Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary

Toni Colette’ Annie is having a few issues…

Not knowing anything about a movie before you see it can be rewarding, and the most recent prime example is Hereditary. Having not seen the trailer till after I saw the film (which is rather spoiler free), my only knowledge was that it starred Toni Colette.

With vibes of 2016’s hidden gem The Witch (both films have the same producers), Hereditary starts with an opening shot that will be dissected by film buffs for years to come. What a hook from the get go. Annie (Colette, who does ravishing work) is on the way to her mother’s funeral with her family. We learn their relationship was rocky, to say the absolute least. The person her mother favored was Annie’s daughter Charlie (striking newcomer Milly Shapiro). Charlie has a peanut allergy, which I mention because that is far from her worst issues. There is also Peter (Alex Wolff), Annie’s older teenage son. While kind-hearted, he is not one to shy away from smoking weed after school. Finally, there is Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), who I am still not sure about. Is he a dullard or just fed up with the issues in his family? I am still on the fence.

The movie plays like a crescendo of horror, in that it does not just spurt out random scenes of “gotcha” moments so much as add more and more tension. You know a movie is doing something right when you realize you have not considered containing so much tension before.

The imagery of Hereditary is strikingly effective in a haunting way. The house in which the family lives should have star credit on its own. It is as neatly polished as the small figures and sets that Annie works on. The musical score only adds to the horror we feel (as all scary movies should).

Yet Hereditary is not completely a horror so much as it also becomes some bit of a thriller. Mixing those two genres may seem easy, but not all the time. Director Ari Aster (who also wrote the script) handles the balance of horror and sadness so well that the feeling you leave with is bound to stay with you for weeks.

Parents, this is in no way a movie for children. There is mild nudity (nothing sexual) that is a little easy to miss, but the horror aspect is sure to frighten anyone under the age of…actually, any age. High School and above.

I went to this movie with a close friend of mine. I have known him for a while, and have not seen him as shaken up as he was. After the film, I mentioned we would probably need to watch five to ten Disney movies (maybe more) to brighten us up again. I even mentioned to other friends to give him a hug just in case.

Consider that a warning. Well, a positive warning.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther

The Black Panther sticks another landing for Marvel

Perhaps it is late for me to say, but Marvel Studios is starting to mirror that of Pixar, in that it is hard for them to have a flop financially or critically (it helps when you partner with Disney). A decade after the universe was launched with Iron Man, Marvel Studios is still going strong, and now delivers one of their very best in Black Panther.

Introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther takes place just after those events, where T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is being crowned King of Wakanda. Wakanda is a country steeped in poverty, but only in the eyes of the outside world. We learn it is truly flourishing with technology that is beyond anything we have yet seen in a Marvel movie (or any other). At first, I was afraid it would be too much like Asgard (the home world of Thor), but Wakanda still manages to stand out as its own environment.

Before he can take his place as king, T’Challa/Black Panther must stop Ulysses Klau (the always reliable Andy Serkis) from stealing Vibranium (the key substance to Wakanda and its economy, not to mention weapons and armor). Helping him is Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who manages to make a name for himself along the best of Marvel’s baddies.

What makes Black Panther so wonderful is the same formula that makes nearly all other Marvel films great as well. The actors take the roles seriously, but are still managing to have a lot of fun (especially Andy Serkis). Director Ryan Coogler (who also directed Jordan in Creed and Fruitvale Station) never has moments (well, maybe one or two) that drag on. We are enticed from the word go.

It also helps that, despite lack of screen time, every actor is giving all they got to the roles they play. Such actors include (but are not limited to) Lupita Nyong’o, Forest Whitaker, Martin Freeman, Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead‘s Michonne), Daniel Kaluuya (recent Oscar nominee for Get Out), Angela Bassett, and Sterling K. Brown (This is Us). When you see them on-screen, you know talent is erupting.

Parents, this is another Marvel movie, so if your kids have seen at least one (I don’t know many kids who haven’t), they are fine here. There is some swearing and violence, but no sexual content or nudity (despite some female characters wearing some revealing clothing, but nothing bad).

Is Black Panther the best Marvel movie? The vote is still out, but it is definitely in the running. It says a lot about an action/adventure movie when the action free scenes are as engrossing as the action scenes are (which are superb).

It is clear that 2018 now has its first great movie. And what a movie.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars ****1/2

The Post (2017)

The Post

Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) discussing the possible future of The Post

 

I went into Steven Spielberg’s The Post with one question (well a few, but one that stood above the others): Is it possible for the movie to be watchable without thinking of the politics we are bombarded with 24/7 these days? I guess it depends on where you stand politically. All I am here to do is to say if the film is entertaining or not, and my answer is a resounding yes.

Set as almost a prequel to the king of all newspaper movies All the President’s Men (1976), The Post tells the story of the leaked Pentagon Papers, and how President Nixon (as well as previous ones going back to Truman) lied about the Vietnam War. The pages are delivered to the Washington Post (as well as the New York Times), but the latter publishes it first. Still, more papers are delivered to the desk of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who is firm on publishing the documents. Of course, it is up to the owner of the paper, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep).

It is clear that when you have a movie with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, the acting will be rock solid. Hanks does have more of the showier role, but that does not steal any thunder from Streep (to be fair, who could do that to the actress?). They and the rest of the cast (including Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, and Alison Brie) have a palpable electricity in the air for the whole run time.

It occurs to me that movies that have to do with news media have to be have more truth than most any other film genre (if not, film critics would tear the film apart). I have never worked at a paper, but there does seem to be a lot of authenticity in the movie (even when Bradlee’s daughter is selling lemonade while everyone is sorting the papers). The film may not have been exactly how it all played out (it is an original script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer), but it would not surprise me if it did play out that way.

Parents, the film is PG-13. There is about five minutes at the start of the film that shows some action in the war (nothing too graphic) and there is also some swearing (none that stood out to me). I would say any middle schooler would be fine seeing this film.

The film is not completely in the league of Spielberg classics like Jaws, E.T., or Schindler’s List. Still, the film is a wonderful thriller for those tired of mindless action CGI effects that want thought and drama at the core. On that standard alone, The Post is a treasure of a film.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

The Shape of Water (2017)

The Shape of Water

Not your average tale as old as time…

To say that Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is weird take on Beauty and the Beast is a gross understatement. Thankfully, that is not a negative in the slightest. While this is only the second film of his I have seen (the other being 2006’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth), I am confident in saying that del Toro’s is an acquired taste, and I am one to gorge on it.

Set in the 1960s, The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute single woman whose life consists of janitorial duties at a research facility. True, a mute person may be looked at differently, but Elisa has such a charm about her it is impossible to not like her. Her two main friends are her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

One day, the research facility gets an aquatic creature from the amazon, brought by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). While the main scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to keep it alive (he has his own secrets to hide), Strickland wants it cut up and studied (he and the creatures did not get along “on the way back”). The only source of love comes from Elisa.

I pause now to not give away anything else, except to say that there was a feeling of resolution I felt as the story (written by Del Toro, with help from Vanessa Taylor) unfolded. It all made sense and made me feel content. Of course, it also does not hurt when you have some of the most stunning images of the past decade. They all speak for themselves.

You won’t be surprised that Del Toro wrote the characters with (most of) these actors in mind. Michael Shannon has always been great at playing a character that makes you feel a little queasy, but he kicks it up many notches here. There is one scene where he radiates all we have been coming to despise about sexual assault recently. His character is clearly the villain of the year. Of course, Octavia Spencer is pitch perfect (she has already won an Oscar for being a part of The Help). There is no way Zelda could have been played by anyone other than Spencer.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was Richard Jenkins (who the role was not originally written for) as the neighbor. When you think of his role, you realize it could have easily been too over the top and been the problem for the film. Yet Jenkins brings more than humor, but also subtly and depth. He is remarkable.

Still, it is Sally Hawkins who is the most human, palpable, and poetic. I have been a fan of her since 2008’s Happy-Go-Lucky (which I still am mad she did not get nominated for at the Oscars), and here she truly has more of a chance to show she is one of the most underrated actresses we have. I know it is ironic to say, but her performance truly speaks volumes.

Parents, the film is not at all for kids. There is a good amount of swearing and violence, but also a handful of nudity scenes. While I am aware of nudity being a form of art (as it is shown here), there is one sex scene that I am not sure needed to be included (though it did show a characteristic of one of the characters). Either way, the R rating is totally accurate.

Still, the movie is a gem, and one of the year’s very best. It is already getting the Oscar buzz it surely deserves, and will be high way robbery if it is not nominated for Best Picture (let alone director, lead actress, screenplay….ok, you get the idea).

I left the theater, feeling the way all great movies should make you feel: Refreshed.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

The Florida Project (2017)

The Florida Project

Bobby (Willem Dafoe) trying to have a talk with Monee (Brooklynn Prince).

There was a time in my childhood where there was a five year stretch (give or take) that I was blessed to be able to go to Disney World (the last time was a Marching Band trip in my freshman year of High School back in 2003). It has been some time, though I now have a different reason to revisit the theme parks besides new rides and additions.

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project explores the world outside of the walls of the Disney attractions of the state, a world I for one never had an inkling existed. The film shows this universe through the eyes of a six year old girl named Monee (Brooklynn Price, a stunning young actor). She lives in poverty with her mom Halley (an equally impressive Bria Vinaite). There is no explanation as to how they got into their current situation, nor a need to. The film’s plot is rather loose, but that is what is great about it: It seems like a total slice of life.

Indeed, I would have thought the film was a documentary if it wasn’t for one familiar face: veteran actor Willem Dafoe. He plays Bobby, the manager of the hotel that they mom and daughter stay at. He is all business, making sure all follow the rules, but he is also down to earth. The type of guy you know you can talk to when he is in a good mood, and even okay with occasionally letting the kids eat ice cream inside (provided it does not spill) and letting his desk be available for hide and seek. It also helps that he does look out for kids, especially in one scene where he fends off a certain suspicious character. You can sense Bobby is doing it not because of business, but because he does have a good heart. Certainly a turn from darker characters we have seen Dafoe play in the past. Expect to see him in the Oscar nominees this year for Supporting Actor (he may even win).

Parents, the movie is R for swearing and some sexual material (the only real nudity occurs when Bobby is telling a patron that she cannot tan in the nude). There is a lot of swearing (many from the kids) and thematic elements. Definitely High School and above.

Originally, I was going to say the film’s main flaw is that it doesn’t have much of a plot, but the more I think of it, the more that is not a flaw at all. Like 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Florida Project is about life in a place that we never see mentioned in daily life, and is both easy to miss yet still easy to access. I won’t give away the ending of the film, except that it is perfect, mainly for the characters we see in the last shot. Truly one of the year’s best films.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2017)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Mildred (Frances McDormand), the maker of the Three Billboards

Just when you think you have seen enough movies to know what the film makers are going to give you, you get a film like Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri, a film full of drama, wit, comedy, surprises, heart, and clarity.

The story takes place just seven months after the rape/murder of a teenage girl in the town of Ebbing, Missouri. Despite work from the local police, the culprit has not been found, and the case is at a stand still. This does not sit well with the girl’s mother, Mildred (Frances McDormand), who rents out three billboards on the road to the town (one that hardly anyone uses). They read,

“Raped while dying”

“And still no arrests?”

“How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Willoughby (played perfectly by Woody Harrelson) is no slouch at his job. Even as he is fighting cancer (which Mildred knows before she sets up the billboards), he is still a good, decent family man. The real slouch at the job is Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who seems just a step or two up the ladder from Chief Wiggum of The Simpsons.

The movie is not about necessarily finding the murderer. No, the film is far too smart for that. It is about much more. It is about the life in a small town in the south. Mildred still takes her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges, who, along with this year’s Lady Bird, is having a great year after his Oscar nominated role in 2016’s Manchester by the Sea) to school, has a visit or two from her ex Charlie (John Hawkes) and his 19-year-old girlfriend, and still pester the law enforcement community about letting her dead daughter get justice.

Martin McDonagh directs and writes the film in a precise way that he did for 2008’s In Bruges. There is drama, but it is so well seasoned with huge comic moments it is impossible to ignore. Apparently, McDonagh wrote the role of Mildred with McDormand in mind. It is not hard to see why. If anyone else played the role, you would find yourself saying “Too bad Frances McDormand is not playing this role”. In a nutshell, it is pretty much her best performance since Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson.

All the other actors are superior as well, but the other who may finally get his share at awards season is Sam Rockwell. He has been a great actor in many supporting roles of the past, but here he gets a chance to show transformation like I have never seen in him before. It is stellar work, and deserving of Best Supporting Actor consideration.

Parents, in no way shape or form is this film for kids. The movie deserves the R rating, which is mainly for swearing (as well as some violence). Mature High Schoolers and above.

When you think of it, even the title is genius. As I entered the theater, I thought the title was going to be too long, and off-putting. The fact that it is so simplistic a title is the uncanny mastery behind it. I haven’t even mentioned how I found myself saying “good” when the movie ended, hoping it would not outstay its welcome, or the mere fact that the film even stars the highly talanted Peter Dinklage.

Clearly, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the best of 2017.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

The Nightmare before Christmas

What’s this? What’s this?!?!

For one reason or another, The Nightmare Before Christmas was a movie that was never a part of my childhood, despite being six when it came out. Had I seen it as a child, I am sure it would have been a clear piece of my childhood I would always cherish. Now, almost twenty-five years later, I am glad to say that it still stands out as a classic (though as a Halloween or Christmas film, I am not so sure).

The story could only come from Tim Burton. The main resident of Halloween town, Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon) is the best when it comes to Halloween. Still, he is looking for something more. He stumbles upon doorways to other towns (all based off of Holidays) and discovers Christmas town, which is beyond anything he has ever seen (“There’s children throwing snowballs, instead of throwing heads.”)

He has his idea set in stone: Bring the idea of Christmas back to Halloween town and spread the joy. This is despite the warnings of Sally (Catherine O’ Hara), a zombie like creature with a soft spot for Jack.

The main star of the movie is composer Danny Elfman (who does some of his own vocal work, including Jack’s singing voice). He has, and always will be, associated with the work of Tim Burton (who, I realized with shock, did not actually direct this movie. The director was Henry Selick). His music, voice, and lyrics are all displayed with dignity, bravado, power, and undeniable charm.

The movie had one Oscar nomination, which was for Special Effects (it lost to Jurassic Park). The visuals are, as in every movie that has Tim Burton related to it (in any way shape or form), simply astounding. Not only that, but the way the visuals blend with the music is so magical it is (fittingly) creepy.

Parents, this movie does, of course, have some scary moments for very young kids, but I think it would be fine for anyone 1st grade and up.

The impact of The Nightmare before Christmas is still being felt (stores still sell its merchandise). It is one of the main movies I wish did not slip through my grasp as a child. Even the message of who you are and your identity is brilliant. The only fault I have is that, like all great movies, it is far too short.

In a nutshell, The Nightmare before Christmas is a classic.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars ****1/2

IT (2017)

IT

Let the floating begin…

After the month of August has given an overall let down for theater goers, how refreshing is it that the movie to bring the experience of big screen ecstasy is not only a horror movie, but a remake? Well, you cannot deny IT.

Based off the book from Stephen King, IT is one film to satisfy not only fans of the horror genre, but those who think they don’t like horror films as well. It relies not just on the villain (whom Bill Skarsgard plays beautifully) but the idea of him as well. The film starts off with the death of a young boy months before the summer of 1989. We meet his older stuttering brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and some of his friends, including Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a hypochondriac, Richie (Finn Wolfhard), who spews one liners like a pro, and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), preparing for his bar mitzvah. There are other new kids as well that are adding to the “Losers”: Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a social outcast with a good heart, Mike (Chosen Jacobs), who is homeschooled, and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), with her own troubles at home.

I had flash backs of another great Stephen King adaptation, Stand by Me (1986), while watching IT. If you cannot appreciate the horror aspect of this film, then you will certainly love the coming of age aspect. Ah, the middle school days, when guys acted tough, swearing all the time, and noticing the female body. All of that (and more) is played to perfection thanks in part to the perfect young cast (all of whom are mainly unknown to me, except for Wolfhard, who plays Mike in Netflix’s Stranger Things).

Like all wonderful horror movies, IT has a collage of breathtaking beauty. Consider a scene towards the end, when one character is waking up on the ground, and it almost looks like they are in a glass bottle. There is also a bathroom sequence that, while I will not spoil it, is destined to be one of the most talked about horror scenes of all time. Blood never looked so gorgeous, and I cannot credit director Andy Muschietti enough.

Perhaps what Muschietti does best is trust the intelligence of the audience. He keeps the perfect pace so that we (or at least those like me who never saw the original with Tim Curry) are figuring everything out as the characters are.

Parents, it is clear the movie is rated R for violence/gore and lots (and I mean lots) of children swearing (there is one scene where the kids, including Beverly, do go swimming in a quarry, wearing nothing but underwear.  Still, I noticed a few young people (no younger than 9 or 10) in the audience I was at. I guess it is up to you, but, if it were my kid, I would say middle school and up.

 

Admittedly, I must say the movie did start off a bit slow for me after the opening scene, but I gradually eased in to what is surely one of 2017’s best films. Two things went through my mind as I left the theater. The first was that I need to reevaluate my list of the top ten movies based on Stephen King novels (IT is not the best, but is surely up there). The second is that, if they start working on a sequel, I would personally not mind waiting another twenty-seven years.

I am sure Pennywise would agree.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

 

 

 

The Queen (2006)

The Queen

Helen Mirren is The Queen. Simple as that.

As we near the upcoming 20th anniversary of the tragic death of Princess Diana (and having just viewed the very well made Netflix’s Original Series The Crown), I decided to revisit 2006’s The Queen. While viewing it, I tried to do something I had not done while viewing the movie before: trying to judge every part of the movie without focusing entirely on the performance by Helen Mirren.

It was no easy task. Helen Mirren gives a powerhouse performance as Queen Elizabeth II, so much so that in the few moments she is not on-screen, her presence is still felt. When I first saw the film, I knew virtually nothing about the history of the Queen herself, only the event that was Princess Diana’s death (I was 10 when it happened).

The movie starts of with her majesty meeting her new Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen, who is stellar). It is clear that Blair is bringing in a new, youthful era to the country. When told that he wishes to be called by his first name instead of his title, the Queen asks, “Has anyone given him a protocol sheet?”

Fast forward to the tragic day at the end of August of 1997, when the Princess and her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, died in a car accident in a Paris tunnel. receiving the news, both the Queen and her husband, Prince Philip (an under appreciated James Cromwell) are stunned to find out that the Prime Minister is hoping for the royal family to make a statement. This is supported by Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), who in turn has to look out for his sons. It is a week that brings back many memories to people, as it is clear that the People’s Princess had touched all corners of the world.

The film has many scenes of quiet beauty: Simple walks in the palace, strolls with the Queen Mother (Sylvia Syms), talks on the phone, and (most of all) a very brief encounter with a stag. All scenes are played out with exquisite taste and care by director Stephen Frears.

Parents, the movie is a moderately gentle PG-13. There is no sex/nudity, just some swearing (one brief F-Bomb). There is also a little bit of gore revolved around hunting, show with a decapitated head of an animal. I would say middle school and up.

In the end, the movie belongs to Helen Mirren. When I first saw the movie, I knew little about the source material, yet I was still able to realize how dominate she was in the title role. It is one of the best performances an actor has given. You don’t see her acting at all during the movie. All you see is a woman who, despite her power, is still human. She still feels, still reacts, still makes hard decisions, and still manages to accept them.

Like the real life Queen Elizabeth II, this film is a surplus of dignity, power, and grace.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars ****1/2

Dunkirk (2017)

Dunkirk

Soldiers await their fate on Dunkirk

I can’t think of many directors with a solid stretch of quality films other than Christopher Nolan (some even to the point of masterpiece). His latest, Dunkirk, is surely one of his best. Forewarning: if you suffer from aquaphobia, I would advice being careful, because Dunkirk has some of the most intense scenes at sea I have seen this side of Jaws.

Set to a rousing score by immaculate composer Hans Zimmer, the movie starts right at the beginning of the end of the battle that happened in Dunkirk, France in 1940. The first thing we notice about the film is that (like in any battle), we do not know when a gun shot will ring out. There is hardly any warning to any firearm of any kind throughout the whole movie. Nearly every one that did occur made me flinch.

As any Nolan movie, the film does not rely on star power so much as acting. Most of the soldiers are new, upcoming actors, but we see some familiar faces as well. We get some veteran thespians such as Oscar winner Mark Rylance as a civilian helping with the rescue, Cillian Murphy as a soldier, Kenneth Branagh as a commander, and one actor as a fighter pilot who I will not reveal because it is quiet a nice surprise.

My only flaw in the movie was that the interceding timelines were a little off-putting. Foolishly, I forgot to remember that, as is the case of many Nolan films, one ounce of lack of attention could lead to confusion.

Parents, this is one of the few war movies that I can think of being rated PG-13. Nolan goes more for artistic than he does complete realism (at least when compared to other movies like Saving Private Ryan). The action is still intense, but there is no real amounts of blood and gore. It is mainly for the intense action sequences and some swearing (I think I remember two F-Bombs). Middle school and above should be fine.

Clearly, Dunkirk is one of the best movies of 2017, and will surely be up for many an Oscar nomination in the spring (hopefully Nolan gets his long overdue nomination for Best Director). While it is not the best of all war movies (nothing in my mind tops Apocalypse Now!), Dunkirk is surely among some of the greats.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2