Top That! My Ten Favorite Films of 2019

It’s Oscar weekend, so I figured now is as good a time as any to announce my ten favorite movies of 2019. There’s not a whole lot of science that goes into my process; it’s mostly gut feeling that determines what goes into this list and how I’m arranging it. The emotional response is the most reliable metric I have — how well have these movies resonated with me, how long have they lingered in my mind? How did they make me feel when I first saw them? To a lesser degree, how much replay value do these movies have? Do I want to watch them again? Would I pay to watch them again? Not that the money makes that much of a difference, but these things can still be useful in making final decisions. 

With that said, these are the ten titles that made it. I suppose one of the benefits of missing a lot of movies last year (and I mean A LOT) is that I’m not feeling that bad for leaving some big ones off of this list. So I suppose you could call this Top That fairly off the beaten path. What do we have in common? What do we have different? 


Aw hell, there goes the neighborhood. Well, sort of. Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to the place that made him super-famous (and super-rich) turns out to be far more “mellow” than expected. Sparing one or two outbursts, considering the era in which it is set — of Charles Manson, Sharon Tate and a whole host of hippie-culty killings — this is not exactly the orgy of violence some of us (okay, me) feared it might be. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is, tonally, a different and maybe more compassionate QT but this fairly meandering drama also bears the marks of the revisionist historian he has shown himself to be in things like Inglourious Basterds. He gets a little loosey goosey with facts and certain relationships but that comes second to the recreation of a specific time period, one which TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double, BFF and gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are not so much strolling but struggling through. It’s the end of the ’60s and their careers are on the decline as the times they are a’changin’ in the land of Broken Dreams. Once Upon a Time does not skimp on capital-C characters and is quite possibly his most purely enjoyable entry to date.

My review of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood 

It’s not often you see Mark Duplass in a bonafide tear-jerker, so if nothing else Paddleton proves his versatility as an actor. Don’t worry though, this movie is still very quirky. He plays Michael, a man in his early 40s dying of cancer and who chooses to forego chemo in order to spend his remaining days doing the same things he’s always done with his upstairs neighbor and best friend in the whole wide world, Andy, played by a heartbreaking Ray Romano. Over the span of a very well spent but not always easy 90 minutes we wrestle with the philosophical ramifications of someone choosing to end their life on their own terms, contemplate the possibility of the afterlife and, of course, watch kung fu, eat pizza and learn the rules of this pretty cool game called Paddleton — think squash/racquetball played off the side of a building. Beyond the controversial subject matter, Paddleton offers one of the more tender and honest portrayals of male friendship I saw all year. And that ending . . . wow.

My review of Paddleton

Thanks to a random visit to my local Walmart Redbox I got to catch up with this ingenious little chamber piece from Swedish filmmaker Gustav Möller. It opened in America in October 2018 but I didn’t see it until March 2019. I was so impressed with the set-up and eventual payoff I just could not leave it off this list. The Guilty (Den Skyldige) is about a recently demoted cop working the phones at a crisis hotline center near Stockholm. He clearly doesn’t want to be there. His day livens up when he fields a call from a woman in distress. As the situation deteriorates we learn a great deal about the man and the officer, who finds himself calling upon all his resources and his experience to resolve the crisis before his shift is over. The only other main characters in this fascinating drama are inanimate objects. It’s the kind of minimalist yet deeply human storytelling that makes many Hollywood dramas seem over-engineered by comparison.

My review of The Guilty 

Without a doubt one of the feel-good movies of 2019, The Peanut Butter Falcon is to some degree a modern reinvention of classic Mark Twain that finds Shia LeBeouf at a career-best as Tyler, a miscreant with a good heart living in the Outer Banks and trying to make ends meet . . . by stealing other fishermen’s stuff. When Tyler encounters Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who has found his way aboard his johnboat after having eluded his caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and the nursing home in which he’s been placed by the state, the two embark on a journey of discovery that — yeah, you know where this is going. TPBF may be predictable but this is the very definition of the destination not mattering anywhere near as much as the journey itself. That destination, though, is pretty great. Especially when you come to the realization that it’s none other than Thomas Haden Church who is the vaunted “Saltwater Redneck.” I haven’t even mentioned Zack Gottsagen as the break-out star of this movie. He’s nothing short of fantastic, and one of the main reasons why I’m such a fan of this little indie gem.

My review of The Peanut Butter Falcon

Two words: Space Pirates.

And I’m talking about legitimately lawless assholes running amok on the dark side of the moon — more the “I’m the Captain now” type and less Captain Hook. The escape sequence across no-man’s land is like something out of Mad Max and even better it’s one of the most obvious (yet compelling) manifestations of Ad Astra‘s cynicism toward mankind. Of course we’re going to colonize the Moon. And there’ll be Wendy’s and Mickey D’s in whatever Crater you live closest to.

But this (granted, rare) action scene is merely one of many unforgettable passages in James Gray’s hauntingly beautiful and melancholic space sojourn about an emotionally reserved astronaut (Brad Pitt) in search of his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones), an American hero thought to have disappeared but now is suspected to be the cause of a major disturbance in deep space. My favorite thing about Ad Astra is the somber tone in which it speaks. This is not your typical uplifting drama about human accomplishment. Despite Hoyte van Hoytema’s breathtaking cinematography Ad Astra does not romanticize the cosmos and what they may hold in store for us. I loved the audacity of this film, the near-nihilism. I understand how that didn’t sit well with others though. It’s not the most huggable movie out there.

My review of Ad Astra 

James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari almost feels like a response to the vocal many bashing Hollywood for not making movies “like they used to.” The ghost of Steve McQueen hovers over this classic-feeling presentation of a true-life story. Ford v Ferrari describes how the Americans went toe-to-toe with the superior Italians at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race that takes place annually in the namesake French town and tests the very limits of mechanical integrity and driver performance. It’s truly remarkable how the director and his team juggle so many moving parts to make a movie about a fairly esoteric subject not only cohesive but endlessly entertaining. That’s of course in no small part due to the performances of Christian Bale and Matt Damon in the leading roles, and a strong supporting cast who are a lot of fun in their various capacities as corporate executives, passionate motor heads and supportive family members. The movie this most reminds me of is Ron Howard’s Rush, which was about Formula 1 racing. As great as that one was, Ford v Ferrari just might have topped it. Not only are the racing sequences thrillingly realized, the real-life sting at the end adds an emotional depth to it that I was not expecting.

I’m going to be blunt here: The Academy screwed the pooch by not inviting Todd Douglas Miller to the party this year. Forgive me for not really caring what the other documentaries achieved this year, I’m too upset over this one right now. Assembled entirely out of rare, digitally remastered footage of the successful Moon landing in July 1969 — the audio track culled from some 11,000 hours of tape! — and lacking any sort of distractions in the form of voice-over narration or modern-day interviews, this “direct cinema” approach puts you right in the space shuttle with the intrepid explorers Neil Armstrong (whose biopic First Man, which came out the year prior, makes for a killer double-feature and also what I suspect is to blame for Apollo 11‘s embarrassing snub), as well as Buzz Aldrin and the often forgotten Michael Collins (he orbited the Moon while the kids went out to play). Just like those precious first steps from the Eagle lander, Apollo 11, this time capsule of a documentary is a breathtaking accomplishment.

Waves is the third film from Texan-born indie director Trey Edward Shults and in it he has something pretty extraordinary. Set in the Sunshine State, Waves achieves a level of emotional realism that feels pretty rare. It’s a heartbreaking account of an African-American family of four torn apart in the aftermath of a loss. The cause-and-effect narrative bifurcates into two movements, one focused on the athletically gifted Tyler (a phenomenal Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and how he struggles to cope with an injury that may well derail his life plans; the other on his neglected sister Emily (an equally moving but much more subdued Taylor Russell) and how she deals with her own guilt. Beyond its excruciatingly personal story Waves also has a stylistic quality that is impossible to ignore. As a movie about what’s happening on the inside, very active camerawork and the moody, evocative score — provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — work in concert to place you in the headspace of the main characters. It all adds up to an experience that’s felt more than just passively taken in, and by the end of it you’ll feel both rewarded and exhausted.

This was a brutal thing to do, putting Parasite at #2. It’s sooo good. It’s actually my very first experience with a Bong Joon Ho movie and I feel like I have caught him in peak season. True, the application of metaphor isn’t very subtle in this genre-bending, history-making thriller (its nomination for an Oscar Best Pic is a first for Korean cinema) but then not much is subtle about the rapidly industrializing nation’s chronic class divide. The story is as brilliantly conceived as the characters are morally ambiguous, with a few twists stunning you as just when you think you’ve nailed where this is all going, the movie turns down a different and darker alley. Sam Mendes’ 1917 is going to win Best Pic this year, but you won’t hear me complaining if some-crazy-how Parasite ends up stealing the hardware.

My review of Parasite

Nothing else 2019 had to offer immersed me more than the sophomore effort by Robert Eggers, the stunningly talented director behind 2016’s equally disturbing The Witch. The Lighthouse is seven different kinds of weird, a unique tale about two lightkeeps stranded on a remote New England island and running on dwindling supplies of booze and sanity while trying not to die by storm or via paranoid delusions. It’s got two firecracker performances from Willem Dafoe (whose career to date has arguably been just a warm-up for Thomas Wake) and Robert Pattinson, who are expert in selling the desperation here. Beyond that, the story put together by the brothers Eggers is bursting with metaphorical meaning and indelible imagery. Best of all it becomes really hard to tell what’s real and what’s fantasy. Man, I tell ya — this movie cast a spell on me that still hasn’t worn off.

My review of The Lighthouse


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMDb

Month in Review: September ’19

I don’t really know what happened, but in September I found a bit more rhythm and motivation to put up content. Maybe I was starting to feel guilty calling myself a “blogger” by putting up nothing but empty wrap-around posts and the occasional streamed review (see August — that was dire!). I have been one drag-and-drop away from inserting a John Wick gif declaring my triumphant return but the truth is I can’t provide any assurance October will be the same, so I’ll hold off on making anything Official.

It also helped I think that September supplied some really cool new movies, including a pair of potential end-of-year favorites in The Peanut Butter Falcon and Ad Astra — two distinctly different movies that each earned really high scores (4.5/5) for different reasons. The former for its pure entertainment value and winsomeness and the latter for its bold vision, impeccable visuals and an awards-worthy performance from Brad Pitt.

Without further gas-bagging, here’s what happened on Thomas J during September:


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Ad Astra; The Peanut Butter Falcon; Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

Streaming: I Am Mother; Mission of Honor (Hurricane)

Alternative Content: The Marvelous Brie Larson #5


Bite Sized Reviews: Hulu vs Netflix — Fight! 

Body at Brighton Rock · April 26, 2019 · Directed by Roxanne Benjamin · Clocking in at just under the hour-and-a-half mark this disappointingly uneventful “survival” thriller with a millennial lean is one of those rare examples of a movie needing to be just a hair longer for some of the elements to come together in a more satisfying way. Roxanne Benjamin writes and directs her first stand-alone feature film and if there’s one thing distinct about it it’s her style, her unapologetic fandom for “Hitchcock Hour” — the film presented as what could pass for a weekly installment into an anthology of close calls and misadventures. Body at Brighton Rock is defined by atmosphere rather than performance, one that’s both complimented and contrived by a screeching soundtrack provided by The Gifted. Bookended by 60s-style title cards, her story follows a rookie park ranger named Wendy (Karina Fontes), an “indoor type” who wants to prove her worth by doing some actual Park Ranger-ing. Of course the map-misplacing Wendy gets more than she bargains for when she stumbles across a lifeless body away from the trail she’s supposed to be on and when, through a combination of “circumstance” and “incompetence,” her communications devices all crap out on her — the dreaded dead phone icon, no!! — she’s left to fend for herself against “the elements.” I’m using a lot of quotation marks here because a lot of the movie feels superficial, not least of which being these so-called dire circumstances. Nearly 24 hours spent lost in the woods would suck in real life, an ordeal certainly worthy of Facebook status. But 127 Hours this is not. Body at Brighton Rock is, yes, impressively atmospheric and Fontes makes beans and rice out of what little she’s given but cinematic this also is not. It’s too staid in the action department, too plodding in detail — at least to support the ridiculous proposal that is the twist ending, something that’s clearly meant to evoke the Master of Horror and Suspense but ends up evoking more laughs than anything else. (2/5) 

Between Two Ferns: The Movie · September 20, 2019 · Directed by Scott Aukerman · Even as a fan regularly overwhelmed by fits of the giggles by Zach Galifianakis’ tawdry and tacky roast-the-guest web series Between Two Ferns, I’m not sure we really needed it to be stretched into a feature-length movie. Predictably, the movie’s best bits are the bits themselves, with the King of Awkward hosting/”humiliating” the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Keanu Reeves, Tessa Thompson, David Letterman, Brie Larson, Awkwafina, John Legend, Adam Scott, Tiffany Haddish, Chance the Rapper, Paul Rudd, Peter Dinklage, Jon Hamm, Hailee Steinfeld and Matthew McConaughey, as he feeds on both personal and professional insecurities. The plot, as it were, finds Galifianakis and his trusted production crew road tripping across the country in an attempt to secure 10 more episodes so the show host can placate his boss (Will Ferrell) and thereby fulfill his dream of becoming a late night talk show host. In between the ruthless onslaught of just . . . absurdly personal and uncomfortable questioning the movie half-heartedly fumbles around with a search for “true friendship” and “artistic integrity.” It may have been all the beer I was imbibing during, but it’s impressive how these actors manage to keep a straight face during these interrogations. That, I feel, is the entire point of the exercise — watching actors act awkward, and the results are surprisingly homogenous: The downward glances, the lip bites, the eye-rolls. David “Santa Clause on Crack” Letterman’s words of wisdom for Zach are also fairly revealing. Beyond that, Between Two Ferns: The Movie gets a flubbed high-five just for featuring Matt Berninger (frontman of The National) in a brief scene at a bar, singing alongside Phoebe Bridgers on an original duet (“Walking on a String”). (3/5)


What’s your most anticipated movie in October? 

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

Release: Friday, July 26, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is among the biggest names in the biz today and in his ninth and apparently penultimate film he’s relying on clout more than ever to get mass audiences invested in something that he takes as seriously as Jules does Ezekiel 25:17 — and that’s cinematic history. Yawn if you must, but with QT you can safely assume you’re going to be getting something with a little personality. With Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood he’s reminding us of how great the Golden Age was, those good old days when original narratives and marquee names were actually worth a damn. More specifically, he’s harkening back to an era when creative collaboration meant even stunt doubles had a say in what would happen in a particular scene.

Sure, this grand paean to how it used to be is kind of predictable from a guy who rejected film school and yet still obsesses over just about every technical, romantic aspect of filmmaking — he’s one of those loud voices decrying digital projection and remember how he rolled out The Hateful Eight as a “roadshow” presentation, replete with intermission and everything? Hollywood is both his home and his Alma Mater, the place where he took in more films as a kid than any human being might reasonably be asked to view in a lifetime, constantly observing, absorbing, studying in his own way.

However, the way he carries out his long-gestating passion project proves a little less predictable. Dare I say it’s even . . . wholesome? Maybe I shouldn’t get too carried away.

In Once Upon a Time (the title an obvious homage to Italian director Sergio Leone, father of the so-called spaghetti western and a huge influence on Tarantino) he trades out buckets of blood for buckets of nostalgia. The surprisingly gentle, more meditative approach finds the gorehound putting the clamps on his violent tendencies, creating a more good-natured, less bloody affair that isn’t propelled by a single narrative objective as much as it is a mood, a feeling of uncertainty brought about by change. Indeed, Once Upon a Time is a different cinematic beast, chiefly in that it isn’t very beastly, not in comparison to his last three outings, a string of ultra-violent, in-your-face western/revenge thrillers beginning with the Nazi-slaying Inglourious Basterds (2008) and culminating in what is arguably his ugliest and most deliberately nasty The Hateful Eight (2015).

The timeline spans just a couple of days but a TRT that approaches three hours, coupled with extraordinary period-specific detail, make it feel like a tapestry that covers much more ground. Set in 1969, at the crusted edges of what was once Golden, the story mostly concerns the career tailspin of fictional TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as well as the relationship he shares with his stunt-double, driver and all-around gopher Cliff Booth (a briefly shirtless Brad Pitt — contractually obligated, I’m quite sure). Their friendship takes center stage as the two professionals are forced to negotiate rapid change. This was a time when people like Cliff had more creative input in productions, where actors and their doubles were attached at the hip working on multiple projects together. Today freelancing has opened up myriad opportunities, thereby eroding that closeness and this is just one aspect of the modern industry the filmmaker clearly laments.

I mentioned earlier how big a deal the name is. Nowhere is his status as Big Time Filmmaker more apparent than in the cast he is graced with here. It’s an embarrassment of riches Tarantino somehow manages to allocate just the right way. I just named DiCaprio and Pitt and that’s only two of the three principles. Famous faces are everywhere, in bit parts and in more extensive supporting roles. Australian rep Margot Robbie joins them in a tangential role as American tragicon Sharon Tate, who moves in next door to Rick on Cielo Drive with her famous director husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), setting up the much-talked about arc that puts a wholly unexpected spin on one of the darkest chapters to unfold in 1960s Tinseltown.

Elsewhere, Al Pacino plays a hot-shot agent named Marvin Schwarz (that’s SchWARz, by the way, not SchwarTZ) channelling — yes, still — Tony Montana. He’s here to present a gut-check for the sensitive actor, reaching out to Rick with an offer to take part in an Italian Western. Rick’s appreciative of Marv’s offer but outside his presence he’s inconsolable, confiding in Cliff that he believes this is a sign that his career is well and truly over. Cliff, however, would like him to reconsider, because hey, he’s Rick “f-word” Dalton, and Cliff can’t get any work until Rick does because of vicious rumors circulating the old mill about the stunt man having murdered his wife some years back. Ergo, we go to Italy, right?

Bruce Dern is in it briefly as George Spahn, the owner of Spahn Movie Ranch, the site where many westerns were once filmed, now overrun by a cult of hippies who turn out to be not exactly all about peace and love. While we’re at it, it isn’t just in the way he handles the Tate/Polanski angle where QT shows restraint (and paradoxically absolutely no mercy, if only toward those “damn hippies.”) A sidebar shows Cliff making a brief visit to the Ranch after dropping off a scantily clad hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and while he’s there he’d like to check in with his old friend and the now-blind owner to ensure he’s not being taken advantage of by these layabouts. It’s a scene pregnant with tension, a stand-off from a western wherein long, cold stares precipitate a sudden and brief outburst of violence. But Tarantino feels nothing but contempt for those brainwashed by Manson’s Helter Skelter bullshit, turning the tables on them and converting what should have been another grisly murder into something resembling a farce.

Then there are bit parts snatched up by the likes of “intrinsically 60s” Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator/Cliff’s former boss, and a highly entertaining Mike Moh doing a bold impression of famed martial arts actor Bruce Lee; Timothy Olyphant is a co-star on one of Rick’s late-career shows; Damon Harriman, for the second time this year plays Charles Manson (albeit in a cameo here while his other appearance was in the second season of Mindhunter — it must be those eyes); and Luke Perry in what turns out to be his final screen appearance (he passed away in March). Tarantino also makes a brilliant discovery in newcomer Julia Butters, who plays a precocious child actor who takes Rick to school in on-set professionalism. All of these characters add little considerations to the world Tarantino is reconstructing — resurrecting — and while some arcs leave more to be desired they each contribute something of value.

The pacing of the film no doubt languishes. It’s not his most action-packed film ever. In fact, save for that controversial house call, it’s his least. Yet because Tarantino is so obsessively compelled to detail environments and lives it might just be his most insightful. Not a scene feels wasted or unnecessary, maybe a little indulgent in length at times, but excisable — I’m not convinced. The rich mise en scène steals you away to a decade long since buried underneath modern multiplexes touting the latest CGI spectacles, and I particularly enjoyed the little meta moments he provides, such as clips from Dalton’s most popular gig Bounty Law, or when Robbie’s Tate decides to check out a matinee showing of her new movie The Wrecking Crew at the old Bruin Theatre — the latter a nod to QT himself attempting to check out True Romance (a movie which he wrote but did not direct) when he was a young pup.

All of these details add up to the very antithesis of the movie I had anticipated when it was first announced. Once Upon a Time is proof that you can indeed teach an old reservoir dog new tricks. Or, rather, Tarantino has taught himself some new tricks and empathy looks good on him. He’s successfully created a modern fairytale out of Old Hollywood. It’s a surprising movie, one full of surprising moves but still imbued with that irascible energy of his. It’s one hell of a good time.

Margot Robbie puts her best foot forward as Sharon Tate

Recommendation: It’s a film full of intrigue for those up for a little history lesson as far as the industry and some of the early ingredients that formed the QT soup are concerned, while reports of “less violence!” and “more sympathy!” can only be a good thing in terms of attracting a broader audience.

Rated: R

Running Time: 161 mins.

Quoted: “When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Mission of Honor (Hurricane)

Release: Friday, March 15, 2019 

→Netflix

Written by: Robert Ryan; Alastair Galbraith

Directed by: David Blair

David Blair’s World War II film arrived on American shores earlier this year as Mission of Honor. It was originally titled Hurricane. Just to be clear this is not an account of violent weather but instead one of heroic actions taken by a cadre of mostly Polish and a handful of Czechoslovakian fighter pilots who joined the British RAF in August of 1940, united in the cause to stop Hitler and specifically motivated by their love of their own country.

Mission of Honor isn’t exactly destined for the Library of Congress for its contributions to cinema or society as a whole, but it’s too well made to ignore and the story it tells is equal parts inspiring and devastating. Director David Blair is a patriot but he isn’t afraid of exposing some uglier truths. He’s made a suitably grim movie about an utterly thankless assignment. He directs a story loosely based on real events by Robert Ryan and Alastair Galbraith.

Mission of Honor follows the exploits of a group of hardened fighter pilots led by the stoic Jan Zumbach, played by Iwan Rheon (you might recognize him as the psychopathic Ramsey Bolton in Game of Thrones), who escape the oppression in Poland and enlist with the British RAF. They want to do whatever they can to help. They are to be overseen by Canadian RAF pilot John Kent (Milo Gibson). The sixth son of Mel Gibson is graciously provided one of the few moments of levity the film can muster, shown having an amusingly difficult time corralling the troops. It gets a bit silly through here, but trust me — you’re going to want to stuff some of that comic relief into a flask and take it with you from here. Impassioned, steely-nerved and at times combative, these are well-qualified, highly skilled pilots who, as time progresses, become increasingly distressed by the reality of what’s happening back home.

The drama depicts multiple battles being waged. The dogfights between the Hawker Hurricanes (hence the film’s original title) and the enemy Messerschmitts comprise most of the action. These sequences are fairly engaging but are somewhat undermined by poor computer renderings and some awkward tight zooms that insist we really notice the actors “in” the cockpit. When it comes to demonstrating skill, emphasis is placed upon ace pilot Witold Urbanowicz (Marcin Dorociński), who was single-handedly responsible for 17 confirmed kills, while in stark contrast to that deeply religious Gabriel Horodyszcz (Adrien Zareba) is shown grappling with the philosophical ramifications of killing.

On the ground at the Northolt Base we have the internal clashing of culture and personality, the Poles often at odds with the refinement of the British RAF. Language barriers and emotionality generate a lot of tension within the ranks. The actors bring an everyman-like quality to proceedings, though these good-old-boys are ultimately overshadowed by the quietly raging Zumbach, the striking Welsh actor using his piercing green eyes to convey something about war that words cannot. Meanwhile battles for common decency are being waged as women fight their way into positions previously occupied by men. Blair examines the working lives and social environment for women at the time, using Stefanie Martini’s (fictitious) Phyllis Lambert and her uncomfortable interplay with Marc Hughes’ boorish CO Ellis as a less-than-subtle nod to #metoo.

During the Battle of Britain, No. 303 Squadron RAF had more success than any of the other 16 Hurricane squadrons, downing as many as 126 Messerschmitts. They were officially operational August 2, 1940 and disbanded December 11. Of course, the movie cuts off before we can actually get there (although it offers an acknowledgement at the end with some text) but fate — and the Western Betrayal — looms large on the horizon and is constantly foreshadowed by the way the British characters in this movie routinely wrinkle their right honorable noses up at the scrappy underdogs trying to make a difference.

But it wasn’t just governments failing to uphold their military, diplomatic and moral obligation to their besieged Eastern/Central European neighbors. An opinion poll showed that 56% of the British public wanted the Poles and Czechs to be repatriated. Their efforts are considered significant factors in turning the Battle of Britain in Churchill’s favor. And yet they returned home, many to face persecution, imprisonment or their own death. It’s this darkness toward which Blair’s war film treads a weary path. It’s not an uplifting picture, and he’s pretty brave in the way he candidly describes his fellow countrymen in what history tells us is their finest hour.

Checkmate.

Recommendation: Mission of Honor gets a firm recommendation on the basis of the true-life story it depicts (with an apparent loose interpretation of events), and some solid if far from awards-worthy acting and a suitably bleak milieu. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

First Man

Release: Friday, October 12, 2018

→IMAX

Written by: Josh Singer

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

While First Man is only a small step into a different genre for director Damien Chazelle, the way he tells the story of the Moon landing may well represent a giant leap for fans of his previous, more emotionally-driven work. The historical reenactment is uncharted territory for the maker of dream-chasing dramas Whiplash and La La Land, yet the obsessive, single-minded pursuit of a goal makes it feel thematically akin. Told from the point of view of Neil Alden Armstrong, First Man offers an almost purely physical, visceral adventure. Strap in and hold on for dear life.

For the first time since Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk I left a movie exhilarated and fulfilled but also a little jelly-legged . . . and A LOT concerned about the state of my ears and the quality of service they would henceforth be able to provide. I guess what I am saying is that the movie gets loud, but that’s underselling it. In intermittent yet unforgettable bursts First Man comes close to overwhelming the unsuspecting moviegoer with its sonic power. All that style isn’t just for show, though Oscar surely will come a-knockin’ on Chazelle’s door next February. By way of audial and visual disorientation he creates an immersive experience that makes us feel our vulnerability, our loneliness and limitations on the final frontier.

It’s apparent from the stunning opening scene that Chazelle intends for us to feel this one in our bones rather than our hearts. A brutal tussle between Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his X-15 rocket plane which keeps bouncing off Earth’s atmosphere sets the stage for the challenges to be faced later. This early chaos provides a formal introduction to the physicality of First Man, while reaffirming the mythology around the actual man. How he survives this ordeal is a feat in and of itself. Once back on terra firma the deconstruction of that mythology begins. Guided through seven tumultuous years leading up to the mission itself, we gain privileged access to Armstrong’s domestic life — that which became all but sealed off completely to the public after the Moon landing — as well as a better understanding of events that paved the way for an American victory in the space race.

In First Man there isn’t a lot of love being thrown around, whether it’s Armstrong’s awkwardness around his family when it comes to saying goodbye, or the way the public has come to view NASA and its affinity for spending money and costing lives. Working through the troubleshooting days of the Gemini program (1964 – ’66) before moving on to the more technologically advanced but still flawed Apollo missions, First Man has less time for romanticizing and fantasizing. The stakes couldn’t have been higher, and America needed to know: how many astronauts are expendable in the interest of getting one over the Russians? All the while Gosling’s traditionally Gosling-y performance doesn’t allow us to get particularly attached to his character. All of these factors contribute to a rather disconcerting experience as we never get very comfortable on Earth, never mind in a coffin built out of aluminum and traveling at 17,000 miles an hour.

The film isn’t without its moments of raw emotion. An early scene depicts the tragic loss of two-year-old daughter Karen to cancer, and for a brief moment Neil Armstrong is in shambles. Logic and reason have completely failed him. Claire Foy is excellent as wife Janet, who becomes the closest thing we get to an audience surrogate while her husband grieves in his own way by burying himself in math and physics homework. But even her tough exterior sustains serious damage as time goes on and both NASA and Neil’s lack of openness with her as well as their two sons becomes ever more a source of frustration. Our feelings more often than not align with hers.

Elsewhere, Armstrong’s aloofness is noticed by fellow Apollo hopefuls Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) who each befriend him to a certain extent but are never quite able to crack the code of really getting to know him. His fears, his doubts. His favorite men’s magazine. His aspirations beyond walking on Earth’s lonely satellite. (As an aside, several of the astronauts from the Apollo missions went on to pursue political careers, but Armstrong went the other way, withdrawing from public life and even refusing to autograph items when he learned his signatures were being forged and that those forgeries were being sold all over the globe.) Stoll is a bit more fun as the extroverted Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon — the inventor of the Moon bounce, if you will — though he hardly inhabits the man in the way Gosling does.

Adapted from the book by James R. Hansen, First Man is a story of ambition delivered in blunt fashion. It isn’t a sexy, glamorous tale of fame or even nobility. This isn’t a story about a nation claiming its stake on a distant, lifeless rock. Nor is it about mankind advancing itself, despite what was said when boot met Lunar soil. This is an account of what it cost one man, one civilian, to get to the Moon. And the physical stresses, while pronounced in the film, are only a part of the deal. Often Linus Sandgren’s camera harries the subject rather than deifying or celebrating him. Certain angles rob the guy of personal space while tracking shots of him heading towards some vehicle or other give the impression of the paparazzi in constant pursuit. Neil’s always on the move, busy with something, and inquiring cameras need to know.

First Man is certainly not the film a lot of people will be expecting, be it the distance put between the audience and the astronaut or the scenes Chazelle chooses to depict (or not depict). Flag planting or no flag planting, this feels like the story that should have been told. It feels like a privilege to have experienced it.

I’ll see you on the dark side of the Moon

Recommendation: First Man uses a typically enigmatic Ryan Gosling performance to create an altogether lonelier feeling historical drama. In retrospect, the release comes at an odd time. Next summer will be the 50th anniversary of the Lunar landing, so I’m not sure why First Man is coming out right now. Not that a few months makes that much of a difference, when you have a dishearteningly large percentage of the public believing A) we never went or B) the whole thing was a colossal waste of time. Fair enough, I guess. Those with a more open-mind, however, are strongly encouraged to experience First Man in IMAX. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “What are the chances you’re not coming back? Those kids, they don’t have a father anymore! So you’re gonna sit the boys down, and prepare them for the fact that you might never come home!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Operation Finale

Release: Wednesday, August 29, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Matthew Orton

Directed by: Chris Weitz

Operation Finale takes audiences on a top secret mission into the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, following a group of Israeli spies as they attempt to capture a high-ranking Nazi officer who fled Europe at the end of the war to seemingly escape without consequence. While the broader historical significance of the mission objective cannot be overstated, the drama is at its most compelling when it gets personal, when it explores the emotional rather than political stakes.

In 1960 the whereabouts of SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolph Eichmann, the man responsible for deporting hundreds of thousands of European Jews to ghettos and extermination camps 15 years earlier, had finally been confirmed. Having bounced around the region in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Nazi Germany, Eichmann eventually obtained the necessary emigration documents and under his new identity “Ricardo Klement” he eked out a quiet existence in South America from 1950 until his arrest a decade later.

This is where we pick up on the trail. We follow closely behind members of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, as well as those from Shin Bet, the internal security service, as they decide to finally pursue a lead that surfaces in Buenos Aires, fearing a public outcry if they don’t. They are tipped off to a young Jewish refugee named Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) who has become intimately involved with a Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn). Her father becomes suspicious of Klaus’ background and bravely alerts the proper authorities. Shin Bet’s chief interrogator Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov) soon confirms the identity of Klaus and his father.

Complications arise in part due to environmental factors, with a rising Nazi sentiment gripping post-war Argentina (represented by Pêpê Rapazote’s intimidating Carlos Fuldner) leaving the team with little support from local government. In fact the film draws most of its tension from the air of secrecy in which business is conducted. There’s also a lot of emotional baggage to check at the door. Even though the war ended more than a decade ago, the knowledge of what Eichmann did is a constant burden, one that threatens to undermine the team’s professional objectivity.

The respectfully told story is bolstered by a strong ensemble that includes the likes of Oscar Isaac, Mélanie Laurent, Sir Ben Kingsley and a refreshingly solemn Nick Kroll. The international cast also includes Lior Raz, Ohad Knoller, Greg Hill, Michael Benjamin Hernandez, Greta Scacchi and Torben Liebrecht. While each is given a juicy supporting role, replete with moments of earnest introspection, the bulk of the film’s psychological and emotional weight accrue to two thespians who are in seriously high performance mode here.

Matthew Orton’s very first screenplay takes a humanistic approach to creating characters on both sides of the equation. On the side of the good guys you have Isaac‘s highly-qualified but just as vulnerable Peter Malkin, whose mind keeps taking him back to what he lost in the Rumbula Forest, where Eichmann personally oversaw the mass shootings that took place there in November and December of 1941. Opposite him sits (often literally) a disturbingly convincing Kingsley as the notorious war criminal. Sure, he physically looks the part, especially in make-up-heavy flashbacks, but it’s when he speaks lucidly on matters related to his past that confesses to the depths of his depravity — his “aw, shucks” reaction to labels like ‘architect of the Final Solution’ being particularly difficult to process.

As we progress through this deliberately paced timeline, one thing becomes increasingly clear about Operation Finale. This isn’t a flashy production, though it certainly looks good from a costuming and, occasionally, cinematographic perspective. While its lack of action punch may be a sticking point for viewers seeking a more immediately gratifying thriller, and the climactic chase sequence at the end threatens Hollywood cliché — that which the film thus far has done an impressive job of avoiding — there’s no denying the film carries the weight of history responsibly and gracefully.

Recommendation: A product of emotive power, Operation Finale adds further proof of the talents of Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring, this is historical drama done right. It feels organic, earnest. Quietly profound. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “My job was simple: Save the country I loved from being destroyed. Is your job any different?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Alpha

Release: Friday, August 17, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt

Directed by: Albert Hughes

As the dog days of summer are finally upon us, you might consider taking a walk somewhat off the beaten path by checking out Albert Hughes’ Alpha. A prehistoric epic adventure set 20,000 years ago in unrecognizable Europe, it offers a tale of suffering, survival and unexpected alliances, chronicling a young boy’s harrowing journey back home and the help he receives along the way after he becomes separated from his tribe.

Visually hypnotic, lavishly costumed and boasting a rich, ambient sound design, Alpha represents something of a dying breed of cinema when it comes to its more technical aspects. It feels far more like an artifact from a long forgotten period than a movie released in 2018. The last ice age as a setting — as much a mystical concept as it was an actual reality — reminds us of how nice it is to get away from civilization for awhile. Hughes harnesses the sheer scale of this brave new world in a few breathtaking shots of the British Columbian landscapes (a great substitute for paleolithic Europe) before homing in on a more specific purpose: what conditions might have precipitated this profound and unshakable bond we now share with dogs?

Despite its PG rating, Alpha traverses some pretty harsh terrain. Eons ago the world was a more natural place but also more hostile. Lifespans were generally characterized as short and brutal. We get a sense of all of that in this film, though the camera tidies themes up a bit by keeping most of the grisly details out of frame. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Keda, a teenager with a lot to live up to being the son of tribal chief Tau (Game of Thrones‘ Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). The epically bearded Icelandic actor imbues him as a demanding leader but also as a deeply loving father.

He is to lead his equally epically-bearded cadre of hunter-gatherers on an annual expedition to bulk up on food supplies for the coming winter. Throughout the early stages they frequently reference “the great beast.” Chief Tau insists it is Keda’s time to learn the ways of his people, while Rho (Norwegian model and actress Natassia Malthe) is less convinced of her son’s preparedness. Keda takes his initiation beating all the same — as if this custom can actually prepare him for the physical ordeals he is about to endure over the course of several grueling months.

Alpha charts a path through the vast and spectacular wilderness so easy to follow no amount of snowdrift will disorient you. Given its economic narrative, there isn’t much room for depth and nuance beyond the broad strokes of demonstrative acting. There isn’t a great deal of personality to the human characters but Smit-McPhee manages to impress in a quiet, unpretentious capacity. Like the punishing elements that surround him, he feels natural, authentic — especially in moments of peril. The authenticity goes beyond the visual. Alpha even touts its own language, with linguistic anthropologist Christine Shreyer tasked with approximating the kinds of sounds these very early people might have used to communicate.

Of course, Alpha won’t set the world on fire. It is effective for what it is — perhaps even powerful given its ostensibly restrictive MPAA rating — but I won’t hold any pretense this historical drama will siphon off even a modest chunk of the steadily superhero fatiguing public. And that is regrettable given how refreshing Alpha often feels.

Recommendation: To some extent Alpha feels like a more sanitized version of The Revenant, and while that might sound like damning with faint praise again I reiterate its PG rating. It is quite impressive what the film is able to do within those confines. And speaking of limitations, the other thing I really like about Alpha is that “epic adventure” is not a misnomer. It is indeed that, only captured in 96 quite fleeting minutes. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “Pain will journey with us.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Dunkirk

Release: Friday, July 21, 2017

→IMAX

Written by: Christopher Nolan

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

In memory of my late grandfather, John Little.

In his first historical drama, one that gives the acclaimed writer-director an opportunity to fly that British flag high, Christopher Nolan is deeply committed to creating a singular, sensory experience that goes beyond a mere reenactment. Relying on an intimate relationship between its technical elements as well as time as a constant factor, the acutely distressing thrills of the mighty Dunkirk you will feel in your marrow.

As always, Nolan doesn’t just go for style points. Firmly entrenched within the chaos and destruction of this senses-shattering summer blockbuster lies “the Miracle of Dunkirk,” a story of survival and stoicism nearly lost to the sea of newspaper headlines declaring an embarrassing defeat for the good guys. In fairness, much was lost. This was desperation. Even the British Bulldog acknowledged, sprinkling a pinch of salt upon his heaps of praise for his boys: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

June 1940. The Nazi campaign was steamrolling Europe and had pinned a significant number of Allied forces against the grimy waters of the northern French harbor of Dunkirk. An increasingly desperate Luftwaffe, to whom the task of preventing any sort of escape had ultimately fallen (after a significant delay), had been engaging the opposition on the water as well as in the air. Devastation was catastrophic on both sides, though the Germans suffered greater aerial losses — some 240 aircraft over a nine-day span. In that time 200 marine vessels were sacrificed, including a hospital and the famed Medway Queen, a beautiful British paddle steamer. Out of a total Allied strength approximate 400,000, some 30,000 were either killed in action or presumed dead or captured in this violent and pivotal clash.

Because the Brit has built a career around an intellectual yet highly entertaining brand of filmmaking, the bluntly observational Dunkirk feels somewhat like a departure, if for no other reason than it feels gauche to call this entertainment. The material demands a certain intonation, and as a result Nolan has created his most harrowing, his most sobering movie to date. Even more to his credit, his approach consistently shies away from excessive bloodshed, making this, in some ways, the anti-Saving Private Ryan. The anti-Hacksaw Ridge. The anti-any war film that subscribes to the notion that gore and blood are necessary evils if a viewer is to be properly immersed in the action.

In realizing a significantly world-shaping event, Nolan finds himself as a director adapting to the circumstances. Instead of philosophizing and extrapolating, he takes a more back-door approach to accumulating profound emotion. Empathy for the masses doesn’t require an intimate relationship with any one character. The point is to highlight the commonality found within the calamity. To that end, two things tend to strike you about the film: its narrative style, which follows key role players on each of the three fronts, and the sound design, chiefly realized through Oscar-winning composer and six-time collaborator Hans Zimmer (who clearly took the memo to heart when Nolan told him to make a show of force).

The scenery has changed, yet the element of time remains Nolan’s favorite ball of yarn. Once again he demands it be a malleable object, able to be manipulated in order to heighten the sense of all-encompassing, inescapable danger that crashed upon the stranded repeatedly like waves against the beach. His nonlinear triptych spreads the workload of presenting each unique aspect of the Good Fight across an incredibly efficient 107 minutes, resulting in frequently intense and dynamically intersecting perspectives that show all parts working together. It’s the epitome of cinematic, as opposed to the simple trick-fuckery some critics have dismissed the technique as.

Presented first is “The Mole,” so named after the long breakwater pier upon which thousands stood awaiting rescue, and it describes everything that happens on land. This is where we meet a trio of young soldiers, privates Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) and a low-ranking soldier named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). We follow them through an obstacle course from hell. Nolan brings aboard a few recognizable faces to give weight to the proceedings, like dry-as-a-box-of-saltines Kenneth Branagh, who doesn’t do much as a British commander, but then the role requires that his hands be tied. James D’Arcy is alongside him as an army colonel.

“The Sea” is the second thread introduced and it develops over the course of a single day. It’s characterized by a death-defying crossing of the English Channel. Mark Rylance gets the distinction of representing this stalwart civilian effort, playing a regular old Joe who felt a great sense of duty to answer Churchill’s call. He’s joined by son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young local boy (Barry Keoghan). The purity in this gesture, in their desire to help, is what the movie is all about. Because sometimes actions really do speak louder than words, Nolan keeps dialogue to a minimum in Dunkirk, allowing the actions taken both by the individual and of the collective to drown out even the bombast of Zimmer’s incredible score.

Last but certainly not least is “The Air,” which features all the acrobatics aloft. This segment takes place over the course of just one hour. In it we experience the way Nolan has interpreted the ‘dogfighting’ phenomenon associated with World War II. Needless to say, it’s breathtaking and deeply involving. Bullets ricochet cacophonously. The tin sound is abrasive. Radio comm between the RAF and Farrier screams ’40s simplicity. Some of the most stunning and graceful sequences of combat you will ever see in a war film result from Nolan’s decision to place IMAX cameras on the bodies of actual Spitfires, and returning DP Hoyte Van Hoytema’s ability to create unique, disorienting angles. Don’t blame Nolan for any confusion. If anything, lay it all on Hoytema, who turns cameras sideways as we sink into the water to give the impression ‘the walls are closing in.’

As time ticked away and spirits and ammunition ran out, the thousands — mostly British and French, but among them a smattering of Belgians and Canadians — stared longingly across the Channel, wondering if they’d ever make it back to the familiar shores of their hometowns. Others looked skyward, hoping for a miracle in the form of the Royal Air Force, only to be disheartened by the sight of a Messerschmitt dive-bombing right for them. And the lucky left wondering if they’d ever see (and hear) the end of this unrelenting period of undulating, unbearable stress.

Nolan’s latest test piece is about so much more than an historic military debacle. The pearl that lies inside, the drama that lies underneath the drama as it were, is that Churchill got ten times the number of men that he had hoped would bolster the effort in the inevitable Battle of Britain. The moral victory that resulted from Operation Dynamo’s success, the widespread cooperation, epitomizes why Nolan makes movies. As do the incredibly high stakes. The cumulative effect gives modern audiences a better idea of how close we had actually come to living in a world in which the Nazis had conquered more than Europe.

Recommendation: Relentlessly intense and loud, Dunkirk poses unique problems. As an event film that embraces a wide audience, I saw a number of people exiting the theater with their hands over their ears. Perhaps its ambitions as a senses-throttling experience do have drawbacks. But there is no denying the approach makes this a unique war film, and the epitome of a Christopher Nolan production. It doesn’t get much more profound than this. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I’m on him.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Decades Blogathon – There Will Be Blood (2007)

To cap off the Decades ’17 edition, here’s Mark’s stellar look at the much-celebrated and discussed Paul Thomas Anderson epic, There Will Be Blood. You won’t want to miss this review! Thanks once again everyone!

three rows back

Well, we’ve arrived at the final day of the Decades Blogathon – ‘7’ edition. Just as with the previous two years, it’s been a lot of fun with a host of fascinating and diverse reviews from across the board. Thanks to everyone who has taken part this year; you are all on my Christmas card list! However, my biggest thanks must go to by fellow blogathon buddy Tom – his site Thomas J is one I have followed as long as I’ve been doing this blogging game and his talent for insightful and engaging reviews has only grown over the years.This year’s blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the seventh year of the decade and for this final day, you’re getting a review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood from yours truly. See you again next year!

Just as cinema became the preeminent…

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Decades Blogathon – Zodiac (2007)

And here’s review #2 for Day 5. It’s a review from Zoe of The Sporadic Chronicles of a Beginner Blogger, and she’s here to talk about David Fincher’s Zodiac from 2007. Please do check it out!

three rows back

Welcome to Week 2, Day 5 of the Decades Blogathon – ‘7’ edition – hosted by myself and the awesome Tom from Thomas J.For those who don’t know, the blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the seventh year of the decade. Tom and I are running a different entry each day (we’ll also reblog the other’s post) and today it’s the turn of the one and only Zoe from the one and only Sporadic Chronicles of a Beginner Blogger who, unlike director David Fincher only needs one take to nail the 2007 true crime classic Zodiac.

“I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it’s him.” – Robert Graysmith

SYNOPSIS: A serial killer in the San Francisco Bay area taunts police with his letters and cryptic messages. We follow the investigators and reporters in…

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