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Sonic The Hedgehog: The Best 90’s Movie To Not Release in the 90’s

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by Simon Wickwire

While there is a decently sized fanbase for Sonic the Hedgehog, the idea of this movie seems about 20 years too late. Sonic as a video game mascot today does not have the same impact he had during the 90’s Well that idea may not actually be the case, because Sonic had the best opening weekend at the box office for a movie based on the video game, beating Pokemon: Detective Pikachu by $4 million. And it is even more shocking considering its release date was moved back by four months to change after Sonic’s original design design that was so horrific and unsettling that the internet screamed for it to be changed. Now that we have a sonic with a far less horrific design, the question of the day was whether the delay was worth it? The answer: eh, kind of? 

Ben Schwartz (Parks & Rec, Duck Tales) brings the perfect amount of energy in voicing him. Whenever it comes to celebrities being brought in to do voice roles, it usually is to just slap a name on the poster to get people to come see it. Even though Schwartz’s name is not on most of the posters,it should be because he is a big reason for a lot of the heart the film has. With Schwartz having voice acting credit in the past, you never feel like it is a celebrity doing a voice. 

A bunch of the advertising, has put in the forefront that Jim Carrey’s performance as Doctor Robotnik is a return to form for what made him one of if not THE biggest comedy actors to watch in the past couple decades. Carrey plugging back into his Pet Detective Energy helps contribute as to why the movie feels like the movie is from the nineties, with Carrey getting a few good laughs in there. 

With the positives discussed, we can get to the aspects that don’t shine as well. In general, the movie’s plot is very predictable and the human characters besides Robotnik are nothing that special, starting with James Marsden’s (Westworld) “Tom.” Marsden’s character arc is copied and pasted from basically every other family film script: a loving husband that feels that he has far more potential and learns along the way that being himself is perfectly okay as is. But Tom has a surprisingly sweet comradery with the animated blue fur ball that isn’t actually there, even with the vast comparisons to 2011’s Hop, another film where Marsden interacts with an animated rodent goes on a road trip with. Some of you probably have forgotten that movie existed, huh? 


However, being far more memorable than that lackluster Easter flop, Sonic the Hedgehog realizes that the audience is there for sonic and you get plenty of him on screen. It is perfectly acceptable family fun that has a good heart behind it with a fun dynamic between the two leads. It is a good step in the right direction for better video game movies and hopefully future ones can learn from this one as well as Detective Pikachu. I’m looking at you Tom Holland, you better not mess up Uncharted.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is beautiful

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“Hello neighbor.”

The first things we see and hear in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood should strike all the right pangs of familiarity. Set to the gentle, calming tinkles on a piano, we see the grainy film images of the red house, then the street, then the yellow blinking streetlight, then the door, and out the door comes…Mr. Rogers. Yes, he’s being played by another person––a different icon of American kindness––but somehow we know it’s HIM. It’s not just the mannerisms––the zipper that goes all the way up and then comes down a little, the bit with the shoe––but something more fundamental.

It’s not just Tom Hanks that has the tenor of the man down; it feels as though all of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood exists on the wavelength of Fred Rogers’ quiet heroism. It’s patient, calm, honest, and open. It’s tempting to describe these qualities as “saintly,” but, as we’re told, Mr. Rogers doesn’t like that word. It puts him on a level of unattainability, and that won’t do. We all have it within ourselves to be Mr. Rogers. We’re all human.

That’s the hard lesson Lloyd Vogel learns over the course of the movie, because this isn’t actually a story about Mr. Rogers. Rather, it’s about just one of the many, many people he saved. “Someone has hurt Lloyd,” Mr. Rogers tells us in the beginning, and we see that hurt has transformed him into a cynical man; not a monster, or an unrealistically cruel person, but a man who perhaps understandably scoffs at the idea that Fred Rogers and “Mr. Rogers” are actually one and the same.

But they are. They are, and soon Lloyd finds himself on the receiving end of Mr. Rogers pure, unfiltered empathy, and it’s almost too much for him to take. There’s some potential tension towards the beginning, especially in the early interview scenes, where Vogel’s hard-hitting interview style clashes with Rogers’ almost infuriating kindness. Matthew Rhys plays this tricky role with extraordinary precision, hitting all the right notes to ensure that we sympathize with him and long for his salvation (well, I say “extraordinary,” though anyone familiar with his stellar work on The Americans knew long ago just what he was capable of).

It sounds strange to say, considering that he’s widely considered to be one of the all-time great American actors, but Tom Hanks isn’t the man I would immediately think of when asked who should play Mr. Rogers. He’s very much of a type, and while it’s reductive to say that “he always plays Tom Hanks” – he doesn’t – it’s true that he does have a persona that usually shines through no matter what he’s doing. 

What Marielle Heller manages to do is channel Hanks’ inner goodness into a performance that evokes Fred Rogers more than it tries to imitate him. Heller, fresh off of another quietly affecting biopic (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) is directs the thing with clipped restraint, content to mostly stay out of the story’s way.

“You love broken people,” he says. “Like me.” You might remember that line from the trailer. What’s not included is Mr. Rogers’ response: “I don’t think you’re broken.” What follows is the definitive scene of the movie, where Mr. Rogers asks Lloyd to join him in thinking about the people who loved him into who he is today. Lloyd agrees, and the restaurant where they’re eating goes quiet. And as the camera slowly zooms in on Tom Hanks’ face, we realize that the movie is inviting us to do the same. So we stop. And we think.

Ford v Ferrari: Dawn of Racecars

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“James Bond does not drive a Ford.”

“Well, that’s because he’s a degenerate.”

This just feels like a throwback, doesn’t it? There’s something about Ford v Ferrari that evokes the days of cinema gone by, even though its closest analog I can think of is Ron Howard’s criminally underseen masterstroke, Rush (there’s also Le Mans, a 1971 Steve McQueen picture, but I’ve not seen it). It is, for better or worse, and old-school racing picture about companies trying to one-up each other and cars that go really, really fast.

The film begins as such, with the Ford Motor Company being out-maneuvered by Enzo Ferrari. So incensed by this humiliation is Henry Ford II that he becomes obsessed with defeating Ferrari at Le Mans, the most prestigious – and dangerous – race in the world. To do so, he conscripts the only American to ever win Le Mans: Carroll Shelby, a cowboy hat wearing Matt Damon, who was once on top of the world, but had to retire from racing due to a heart condition.

A question might already have occurred to you; how in the world does Ford v Ferrari position Ford, which was one of the most powerful companies even back then, as the underdog? Quite simply, it doesn’t take their side. We’re with Ford only so far as we’re with Matt Damon, and he’s not always treated very well by them. For instance, he wants Christian Bale’s volatile Ken Miles to be the one to drive in Le Mans. Problem is, his hostile reputation puts him at odds with what the higher-up want a “Ford driver” to look like.

That’s only the beginning of Ford’s attempts to micromanage Damon (after, of course, promising him complete freedom to conduct himself however he wants). On the one hand, bravo to Ford v Ferrari for being very clear-eyed about how shamelessly and soullessly a big corporation would work to remorselessly screw over a group of people who are trying, for all intents and purposes, to give them the biggest win of their lives. 

On the other hand, this is a long, long movie, and a lot of it is a little meandering. A lot of the non-racing running time is committed to making the same point over and over again about how big companies are not Matt Damon’s friend, but he just can’t see it. James Mangold began his career with character-driven films like Cop Land and 3:10 to Yuma, and went on to make Logan, arguably the most character-driven superhero movie ever made. Here, there’s an element of that that’s missing. In something like Rush, the emotional core is the relationship is the constantly evolving rivalry between Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. Here, the Bale/Damon dynamic never really gets close to that level, nor does any other relationship, for that matter.

This would be more palatable, I think, if the script were just a bit better. Right at the beginning, we see a bunch of German investors who are interested in investing in Damon and Bale. They’re told, however, that Bale is “difficult.” One won race later, and the lead German investor has a moment to helpfully inform us that, “He’s difficult…but good.” Thanks, I needed that.

That’s not the last of the clunky lines Ford v Ferrari throws our way, and trust me, they all hurt just about as much as that wrench Bale throws at Damon. Fortunately, they’re all made worth it by the exemplary racing sequences. Those make it absolutely worth it to have seen the film on the big screen. I don’t know if it’s better than Rush in this regard – I’ll have to rewatch that film to see – but it’s bloody good all the same. Mangold accomplishes a great feat, in that he very effectively puts you in the car with Bale as he’s racing for his life, always inches away from death.

I’ve seen Ford v Ferrari described as a “dad movie.” Yeah, that’s accurate. It’s certainly a throwback to the era they’ll remember. Josh Lucas plays a great “you’ll love to hate him” villain who comes to embody the corporate side of racing. Caitriona Balfe is great, but she’s also more or less just playing “the wife.” Noah Jupe’s also great, but he’s also just playing “the son.” And for a movie called Ford v Ferrari, there is basically no input from Ferrari beyond the opening and closing minutes. Still, it is entertaining, and, for all its pacing and scripting issues, very cinematic.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale on the set of Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI.

Go go Jojo Rabbit

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Jojo Rabbit is a movie that will confuse some, annoy more, and anger most. It’s an “anti-hate” satire that’s been accused by some of heinous bowdlerization; of being a “Heartwarming Holocaust feel-good flick” that ignores, or paves over, the atrocities of the time.

Interestingly, though, I’m not seeing that much in the way of controversy about this film. Sure, there were the expected “OMG THIS IS THE MOST DANGEROUS FILM SINCE JOKER” headlines from the increasingly desperate clickbait-based “news” sites, but I guess those were non-starters, because there haven’t been that many. If I had to guess, I’d say Jojo Rabbit is too good-hearted and pure to really get that worked up over, in spite of its tricky material.

Again, that sentence might seem very strange to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. A good-hearted and pure movie…about Nazis? Trust me, it works. I think that’s partially because this isn’t “really” about Nazis, or Nazism. The iconography is used, as well as some surface-level trappings, but really, it could be anything. What Jojo Rabbit is about is cliques. The Third Reich is portrayed as an elitist social club, and little Jojo is a lonely little kid who wants in with the big boys, to such an extent that he’s blind to the club’s rotten core.

Again, to many people, this will come across as wildly misguided. Writing it all out, I find myself amazed at what Taika Waititi has pulled off. From where I’m sitting, Jojo Rabbit is a perfectly judged film, a balancing act that spends nearly two hours riiiiiight on the edge of dipping into monstrously poor taste, without ever crossing the line. 

In a couple of ways, what Taika Waititi has done here reminds me of a sillier Spike Lee film. It’s thrillingly fearless, with a direct line to your emotional core. It has no need for such things like “subtlety,” nor should it. But whereas the films of Mr. Lee are usually vivaciously angry, Waititi is stubbornly feel-good, even in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

This isn’t exactly smiles and sunshine always. There is darkness creeping around the edges of the film, occasionally taking stabs at its heart. Don’t believe for a second that the horrors of living in Nazi Germany are glossed over, or made completely frivolous. This is a kind movie, but it’s not a facetious one.

You know how I’d describe this movie? Cathartic. I needed to see this movie, in a way that I’m still at a loss to explain. A special word must go to Roman Griffin Davis, making his acting debut as young Jojo. Think about that; this is his first movie. This is his first job, period. What he does in this movie is extraordinary. He took a character that could’ve gone so wrong, and made him one of the most brilliant original characters of 2019. I found myself completely engaged with the movie because I was invested in the fate of Jojo’s soul. 

Again, this won’t work for everyone. This is a wavelength movie if ever there was one; you gotta get on board with what it’s doing, or be completely lost at sea. I can imagine some out there will find themselves completely unsympathetic to Jojo’s plight. I can imagine some out there will find what Waititi does here completely wrongheaded. I can also easily imagine some out there feeling comfortable denouncing this movie without bothering to see it (I have absolutely no sympathy for that last group there). Regardless, as someone who actually saw the damn film, I found myself treated to a resonant, fully-realized film, one that knew exactly what it was doing, and did it with a smile.

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in the film JOJO RABBIT. Photo by Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Parasite infects American cinema with its brilliance

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Man, the new movie by the guy who directed Snowpiercer is really picking up steam!

…get it? Picking up steam? Because it’s from the same director who did Snowpiercer? The movie about the train that never stops? Get it? 

Ah, never mind…

If I had to guess, I’d say that Parasite is a very different kind of movie than what most ‘Murican audiences will be used to from Bong Joon-ho. While he’s done drama before – Barking Dogs Never Bite and Mother – over here, his most popular films are his genre pieces. Films like The Host, his take on Godzilla, Okja, which is more fantasy than anything, or the aforementioned Snowpiercer, which is all about a magical train that goes around and around the world, forever and ever…suffice it to say, I can easily imagine a scenario where someone goes into a movie called Parasite, knowing it’s by the guy who made all those films, expecting another dip into sci-fi and horror, and getting what appears to be a straight-up drama instead. There are parasites in this movie…but they’re all very human.

Parasite has to do with a downtrodden, out-of-work family of four. We see in the opening scene that they in such squalor that, when a fumigation crew starts dusting the street outside, they decide to leave the window open to get rid of their roach problem. For free! Things take an interesting turn, however, when a friend of Ki-woo – the son in the family – asks him to fill in as a tutor to the daughter of a rich family. Ki-woo obliges, but soon into his first day he senses an opening for his sister, Ki-jeong, to join him as an art tutor for the rich son. Never mind that she doesn’t know the first thing about art, and doesn’t have any credentials; nothing a bit of light forgery can’t fix. Once she’s there, though, she starts looking for positions for her parents. The other jobs around the household are already taken by other people, but if something were to happen to them…

Doesn’t sound much like Snowpiercer, does it? But make no mistake; Parasite comes from the same mind. For one thing, despite all appearances, it’s very fluid, genre-wise. It defies simple characterization, which I always like (I’m generally of the opinion that genre restrictions are stupid). It begins as a satire, before hardening into straight drama, then back into comedy, before elements of horror start to creep in, and then…I’d better not say. But Bong Joon-ho is always in complete control; I never felt that he was just throwing whatever he wanted at the wall, and seeing what stuck. There was a purpose to the tonal shifts, and the end result was a film experience that I couldn’t predict the end of, or even the next scene of.

But the main clue that this is a Bong Joon-ho picture is the recurring theme of class warfare. I’m bringing up Snowpiercer a lot in this review, and there’s a reason for that, beyond the fact that I love it. Snowpiercer isn’t just a movie about a train endlessly circling a desolate, frozen earth; it’s a movie about the way the train divides its passengers into different cars based on their wealth and social status, and the eventual armed revolution by the have-nots against the haves. 

Parasite isn’t as fantastical as Snowpiercer, or even Okja, but it absolutely deals with the same themes. Weirdly, Parasite serves as a kind of spiritual relative to Jordan Peele’s Us from earlier this year. They’re both comedy-drama-horror hybrids that start out as one thing, before slowly transitioning into a parable about the lengths the disenfranchised will go, not only to survive, but to get back what they think they’re owed. There’s something almost supernatural about the way the family systematically attaches themselves to the rich family; watching them at work, they almost could be seen as the tethered. 

It works, though, for two main reasons. The first, it’s never moralistic, or heavy-handed. The themes are right there, but you do have to work for them. The social satire of the movie mostly comes up through contrast; for instance, when there’s a downpour about midway through the movie, the poor family (I refer to them as such because we never get any last names) has to worry about their little hovel flooding. The rich family, by contrast, spend the whole day post-flood commenting on how lovely their wet grass looks, which irritates the poor family to no end. 

The second reason is much simpler; it’s just wildly entertaining. There are sequences so brilliantly put together, the audience I saw this with was simultaneously screaming and in stitches. This is a prime example of a film that deals with heady subjects dead on, while still maintaining a high entertainment value.

Harriet Tubman gets an origin story worthy of a superhero, but not a real person

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Though the pendulum has been swinging for some time now, historical biopics about black women are rare. It must be said, though, that this one’s been coming for a while now. The story of Harriet Tubman – probably the most legendary “conductor” on the Underground railroad – is one that practically screams out for the silver screen treatment. A woman born into slavery, Tubman – born Araminta “Minty” Ross – managed to escape her bondage, traveling over a hundred miles to Philidelphia, and then more or less immediately turned right around, heading back into enemy territory to liberate as many slaves as possible.

I’ll say this; if you’re planning on seeing Harriet just to escape the recent deluge of comic book adaptations, save your money. Harriet goes out of its way to take this extraordinary, real-life hero, and strip her of every possible human frailty, until eventually turning her into a literal superhero. 

The first scene of the film begins this two-hour long lionization of Tubman. We see her as a young woman, still enslaved, in the throes of one of her “spells,” a kind of trance-like state she frequently enters throughout the movie, one which apparently allows her to see memories from the past and visions of the future. Tubman, a deeply religious woman, is convinced that the spells are caused by divine intervention, and for all intents and purposes the film agrees with her. What else are we to make of the scene where, when escaping through the woods with most of her family in tow, she enters a trance, and then somehow intuits that the path they’re on will lead them into a trap?

The film continues in this fashion, never passing up an opportunity to raise Tubman up on the highest of pedestals. The obvious question here is, so what? What’s the problem? If ever there was a historical figure that deserves lionization in the extreme, shouldn’t it be Harriet Tubman? 

My issues with Harriet aren’t so much that it plays up the heroic nature of her actions – a seemingly impossible task that the film somehow accomplishes anyway – but more that it systematically removes every single source of hardship from her life. Tubman never seems to encounter any real hardship, or at least any kind of hardship that poses any kind of an obstacle for her. The film pays lip service to the horrors of slavery, familial abandonment, and the perils of long travel, without immersing us in either. As such, it took what is to my mind a truly breathtaking real-life experience, and made it honestly pretty boring. Why should I care what happens to this woman when she’s never presented as being in any danger at any point in time?

This is a very poorly paced film. It’s just over two hours long, but it still feels improbably rushed, almost like it’s missing several reels. The editor, Wyatt Smiths, pieces Harriet together in a way that seems to actively thwart investment; we’re never in any one location for long enough to get invested, either in the place or the characters that occupy it. As such, the world of Harriet never comes to life in a satisfying way. I’ll say this; it never feels like a set, at least in terms of its visuals. Cinematographer John Toll has a knack for these kinds of sweeping visuals, having previously shot The Last Samurai and The Thin Red Line. The scene in which Harriet literally jumps over the Maryland state line to freedom, the sun shining down on her in a Heavenly aura, is appropriately awe-inspiring.

But while the thing looks grand, it never feels grand. All the pretty visuals in the world don’t mean jack if you’re not able to shoot them in an appropriately epic way. And it must be said that Harriet is directed in a way that feels unfortunately flat and uninspired. Cynthia Erivo is giving a good performance here, one that might have been a great performance if the film had just let it breathe a little before rushing off to the next thing.

That’s honestly my big takeaway from this film; a wealth of potential, wasted by the film’s insistence on being as crushingly conventional as possible. There’s a great life story here, one that absolutely deserves to be told on the big screen. But when you saddle the film with an uninspired script, a blandly repetitive score, and an almost pathological aversion to any actual tension, you end up wasting that potential.

Doctor Sleep damn near put me to sleep

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It’s almost hard to believe that The Shining was only Stephen King’s third book. He wrote it in the throes of alcoholism, in part as a way to purge his darkest demons. A horror story about an alcoholic writer who is trapped with his family in a snowed-in hotel, and slowly overtaken by the malicious forces within its halls, King has described the novel as a “confession” of sorts, a way to come to terms with the real anger he occasionally felt towards his children. You can imagine his frustration, then, when Stanley Kubrick chose to jettison most of the alcoholic undertones – as well as damn near all the relatability of the alcoholic writer – in favor of making a more general parable about abuse.

King fucking HATES the Kubrick Shining, to an almost legendary extent. He’s made clear that he resents the fact that Kubrick took the main character, Jack Torrance – a twisted self-insert if ever there was one – and turned him from a flawed, but ultimately well-meaning family man into a psychotic murderer who seems perfectly willing and able to kill his whole family without any ghostly influence. Famously, he went so far as to commission an entire made-for-TV miniseries, just so that he could get the “true” version of his story onto a screen. This wasn’t enough, though, and in 2013 he wrote a whole-ass sequel to his book, one which went out of its way to ignore all the changes Kubrick made to the story in favor of following up on the book’s story threads.

I read Doctor Sleep pretty soon after it came out. It’s…not great, and I say this as a fan. King’s prose is evocative as always, and there are moments of real power here and there (the segment at the beginning where we see grown-up Danny Torrance hitting rock-bottom is powerful for how personal it is). But the thing is dramatically structureless, a victim of King’s late-career inability to plan his stories out properly. Sometimes, this never-plan-ahead strategy results in free-flowing brilliance. This was not one of those times. Doctor Sleep was a book full of things that just kind of happened, one after the other, until the end, at which point instead of climaxing they just sort of petered out. 

So I was dubious about the efficacy of a film adaptation of the novel, even before director Mike Flannigan revealed that he would be marrying his vision to Kubrick’s; in effect, that he’d be making a sequel to the book AND the film of The Shining. This was a dubious prospect at best, considering how many differences exist between the two. Even putting aside the more fundamental issue of Jack Torrance, there are a number of surface-level plot discrepancies that differentiate the adaptations; the book has hedge animals that come to life and try to kill you, the movie has a massive hedge maze. Kindly old cook Dick Halloran dies in the film adaptation, whereas he makes it in the book. And – and this is a pretty big one – the Overlook Hotel completely burns down in the climax of the novel, whereas the end of the movie sees it standing tall.

The fact is, The Shining is not the type of film you make a sequel to. It’s completely self-contained, as closed off from the outside world as the poor, doomed Torrance family. As directed by Kubrick, it’s a largely plot-free nightmare of a film, concerned mainly with the frighteningly unique experience and atmosphere of the thing. Doctor Sleep takes the bare-bones iconography of the film – the twins, the tricycle, the elevator of blood – and staples it onto a plot. The results are about what you’d expect.

What is the plot? Well, I’m sorry you asked. So, there’s this group of Shining Vampires, see? They call themselves the True Knot, and they have the ability to sense if someone has the Shining within them or not. So what they do is, they kidnap that person, eat them, and suck the Shining out of them while moaning orgastically with glowing eyes. It is, somehow, even more ridiculous than I just made it sound. The True Knot were pathetic villains in the book, and they’ve somehow been made even more cartoonish here.

See, as I always saw it, the Shining was kind of an allegorical thing. The beauty of the Kubrick movie was that it existed between the precipice of madness and supernatural; you were never sure of where you were, or what was really happening. It operated on pure nightmare logic. Here, not only is the Shining a tangible thing, but it’s represented via CGI smoke that comes out of people’s mouths. I’m serious. 

It’s not just that this film doesn’t capture the elusive, intangible fear of the film, or the more overtly allegorical and emotional – but no less effective – fear of the book. Doctor Sleep doesn’t capture any fear, ever. This isn’t a scary movie. The one time it comes close is this extended, gratuitious murder scene involving a small child. It goes on for too long, and feels genuinely exploitative. The fact is, the Kubrick film was too classy to sink to this. 

Even in its attempts to be a more conventional film, I thought it failed. I’ve already mentioned that the True Knot are a gaggle of absolute laughingstocks, but Abra Stone doesn’t fare much better. I remember liking this character back when I read the book; being able to see a character’s internal dialogue really does wonders for making them interesting. Here, she’s a nothing of a character, the latest in a long, long, long line of stock “kid with psychic powers” that King loves to write. Maybe Kyliegh Curran has it in her to be a great actress – in fairness to her, no one other than Ewan McGreggor really fares well in this – but as it stands, there are a ton of scenes where her character could be replaced by a cardboard cutout for all the difference it would make.

What sucks especially is that there are a handful of moments that hint at a really good idea at the heart of this film. Like I said, McGreggor is great in this; it’s through his acting that we come the closest to understanding what it would actually be like to live in the aftermath of a very specific trauma. And while so much of this film’s finale consists of, “Hey, remember this?” there is one scene – a conversation at a bar – that raises a number of fascinating possibilities. But it’s not enough. As a film that tries to exist at the intersection between two versions of The Shining, Doctor Sleep ends up honoring neither.

In spite of its title, Tel Aviv on Fire is as un-incendiary as they come

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Considering how potentially incendiary the title of Tel Aviv on Fire is, I was surprised at how slight, well-intentioned, and wholesomely funny this movie turned out to be. The film’s plot directly grapples with heavy topics – the Israel/Palestine conflict being front and center – but in terms of actual execution, the whole thing comes off more like a breezy comedy of errors.

Kais Nashif stars as Salam, a thirty-year-old, slightly meek Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem, but has to cross the border each morning to get to his job. He works on a Ramallah-produced soap opera called “Tel Aviv on Fire,” a melodramatic romance about a Palestinian spy who seduces an Israeli general in service of her people’s cause. Salam serves as the show’s Hebrew consultant. One day, when passing through the checkpoint, he asks one of the officers about whether or not one of the phrases in the script is actually accurate, and is promptly dragged in front of the Israeli commander, Assi, on suspicion of being a spy. Salam quickly manages to prove he’s actually in the entertainment business, and to boost is cred, he plays himself up as the main screenwriter. Unfortunately, this backfires, as the commander’s actually seen the show (his wife is an enormous fan), and…he’s got notes.

A premise like that evokes Munich and Misery in equal measure. Yet Tel Aviv on Fire commits to its silly, good-natured take on what could’ve been a serious morality play. There are no bad guys in the movie, not really; Assi abuses his power, but he does so in order to become Salam’s writing partner so he can do something nice for his wife. Meanwhile, Salam’s new ideas for the show (as provided by the commander) get him promoted to a top screenwriting position, which puts him in a tricky spot; Assi wants the show to end with a wedding, whereas the Palestinian backers want the show to end with an assassination. On top of all that, the show’s two leads have egos that need to be assuaged, Salam wants to springboard his newfound success into a chance with Mariam, a girl he likes, and as it turns out, writing scripts is hard.

That’s a lot of stuff, and I’d be lying if I said Tel Aviv on Fire balanced it all. There’s frequently several subplots happening at once, and while it is praiseworthy how the film balances its Israeli/Palestine material, it must be said that it’s less successful at balancing much else. Mariam keeps disappearing from the movie, for one thing, and a late-movie plot complication – the lead actress of “Tel Aviv on Fire” seeming to develop feelings for Salam, and then attempting to throw a wrench into his relationship with Mariam – comes up in one scene, and then has no bearing on the rest of the film. The conflict with the show’s unseen backers similarly goes nowhere particularly interesting.

Still, what it lacks in narrative grace, it gains in a winning heart and a genuine sense of authenticity to its subject. This is a movie with a refreshingly warm heart, one which manages the great feat of being sincere without ever resorting to sappiness. In a world where it’s all too easy to get caught up in an “Everything’s getting worse!” mindset, here’s a movie that offers some actual, honest-to-goodness hope. That it does so with a healthy dose of satirical humor doesn’t hurt.

 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s Late-career Masterpiece

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How do you solve a problem like Tarantino?

Quentin Tarantino burst onto the scene almost thirty years ago with Reservoir Dogs, a crime movie so influential – so fucking good – that it single-handedly revolutionized the way indie films were made and looked at. It genuinely stands alongside Duel and Blood Simple in terms of being a debut feature (well, I say “debut”; technically, he’d made a film beforehand, the reels of which burnt up in a fire) that was pretty close to perfect. He followed that up with Pulp Fiction, and again with Jackie Brown, two films as close to flawless as they come.

Then something happened, and Tarantino…regressed, I guess is the right word. Look, I still love Kill Bill; for my money, it’s the last capital G-Great movie he’s made. But that love is tinged with some pretty serious reservation, since Kill Bill pioneered some of Tarantino’s worst tendencies as a director, quirks that have haunted him ever since: an utter lack of discipline, ostentatious hyper-violence that doesn’t even pretend to take place in reality, and obscene running lengths. Some of those I can live with – it is pretty fun to watch people explode in the most over-the-top way imaginable – but it’s his late-career aversion to editing that I really take issue with.

Kill Bill is the last film Tarantino made that felt focused in its excesses, if that makes sense. The bizarre digressions into Western iconography and anime-land worked for that story. The same cannot be said of Death Proof, which did its level best to make Tarantino-speak seem unbearably boring. Inglourious Basterds worked fine enough on a chapter-to-chapter basis, but completely failed to tie itself together in its closing moments the way Pulp Fiction had done. Django Unchained managed to scuttle every ounce of goodwill it had built up over its two-hour running time near the beginning of its last act, with one of the most annoying, movie-ruining director cameos ever put to film (complete with Austrailian accent!) And The Hateful Eight is at least 45 minutes too long; and that’s in its SHORTEST form.

On the basis of his first few films alone, Quentin Tarantino deserves his status as pop-culture icon. But as a result of his fame, he’s completely abandoned any of the restraint and focus that made his earlier work so special. His latest films have been too long, too unfocused, and too in need of some serious editing to really compare.

So I had been tepid in my hype for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. While I’ve never outright hated one of his films (even Death Proof, which came close, at least had the good sense to give Zoë Bell a leading role), I was still conscious of the fact that I was about to see a two hour and forty minute movie. That’s only a few minutes shorter than Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, two movies I thought would never fucking end.

More than that, when I first heard that Tarantino was making a “Manson movie”, my heart sank. Movies based around the horrific crimes of Charles Manson and his “family” are already turning into one of the worst subgenres of film ever to exist; while Bad Times at the El Royale was pretty good, and smart about how it incorporated a Manson-like murderer, it must be said that abysmal dreck like The Haunting of Sharon Tate and Wolves at the Door have been the Manson movie norm.

This isn’t the first time Tarantino’s tackled tricky subjects, obviously. I’ve long admired how deftly he’s walked the tightrope of going juuuust far enough, without ever falling into outright exploitation. But Manson is different from the Nazis, or even slavery. He’s more specific, if that makes any sense. This seemed like a bad idea from the jump, and the originally intended release date – meant to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Tate–LaBianca murders – only made things worse.

So it gives me great pleasure to say that, for my money, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s late-day masterpiece. It’s a film that feels focused. It feels like it has an honest-to-goodness point. It feels, for all the world, like an anti-late-day Tarantino movie. For the first time since Kill Bill, the overall experience grew on me the more I sat with it, rather than buckling under its ungainly, aussie-accented seams.

To be clear; this is a long movie, one perfectly content with taking its time. Described as a “hangout movie” not unlike Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown, the film mainly focuses on the declining star of Rick Dalton, a famous TV actor whose stab at moviestardom has fizzled out, and his loyal stuntman Cliff Booth. The two of them are very emblematic of the “Old Hollywood” that Tarantino so lovingly remembers; some of the most joyous passages of the film are the fully immersive recreations of Rick’s old Cowboy show, and the painstaking processes that define new auditions.

This has been described as a mid-life crisis movie, which is understandable. It is at times nostalgic to a fault, frequently getting lost in its own period trappings (when Cliff goes to feed his dog, we see every single label in his cabinet). But I think it’s smarter than mere hokey sentimentality. For as idyllic as Tinseltown may seem, we’re keenly aware at all times that it’s a paradise built on a shaky foundation.

That’s where Sharon Tate comes in. Now, I’ve seen reports from other people who felt that she was unnecessary to the film; worse, that she was “boring,” or “one dimensional”. Not so; she is the very heart and soul of this movie. To me, the very best scene in the film concerns Sharon Tate taking an afternoon for herself, and going to see The Wrecking Crew, which she stars in. She slips in unannounced (after sweetly introducing herself to the teller), and spends the next hour or so drinking in the audience’s reaction; an audience that doesn’t know she’s there.

Sharon Tate becomes real again through this movie. We’re reminded that this was a living, breathing person, with hopes and dreams of the future, who loved her friends and her husband (the shadow of Roman Polanski hangs over this movie, as a nonspecific – but very deliberate – reminder of the ugliness beneath the sheen). The same can’t be said of the Manson “family”, who are remembered as they deserve to be; cartoon loonies, high on their own false sense of self-importance and enlightenment.

There are many ways to read what Tarantino’s trying to say with this movie. There’s a lot of subtext going on, some of it clear – there’s a highly effective sequence where Rick’s fake audition for a Western TV show begins to mirror Cliff’s real-life escapade at the Manson compound – and some of it less so. There’s a lot that can be read, for instance, in the scene where Cliff refuses a blowjob from an underage girl, especially in our post-Weinstein world.

For myself, though, I’m just glad we finally have a Tarantino film that invites thought, seems to actually contain layers, and doesn’t vastly overstay its welcome. It’s been a while, old friend. Thanks for ditching the Aussie accent.

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A Review of Game of Thrones Season Eight, Episode One: “Winterfell”

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Image source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/ozkHwFG91AI/maxresdefault.jpg

****This article is long and full of spoilers. Proceed with caution****

After a two-year long fevered wait, audiences on April 14th were treated a somewhat underwhelming but no less entertaining return to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros of the hit TV show Game of Thrones. This first episode of the final eight season, directed by David Nutter, was thematically focused on setting the stage for conflicts to come later in the season while thematically calling back to the first episode which debuted nine years ago. We were treated to several long-anticipated reunions and some new questions were raised about the nature about the show’s long-anticipated ending. However, for a show famous for its bloodiness and willingness to kill off its main characters, only one minor character was sacrificed for this season’s opening episode.

The show opened on a young boy running through the Winterfell village and climbing up a tree to get a better view of the incoming Targaryen army led by Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Daenerys “Dany” Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). This the first of several deliberate circular callbacks to the first episode “Winter is Coming” which premiered in 2011, when Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), then a young rebellious girl from a noble family, scaled a wagon to witness the entourage of King Robert Baratheon arriving. We, the audience, are then subsequently treated a reunion between Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Jon which comes off as heartfelt but surprisingly distant and emotionless. What little emotion there is in the scene is abruptly interrupted by Bran’s declaration that the wall has fallen and that one of Dany’s dragons, Viserion, has been captured and zombified by the Night King. We are also introduced to what will surely be one of the central conflicts of Season Eight: the relationship between Sansa Stark and Dany which could best be described amid wintry conditions as “icy.” Sansa is mistrustful of Dany, a foreign imposter, and resentful of Jon for having seemingly thrown away the title of King in the North for love.

The episode’s theme of setup by showing the unrest of the Northern lords who are (probably rightfully) outraged about their Jon’s acquiescence to Dany. In a brief sequence moment, we see a young lord, Ned Umber, sent to retrieve the remains of his people from his castle The Last Hearth which lies just south of The Wall. We are then treated a philosophical moment between the show’s great thinkers as Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Varys (Conleth Hill), and Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) muse on death, old age, and the innocent of youth. The following sequence was one of silliness, which saw Dany and Jon traipse about the north riding on the back of dragons, in a scene reminiscent of How to Train Your Dragon with all the soppy steamy romance attached. They land at a waterfall and Dany declares that together that could stay there alone forever. This is a second prominent callback, this time to Jon’s relationship with Ygritte in Season Three, Episode Five “Kissed by Fire” where Ygritte asks Jon, alone in a cave, to run away and live apart from society forever.

The show then moves to King’s Landing and Cersei Lannister (Lena Heady) who, as ever, is hell-bent on a quest for revenge against her enemies. In her hour of great need, she has turned to Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek) and the mercenary Golden Company army. Her plan is to wait for the Northern armies and the undead army to destroy each other and then to seize and kill of whatever remains. Having cast off her final moral compass in her brother Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Cersei is now unburdened by any desire other than to protect her unborn baby and to destroy her enemies even if it means having distasteful sex with Euron. In a brief scene, the show makes room for a widely-celebrated rescue of Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) from Euron’s clutches by her PTSD-affected brother Theon (Alfie Allen). We are reunited with Bronn (Jerome Flynn), who is partaking in the pleasures of a brothel. In the episode’s humorous callback, we hear from one of the prostitutes that a ginger solider, heavily implied to be Ed Sheeran’s infamous Lannister solider, has been severely burned in the loot train attack of Season Seven. Given the negative publicity against Game of Thrones over his portrayal, his unfortunate fate is likely to be well received the Thrones fandom. However, Bronn is interrupted in his brothel exploits by the Qyburn, the queen’s personal hand, to establish his season’s story arc: Bronn is tasked with finding and killing Jaime and Tyrion in the North, his former employers and erstwhile friends.

We return to Winterfell to connect with Samwell “Sam” Tarly (Jon Bradley) who as usual is ensconced in the library. He is interrupted by Dany and Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), who have come to thank him personally for curing Jorah of Greyscale in Season Seven. But the Samwell appreciation goes horribly awry when Dany informs him she executed his father and brother for not bending the knee following the loot train attack. Sam runs out of the library deeply distraught, only to run into Bran who informs him that the time has come to inform Jon of his true parentage. We follow Sam to the crypts where he meets with Jon, but the reunion is cut short as Sam – in one of the most-anticipated scenes of Game of Thrones – informs Jon of his actual parents, Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, whose bloodline gives him a more legitimate connection and right to the Iron Throne than Dany.

The episode reaches its conclusion in the Last Hearth castle. We meet up with the remnants of the Brotherhood without Banners and the Night’s Watch, who have fled the broken wall for Winterfell. However, in the bowels of the castle they make a grisly discovery: poor young Ned Umber has been impaled against the wall amidst the ritual spiral of the Night King and his undead army. In a doubly-chilling scene, Brotherhood and Night’s Watch realize they are cut off from Winterfell by the undead army. While they stand talking, the corpse of Ned Umber rises from the dead as a wight and begins to shriek and attack them. The wight is quickly set ablaze without casualties but not before everyone including the audience is deeply disturbed by the gravitas of the situation and the upcoming conflict. The episode ends with Jaime Lannister arriving on horseback to join the fight against the undead army. However, he is greeted first by Bran who, all the way back in Season One, was crippled by Jaime after being pushed from a tower for witnessing his incestuous relationship with Cersei. The camera pans over Jaime as emotions of shock and guilt play across his face before the episode cuts to black.

The primary role of “Winterfell” was to set the stage for the upcoming season. It did so in well-executed but unspectacular fashion. By Game of Thrones standards, it ranks among the tamest episodes, with only one-character death and three naked women, a considerable branching-out for a show which has staked its reputation and fame on having both in large amount. The episode hints at what is to come and served mostly as an extended catch-up and trailer for bigger and better battles and the final, epic conclusion. The episode will not live long in the memory, but it serves as a placeholder which successfully whets the appetite of fans to tune in, next week, for the second of the final six episodes of this decade-spanning, generation-defining TV show.

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