1917

1917 comes to the silver screen to provide viewers with a “day in the life” of two young British Corporals fighting in World War I. 1917 is a single shot epic that starts off seemingly peacefully as two young soldiers are napping in a field and escalates to detail the intricacies and severity of war when Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his chosen companion Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are sent on a rescue mission. Their mission: to journey through enemy territory to find Blake’s Lieutenant brother (Richard Madden) and save his company from staging an attack on “retreating” German soldiers who, according to new intelligence, have planned an ambush that would lead to 1,600 British lives lost.

With expectations set both by director Sam Mendes’ filmography and 2017’s World War II epic Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan, which was arguably the most enthralling war film of the decade; 1917 was left slightly wasted on me despite its masterful cinematography. To be quite honest I find myself struggling to gather my thoughts because the film was both beautiful and harrowing, but somehow disappointing – and I fail to put my finger on exactly why that is. If there is one thing that 1917 executed perfectly in the form of its intended plot, it is the horrors and hideousness of war. In a time where political tensions run high around the globe, it is a stark reminder of the risk that soldiers take when they are sent to fight for their country. 

This film is truly a journey through hell on earth, graphically detailing the destruction brought to France during World War I. Sadly, Chapman and MacKay’s beautifully acted display of bravery, determination, defeat, fear, and valor was lost in the story. The honesty of the horrors of World War I are deeply unsettling, as the audience is provided with the image of corpses littering battlefields and abandoned trenches, towns obliterated by gunfire and explosions, and young soldiers fighting for their own survival. Despite the discomfort provided by these harrowing images and the tension raised as the main characters are left fending for themselves in a valiant mission to save hundreds, this movie is more so accomplished in its ability to tell a story rather than the story itself. The film’s main characters are left running throughout the film; when they are not directly under fire the only lulls in the film are meant to set up the next tragedy that these men must face, resulting in a thrilling journey that leaves audiences at the edge of their seats. My only complaint – there is not a lasting connection to the characters to be experienced past the end credits.

 Cinematographer Roger Deakins completed this film in a single shot format, allowing the actors only a single take per scene in many cases, resulting in many blunders of the filming process to remain evident within the film, which often served to make the scenes feel more realistic. A film clearly deserving of its Golden Globes for Best Director and Best Motion Picture – Drama, 1917 is sure to rack up Oscar nominations this Monday morning. Despite all of this, 1917 is not the audience’s film, but a testament to the beauty of creative filmmaking to the extent that it robs a beautiful and inspiring tale of the attention that it deserves.

The single shot technique creates a voyeuristic experience for the audience; throwing them in the midst of the action, yet never allowing the viewer to get close enough to the action to feel as though they are actually experiencing it. While the film was anxiety inducing and high paced, it left little room for the audience to become interested in the characters at more than surface level – lowering the stakes only enough that I wanted them to succeed in their mission, but not to the extent that it left a lasting impression. Critics have formerly referred to the single shot technique as a “videogame storyline,” leaving the viewer to watch something happen, but never allowing them to connect enough to feel that there are any lasting consequences to the result of the film.

While I certainly enjoyed watching 1917 and left the theater with so much more respect for the men who quite literally gave everything they had to a fight they did not ask to be a part of, my grand expectations entering the theater left me underwhelmed. The intricacies in the way the picture was filmed took away from the story to the extent that I found 1917 to be a display of both Mendes’ and Deakins’ ability to be filmmakers rather than story tellers. Overall, I expect 1917 to perform well this awards season, and I highly recommend a trip to the theater to see this film on the biggest screen you can find… and Dunkirk is always deserving of a revisit while you’re at it.

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit, a self-labeled anti-hate satire, is here to tell you exactly why it’s so much fun to be a Nazi – until it isn’t anymore. After his stint in the MCU as director of Thor: Ragnarok, Director Taika Waititi is back to lend his unique voice to the coming of age story of the decade as he takes us on a journey to watch 10 year old Jojo and his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler navigate the tumultuous Germany of 1944.

The film does not skip a beat, starting off by introducing Jojo to a young SS Officer training camp where he will learn everything it takes to be a Nazi; and make his hero, Hitler, proud. Waititi brings Hitler to life as the imbecile we all know and, well, hate; an imaginary best friend who offers young Jojo cigarettes in his more stressful moments and gossips about Jews like a schoolgirl before heading back home to his unicorn dinner. Waititi adds just enough humor and outrageous behavior to make his Hitler almost loveable, or at least enough for the audience to understand Jojo’s admirations.

Jojo is the picture of a perfect Aryan child; never leaving the house without his uniform, and doing whatever jobs he can to aide Germany’s fight in the war, no matter the cost. He lives at home alone with his young mother, Rosie; or so he thinks, until he stumbles upon a young Jew girl living in the walls of his apartment – a discovery that will make Jojo question everything that he has worked so hard to become. 

To attempt to summarize the film beyond this description would be a disservice to anyone who will find themselves in theaters in the upcoming weeks. I went into this film knowing nothing more than what was provided by the first trailer for this film and I truly think it is best for everyone to experience this story in the same way. Thankfully, the humor in the film was not distilled to only the scenes shown in the trailer as seems to be the case with many comedies these days; but for a movie about World War II, I sure laughed out loud more than I would have expected. 

To say Jojo Rabbit was an emotional rollercoaster would be an understatement, but Taika knew exactly what he wanted to say with this narrative and was spot-on with the delivery. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that has been so genuine and true to itself from beginning to end, or that has made me go from laughing out loud to crying so quickly, and for so many different reasons. 

While Waititi had every opportunity in the world to use this film to drive a greater message about the state of the world and politics today, he took the opportunity to step back and let history, and a young boy with the world at his fingertips, remind us of what is most important at the core of who we are.

An unexpectedly dark, humorous, and thought-provoking film, this movie is more than worth your open mind, open heart, and a few tissues. Boasting one of my favorite and most heartwarming endings of this year, Jojo Rabbit is here to remind us to move forward, be strong, and most importantly, to love without boundary.

Jojo Rabbit is showing now in LA, NYC, Chicago, and Austin and opens in theaters everywhere on November 8th.

Ad Astra

While Todd Phillips’ Joker was set to be the character study of the decade, audiences were sleeping on the underdog art film Ad Astra, captained by the ever-evolving Brad Pitt. Pitt, who may have very well set himself up for not one, but two Oscar nominations this film season, was quite literally the brightest star in the sky; the film focusing on him for the vast majority of the 124 minute run time. A discussion in male toxicity and how a relationship between a son and a father can shape an entire life, Ad Astra was not only an exploration of space, but an exploration of human emotions and the struggles that they elicit.

Following recent blockbuster films such as GravityThe First Man, and Interstellar, Ad Astra is the story of life in space in the near future when revered astronaut Roy McBride, played by Pitt, must face both his own inadequacies and the biggest emotionally taxing issue in his life – his absent father. With scenes reminiscent of films such as 2001 – A Space Odyssey and Mad Max: Fury Road, Ad Astra manipulates action and tedious space activities to create a world shaped by corporate greed and a life shaped by disappointment.

Roy is the picture of the perfect astronaut; he loves spending time in space, always wants to perform his job to the best of his ability, and always remains calm – being well known for his blood pressure never going above 80 bpm, even in the most tense situations. We quickly realize that his love for being an astronaut rides on two factors: his desire to run away from his broken marriage and his search for validation by following in his father’s footsteps; a father who disappeared on a mission to deep space 16 years ago. 

The suspense in the film begins to grow within minutes of the film, when Roy, luckily armed with a parachute, finds himself plummeting to Earth after a strange “surge” results in him falling from an international space antenna. This surge is thought to be a result of some anti-matter in space, the very anti-matter that his father set off into space to explore. It is assumed that Roy’s father, Clifford McBride (played by the legendary Tommy Lee Jones), is still alive and is causing these surges to reach Earth.

Given an opportunity to run away from his problems on Earth and save his father from his struggles in space, Roy is sent through the cosmos, hoping that his plea for his father to communicate with the Space Force and end these surges will be fruitful. Subway and other common franchises present in the airport are just absurd enough to seem almost believable in this near future where astronaut Roy McBride can catch a Virgin America flight to the moon to avoid detection and press on his very special mission to the edge of the galaxy.

Brad Pitt is given the opportunity to display his diversity and talent as an actor as we see Roy slowly disintegrate into his own emotion and frustration as he continually pleads for his father to respond. An unmoving and stoic performance up to this point, Pitt – through his talent for truth and simplicity – breaks down, displaying how the bottling of emotions can only lead to an explosion like a roll of Mentos in a bottle of Diet Coke. Pitt’s descent into a wave of emotions as he begins to come to terms with the fact that he can’t continue running and searching for something that does not exist was so moving and believable that it will surely resonate with audiences long after the end credits roll.

A film bathed both in shadow and neon light, Ad Astra used the best conventions of film noir and art house to create a cinematographic experience to captivate audiences and make them feel as though they are blasting into space right alongside Roy. The black and white of the moon and deep space scenes, colored neon lights to represent each planet on Roy’s journey to his father, and the light cast into deep space by the sun proved to be a beautifully blinding experience. I spent the majority of the film mesmerized, staring up at the screen in awe as if I were seeing color and space for the first time in my life.

To discuss the ending of this film would be a disservice to anyone who has not yet seen it, but the thought-provoking abruptness of the ending successfully fulfills the purpose of its design. An introspective search for validation and understanding of ones own past and future, Ad Astra leaves you searching for clarity in your own experience. To wonder up at the stars has always been a gallant task, but where do we draw the line when a desire to achieve more becomes a selfish mission to run from ones own problems? The journey to finding the bravery it takes to come to terms with one’s own faults and excuses is a tough one for even the strongest of soldiers, but Ad Astra shows us that the freedom and relief that comes from doing so is more than enough to make the battle worth it.

Marriage Story

A gut-wrenching and heartbreaking look into the complex divorce of a couple looking to maintain decency and respect in a world that lacks both; Marriage Story follows a couple that hoped to remain civil as they descend into war over money, a home, and the custody of their child. A conscious uncoupling – avoiding lawyers and arguing – begins in a therapists office where husband and wife Nicole (Scarlette Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are instructed to write their partner a love letter. We are introduced to the best parts of each character and can clearly see how much they love one another, until Nicole breaks down. She refuses to read her letter to Charlie and storms out of the therapist’s office knowing that their marriage is over and these letters will do nothing to save it.

Things quickly become complicated as the couple begins to unravel; a loving pair that would do anything to maintain their friendship find themselves doing things that they could never fathom. The audience is along for the ride as they try to navigate what is best for themselves and their shared 8 year old son; both parties maintaining that they want to be as fair as possible, until the stakes get higher and they are willing to stop at nothing to get what they think they deserve. As the couple descends into war, evidence of infidelity and alcoholism come to light, and lawyers are brought into the picture.

The narrative remains tense throughout, but never falters when reminding both Nicole and Charlie and the audience of the love that was once shared, and still remains between the couple. As they battle between what has changed and what hasn’t; these truths and memories discovered by the couple throughout the film remind the viewer how complicated and painful divorce so often is, as the line between mistakes and blatant disrespect becomes blurred. The couple is left to battle not only amongst themselves, but also against their lawyers who presume they know better and will do anything to win.

The film takes the audience on an emotional and realistic story of a divorce with every intention of being civil gone wrong. We feel the rollercoaster of emotions experienced by the couple with them, often drawing parallels to our own lives, making this film more truthful than many similar stories. It is as genuine as they come in terms of larger-than-life emotion and the accurate depiction of the frustration and anger that comes with separating two lives that spent so long as one. Baumbach is sure to show both the good and bad in Nicole and Charlie, never allowing the narrative to pick a side, reiterating the point that there is no way to win when it comes to the loss of love. This emotional and complex story is one that stems from Baumbach’s experience as he watched his parents go through a divorce as a child, making this story that much more personal and powerful.

Filled with unexpected comedic moments and musical numbers earning Adam Driver a round of applause at the TIFF premiere, Marriage Story rips open the concept of divorce and all of its intricacies. I found myself falling in love with the characters and feeling their pain as they struggled through this difficult time together. Scarlette Johnansson and Adam Driver’s unquestionable ability to bear their souls in their performances provided the opportunity for an incredibly believable story to be told on screen.

The final scene leaves the audience questioning what will become of the family and if they will ever be able to reach a middle ground in which both parties will be happy. Regardless of the seeming lack of closure, Baumbach provides a more than satisfying ending with a final shot that is sure to stick with audiences, leaving us to forgive them both for their explosive behavior and discover that there is still a way for us to love them both through their anger and confusion.

JOKER

If you thought Todd Phillips’ dumpster fire of a press tour and comments about comedy dying in the face of political correctness wasn’t enough to maintain the discourse surrounding this film since its release (and surprising win) at the Venice Film Festival this August, just wait until the public gets their hands on this film. Phillips’ JOKER was the second worst thing Joaquin Phoenix has ever been a part of, coming second only to the murder of his brother River. (Conspiracy theorists unite!!)

Losing 52 pounds for this role, Joaquin Phoenix clearly put himself through as much stress and discomfort as JOKER imposes upon the audience. Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a man who suffered from severe head trauma as a child that resulted in a “condition” leading to uncontrollable bouts of laughter that may or may not reflect his real mood. Working in a dead-end job as a party clown, at night Arthur returns home to the apartment he shares with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy). He constantly checks the mail looking for a response to one of his mother’s desperate letters asking for help from Gotham Mayor hopeful, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), alluding early on in the film to the idea that Arthur is hell-bent on finding recognition in his own life.

The audience is forced to watch Arthur implode as his life continues to fall apart. He is constantly rejected by the society surrounding him, beaten down both physically and theoretically; he is fired from his job, and loses his access to mental health care and medication due to a cut in government funding. When Arthur falls into one of his bouts of laughter on his train ride home the night of his firing, a group of drunk Gotham elite break out into their own rendition of Steven Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” before jumping him and forcing him to commit the crime that will drive the plot of the rest of the film – assuming a “plot” is what you can call it.

His catapult into anonymous fame only boosts Arthur’s lack of remorse for his crime and we watch him fall deeper into his own delusions as he feels he is being accepted and noticed for the first time in his life. Driven by his desire to become a successful stand-up comedian, Arthur gets a gig at a local comedy club and is recognized by his favorite late night television host Murray Franklin (Robert Di Nero). Unable to understand social cues and humor, Arthur is a follower until he realizes he is becoming the butt of the joke and decides to take a stand.

Arthur’s actions from this point forward in the film do nothing more than to service Phillips’ idea that this is not just another comic book film, not to mention the weight that the character of Bruce Wayne carries in a story that was supposed to distinguish the Joker as his own. Phillips paints the Joker not as the insane criminal mastermind antagonist of comic movies past, but as the protagonist that the audience should pity. Phillips seems to want the audience to sympathize with the Joker, alone in a brutal world that is clearly out to get him. 

The only irony or humor in this film stems from the inclusion of Robert Di Nero and the obvious homages to his work in Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy; or the endless amounts of “memeable” moments that I can’t wait to flood my Twitter timeline with. Both Di Nero and Phillips’ Joker attempt to flip the script and assume roles opposite from what the audience would expect, trading places with what we have seen in the past. 

What could have easily been a defining film in the history of comic book cinema, Phillips’ JOKER falls short. The attempt at a social commentary against fascism and society’s lack of empathy for people suffering from mental illness was a shot in the dark that missed its intended target by miles. Arthur Fleck, himself, states that he disagrees with the political movement that has arisen as a result of his crimes, leading the audience to question if it was even Phillips’ intention to make a political statement at all.

A role that could have marked a turning point in his already impressive career, Phoenix’s convincing performance as a deranged man was lost in the shallow story presented by Phillips. Phoenix successfully made the audience uncomfortable as we watched him implode both physically and mentally, but without the substance within the film to back it up, Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck was nothing more than a failed attempt at a new kind of character.

A loud narrative with nothing to say, JOKER was a bleak and depressing story of a man who lacks the ability to assimilate into the society around him. JOKER is not something that strikes me as a film that will lead to an uprising in incel culture to incite violence around the world as suggested by critics; but as an immature attempt at making the Joker something more than he is – the antagonist that drives Batman to be the superhero that we love.

As with Jared Leto’s short run as the Joker in Suicide Squad, I imagine Joaquin Phoenix’s road as a DC Comic’s supervillain will end here. We can only hope that he avoids the “Joker curse” of dying, getting fat, or having to be in Thirty Seconds to Mars.

JOKER is set for release in theaters everywhere October 4th.

Knives Out

Rian Johnson has returned to his non-franchise directorial roots again with his newest “whodunnit,” Knives Out. Fresh off the tail of Star Wars Episode VIII, a film originally met with disappointment from Star Wars fans across the world, Johnson returns to his “Brick” roots as he explores the mystery genre yet again, but as always, with his own personal twist. Knives Out is the culmination of Rian Johnson’s entire career, providing us with the classic murder-mystery we’ve all been craving, all while not excluding the intensity of a thriller and the quick wit that has come to be a staple of Johnson’s writing.

Full of Hamilton quotes, one-liners, and a seemingly incessant monologue from Daniel Craig about whole donuts and donut holes and holes in donut holes that I could barely understand, not because of Craig’s rambling, but because of the audience’s laughter; Knives Out is the star-studded murder investigation of a generation.

Johnson’s attention to detail paired with an incredibly alluring soundtrack sets the mood for the entire film. This attention to detail paints the picture of wildly successful murder-mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) and his life that “looks like it came right off of a Clue board” according to the Massachusetts State Trooper (Noah Segan). Johnson moves the pieces of the game board endlessly throughout the film, creating a narrative that ends better than any finale that Thrombey could write himself.

The film opens on Thrombey’s mansion and two guard dogs frolicking across the grounds before landing on a close-up of Thrombey’s coffee mug that reads “My House. My Rules. My Coffee.,” a foreshadowing of the battle for the inheritance that is set to ensue while reminding the audience that although the mansion may look like we’ve travelled into the past, this story is happening as we watch it unfold. The camera takes us on a trip through the maze of staircases and trap doors that dot Thrombey’s home before his maid finds him in his office with his throat slit and a knife still in his hand. This discovery comes after a celebration of Thrombey’s 85th birthday that the family tells detectives was full of love and happiness. Soon, this narrative changes as the family member’s greed and entitlement pins them against one another in a fight for the Thrombey inheritance.

The film never loses intensity during the 2 hour and 10 minute runtime, and keeps the audience at the edge of their seats as it pulls them into the middle of the investigation. Detectives are initially prepared to close the case as a suicide, until Private Investigator Benoit Blanc is anonymously hired to lend a hand. The quest to understand who hired Blanc becomes just as important a role in driving the plot of the film as the quest to find the murderer. Blanc enlists the help of Thrombey’s nurse and closest personal friend, Marta, throughout the investigation as she knows Thrombey better than any member of his family and has one very important and interesting quality in honesty: she literally cannot lie without throwing up.

Ana de Armas plays the perfect protagonist in Marta, the immigrant registered nurse that the entire family “loves” so much as she’s become a part of the family herself, even though they can’t remember what Latin American country she hails from; and they never fail to remind her they are aware of her mother’s status as an illegal immigrant.

Every single member of the family becomes a suspect as Blanc, who suspects foul play, breaks down each of their most recent encounters with Thrombey. As Blanc continues to gather evidence, everyone in the family seems to have a motive to murder Thrombey, especially after it is realized at the reading of his will that every member of the family has been frozen out of his multi-million dollar estate. Thriving on their entitlement and utter lack of realization of such, the family falls to pieces as they try to pass the blame for their patriarch’s loss of trust in the family.

The second half of the film is a labyrinth of understanding how each family member’s motive falls into line as the audience finally discovers who was responsible for Thrombey’s death, but, as Johnson has displayed through so many of his prior films, the solution is not as simple as it may seem.

Chris Evans comes to play the role of the wild card, Thrombey’s grandson Ransom, entering the film late in the game and being sure to shuffle the deck. Evans’s character is the black-sheep of the family, the grandson who skipped his grandfather’s funeral, but made it a point to be at the reading of the will. Evans is sure to drive the hilarity of the film through his smug defiance against his family and lack of “political correctness.” Evans’s one-liners and questioning rebellion strikes a match under the entire family, somehow shocked by his arrogance and carelessness for the dramatic situation at hand.

This film is as much a political commentary as it is Johnson’s attempt to employ all of the classic characteristics of an Agatha Christie-style mystery. Johnson makes it a point to exclude no one from this political commentary, berating the Nazi nephew, the snowflake niece, the cheating husband, the “self-made” business woman, the Trump supporter, the Instagram influencer, and the entitled millennial equally throughout the film.

As the investigation progresses, Johnson keeps the audience on their toes as there seems to be a lack of twists and turns, constantly changing the direction of the investigation and pulling the rug from both the audience and the characters. He makes sure to not show his cards in order to keep the audience guessing up until the very last scene.

Yet again, Johnson has successfully morphed a number of genres into one to create a murder-mystery that is as fun for the audience as it was so obviously fun for the cast. Earning a standing ovation at the September 7th TIFF world premiere, Knives Out is a top contender for the Grolsch People’s Choice Award and is sure to be making the rounds during this year’s awards circuit.

Knives Out will be released by Lionsgate November 27th, 2019.

Ready or Not

Ready or Not is the newest comedy disguised as a Mystery/Thriller to hit the theaters. Drawing from classic “Whodunnit” themes, this film is not your traditional search for a killer, but the hunt for a victim hilariously gone south. Ready or Not is the story of Grace (Samara Weaving) marrying her true love Alex (Mark O’Brien), who is an heir to a massive gaming dynasty. Per tradition, the newly wed couple is set to play a game with the entire family at midnight; a game decided upon by the ghost of the man with whom Daniel’s great-great-great-grandfather made a deal for the success of their company. Who doesn’t love a sprinkle of spooky cult rituals in their thrillers?

The suspense of the film begins to build as we watch Grace approach this strange family tradition with a childishly intrigued attitude; all the while ignoring Daniel’s obvious contempt for his family and their traditions. The family gathers in a special corridor of the home as the patriarch explains the rules of the game. Conversations throughout the room give the audience a hint into the possibilities of what is to come and plant the seeds of budding relationships between Grace and the members of her new family.

This film is full of hilarious moments, heart-warming conversations, suspense, and horror; all creating a labyrinth that keeps the viewer guessing what could possibly happen next. The story employs a revolving door of character personalities and loyalties throughout the movie, even drawing upon the harrowing childhood experiences of Alex and his brother Daniel from nearly 30 years ago… the last time the Hide and Seek card was drawn. These flashbacks at the beginning of the film help to build the intensity and set the scene for what is to come as the game commences.

The weapons and intensity of the hunt paired well with the moronic attitudes of the other family members to create a tongue-in-cheek humor surrounding the horror of this film. Weaving did an incredible job playing through a series of emotions in a performance that I can only assume will be the beginning of a long and fruitful career.

The themes within the film that seem to correlate with movies such as The Purge and Get Out seem to be original enough that this felt like a brand new story from beginning to end; a story that certainly peaked my interest. This rollercoaster is well worth the price of its ticket… just maybe don’t plan to buckle in with your in-laws.