movie. It really seems like J.K. Rowling just threw a bunch of her leftover worldbuilding notes from Harry Potter together, adding only the bare minimum of connective tissue needed to assemble a somewhat logical narrative.
The film’s plot is ostensibly quite simple. Magizoologist Newt Scamander and his friends, with guidance from the legendary Albus Dumbledore, try to find and protect Credence Barebone, a young but terrifyingly powerful wizard, as he is hunted by both the harsh and overbearing Ministry of Magic and a group of violent extremists led by outlaw Gellert Grindelwald.
Unfortunately, the story ends up being incoherent, both by over-complicating the plot and some remarkably poor storytelling choices. After an inoffensive opening sequence, the film starts to go downhill, with two early reveals that undo all of the consequences of the first film’s conclusion. The film then splits into roughly half a dozen different plot threads, tied together in some of the most contrived ways imaginable. It’s a shame too, because each of the storylines probably would have been compelling had they been properly fleshed out. Poor editing exacerbates the clumsiness of the already convoluted narrative. Some of the scene transitions are so abrupt that I wondered if there was something wrong with the copy of the film being shown at the screening.
The film doesn’t manage to stick the landing either. Most of the last half hour is taken up by a series of plot twists, each more over the top and less meaningful than the last. And the climax of the movie should have massive repercussions for the film’s heroes and the wizarding community as whole, but Rowling apparently didn’t think it was important to actually show us how the protagonists deal with events that just irrevocably changed all of their lives.
The film also does a less than stellar job at handling its large cast. All of the significant characters from the first film return, and the film introduces a gaggle of new ones. Theseus Scamander (Newt’s brother), Leta Lestrange (Newt’s ex and now Theseus’s fiancée), Nagini (yes, really), and Nicholas Flamel (an immortal alchemist) are all jammed into the movie. None of them are well developed or necessary to the plot. Nagini, especially, is completely extraneous. Not only is it absurd to reveal that Voldemort’s pet snake from the Harry Potter series was actually a cursed human witch the whole time, she serves absolutely no purpose in the movie. Her only role is standing around and looking mildly horrified at the events unfolding around her. Leta comes the closest to having a coherent arc, but the mangled storytelling robs her character development of the emotional heft it should have.
Newt and his allies, the non-magical human Jacob Kowalski and the Auror (wizard cop) Tina Goldstein, fair a little bit better, but only because they are already established characters. These weirdos with hearts of gold are pretty much exactly the same as they were the last time around. If you found them charming in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (I certainly did) then you’ll find a lot to enjoy here. The exception (and not in a good way) for the returning characters is Queenie Goldstein. In a pretty significant departure from her previous characterization, the telepath comes off as consistently selfish, manipulative, and gullible with no real redeeming qualities.
But you know what? Despite the movie’s many, many flaws, I didn’t hate it. Newt, Jacob, Tina, and Dumbledore are delightful, most of the jokes land well, the creatures and magic spells are clever and stylish, and the wizarding world is as fascinating as ever. Grindelwald, too, is deftly handled. He is a far more human monster than Lord Voldemort, but that makes him an incredibly effective villain. His softer approach to fascism and skill at presenting a compelling message makes it all too clear why his brand of bigotry would appeal to the wizarding populace. In particular, his speech to the witches and wizards of Paris, a chilling depiction of the malleability of the truth and the capacity humans have for violence, is J.K. Rowling’s best piece of writing in the film.
Grade: C+/B- (I can’t decide and these grades are meaningless anyway)
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