Review: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Dark times. The Resistance is hanging by a thread. The loss of the Republic has General Leia’s band of fighters in a corner and with limited resources and allies beyond reach, hope is dwindling.

Despite the destruction of Starkiller Base, the First Order is poised to seize military control of the galaxy and they are hot on the Resistance’s heels ready to snuff them out. General Leia’s last hope is the return of her brother, Luke Skywalker, the Last Jedi, to spark hope renewed and unite the galaxy against Snoke’s tyrannical rule.

Rey finally meets the legendary Jedi Master face-to-face, resolute to urge him back into the fight but her first encounter with Skywalker results in a door slammed in her face. Rey must convince Luke that the Jedi are not meant to die out; Luke and the Jedi Order are needed in the galaxy now more than ever.

I’ve waited so long for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. I went into the theater with a clear and serious mind, free of expectation ready to take whatever writer/director Rian Johnson threw at me. This was hands down, the best Star Wars movie I’ve ever seen!

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Image by LucasFilm

Johnson promised to take this franchise in a direction that has never been explored, used techniques that have never been seen, turn the franchise to a very dark and somber place while still retaining the delight and wonders a galaxy far, far away had to offer and Johnson hit a grand slam! (Most of) The questions I had after watching The Force Awakens, were answered in this film, we saw the young trope of characters including Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren take their own journeys to become characters to take over for the old guard of Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, Han Solo, some of the events that took place in the film stretched credulity but it’s Star Wars! This franchise was built on stretching the imagination and showing audiences the world over ideas and concepts that have never been seen before! I was immersed in everything this film had to show me and it was an emotional ride!

After seeing this film, my excitement for Rian Johnson’s standalone Star Wars trilogy was not only reinvigorated but heightened! Disney and LucasFilm assuredly put their faith in the right man, regardless of what he intends to do with these movies. He did a stupendous job writing and directing The Last Jedi!

We saw the characters of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Gwendoline Christie, Joonas Suotamo, Jimmy Vee evolve to become stronger, more anchoring figures in the Star Wars franchise, essentially carrying the torch that was passed down to them from Mark Hamill, the late Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, James Earl Jones and so on, and players such as Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Benecio Del Toro, Frank Oz and Lupita Nyong’o make their mark on this franchise, the performances in total were very good.

The visual effects were outstanding, John Williams’ score and composition for this movie? What more can I say about Williams’ legendary career and the mark he has made on these films? Steve Yedlin’s cinematography was awesome, Bob Ducsay’s editing did a grand job at piecing this film together although, it did feel elongated in the final act, Rich Heinrichs’ production design was gorgeous, the art direction was superb and the set decoration courtesy of Richard Roberts was on point, Michael Kaplan’s costume design and the makeup department did a superb job!

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi was a remarkable achievement. It put your emotions through the ringer, it messed with your mind in parts, it answered some questions, it was an amazing adventure, it allowed audiences to say goodbye to Carrie Fisher, it brought hope to the future and if the opportunity presented itself, I would see it again just for the sheer pleasure of it all!

Now, the ball is back in J.J. Abrams’ court. How, oh how is he going to bring this new trilogy full circle with Episode IX?🤔

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Review: The Disaster Artist

Gather round! Gather round! For a tale must be told about an uncommon thespian who made a film that was certainly “bold”.

Once upon the 1990s, an aspiring actor named Greg was working through a wall, trying to break through to his own talent. Greg’s efforts yield unsuccessful fruit and he finds himself lost until another aspiring performer with an uncommon skillset and a fearless attitude lays it all on the stage!

Greg meets an enigmatic and unconventional character named Tommy, they become friends, they bond over their dream to make it big, move from San Francisco to LA, but it isn’t until every door is slammed in their faces when they conjure up the idea of making their own film. The confines of Tommy’s imagination produces the idea of a film called The Room, the film is somehow put into production and the rest as they say is history. The Disaster Artist is a film that explores the origins and the production of The Room.

Actually, I should say that The Disaster Artist is a love letter to the “unforgettable” Tommy Wiseau and his labor of love of a film that would eventually become a cult classic. It’s also a movie that praises the ideal of following your dreams and never giving up that is also very funny, deep, resonating and delectable from start to finish.

James Franco behind the lens, has crafted a film that is just impossible to look away from. In front of the camera, his immersion into the mind and skin of Tommy Wiseau is utterly magnificent; Franco went to great lengths for his film to pay homage to the people and events that made The Room possible and whenever he is on screen, he is absolutely owning his performance, which not only ranks as one of the best performances of the year but also the best of his entire career!

Credit must also be given to writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. They certainly take great care in adapting Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book and turning into one of the year’s most entertaining and excellently written films.

The cast certainly has a ball in this movie! Dave Franco is excellent as Greg Sestero, Seth Rogen, Jacki Weaver, Ari Graynor, Allison Brie, Paul Scheer, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, Jason Mantzoukas, Sharon Stone, Hannibal Burress, Melanie Griffith, Bob Odenkirk are all solid and the surprising appearances of Kevin Smith, Keegan Michael-Key, Ike Barinholtz, Kristen Bell, Danny McBride, J.J. Abrams, Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, Judd Apatow, Zach Braff, Bryan Cranston; I think the appreciation for The Room really brought in a lot of star power and the enthusiasm of this cast certainly shined through.

Brandon Trost’s cinematography is great, Stacey Schroeder’s editing is crisp and coherent, Dave Porter’s music is excellent, Chris L. Spellman’s production design is fantastic, Rachel Rockstroh’s art direction is good, Susan Lynch’s set decoration is superb, Brenda Abbandandolo’s costumes were on point, the makeup team did an excellent job and overall the quality of this production truly wanted to go for authenticity and I think they nailed it!

The Disaster Artist was probably the most fun I had in a movie theater since Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2! Bravo to James Franco, who put nothing but love and dedication into every facet of his responsibilities as director and star of this picture which pays homage to a cult classic and the men who made it.

Review: Darkest Hour

It is May 1940. Adolf Hitler and his tyrannical Nazi empire are rolling through Europe conquering everything in their path. France is poised to fall and the United Kingdom may follow suit if the French fall to Hitler’s forces. Parliament has lost faith in their Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, calling for his resignation, which he is obligated to deliver. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is ready to back Viscount Hallifax as the next Prime Minister but Hallifax himself is not onboard with the idea, so the alternative is a figure with an atrocious war record named Winston Churchill and the rest as they say is history.

Darkest Hour chronicles, the first month of Churchill’s tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, burdened with the task of confronting the threat of Hitler conquering Europe, wrestling with his own war party over what policy they should implement against Germany and how best to proceed.

Darkest Hour held my attention from start to finish. Director Joe Wright and writer Anthony McCarten have delivered one of the most compelling films of the year and at its heart? Gary Oldman at his most prolific!

If I had to compare Oldman’s transformation into Winston Churchill, I’d say an apt comparison would be Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in Lincoln. Completely immersive, powerful and utterly masterful in every detail; Oldman hands down delivers one of, if not the, best acting performances of not only this year but perhaps his entire outstanding career!

I fully expect Gary Oldman to run away with every Best Actor in a Leading Role victory in the foreseeable future. He is the epitome of outstanding as Winston Churchill!

Darkest Hour could best be described as a resounding tribute to a historical figure who refused to back down in a time of crisis. I left the film with a greater sense to who Churchill was as a man and a leader; in films like Darkest Hour, if I can leave with greater understanding of what I thought I knew going in, I consider that a victory.

Also in watching this film, I made connections to other films that occurred in the same time period such as The King’s Speech and Dunkirk and found Darkest Hour to be a very fitting companion picture for the two films, especially Dunkirk, since Darkest Hour touches upon how Churchill initiated Operation Dynamo.

Oldman is certainly the star of the show but the supporting cast certainly holds their own as well. Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristen Scott Thomas, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Richard Lumsden and Samuel West are all very good in their respective roles and do their part to bring out the best in Oldman.

Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is solid, Dario Marianelli’s score is fine, Valerio Bonelli’s editing is rock-solid and smooth, Sarah Greenwood’s production design in superb, Nick Gottschalk, Oliver Goodier and Joe Howard’s art direction was strong, Katie Spencer’s set decoration is fine and Jacqueline Durran’s costumes were beautiful!

Darkest Hour is undoubtedly Gary Oldman’s finest hour! This movie was a riveting historical portrait into the perspective of one of the world’s most recognizable leaders in a time of crisis and his fighting spirit which would propel his country into the path of victory. A must see, if I say so myself!

Review: Call Me By Your Name

AndrĂ© Aciman‘s moving novel is adapted to the big screen by filmmaker Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory. For the last few months, I’ve had my eye on and heard the very glowing whispers of Call Me By Your Name and recently I had the opportunity to witness this acclaimed feature for myself to determine whether or not it holds up to the excellent tidbits I heard and the standards I hold for myself.

It’s the summer of 1983 somewhere in Northern Italy. The family of 17 year old Elio Perlman will play host to a research assistant named Oliver, a 24 year old graduate student who is temporarily working for Elio’s father, an expert on ancient Greco-Roman culture. Oliver’s arrival spurs something of an awakening in Elio, who finds himself in the infant stages of his exploring his sexual identity and it is over the next six weeks, Elio and Oliver’s relationship slowly blossoms into something intimate and sensual.

I wanted to see if Call Me By Your Name lives up to the hype and I will be frank, it wasn’t until after the end credits, when I felt the impact of Luca Guadagnino’s picture. It is remarkably slow-paced but exquisitely captured on camera and the subject matter is rather intense. This is a rather powerful romance with two very strong performances by Arnie Hammer and TimothĂ©e Chalamet.

This was my first time sampling Guadagnino’s work as a director and he definitely gave me something to wrap my head around and follow but in retrospect, I was not lost. I was certainly mesmerized by the picturesque Italian setting and I was wondering if the plot could have been quicker, it did seem to lag for my taste, but Call Me By Your Name is a very scintillating film and the aftershock of the picture yields a very satisfying experience.

James Ivory adapted Aciman’s novel and crafted a story with serious substance. This film probably reads like a novel and leaves the audience to use their imagination as to what is happening under the surface. Ivory and Guadagnino definitely hit what I like to imagine as a high mark for what I like to see when I watch a movie.

Arnie Hammer and TimothĂ©e Chalamet are fantastic! Their on-screen chemistry is strong and when their characters’ relationship blossoms, it charges the screen, especially in the third act of the film. Frankly, I would have liked to have seen their characters wear a shirt for more than five minutes but I was very captivated by their performances and I believe audiences will be as well.

The supporting cast, including Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Peter Spears and Antonio Rimoldi, all fine players. We don’t see them on screen a lot, much of the film focuses on Chalamet and/or Chalamet and Hammer, but they do fine.

Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography is simple but very stunning, Walter Fasano’s editing is very cohesive, Samuel Deshors production design is amazing, Roberta Federico’s art direction is superb, the set decoration team of Muriel Chinal, Sandro Piccarozzi and Violante Visconti di Modrone did a fine job and the costumes of Giulia Piersanti were fine.

Call Me By Your Name was one of the most stimulating experiences I had at the movies so far this year. I went in wondering if it lived up to the hype and acclaim it has been getting for the last few months and despite the fact that it moves rather slowly, it does. It is a beautiful picture.

Review: Coco

I feel as though Disney and Pixar’s latest animated adventure was inspired by the idea of border security. Essentially Coco is about an individual who crosses over a border he shouldn’t and it is set in, and inspired by, the country south of the American border after all.

The protagonist is a youth named Miguel Rivera. His family has decided that Miguel will continue their long line of shoemakers but Miguel is a rebel in his own family. His heart beats for his love of music; singing, playing guitar, performing, aspiring to be like his hero Ernesto Del La Cruz, the greatest musician in the history of Mexico. Miguel’s family has outlawed involvement of music of any kind but he won’t deter and his family put their proverbial shoemaking feet down on the idea of Miguel pursuing his love of music.

On Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead, Miguel breaks into Del La Cruz’s tomb to “borrow” his hero’s guitar to perform in a talent competition and the moment he strums those strings, Miguel is spirited away to the Land of the Dead where he meets his ancestors who are insistent that he return home but not Miguel sees his opportunity to meet his long deceased hero and simultaneous uncover his family secret as to why the Rivera’s have forbidden music from entering their lives.

Image by Disney-Pixar

Coco is an ode to Mexican culture, an ode to the magic of music and the power of a family’s love and it is vivid in the terms of both the authentic and aesthetic. I had to look back on the reviews I wrote this year and compared to the other animated film I’ve seen this year, I can confidently express that Coco is going to run away with every single animated achievement film award it will be nominated for in the foreseeable future!

Directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, who co-wrote the screenplay Matthew Aldrich, have crafted a beautiful tale about what it means to follow your passion and seizing your moment. Only the magic created between Disney and Pixar could construct a tale about spirit guides, mariachis, flower petals, walking skeletons, guitars, shoemakers and weave it into a beautifully constructed and executed animated experience that will resonate with audiences of all ages!

The animation team behind this movie put in tireless work to breathe life into this animated work of art and the team of Unkrich, Molina, Aldrich and Jason Katz, pulled out all the stops to immerse this movie in the splendor of the music, artistry, passion and culture of Mexico.

Bravo to the voices of Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Renee Victor, Alana Ubach, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Selene Luna, Herbert Siguenza, Jamie Camil, Alfonso Arau, Sofía Espinosa, Dyana Ortelli, Gabriel Iglesias, Edward James Olmos and Luis Valdez.

Aside from the animation and how well the story is written, the visual effects of the film were profound, the score of Michael Giacchino was sublime and dripping with Mexican influence, the cinematography team of Matt Aspbury and Danielle Feinberg did a fantastic job, Steve Bloom and Lee Unkrich’s editing was very smooth, Harley Jessup’s production design and Tim Evett’s art direction were fantastic. Coco is 2017’s pinnacle of animated achievement!

Disney and Pixar should be nothing but proud of Coco. It is undoubtedly another highlight in the long list of achievements they have made over the last few decades!

Review: Justice League

All that was going through my mind as I entered the theater to watch this week’s feature film was one simple sentence on repeat until the trailers ended and the show began: “In the name of Sweet Jesus, please don’t suck!”

Justice League opened to show us a world without Superman. Hopeless, fearful, chaotic, dark and vulnerable and in this moment of vulnerability, Earth is wide open to those who wish to do it harm both on world and off.

The death of Superman also triggered an awakening of three vessels of power called Motherboxes and signaled the coming of a being named Steppenwolf who, with his vast army of Parademons, lays siege to various corners of Earth to retrieve the Motherboxes and enact his ambition to alter the Earth into the image suitable for him and his master.

All that stands in this conqueror’s way are five remarkable individuals: Bruce Wayne, Diana Prince, Victor Stone, Barry Allen and Arthur Curry. These individuals must learn to become a team capable of protecting the world and living up to the legacy of the Man of Steel.

Image by Warner Bros. and DC

I went into Justice League hoping for the best but ultimately preparing for the worst because I was ready to find any reason to hate it. I came out of Justice League ready to give my official and resolute perspective: I believe Justice League did enough to not fail. In fact, it is my most forthcoming opinion that I actually enjoyed watching it!

By no means is the film perfect but I do believe that Zack Snyder and Chris Terrio with the assistance of Joss Whedon did in fact learn from the mistakes of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and they did make a fun, coherent, simple picture about the world’s finest heroes: Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, Cyborg and Superman.

What really held this film back was the fact that it was a short movie and I get the sense that there were a lot of scenes and details that were left on the cutting room floor. The editing team of David Brenner, Richard Pearson and Michael Walsh didn’t do justice (no pun intended) to allow the film to truly highlight the impact of these characters and I believe equal blame should fall upon Terrio, Snyder and Whedon because audiences didn’t get enough depth and scope on these amazing characters and especially what drives and motivates the villain of the film: Steppenwolf.

On the other hand, I think the plot of the film, despite how it was self-restrained, did enough to truly showcase these characters and focused on bringing these heroes together and that was in fact satisfying. It’s what the audiences came to see and it did enough to win them over.

The cast did a good job. We’ve already seen what Ben Affleck (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Henry Cavill (Clark Kent/Superman), Gal Gadot (Diana Prince/Wonder Woman), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Diane Lane (Martha Kent) and Jeremy Irons (Alfred Pennyworth) brought to the table as their respective characters from previous features but we see for the first time what Jason Momoa (Arthur Curry/Aquaman), Ezra Miller (Barry Allen/The Flash), Ray Fisher (Victor Stone/Cyborg) can bring to the table and they are in fact fun.

I was hoping to see more from the supporting cast including J.K. Simmons, Amber Heard, Ciarán Hinds, Connie Nielsen, Joe Morton and Billy Cudrup but I guess that’s what the future films are for.

Fabian Wagner’s cinematography was on-point, Danny Elfman did a good job with the score though I would have liked to hear what Junkie XL could have brought to the table instead, Patrick Tatopoulos’ production design was very nice, the art direction was good, the visual effects were solid, Michael Wilkinson’s costumes were awesome and Dominic Capon’s set decoration was good as well.

Do I count this as a major win for Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment? It does enough to not lose, I will say that. It’s not as good as Wonder Woman, but it is better than the films that came before Wonder Woman and that is victory enough.

Going forward, I still want Geoff Johns and the creative team to really consider handing the keys to another director for a potential sequel. Zack Snyder did an okay enough job to keep the future of the DCEU alive but these movies need to reach their full potential.

From this critic’s perspective, Justice League is good enough to go see.

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The dark comedic mastermind behind In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths is back with a vengeance! Martin McDonaugh’s new feature has a very simple plot: it’s about sending a message and that is exactly what the Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri does: it sends a very loud and strong message from the most dangerous adversary anyone wouldn’t want to cross: a very, very, very upset mother!

All Mildred Hayes wants is the truth. Who raped and murdered her daughter Angela and why hasn’t the Ebbing Police Department made any headway into her unsolved investigation? Mildred is a mom on a mission and she isn’t going to let anyone deter her from holding the police responsible for dropping the ball on her daughter’s case.

Mildred’s message is seen and heard loud and clear and it does good but it also creates enemies in and out of the police department and the entire town. Naturally the police rallies around the ailing Chief Willoughby, as does his many friends in town; among those who aren’t exactly pleased by the attention of the billboards includes her son Robbie and her abusive ex-husband but this woman is resolute and she’ll fight tooth and nail to see the fruits of her billboards flourish or sour.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an utter riot of a film! It’s just what you expect out of a Martin McDonaugh picture: dark, full-force, funny, tender in a few places, unresolved but the ride is well worth the price of admission.

McDonaugh’s film is written as superbly it was executed! This is a movie that keeps you guessing whether or not we’re going to get answers but floors you with its relentless force in telling what is happening and I couldn’t look away for an instant, no matter how graphic or tense it was.

Frances McDormand is a tour-de-force! She is a one-woman war-machine ready to kick, punch or fight anyone who tries to silence her and I loved her character’s bravado in this film. In fact, I think this is her best performance since Fargo!

The supporting cast is outstanding. Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, Zeljko Ivanek, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Sandy Martin, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Kerry Condon, Darrell Brit-Gibson, all very strong! This ensemble across the board utilizes the talent they possess to the fullest.

Ben Davis’ cinematography is very sharp, Jon Gregory’s editing is very precise, Carter Burwell’s music is good, the production design of Inbal Weinberg is well done, as is the Jesse Rosenthal’s art direction, the set decoration of Marissa Lombardo and the costume design of Melissa Toth are respectable as well.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is film I encourage audiences to see if they are in need of a wild-time! Mildred Hayes is certainly a character to remember and I credit Frances McDormand as well as Martin McDonaugh for crafting an original, dark, relevant picture that pulls no punches. This is definitely a must-see movie if you have the chance to see it!