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The universal language of cinema: ‘Parasite’ breaks barriers as 92nd Academy Award winner for Best Picture

Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films. – Bong Joon-ho, Oscar-winning writer and director of “Parasite”

Before Sunday night, a lot of things were different in the world of cinema.

A foreign language film had never won Best Picture at the Academy Awards; no South Korean film had ever earned a nomination; Walt Disney was the only person in Oscar history to win four awards at the same ceremony, doing so in 1954.

Bong Joon-ho and the 92nd Academy Awards changed film history forever.

The South Korean writer/director’s seventh feature, “Parasite,” a haunting and arresting drama with elements of comedy and paranoia, took home the Academy Award for Best Picture this weekend with a dynamic, unflinching look at families at the top and bottom of South Korea’s social strata.

With wins for Best Direction, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature, Bong joins Disney as a four-time Oscar winner on the same night and cements South Korean cinema on the map.

Now available widely for home viewing, there’s absolutely no reason to avoid seeing one of the best films of the 2010’s, especially as “Parasite” will likely dominate film conversation for months to come.

Missing out at this point puts audiences at risk of ruining the film as the less viewers know about the film before seeing “Parasite,” the better the cinematic experience will be.

In the simplest terms, “Parasite” is about two families, the affluent Park family living in a walled manor on a hill and the impoverished Kim family leeching off open Wi-Fi and free extermination in their semi-basement flat.

When the Kim’s son is hired to serve as an English tutor for the Park’s teenage daughter, it sets in motion a series of events that will irrevocably change both families for life.

Twists and turns masterfully crafted into the story are offset by moments of extremely poignant subtlety as Bong envelopes audiences in a world that seems infinitely close and yet constantly out of reach through perfect shot selection and camera movement that puts the viewers’ eyes on exactly what they need to see at the exact moment they need to see it.

Although set in Seoul, the universal film realistically could have taken place anywhere and in any language with its observations on economic class conflict, greed and deception. Its biggest hindrance to mainstream success has been a relative unwillingness for subtitled films, though Bong has crafted a theatrical experience that far transcends any language barrier.

“Parasite” is an arresting display of cinema mastery that reveals its many layers over repeat viewings and a feature whose humor, tension and drama interweave majestically over the terse two-hour running time.

Perspective is of key importance to “Parasite” as viewers are left questioning events in the film from every angle, not knowing what’s coming next or where it’s coming from. The Oscar-winning screenplay written by Bong and Han Jin-won is an unparalleled combination of tension and release that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats.

What’s most important about the unprecedented success of “Parasite” is what it means for the Academy moving forward, and hopefully, for the film industry as a whole.

It’s truly remarkable that a foreign-language film broke through and won in four out of the six categories it was nominated in. But at the same time, “Parasite” failed to receive a deserved cinematography nod and none of the film’s illustrious cast was honored with a nomination despite the film winning Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild awards.

“Parasite” relies on eight actors to deliver memorable, pitch-perfect performances in order to pull off Bong’s layered screenplay and there isn’t a false step among the entire cast. Each member of the family – father, mother, son and daughter – is in sharp contrast from their mirror in the other family, as if they were playing the opposite side of the same coin.

This year’s Academy Award Best Picture winner is a truly special, audacious cinematic masterpiece that’s uniquely of this moment in time and yet transcends the world we’re living in.

“Parasite” was the best film of 2019, arguably the greatest film of the last decade and the correct choice by Academy voters Sunday evening.

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The Last Thing He Wanted: Short term loss, long term value

With a seemingly endless budget, Netflix continues to pour money into project after project with avid disregard for the bottom line.

This strategy may seem counter-intuitive to budget conscious business owners, but for film lovers, the streaming service writing blank checks to everyone from Martin Scorsese to Noah Baumbach to Michael Bay is an overall win.

Some productions may miss the mark financially, but the expansive spending spree has given filmmakers a chance to produce more daring endeavors and creative risks that should make directors better at their craft.

Dee Rees – an African-American writer/director who broke out in 2017 with the Oscar nominated drama “Mudbound” – received a major push from the streaming service for her follow-up feature based on a Joan Didion novel of the same name, “The Last Thing He Wanted,” which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and dropped on Netflix last weekend.

Filled with major star power in Oscar winners Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck and the promise of an emerging filmmaker, “The Last Thing” has the pizzazz and the cinematic bravado necessary for a taut political thriller, but the film falls flat from the outset with an unnecessarily confusing, lackluster screenplay.

Hathaway stars as an investigative journalist whose pursuit of the story overlaps with a guilt-propelled errand thrust upon her by her unstable father and pushes her into the middle of an international labyrinth of drugs and violence that could prove to be her undoing.

The former Academy Award-winning actress is an apt choice for audiences to follow around for the majority of the film’s two-hour run time, but Hathaway plays the character at such a cautious distance that it’s nearly impossible for viewers to get fully behind her performance enough to maintain interest in the haphazard political intrigue.

Her best moments come in the film’s opening third, which takes advantage of Hathaway’s emotional intensity both verbally and within her eyes. This manifests itself differently as her character investigates potential war crimes in Latin America versus personal crisis with her father as well as her daughter at boarding school.

Hathaway is well matched with veteran character actor Willem Dafoe, an alert and present performer willing to take risks as Hathaway’s estranged father slowly deteriorating mentally. Their scenes are dynamic and resonate with audiences long after Dafoe leaves the screen, a rarity in Rees’ film.

Although Dafoe does venture over into the realm of caricature at times, his performance still carries large segments of “The Last Thing” with a bright, engaging turn that breathes life into the sails of the narrative.

The weakest link in the film is Affleck’s stiff, dry turn as a political instigator from Washington with questionable motivations. If the description of the character feels vague, it’s likely because Affleck doesn’t bring much to the performance beyond a simple, almost clinical recitation of dialogue from Rees’ screenplay and it doesn’t hold up comparatively to his recent work in another Netflix original film, J.C. Chandor’s 2019 feature “Triple Frontier.”

As is to be expected with a high-budget political thriller, “The Last Thing” rounds out its considerable supporting cast with a cavalcade of moderately familiar faces that provide depth and richness to a world that far exceeds its middling story, including exceptional turns from Rosie Perez as Hathaway’s investigative partner and Edi Gathegi as a rival gun runner.

The adaptation of Didion’s novel is problematic and messy, from the lingering and verbose prose narration that gives context to the mental state of Hathaway’s character to the ping-pong storyline jumping to the muddling of a relatively straightforward narrative.

This feels more a fault of Rees as screenwriter – a credit she shares with Marco Villalobos – than as a director as her visual storytelling is sometimes engaging and always interesting with strong cinematography from Bobby Bukowski.

For a variety of reasons, “The Last Thing He Wanted” doesn’t really pull together as a compelling narrative but the shades of a taut political thriller can be seen in the shadows.

Ultimately, this makes Netflix’s spending to give Rees a chance to grow as a filmmaker worth their investment and “The Last Thing He Wanted” is a perfect movie for audiences interested in the genre to take a low-risk chance on.

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Birds Of Prey: Identity crisis

She’s just an ordinary girl who loves her breakfast sandwich.

Sure, she also loves money, the ability to do whatever she wants without recourse or retribution and her pet hyena, Bruce.

But Harley Quinn – at least as seen through the lens of Margot Robbie’s gobsmackingly fun portrayal – isn’t simply a bad guy. She’s misunderstood.

An inevitability following the breakout success of Robbie’s Quinn in 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” this year’s first comic book film takes her supporting character and places her right in the middle of the action with “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.”

Director Cathy Yan’s sophomore feature follows the classic Batman villainess immediately after her breakup with The Joker, which puts a target on her back from both cops and robbers alike. The quest for a diamond holding bank account numbers serves as a MacGuffin to keep the action going as audiences bounce around Gotham City with Quinn and the titular Birds of Prey.

As comic book movies go, “Birds of Prey” isn’t aiming to be weighty material and the below-par screenplay from writer Christina Hodson cripples major sections of the film’s narrative structure and cohesion.

But the driving force that makes Yan’s film successful is Robbie’s relentless energy and charm as Quinn, taking everything audiences loved about her quirky turn in “Suicide Squad” and ramping it up to 11 for a frantic, maniacal performance that pushes a middling story forward.

Robbie’s Quinn maintains a free-spirited attitude that is a breath of fresh air every time her slightly twisted smile, multicolored pigtails and overly dramatic eyes pop up on screen. The Australian actress pulls viewers in and gets them to root for an unlikely anti-hero with disarming comic timing and quick-witted flashes of sanity from Quinn’s previous life as a psychologist.

Other characters in “Birds of Prey” become more interesting not for what those actors are bringing to the film, but rather how Robbie is able to bounce off of them as audiences are endeared to whatever Quinn’s going to do next.

When “Birds of Prey” turns away from Robbie’s radiantly maniacal turn, Yan’s film begins to veer off the rails as viewers are shown the larger narrative from the perspective of new, thinly written characters that only work about half the time.

Character actress Rosie Perez makes the most of her meatiest role in years as marginalized detective Renee Montoya, taking Montoya’s one defining trait in the film – a hardheadedness developed from watching too much 1980s cop dramas – and making it work for the character as something that gets the intended laughs, but also provides a worthy foil for Robbie.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead – either by choice or by lack of character development – infuses her performance as the crossbow-wielding assassin Huntress with a monotone, almost vapid lack of personality that occasionally makes for a well-timed joke, but equally feels unnecessary and bland in comparison to the bright characters around her.

There’s a strange implied homoerotic bond between the film’s two primary male characters – both major villains – in Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask and Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz that goes far enough to define both characters as sociopaths who share a romanticism for violence but not far enough that it does anything to make either character compelling or interesting.

What stands out most aside from Quinn is the brilliantly shot and designed fight choreography that puts the viewer in the middle of the action in a way that feels fresh and quintessentially part of the main character.

Each fight takes on a different life based on the setting while maintaining a free-flowing consistency that combines humor and authentically plausible action for a comic book film. Robbie and the stunt coordinators take great care to vary up Quinn’s move set from battle to battle based on the weapons she’s wielding and the fluid use of martial arts is on par with the “John Wick” films.

Films made from DC Comics have largely taken a backseat to the Marvel Cinematic Universe ever since the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy of Batman films, but it seems that Warner Brothers has begun to figure out a successful format with brighter, lighter films like “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman” and now “Birds of Prey.”

If the trend continues while the studio also backs more artistic, prestige-driven adaptations like the Oscar-nominated “Joker,” it’s possible that the DC universe of films could surpass Marvel in the next several years if Disney fails to connect with audiences in a post- “Avengers” world.

Although “Birds of Prey” suffers from an identity issue that can’t decide if Robbie’s Quinn can carry an entire film on her own, the fantabulous highs far outweigh the middling lows and make this comic book lark a film worth seeing amid a disappointing February slate at the box office

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92nd Academy Awards preview: Parasite v 1917

For the sake of posterity, here are my predictions and thoughts on tonight’s Academy Awards:

Best Picture:

Going to win – 1917, the runaway winner at BAFTA and odds on favorite tonight, the Academy will likely favor an old standard in Best Picture winners: the technically proficient, period war epic

Should win – Parasite, probably sitting in the runner-up chair, Bong Joon-Ho’s masterpiece has a strong chance to pull the upset thanks to the preferential balloting system and is the year’s best film by a significant margin

Dark horse – Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the Academy loves movies about Hollywood and this Quentin Tarantino period dramedy is probably the most accessible of his filmography to Oscar voters

Best Director:

Going to win – Sam Mendes for 1917, Mendes should get the BP boost along with the film’s overwhelmingly spectacular technical achievements to hand him an Oscar for putting all the right pieces around him

Should win – Bong Joon-Ho for Parasite, same story, different category, Bong creates a rich, deep world that constantly keeps audiences on the edge of their seat and masters nuance from start to finish

Dark horse – Realistically no one, although some voters will cast their ballots for Tarantino, one of Hollywood’s best auteurs never to win this award

Best Actor:

Going to win – Joaquin Phoenix for Joker, the darkest, most actor-y performance of the year is essentially a guaranteed first time win for Phoenix, who elevates an otherwise marginal comic book movie to Best Picture contender worthy status

Should win – Adam Driver for Marriage Story, a performance that is probably more nuanced than Phoenix but less showy, which doesn’t bode well given Phoenix has swept everywhere else

Dark horse – None.

Best Actress:

Going to win – Renée Zellweger for Judy, a tolerable performance in a vastly mediocre film that somehow got crowned as the best of the year back in September without any real discussion or debate

Should win – Saoirse Ronan for Little Women, a four-time Oscar nominee by the age of 25, Ronan puts together her most Oscar-y performance yet as Jo March, but with a depth of conviction and character that underlies her immense talent.

Dark horse – Scarlett Johansson for Marriage Story, double nominated in both lead and supporting actress, Johansson is better in the first twenty minutes of Noah Baumbach’s film than Zellweger is at any moment of Judy

Best Supporting Actor:

Going to win – Brad Pitt for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a much deserved accolade for one of cinema’s best character actors who just happens to be among its most attractive, which shields out sometimes how good of a performer he is and how effortless it is for Pitt to be charming.

Should win – Pitt

Dark horse – Joe Pesci for The Irishman or Tom Hanks for A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, 2019 was a terrific year for supporting actors and both of these men could easily have run away with the award in another year.

Best Supporting Actress:

Going to win – Laura Dern for Marriage Story, another example of a race that was over before it began, Dern is good as a no-prisoners-taken divorce attorney but there are other performances that are as good or better that deserve more attention as well.

Should win – Florence Pugh for Little Women, the breakout star of Midsommar takes a reviled literary character and turns the tables on audiences with a standout performance as Amy March. The most difficult performance to pull off of any of these nominees, Pugh knocks it out of the park.

Dark horse – None

Best Original Screenplay:

Going to win – Parasite

Should win – Parasite

Dark horse – Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

 

Best Adapted Screenplay: 

Going to win – Jojo Rabbit

Should win – Little Women

Dark horse – The Irishman

Best Animated Feature:

Going to win – Klaus

Should win – Toy Story 4

Best International Feature:

Going to win – Parasite

Should win – Parasite

Best Documentary Feature:

Going to win – American Factory

Should win – American Factory

Best Original Score:

Going to win – Joker

Should win – 1917

Best Original Song:

Going to win – “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman

Should win – “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman

Best Sound Editing and Mixing:

Going to win – 1917

Should win – 1917 for editing, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood for mixing

Best Production Design:

Going to win – 1917

Should win – Parasite

Best Cinematography:

Going to win – 1917

Should win – 1917

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

Going to win – Bombshell

Should win – Bombshell

Best Costume Design:

Going to win – Jojo Rabbit

Should win – Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

Best Film Editing:

Going to win – Parasite

Should win – Parasite

Best Visual Effects:

Going to win – 1917

Should win – 1917

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Dear Basketball: Preserving the legacy of a man, not just a legend

I never liked Kobe Bryant growing up.

To me, a life-long Dallas Mavericks fan, he was a smug, self-indulgent rival who wasn’t as good as everyone else thought he was.

As a film aficionado and budding critic, it bothered me even more that one of my most-disliked sports antagonists won an Academy Award. It reeked of the bravado that annoyed me watching him dunk on Mavs centers or bank in game winning jumpers in route to another championship he didn’t deserve.

Part of the pageantry about sports is creating and hating the villain. It’s what endears us to our heroes who best someone else’s hero that we view through the lens of the enemy.

I was in a movie theater Sunday afternoon watching the film I intended to write this review over, Guy Ritchie’s crime caper “The Gentlemen” starring Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell and Hugh Grant.

About halfway through the film, I was strangely moved to do something I rarely do in a theater; stop watching and check my phone.

The screen flashed up with several text messages, a missed phone call and an ESPN news alert, all of which were commonplace for me to see once the credits start rolling on a movie.

For some reason, instead of putting my phone away, I walked down the aisle and into the hallway, far enough out of view to not interrupt other audience members, but close enough to keep myself inside the world of the film.

I opened my phone again expecting to see some text messages that wouldn’t matter in the long run and someone I needed to call back on my way home.

The ESPN alert jumped to the top of the screen, “Breaking News: Kobe Bryant killed in helicopter crash at 41.”

It was an unexpected, stunning revelation and one I couldn’t stop thinking about amid the ensuing diatribe and violence that concluded Ritchie’s film.

It’s lingered in the back of my mind all afternoon and evening; someone I grew up watching and reviling was gone in the most tragic of fashions along with eight other people I’d never known of or met, among them his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.

The thoughts that clouded my mind brought me to the one piece of Kobe lore that I’d never seen before: “Dear Basketball,” the five-minute film based on his retirement poem that won Bryant an Academy Award in 2018 for best animated short.

Director and animator Glen Keane takes Bryant’s words penned for an article in The Player’s Tribune and vividly animates them through hand-sketched pencil work that leaps off the screen in spite of its two-dimensional style.

As Kobe narrates his own story, audiences are shown his legacy not through championships, but through the impact Bryant’s relentless passion for a sport had on him as a man, illustrating his growth from a six-year-old boy shooting hoops with his dad’s rolled-up tube socks into a legendary member of the Los Angeles Lakers.

It’s a touching short that grows more poignant now on the day of his passing, hearing Bryant talking about savoring “every moment we have left together, the good and the bad” in a way that becomes a rallying cry for renewed hope in whatever passions we may have.

Oscar-winner John Williams pens a sweeping score that combines the majesty of athletic competition with the final notes of impending exit. It veers slightly toward the point of excessive, but still hits home hard enough to draw tears from even the most stubborn of viewers.

Keane’s expert use of color palette keeps the focus on Bryant, muting nearly everything but the yellow and purple of Kobe’s jersey and layering black strokes to enhance detail in life-like comic book form, enveloping the Bryant of “Dear Basketball” to superhero status in the mind’s eye of Kobe as a child.

“Dear Basketball” perfectly illustrates not the myth that was created for him, but the inner soul of the man himself.

Poetry and poignancy was something I never expected from Bryant.

The Kobe I thought I knew wasn’t capable of that.

It’s saddening to think that only his untimely passing – and especially that of his teenage daughter – would bring me to reframe the image of him in my mind’s eye.

The power of film comes from its ability to have an impact on its audience and to preserve eternally people and moments in time.

In this regard, “Dear Basketball” is a perfect film, keeping the memory of a legend, but more importantly a man, alive.

 

The animated short film, “Dear Basketball,” can be seen online at believeentertainmentgroup.com/portfolio-item/dear-basketball.

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Just Mercy: Truth in the final hours

A star-studded, politically relevant courtroom drama based on a true story released right in the middle of awards season is typically the kind of film Oscar voters and general audiences eat up.

So why is no one going to see “Just Mercy,” the latest film from indie darling director Destin Daniel Cretton starring a pair of Academy Award winners and led by “Black Panther” standout Michael B. Jordan?

There’s nothing wrong with the film. It’s a perfectly adequate, well-crafted feature that tells a simple story in poignant, heartfelt ways.

“Just Mercy” just happens to be about seven years too late.

The film follows the beginnings of the Equal Rights Institute, a non-profit law firm started by Harvard-educated African American lawyer Bryan Stevenson who moves to the heart of Alabama to counsel disenfranchised and wrongly condemned death row inmates on their final appeals.

While encompassing the first years of the institute in general, the film most closely follows the case of Walter McMillian, wrongly convicted for the murder of an 18-year-old woman in spite of significant evidence ignored during his racially charged trial.

Despite being based on Stevenson’s autobiography of the same name, “Just Mercy” serves more as an acting tour de force for a trio of talented character actors, most notably Oscar winner Jamie Foxx delivering his best performance in over five years as McMillian.

Foxx brings an earnest heart to the role that been hardened not by the prison that’s stolen his life from him, but by an ever-increasing distrust of a justice system that’s failed him time and again.

His chemistry opposite Michael B. Jordan’s steady, stoic turn as Stevenson is consistently solid throughout the film, but what sets Foxx apart in “Just Mercy” is the emotional bonds his McMillian is able to form beyond walls with two adjacent death row inmates played by Rob Morgan and O’Shea Jackson, Jr.

Unable to see or feel the others’ presence, the three men instantly develop an emotional rapport and support that feels earned in spite of the extraordinary circumstances around them and help provide the film’s most heart-wrenching moment at the end of the second act following the decision of one inmate’s final appeal.

In the least heralded great performance of 2019, Morgan blows audiences away with a remorseful passion mixed with bewilderment and confusion that will leave viewers stunned and awe-struck.

Similarly, Tim Blake Nelson plays a pivotal role as a fellow inmate accusing McMillian of the murder whose confrontations with Stevenson feel comically caricature at first glance but becomes revelatory as the film catapults its way through the courtroom stage.

“Just Mercy” fails to make the most of its biggest box office draws as Jordan is a serviceable protagonist through which to follow the story, but he never truly makes much of a mark on the film as Stevenson. Likewise, Oscar winning actress Brie Larson lends her credibility and star power to her third collaboration with Cretton after “Short Term 12” and “The Glass Castle,” but is given almost nothing to do in a small role as Stevenson’s aide.

The fatal flaw within “Just Mercy” is that the scope of the film exceeds the Stevenson-McMillian relationship far too much for a tight narrative structure, but doesn’t expand the world wide enough to justify a lengthy 137-minute running time. While the subject matter is more than worthy of chronicling, Cretton sacrifices a relatively thin plotline for character moments better suited for television miniseries.

Cretton doesn’t force the action visually in any special way, leaving the audience to rely on the ensemble cast’s largely terrific performances to prop up the film as a whole. The cinematography doesn’t get in the way and the musical score swells at all the expected moments, but the whole project technically reminds of an extended television crime procedural rather than a weighty, cinematic courtroom drama.

“Just Mercy” will have a stronger run on streaming platform and home video rather than on the big screen as Warner Brothers rightly focuses their attention on larger projects like “Joker” and “Richard Jewell.”

A competently made, brilliantly acted drama, “Just Mercy” is worth taking a chance on later this year when the film is made available for private home viewing.

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1917: War close at hand

You’ll never see Roger Deakins on screen, but he’s in every frame of director Sam Mendes’ new war epic “1917,” from the opening frames bathed across a sea of endless green grass until the final cut to black before the credits.

World-renowned as a master craftsman in his art, the British-born Deakins achieves his magnum opus with “1917” – a visual spectacle combining his years of experience as film’s premiere cinematographer and his unique eye for capturing fleeting moments to last a lifetime.

The film intends to follow two young English lance corporals as they journey across enemy lines during World War I to deliver a message calling off an impending attack on German forces that will ambush and kill 1600 British soldiers, and for the most part, it does so considerably well.

What “1917” truly is, however, is an arresting, unparalleled feat of technical cinema that will dazzle audiences with its extended, world-spanning one-take camera work that pulls audiences in and gives the effect of continuous, unedited filming over the course of two hours, fully immersing viewers in the shoes of two brave, yet scared young men.

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman propel the engine that makes “1917” work as Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake, respectively. Their easy chemistry amid the most difficult working conditions for actors is especially impressive and the relatively limited dialogue in the screenplay allows for the pair to wear their emotions on their sleeve with haunting eyes.

“1917” pulls the camera in close on both performers and presses in on these non-verbal cues to show, not tell audiences about the mental strains placed on young WWI servicemen and MacKay’s stoicism matched with Chapman’s heart leaps off the screen at every turn.

Though the bulk of the film follows the two young leads, “1917” is also littered by brilliant supporting turns from a number of talented British character actors from Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, to Mark Strong, as well as Andrew Scott and Richard Madden. Each actor pops up at exactly the right moment to provide gravitas and emotional depth.

The film’s harrowing subject matter and plot leave audiences constantly on edge as Schofield and Blake could easily encounter imminent death over every ridge or around the next corner. An unbroken, continuous camera frame heightens this suspense and keeps audiences dialed in to the duo’s circumstances, equally unsure what’s to come next.

Mendes and Deakins masterfully contend with the elements over the course of meticulously pre-conceived panning shots, often relying on natural light to illuminate scenes and operating free-flowing panoramic cameras that allowed for steady and smooth 360-degree rotation.

Each second of “1917” is a precisely choreographed dance between actors and camera operators, moving across dynamic, uneven terrain and across miles of intricate bunkers and sets hand-crafted for shooting.

Mendes and editor Lee Smith blend scenes together confidently with limited breaks in the dynamic visuals, cheating slightly as the camera is obscured from viewing Schofield and Blake at various points to hide cuts in the film. Most viewers won’t notice these slight imperfections in the cinema that provide the overall look of the film as they will be too entrenched in the pair’s plight and Thomas Newman’s gripping score to peer behind the curtain.

A multiple Golden Globe winner, “1917” is certain to be one of the most nominated Academy Award contenders this spring, immediately vaulting into frontrunner status for cinematography, direction and production design. Newman’s haunting, pitch-perfect orchestral score should win as well, though it has lost recently to Hildur Guõnadóttir’s equally transfixing accompaniment to the comic book origin film “Joker.”

The film could easily win Best Picture following its Best Motion Picture – Drama win at the Golden Globes, but could just as easily fall into the same trap other technically profound films like “Gravity” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” did at the Oscars, winning in many smaller categories but missing out on the top prize.

There’s absolutely no reason to see “1917” on anything less than the biggest, best screen imaginable – even if that means avoiding closer theaters. A visual marvel unlike any other, “1917” requires a grandiose, epic cinematic experience to match the vastness of the film itself.

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Uncut Gems: Loving the uncomfortable

Tense situations often provide for the best drama and leave bystanders watching things unfolding on the sidelines captivated in awe.

It’s a compulsion that pulls us to slow down and gawk at accidents and train-wrecks; the very thing that allows a television program like “The Jerry Springer Show” to exist.

Cinematically, that uncomfortable draw that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats can be the same feeling that prevents people from seeing an incredible film more than once.

The much heralded, Golden Globe-winning “Joker” is like that, as is the latest feature from Josh and Benny Safdie, the writer-director brother indie darling tandem behind 2017’s standout crime drama “Good Time.”

With their new movie “Uncut Gems,” the Safdie brothers crank the volume up to 11 on their signature brand of frenetic, gritty New York City film spectacle in a must-see, then likely never see again drama.

Adam Sandler gives the transformative performance of his career as Howard Ratner, a diamond district jeweler whose obsession with sports gambling and the big score puts him at odds with clients, loan sharks and his estranged family.

Sandler disappears so fully into Howard that it’s often hard to remember Sandler’s comedic work during “Gems.” There’s an eccentricity to Sandler’s performance that emboldens audiences to live inside the world of the film and accept this familiar character on his own terms and not as it relates to Sandler.

When audiences watch an actor like Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, they often find themselves engulfed within their performances and still never take their minds off the fact that De Niro or Pacino are playing the parts. Who they are as personalities can never be totally removed from the work.

Sandler’s Howard pulls viewers in so fully – in large part thanks to the Safdies’ pitch-perfect screenplay – that the comedian himself fades away behind the glasses and goatee, something Sandler has never been able to pull off before in a 20-plus year movie career.

The film’s ensemble cast boasts a bevy of talented character actors with ruthless, memorable work including Eric Bogosian as a vindictive loan shark, Broadway and “Frozen” star Idina Menzel stunning as Howard’s angry wife Dinah and Lakeith Stanfield as Howard’s assistant and client valet.

Former National Basketball Association star Kevin Garnett delivers a tremendous, intense performance as a fictionalized version of himself in one of the best acting performances by any major sports athlete, enhancing the film with an authentic, controlled turn that pushes the drama in new directions.

The film’s breakout star is newcomer Julia Fox, who pulls focus away from Sandler in a wonderful supporting turn as Howard’s employee/mistress. Fox charms audiences in a way that feels manipulative but largely isn’t and her presence on screen is reminiscent of the dynamic energy Margot Robbie brought to her first major role in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

What sets “Gems” apart is the film’s relentless uncertainty where literally any outcome or repercussion can occur at any time. This keeps viewers apprehensively engaged and tense, forcing them into Howard’s corner as every action he takes feels like a miniature wager with ever-growing stakes.

It’s a tremendous pairing of screenplay and performance that allows the chaotic pace of the film to genuine and earned rather than deliberately contrived. The Safdies, who have sought Sandler for the role of Howard for the better part of a decade, perfectly pen a character to fit the longtime comedic actor’s unique quirks in such a way that opens up Sandler to a world of new opportunities cinematically.

Shot on 35 mm film, the visual artistry of “Gems” maintains a raw, gritty vibrancy and the Safdie brothers play with lights and colors to keep the dynamic energy of their screenplay alive regardless of the situation. This works especially well during a scene where Howard enters a club filled with blacklights which gives the screen an off blue hue complemented by a bright neon orange hoodie worn by a character antagonizing Howard that visually represents the story the Safdies are trying to tell.

“Gems” is likely far too controversial for major awards season considerations although the movie will likely be heralded by critics and independent film groups.

Sandler has an outside chance for a best actor nomination if newer members of the Academy rally behind him and the film, though it’s more likely their support will go to Eddie Murphy’s turn as a struggling comic turned movie star in Netflix’s “Dolemite Is My Name.”

“Uncut Gems” clearly stands out as one of 2019’s best independent films and a dramatic career pinnacle for Sandler that needs to be seen on the big screen to truly be appreciated.

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Little Women: Frantic urgency in domestic life

Another period drama remake of an oft-told story isn’t what cinema needs these days.

There’s far too little originality in filmmaking to warrant updated versions of a book that already has six feature film adaptations.

“Little Women” is the exception.

From the opening moments where writer/director Greta Gerwig begins at the end, it’s readily apparent that Louisa May Alcott’s classic coming-of-age novel about four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – living and loving in Civil War-era Massachusetts has never been adapted with the amount of vibrancy or dedication that Gerwig and her cast create.

It’s a highly personal, classical and yet richly modern interpretation that uses the ballpoint pen as a jackhammer to Alcott’s linear narrative.

While prior adaptations have centered primarily around bold writer Jo, Gerwig layers her version with richer examinations of all four sisters and interprets the novel with a bold vision that elevates the source material.

“Little Women” works thanks in large part to its dynamic cast led by three-time Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan as Jo and 2019 breakout actress Florence Pugh as Amy.

Headstrong and meticulous in her performance, Ronan sears the screen with an intensity befitting prior interpretations of Jo, but with a soulful complexity that creates a deeper connection between audiences and the character.

Ronan’s Jo works tremendously well on her own within the film, but her work is emboldened further in concert with the rest of the cast especially Pugh, who creates the sort of unrequited sibling rivalry with Jo that is both grounded in the original text and feels authentic as sisters so identical that their similar passions drive them apart.

Pugh approaches Amy as someone who has felt held back by her sister and society but matures over the course of the film to find her own voice and identity in a way that is sincere not perfunctory, passionate not shrill.

As much as “Little Women” elevates Pugh’s Amy, Emma Watson’s Meg and Eliza Scanlen’s Beth are both showcased individually and give strong supporting work in larger group scenes that accent the Jo-Amy duality as well as highlight the importance of their own characters to the narrative. A pivotal scene featuring Jo and Beth at the beach is overwhelmingly emotional thanks in large part to what Ronan and especially Scanlen aren’t saying to each other in the moment and leave to non-verbal cues to the audience.

In one of the film’s most challenging roles, Timothée Chalamet weaves himself flawlessly in and out of the lives of each March sister as neighbor/best friend/love interest Laurie, adding different flourishes to his performance depending on which sister he interacts with. This gives the film much needed complexity and helps showcase the individuality of each sister.

There’s magic visually as the camera kinetically flows through space in the sisters’ younger years, leaping into the middle of the fray of their playful arguments and gliding along as Jo and Laurie dance along an outdoor patio in one of the year’s best crafted shots.

Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux takes a more reserved approach to the older half of the movie with more stoic, wide-arcing shots that create elegance rather than distance.

“Little Women” leaps off the pages of Gerwig’s screenplay with a frantic, chaotic energy that permeates its way through the March sisters and radiates a palpable heat that cinema – especially period historical fiction – rarely strives towards.

There’s an exceptional amount of passion to the film that draws in even many a skeptical viewer. Dialogue is delivered with vigor, often overlapping to the point where words burst from these four talented actresses as if their vitality were about to explode out of their bodies.

So much of Ronan’s performance is driven by this churning, inner desire for a fulfilling, artistic life that fuels Jo’s constant “writing like you’re running out of time, like you need it to survive,” to borrow a phrase from the Broadway smash hit “Hamilton.”

This relentless pace and dynamic energy allows Gerwig’s most daring conceit of the film to be successful as the filmmaker rips apart Alcott’s traditional narrative structure. Folding two timelines – one in the girls’ teenage years and another ten years later as they grow into adulthood – Gerwig reshapes and recontextualizes the classic tale for modern cinema, overlapping scenes from both times to enhance emotional growth amid a sense of nostalgia in the March sisters and allow audiences to see things from a fresh perspective.

Occasionally, this plot structure will jar viewers to keep them engaged in the action and may confuse some audiences unfamiliar previously with the Alcott story. Gerwig takes some slight liberties with the plot itself that brilliantly illustrate the struggles women had in being taken seriously as artists during the 1800s, but not so much so that audiences will lose their way or that the intentionality of the original work is altered.

A virtual lock for Academy Award nominations, the frontrunner status come Oscar season for “Little Women” will be determined more by nods in less certain categories. Best Picture, best actress for Ronan and best adapted screenplay for Gerwig are all but assured.

If potential nominees like Pugh in supporting actress, Gerwig for direction and Chalamet in supporting actor come through alongside technical nominations for costuming, production design and score, then “Little Women” could vault itself to the top of the race alongside “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story.”

More than just a simple book adaptation or period piece, “Little Women” is a dynamic, inventive piece of cinematic storytelling from an emerging master filmmaker that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

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The Rise of Skywalker: No real end to never-ending saga

Millions upon millions of dollars have been poured into a series of Flash Gordon-esque movies about the unseen “Force” around us for the better part of a half-century.

Many millions more have been poured into the bank accounts of Disney execs by casual and ardent fans of the acclaimed “Star Wars” franchise that reached its summation this weekend with director JJ Abrams’ second turn at the helm of the series, “The Rise of Skywalker.”

Equally fulfilling and frustrating, the ninth entry of the Skywalker Saga gives audiences a dynamic and exciting experience to keep family members occupied this holiday season.

Set well after the events of the eighth episode “The Last Jedi,” “Skywalker” follows Resistance fighters Rey, Poe Dameron and Finn as they seek to destroy the reborn Emperor Palpatine and escape the clutches of Kylo Ren’s First Order.

 

As “Star Wars” films go, “Skywalker” is better than the forgettable prequel trilogy from the early 2000s, but lesser than the first two films of this new trilogy and all of the classic original set of films from the 70s and 80s.

Young fans to the series won’t know the difference in this tale, which provides a satisfying conclusion to a lengthy tale of good vs. evil, the Force against the Dark Side. It just won’t hold up against the upper echelon of films in the “Star Wars” canon and could be forgotten once the inevitable spinoffs hit theaters.

For the third straight episode, future Oscar nominee Adam Driver continues to be the best thing about this “Star Wars” trilogy with a layered, considered turn in a franchise that puts character development on the back burner for pomp and circumstance.

His conflicted villain, Kylo Ren, is a perfect blend of petulant and saddened and Driver takes a role ripe for caricature and breathes depth and life into a one-note emo baddie.

He’s matched well opposite Daisy Ridley’s most versatile turn in the role of Rey, the last hope of the Resistance seeking her identity while fighting for the lives of her friends. Ridley shows conflict within her own character and the inner turmoil she experiences resonates with audiences and feels as authentic as it can in a nine-film space odyssey.

Talented actors like Oscar Isaac, Keri Russell and John Boyega are given plenty of screen time, but take a relative back seat to the Rey-Kylo Ren saga and sacrifice for nostalgia’s sake.

Carrie Fisher, who passed away prior to filming, is in far more of “Skywalker” than expected as Abrams utilizes unused footage from prior films in this trilogy to shape the beginning of the film.

While admirable, it’s still evident that Fisher’s performance is CGI-ed on top of new footage and there’s a disconnect between characters in scenes opposite her Princess Leia that’s hard to overlook.

“Skywalker” stumbles most when it forces in plot elements for the sake of fan service or toy marketing.

One of the best things about Rian Johnson’s superior entry into the Star Wars canon, 2017’s “The Last Jedi,” was the director’s clear vision to make a film on his own terms regardless of fan expectations. “Last Jedi” is largely successful with its bold, audacious subversion of expectations.

Abrams blatantly walks back Johnson’s film — sidelining characters and tossing aside plot points — in an effort to counteract perceived disappointment to end the trilogy, but this actually has the opposite effect, sacrificing quality for mass appeal.

The film has some truly remarkable action sequences, though “Skywalker” is far more visually dynamic and inventive fighting on the ground than blowing things up in the air.

Abrams and cinematographer Dan Mindel put Ridley and Driver through the paces in a whirlwind of lightsaber flares and giving “Skywalker” must-see moments that will stick with audiences far longer than Rey’s ret-conned origin story.

A potential awards nominee, “Skywalker” probably isn’t on the level it needs to be to receive a Best Picture nomination. John Williams, however, is a strong contender for a Best Original Score nod.

There’s a little something for everyone in “The Rise of Skywalker” that should drive audiences to theaters in droves and though it’s worth the experience on a big screen, something feels incomplete that keeps Abrams’ film from matching the dazzling heights a “Star Wars” movie is capable of.

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Richard Jewell: The measure of a man

The parallels are far too clear and distinct, so it’s best to just get them out of the way.

“Richard Jewell,” the latest docudrama from director Clint Eastwood, is a striking indictment of law enforcement officials too quick to judge and trigger-happy media outlets trying to scoop each other before confirming all the facts.

In very unsubtle terms, “Jewell” is a microcosm defense of the current U.S. presidential administration that seeks to endear audiences to an innocent man wrongly accused and equate his plight to today’s political climate.

That being said, Eastwood’s film is so much more than its ideology.

It’s a straightforward, brutal examination of a simple, genuine man ardently wanting to protect others and one of 2019’s most engaging features for good and bad.

Based on real events, “Richard Jewell” follows the title character – a freelance security guard working the 1996 Atlanta Olympics – who discovers a backpack bomb in a crowded concert area in Centennial Park, saving the lives of hundreds to instant media acclaim.

When the Federal Bureau of Investigation turns its attention to Jewell as a potential suspect in the bombing, a front-page story naming Jewell as the bomber changes an innocent man’s life forever.

Paul Walter Hauser gives perhaps the best performance of the year as Jewell with an approachable honesty to the portrayal that disarms the audiences and allows viewers to rally behind the character. Hauser is measured, yet free flowing in his work in a way that makes each line of dialogue feel spontaneous.

It’s a testament of Hauser’s immense talent that the earnestness Jewell displays over the course of the film can simultaneously be considered as an indictment by skeptical law enforcement and media in the film and as reinforcement of his innocence to the audience watching events unfold.

Hauser is especially captivating in scenes opposite Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s attorney Watson Bryant and Kathy Bates as Jewell’s mother, Bobi.

Both Oscar winners provide support to Hauser’s performance in different ways, Rockwell’s Bryant feeding confidence and anger to the flame and Bates’ Bobi Jewell taking on a large bulk of the emotional baggage.

The three actors work in synchronicity to allow Hauser’s natural cadences in the role to maintain a calm balance as an over-played Jewell would turn the audience away from his plight.

On their own, neither Rockwell nor Bates are doing anything exceptional, but speak volumes within the confines of how their characters impact Hauser’s steadiness in the title role.

Less successful are the film’s primary antagonists, Jon Hamm’s bullish FBI agent and Olivia Wilde’s controversial Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter.

Thinly written and equally portrayed on screen, Hamm loses any pretense of impartiality within the first 20 minutes of the film in an increasingly smarmy turn while Wilde portrays Kathy Scroggins as a headline-obsessive journalist willing to trade sexual favors for tantalizing, unverified innuendo.

Both performances rarely exceed the level of mustache-twirling villain in the eyes of Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray, never leaving a shred of doubt or drama to the question of Jewell’s innocence.

“Jewell” struggles to maintain a clear visual composition in night scenes as Eastwood and cinematographer Yves Bélanger opt for authenticity in poorly lit areas rather than targeting specific lighting to enhance visibility. This is especially troublesome during the lengthy and chaotic recreation of the night of the bombing, where audiences are led bumbling through the relative dark out of confusion rather than increased tension.

Eastwood is notorious for shooting limited takes of scenes in his movies and rarely does it feel more apparent that early in “Jewell,” where care for the technical aspects of filmmaking seem to be shortchanged for a more laissez faire, “get the shot and move on” approach.

Both in the screenplay and the visual style, there’s a lot of potential for “Jewell” to be a richer film than it ultimately becomes.

There’s simply no chance for “Richard Jewell” to break into the Oscars race as its late release coupled with the political overtones of the film should keep it off January ballots.

Bates did receive the film’s lone Golden Globe nomination for supporting actress, however, and Hauser more than deserves universal acclaim for his work as the titular Jewell.

“Richard Jewell” is an uneven, yet captivating docudrama with an exceptional lead performance that deserves a wider audience than it will likely receive in theaters.

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Marriage Story: Finding the beginning in the end

We’ve been told there’s two sides to every story.

Often it feels as if it’s as simple as the truth and then anything other than the truth.

But what happens when both sides of the story are true but conflict, or worse yet, outright contradict one another?

Writer/director Noah Baumbach explores this complex duality through the structure of a fractured relationship in his latest dramedy, “Marriage Story,” a semi-autobiographical film about finding oneself amid divorce.

“Marriage Story” finds New York theater director Charlie and actress Nicole working on their marital issues when Nicole is offered a television pilot in Los Angeles. When Charlie visits California to see Nicole and their young son Henry, divorce papers await as the couple’s relationship dissolves.

Baumbach’s personal film requires a pair of performers singularly focused on feeling the moment and his selection of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson to play the ill-fated couple could not have been more perfect.

Charlie is exactly the kind of slightly neurotic, disengaged character Driver relishes portraying and he gives Charlie just enough warmth to be a man that audiences will root for as a father, but not so much to prevent doubt from seeping in as to his ignorance of Nicole.

Charlie’s directorial instincts pushing him to control every aspect of life are brushed aside by circumstances that prevent him from unilateral decision making, giving Driver ample room to find Charlie in a place of re-discovery as both Driver and the character sort through the emotional ballast of the film.

Johansson finds an emotional fragility in Nicole that endears audiences to her, while slowly beginning to discover her individuality outside her marriage as if she were a caged bird given a key to freedom unsure what to do with an unlocked door.

If Driver’s Charlie is finding himself again, Johansson portrays Nicole as a woman finding herself for the first time, becoming increasingly emboldened over the course of “Marriage Story” without losing the tremendous heart displayed early in the film.

Paired together, Driver and Johansson move in synchronicity, pushing and pulling apart magnetically as scenes between the duo often feel like live theater shot on camera. Neither performance works without the other being equally exceptional and Baumbach beautifully adjusts the audience’s relationship to each character as viewers bounce back and forth between the two.

There’s a sense of perspective reflected back on itself by another person – Charlie to Nicole, Nicole to Charlie – appears to each character to be the antithesis of themselves. Each sees the other through their own jaded lens and neither side tells nor understands the full story.

Baumbach emphasizes this duality through blocking, physically positioning Charlie and Nicole at odds with each other in the same frame or from fractured one-shots that push each to their respective corners visually.

The film’s deep and talented cast was recently honored with the Robert Altman Award by the Independent Spirit Awards, given to the year’s best ensemble in an independent film.

Laura Dern will likely earn her third Oscar nomination with a driven supporting turn as Nicole’s take-no-prisoners attorney Nora, whom Dern infuses life into with a charismatic flair that radiates off the screen at every turn. In the most positive sense, it’s as if Dern is operating in a different film altogether, giving Nora a brazen edge that allows Johansson to explore Nicole’s internal emotions without becoming overly explosive.

Ray Liotta provides significant spark in scenes as a hotshot lawyer Charlie meets with, while Alan Alda’s calming presence is a wonderful change of pace as another potential attorney. Watching Driver react to the variety in Liotta and Alda’s work offers some of the film’s most refreshingly light-hearted moments.

Duality is key in all aspects of “Marriage Story.” Scenes, shots of cinematography, acting, camera placement each feel and accentuate this wavering plurality.

It’s evident that Baumbach has truly considered both Charlie and Nicole’s perspective and there’s true effort to maintain a balance for the audience between Driver and Johansson’s performances.

However, Baumbach clearly holds a sub-textual preference for Charlie’s relative plight, often siding with Driver’s character in the meticulously crafted screenplay. This comes to a head during a pivotal scene midway through the film where Charlie laments Nicole for being upset by a cheating accusation rather than sharing a laugh with someone else.

By the end, “Marriage Story” ultimately becomes “Charlie’s Story” as Nicole’s perspective fades and crystalizes while Driver continues to evolve Charlie into something more.

Visually, “Marriage Story” achieves the cracks in Charlie and Nicole’s relationship through camera placement combined with expert cinematography from Oscar nominee Robbie Ryan, who maintains a muted, yet dynamic energy to the aesthetic of the film. There isn’t a film this year that does a better job of informing character with cinematography than Ryan and Baumbach achieve with “Marriage Story.”

A critical darling that will be equally loved by awards voters, “Marriage Story” is all but assured Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and acting nods for Driver, Johansson and Dern. How this film fares will likely have much to do with Netflix’s dual-prong campaign that sees the streaming studio trying to bevy the chances of both “Marriage Story” and Martin Scorsese’s mob epic “The Irishman.”

Netflix may opt to push either film into frontrunner status or continue equal efforts that may negate either movie and propel Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” across the finish line.

It’s a shame that Baumbach’s meticulously considered, wonderfully crafted drama was not given the same large theatrical run by Netflix as Scorsese received with “The Irishman” as “Marriage Story” is perhaps the finest family drama to be released since at least 2008’s “Revolutionary Road.”

Deeply thoughtful, emotional and yet surprisingly entertaining, “Marriage Story” is without question one of 2019’s top five films and a must see in theaters or streaming at home on Netflix.