Oscar Nominees Container

January 16, 2020

Draft

The Irishman

The movie opens up in an old and cozy retirement home, with senior citizens doing senior citizen things. After a couple of minutes of roaming through the retirement home, the camera focuses in on a very old and tired Robert De Niro, who soon spins the tales of his crime-ridden days of being a member of the Buffalino family, from his beginning to his end.

Directed by Martin Scorsese, The Irishman stars De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in this Italian mobster epic of a crime-ridden tale of the Buffalino family, and how hit man Frank Sheeran (De Niro) became an important cog to the machine. For a three and a half hour long film, it’s one of the longest movies I’ve ever seen. And I’m not complaining. Gangster movies like this and others (Kill The Irishman and The Departed to name a couple) have always held a dear place in my heart. The way the movie conveys the action of a thriller — but has the drama where you feel as if you were a part of the plan — is such a unique and amazing combination. The dialogue between characters is exceptional, to the point where you’d believe that the main actors were gangsters themselves.

As I mentioned, the action of a gangster film is quite important. If anything, it’s needed. Without the action, you’d basically be watching a soap opera between well-dressed men arguing over who gets what.
The Irishmen does satisfy the action requirement of a successful gangster film. In one scene, De Niro’s character contemplates the type of weapons to use to kill a target. After settling this matter, he enters a restaurant and causes havoc, killing his target in the process, in what feels like 10 seconds. Action like this is well-done and satisfying, but it’s sporadic throughout the film and is not continuous like other gangster movies. I never found this to be a downside, but it may be to some others who have trouble paying attention.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie. The directing was phenomenal. The actors excelled in their roles, whether it be dialogue or an action scene. The story of the movie was excellent, yet complex with many arcs connecting between characters. This is by far one of the best gangster films I’ve seen in a long time.

1917

It seems like most of the best or most well-known war films are set in World War II. Saving Private Ryan, Hogan’s Heroes, Hacksaw Ridge, Stalingrad, Das Boot, the list goes on. After all, why not? It’s only the largest conflict in human history involving most of its independent countries and taking place across four continents and two oceans. The potentials for great stories are almost limitless. 

But its counterpart, World War I, is often overlooked by Hollywood’s war movie industry. The reasons are clear enough, I’ll grant them that. When compared to its bigger brother, World War I was much more of a less exciting affair. There’s no clear good vs. evil conflict for the fate of the free world, and most of the stories that audiences can connect with take place in the dark, depressing and muddy trenches of the Western Front — as opposed to scenic Normandy hedgerows or the beaches of some faraway Pacific island.

There’s still countless settings and scenarios in the First World War left unexplored by cinema though, just waiting there to be delved into. 1917 is one of the boldest attempts I’ve seen at putting the history of the Great War onscreen that definitely pays off.

2019 was wildly successful for formulaic box office hits like Avengers and Star Wars and the big studios that made them. In such a commercial atmosphere, when I heard about it it was a mystery to me why anybody would try testing the waters with something like 1917. Another D-Day or Pearl Harbor movie might’ve had a better chance of competing with the year’s titans, but 1917 is a grounded and realistic drama set in the bleak trenches of Eastern France.

Director Sam Mendes was inspired to make the film by a story told to him by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, a veteran of the war in the British Army. It’s a very simple premise about some of the war’s countless forgotten heroes.

The plot is minimalistic and summed up in the first few minutes of the movie. Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) must cross into enemy territory to deliver a message calling off a suicidal attack that will cause the deaths of 16,000 men by the next morning.

Right away we have the stakes of the story established, These are young men conscripted or volunteering for a war in which they have no stakes who will die pointless deaths if the protagonists fail. It doesn’t — nor does it need to — get more complicated than that.

For the entire runtime, the narrative will concentrate exclusively on these two and their journey, meaning that much of the emotional weight of what happens is on the shoulders of their actors’ performances. And they do their jobs. Competently. That’s all that can be said about it. 1917 is driven more by the action than by the characters.

There are performances by more heavy-hitting actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong, but these are short and don’t give time for their talents to shine. As a result of this direction, the audience doesn’t feel much investment in the characters. We still want them to succeed in their task and when someone dies their absence is felt by us, but it’s not strong at all. That’s probably the film’s greatest weakness. 

It does manage to excel in other areas, especially atmosphere. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any piece of media capture the horror and destruction of World War I so well as 1917, which takes us through the ravaged hellscape of the Western Front. A theme of the movie not expressed through words or plot is the destruction man is capable of inflicting on each other and on the earth.

This is best shown during the No Man’s Land scene, enhanced by the film’s use of an unbroken shot perspective to make it look as if the movie was done in one single take. You see the churned-up and slippery mud thick with hundreds of dismembered corpses of men and horses with black swarms of flies around them. Craters at least a dozen feet deep scar the ground and fill up with mud-brown water. Barbed wire strewn everywhere runs across the field like weeds in a garden. It’s surreal in its horror, but you’re reminded these were the actual conditions men lived in for years.

Later on a ruined French town is shown. Buildings are left barely standing or with merely pillars and rubble left. The constant burning of many buildings or flares shot off by troops provides the only lighting remaining. It’s easy to see why many thought the war truly was the apocalypse finally come, because these scenes of a ravaged Earth are some of the most gruesome humanity can produce, and that’s what, in my opinion, what makes this film exceptional.

The unbroken shot method’s use in 1917 is something truly unique. It’s not a new invention by any means and it’s been used in countless movies but here it gives us the true average soldier’s perspective, something you don’t see in many war movies. When we see biplanes fighting overhead the main characters we don’t know what their missions are. We know as much as they do, which is only that they’re fighting, so we’re left with the question of why.

When we enter a booby-trapped German fortification we don’t see the perspective of the Germans who set those traps, just the victims and the seething hatred they feel for their enemy. All of this is enabled by the cinematographic technique’s use. It’s not used perfectly though. Other audience members may have felt differently but I and most people I talked to felt disoriented by the use of out of focus panning shots that didn’t really accomplish anything except that.

The movie’s soundtrack, composed by Thomas Newman, is absolutely something to write home about. It’s a mix of piano and orchestral compositions capable of highlighting the somber, eerie, triumphant, and chaotic moments in the film all at the same time. Along with Joker’s, it’s probably one of my favorite soundtracks of the year.

1917 isn’t a great movie, but it doesn’t have to be to do what it sets out to, which is create an immersive experience while paying a respectful homage to the real experiences that took place in that war. It’s easily the best war movie that’s been made since 2017’s Dunkirk.

Little Women

This Christmas the world delivered a gift to theatres everywhere, the new movie Little Women. It is a film full of family, love, forgiveness and loneliness. It is full of women uplifting women, heartbreak and passions that seem too hard to fight for. Little Women shows the effects social injustice has on growing women and the effects of the Civil War on families, all while adding humor and drama into the mix. 

Released on Dec. 25,, Little Women follows the lives of the four March sisters: Jo played by Saoirse Ronan, Beth played by Eliza Scanlen, Meg played by Emma Watson, and Amy played by Florence Pugh. During the aftermath of the Civil War, the four sisters are faced with challenges ranging from unfair stereotypes to finding happiness in the messed-up world of Massachusetts. 

The characters are all sculpted from their own material, each being different than the other. Jo is ambitious and headstrong, trying the follow her passion for writing. Beth is quiet and kind. She plays piano for her family but fears anyone else hearing her talent. Meg is responsible and caring, watching out for her sisters even if it means giving up what she wants. Amy is loud and outgoing, and a hopeless romantic who feels unloved. 

Each one of these characters is played by a strong female actress. The film industry needs more movies with women leads, and Little Women gives us that and so much more. It shows problems with history that we still struggle with today and teaches young girls that they aren’t the only ones facing problems. 

Ronan gives a heart-wrenching performance during a scene where Jo discusses love with her mother. Jo talks about feeling love and giving love and the loneliness that she feels. As you watch the scene play out, you can see the emotion painted across her face and feel the emotion in yourself. When a movie has that strong of an impact on the audience, it’s usually never forgotten. 

As you watch the movie, you may get the urge to go home and hug your family. The March family — first created by Louisa May Alcott in her novel Little Women in 1869 — is made up of members who love each other unconditionally and look out for each other. The love you see between the characters is so strong you can feel it. The sisters are all so different but fit together like a perfect puzzle. It shows how we should celebrate our differences and watch out for one another.

The film uses flashbacks to show how things have changed in the family over time. The audience gets to see the struggles the family goes through and what the overcame.

Even though the movie deals with heavy topics and important lessons, humor is a big part of the film. The sisters are a goofy bunch who puts on plays and tease each other as young kids do. The humor increases the film’s entertainment quality and gives breathing space for the audience between heavy scenes. 

Little Women is a Christmas gift that I will always remember and use throughout my life. The film teaches so many life lessons of family, love, forgiveness and loneliness in a mere two hours and 15 minutes. 

Joker

Something I’d never experienced before with any other movie in my life: a full TSA-style security check in the lobby of the theater before I went to see it. That movie was Joker, an in-depth character study of the oldest and most prominent of the superhero Batman’s rogues gallery, the clown prince of crime.

When the first trailer for the movie released in May, I could tell this would be different from any of the other movies DC had put out in its seven years of producing a cinematic universe of films in an attempt to imitate Marvel/Disney’s success with their own. No green screen backgrounds or carefully choreographed fight scenes here, just raw emotion and character-driven conflict. 

A month before its theater release, it won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. But my hype was lessened by the mixed critical reviews and from also mixed receptions by Californian and Australian audiences lucky enough to have been able to see the movie before me.

So with my expectations tempered, I sat down to just try and enjoy the next two hours of my life. And enjoy them I did.

Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars the incredibly talented Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. While drawing inspiration from comic depictions of the character, the movie presents a unique take as Arthur Fleck, a professional clown suffering from mental illness who aspires to be a stand-up comedian, standing out amid the urban decay and grime of 1980s Gotham City.

Joaquin’s performance is the undeniable highlight of the movie, as expected from the accomplished actor. He blends into the role seamlessly, losing 52 pounds to achieve the look of a malnourished, frail and sick man. The janky way he walks, the chilling, hyena-like cackle, his trailing and often interrupted speech makes you forget entirely that you’re watching someone pretending to be a character.

The Joker is easily one of the most interesting and versatile comic book villains ever written, so it’s natural that every actor to ever portray the character in cinema has brought something of his own to the table. Joaquin’s take on the Joker has elicited comparisons to the Oscar-winning performance of the late Heath Ledger as the character in 2008’s “Dark Knight.”

Ledger and Phoenix both give their performances their all, but the similarities end there. The Joker of this movie is an entirely different beast from anything we’ve seen in film or in comics before. Traditionally, when the origins of the Joker are revealed — if at all — then it’s that he fell into a vat of chemicals during a botched robbery as a small-time criminal that gets interrupted by the Batman, driving him mad and bleaching his skin white.

But the young Bruce Wayne depicted before the murder of his parents in Crime Alley aside, there’s no Batman here.

Arthur Fleck suffers from a plethora of mental conditions, including one that causes random, compulsive bouts of laughing. He lives alone with his elderly mother without a friend in the world and scraping by as a party clown, where he’s abused by his boss and coworkers. This is a man who’s driven to evil not by chemicals, but by a world to which he doesn’t even exist. 

To say that without Joaquin’s performance the movie would feel incomplete is an understatement. His acting is what carries this movie to greatness – and that’s not a bad thing at all. This isn’t to say that other aspects of the film aren’t exceptional.

The cinematography and score of the movie are absolutely on point. Lawrence Sher’s work as cinematographer is astonishing, and I can say with confidence that there’s not a single bad or even mediocre shot in the movie. Drawing inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s films of the 1970s like Taxi Driver, he makes Gotham feel like a place of darkness and desperation, overflowing with trash.

Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is likewise worthy of praise. She creates a soundtrack evoking fear, anxiety, sorrow and tension at exactly the right moments. The Joker’s cello leitmotif is an absolutely haunting piece played during the character’s dark moments in the story. Upbeat period music from earlier in the 20th century is used strategically in certain places, echoing Arthur’s inner torments and his unreachable dream of a better life that taunts him.

Action scenes are sparse in the movie — something rare for a comic book movie, but it works to the film’s advantage and this is, after all, a character study, not your traditional “save the world” plot present in most superhero films. When they do happen, they’re short, brutal and violent, fitting well with the overall tone. It never feels gratuitous or out of place at any point.

There are some characters in the movie who I of course won’t spoil that feel like their potential is wasted or underused. In addition, there’s a subplot with the Wayne family that doesn’t really go anywhere or contribute to the plot. It just feels like the film’s way of saying “Hey, this is still kind of a Batman movie,” while also managing to set itself up for a sequel.

Some of the thematic choices made are questionable. While Arthur’s transformation into the Joker is mostly handled very well, there are some scenes which result in unintentional or even inappropriate comedy. For example, after a dramatic dialogue midway through the run time that’s set outside Gotham General Hospital, Arthur walks face first into a sliding glass door marked “exit.” These are the parts of the movie where it begins to show that the director was also responsible for the Hangover trilogy.

While flawed in these regards, the story manages to be outstanding otherwise. It’s a slow-burn progression that gaslights its audience and plays with your emotions at every turn.

Almost right away, it’s revealed that Arthur is an unreliable narrator, and certain scenes in the movie are nothing more than delusions of his. We’re explicitly told some of them, but others are left up to audience interpretation. Many other plot elements are left ambiguous, but not in a way that frustrates you. Just enough are given definite conclusions to be satisfying, but just enough are left open to leave you thinking about the movie for days after you leave the theater.

Even on my second viewing of the movie, I got just as much out of it as I did the first, finding small details I had missed that pointed towards certain answers for these unresolved questions, and some towards different answers.

All of the superb production values are best showcased during the climactic scene of the movie — those who’ve watched the movie will know what I speak of — a scene so intense you find your heart racing by the time its over as the score steadily builds, as does the tension between characters. It’s presented as a dialogue between the Joker and another character. While the former is obviously presented as having gone too far and insane, you can’t help but feel that what he’s saying is true in a way. And even though you know how it’s going to end already, it still shocks you nonetheless.

Of course, this is offset somewhat by a cut to a scene with “La Cucaracha” playing in another moment of tone-killing comedy.

This brings us to the message of the movie. The impression it leaves for the audience. And this is what the media was worried about. This is why myself and every other patron of Regal Palmetto Grande on Thursday was treated like a potential terrorist. Any review on this movie needs to at least touch on the controversy that has surrounded the film since its reveal.

What the movie is about — a young and socially isolated male taking out his anger on a society that he feels has wronged him — is a narrative that has become all too familiar in our country today. Mass shootings committed by people who fit this description have scarred us as a people. The 2012 Aurora, Colo. shooting where a man dressed as the Joker killed 12 at a screening of Dark Knight Rises certainly came into the memory of many when details for this movie emerged.

All it took was a handful of cynical jokes on social media being overblown for the media to break into full-blown hysteria over the movie being “incel propaganda.” In doing this, they completely miss the message of the movie and themselves embody it.

And that message is that the monsters in our society who commit horrible acts are created by us, through our refusal to help them and our mockery of them. It’s the real answer to the question posed by the title character in the aforementioned climactic scene: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?”

So in spite of the media firestorm that it’s managed to incite, Joker truthfully is a groundbreaking movie that will likely redefine the boundaries of what’s possible for a comic book movie, in the same way that Avengers or Dark Knight did. It presents a profound and tragic story capped off with an Oscar-worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix worth seeing for anyone who’s been wanting a new high in cinematic standards.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

The last Sunday of the summer at 7 PM was the time a group of friends and I elected to go out and see the latest Quentin Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It was either that or the Dora movie so I was elated. I went into the theater knowing next to nothing about the movie, only having seen a poster of it and knowing offhand that it was set in the 1960s.

My expectations were based off my love for Tarantino’s previous movies, which have both broken and defined genres in film. I was not disappointed, Once Upon is a fine addition to the acclaimed director’s cinema anthology.

More famous critics have labeled this Tarantino’s “love letter to ‘60s Hollywood” and that’s certainly what it is. Any proper review of Once Upon must be prefaced with this warning. It’s easy for those unfamiliar with the movie’s tidal wave of pop culture references to become lost in what can seem like inconsequential plot threads and characters introduced only to suddenly vanish from the narrative.

As much as it pains me to sound like an elitist saying this, it’s not a movie for everyone. Even die-hard Tarantino fans will find this comedy-drama to be vastly different from his earlier and more action-oriented works such as Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Bastards. But if you’re nostalgic for the era of counterculture, hippies, classic rock and roll, muscle cars and Richard Nixon, then this is the film for you.

Academy Award winner Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton, an actor famous for his lead role in the ‘50s television western series Bounty Law. It’s now 1969, and he finds the glory days of his career have slipped away from him. Brad Pitt co-stars as Cliff Booth, Rick’s longtime friend and stunt double who cannot find work elsewhere because of a persistent rumor that he murdered his own wife.

The chemistry between these two in their roles is nothing short of phenomenal. Rick’s neurotic, self-loathing and anxious personality contrasts beautifully with Cliff’s laid-back, affable and loyal nature. This is easily some of the best work DiCaprio and Pitt have done in their entire careers; they fit into their roles so well it’s one of the rare instances where I don’t mentally refer to their characters by the name of the famous actor playing them.

Alongside Rick and Cliff are a colorful variety of other characters, both historical and fictional, all weaving into the unconventional narrative of the film. The central plot thread revolves around Rick trying to reignite his acting career by guest-starring on an episode of the TV western Lancer.

However, the other plot threads unexpectedly concern the Manson family—an actual cult centered around Charles Manson, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1971 for orchestrating the murders of seven people. One of these plot threads primarily involves Sharon Tate, played by the excellent Margot Robbie. Historically, Tate was an actress famous for her role in The Wrecking Crew and was one of the Manson family’s victims along with her unborn child.

The plot threads converge in the narrative’s ahistorical ending, the inherent nature of which is one of the film’s several controversies. There are many ways to thematically interpret the ending. Tarantino has stated his belief that the Tate murders represented for him and many others the end of the Hollywood golden age and the generation of actors and filmmakers to which the film’s ensemble of characters belong.

Symbolically, it represents a wrong made hypothetically right for Tarantino. In this regard, it resembles the ahistorical assassination of Adolf Hitler and his inner circle by the Jewish protagonists of Tarantino’s earlier Inglorious Bastards.

There are others who would claim the ending’s excesses are in poor taste or otherwise disrespect the victims of the Tate murders, all of which are completely valid complaints. Whether or not you, the viewer, will find the conclusion of Once Upon offensive or not is based on how you personally interpret it.

As is characteristic of Tarantino’s directing style, dialogue is used heavily as a means to advance the plot and build characters. The lines are not as well written as they possibly could be, or even as well as those in some of Tarantino’s other work. But on the whole, it feels authentic.

Scenes of plot advancement are intercut with cinematographically stunning scenes of characters driving around faithfully recreated 1969 LA with period music from the likes of Simon and Garfunkel and Deep Purple playing on the radio. This synthesizes with the amazing attention to detail with costume design and other technical aspects to lend the film a dreamlike aesthetic I’ve only ever seen with few other movies.

Perhaps Once Upon’s greatest flaw, esotericism aside, is its tendency to drag its heels through its 160-minute runtime. You get through a solid half of the movie before any true development is made in the plot. Excellent tension is built up in the second half of the film leading into the conclusion, but unlike with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, it does not hold itself up the second time watching when you’re aware of what’s coming. This all contributes to what I would call a low level of rewatchability.

If watching the nostalgic passion project of a middle-aged white male director I’ve been fawning over for 12 paragraphs now doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then I am by no means shaming you. This movie is not for everyone. But, in short, if you’re interested in the flamboyant period of Hollywood history in which this is set and have an eye for good performances and nice camera shots, then do yourself a favor and go see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

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