Movie Review – “All the King’s Men” (1949)

 

 

“All the King’s Men” tells the tale of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a honest and kind man from the fictional state of Konoma who wants to make his town a better place, especially since it seems to be run by gangsters and corrupt politicians. A reporter from a big time newspaper, Jack Burden (John Ireland), writes several articles about Willie that get him noticed across the country, to the point that the political machine wants him to run for Governor of the state to turn the tide of a split vote. This leads Willie down a path of no return when the people fall in love with his ruthless yet powerful words and becomes just as corrupt and crooked as the politicians he originally hated.

I won’t dwell on how this was done better in films like “A Face in the Crowd” and “Citizen Kane,” but I will say that “All the King’s Men” overstays its welcome about halfway through the film and ends up repeating many of the same beats and points many times. The first half of the film is enjoyable due to Crawford’s performance as Willie Stark and how it truly feels like a man who wants a better group of people in the government, while John Ireland plays a reporter who falls in love with those ideas.

 

 

But a little bit over halfway through the film, it gets off the pleasant highway and gets stuck on a horse-racing track where it keeps going in circles for far longer than it needed to.

After a certain point, these characters just feel like a bunch of brick walls that refuse to learn or change their stances, even as many events happen that should change them. Willie remains a brute, Jack stubbornly stays by his side even though he really shouldn’t, and ultimately neither of them really learn anything. It’s like watching a toddler who refuses to play with more than one toy, except now that toddler is a gangster politician, and now it becomes infuriating.

Overall, while there’s a strong message absolute power corrupting, “All the King’s Men” could have stand to lose some repetitive scenes, especially in the second half. It gets to the point where all of these characters, that started out likable and relatable enough, become irredeemable pricks that have lost all heart and meaning. As a result, it often felt like this film had no soul.

Final Grade: C

 

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Movie Review – “Lord of the Flies” (1963)

 

 

There’s a fine line when it comes to watching the savagery of man unfold before your eyes. Films that dance this line are some of the best tales of morality and what it means to be a human and not an animal. But films that cross this line are the ones that over stay their welcome and just become grotesque tales that are more depressing and tiresome as they go on. Peter Brook’s 1963 “Lord of the Flies” crosses that line.

That’s not to say “Lord of the Flies” is a bad film, but that it left a bad taste in my mouth and not for the reasons it was supposed to. The film chronicles the tale of three dozen or so little boys surviving a plane crash in the Pacific and being stranded on a deserted island with no adult supervision. While the boys start out civilized enough and try to come up with rules so they can survive, they quickly devolve into a tribe-mentality who act more like animals than humans. The film is extremely minimalistic and has an almost-documentary style to its filmmaking, like we’re watching a real tribe of all little boys.

 

 

The main reason I feel “Lord of the Flies” doesn’t work as well as it could is because of these actors and their uninvested performances. Nobody here feels truly genuine, especially the leader of the group Ralph (James Aubrey), who just looks bored throughout most of the film. Most of the kids look like they don’t know what they’re doing or have any direction to go.

Director Peter Brook was known as an improvisational filmmaker, simply putting the camera in front of the actors and seeing what they came up with. This style often has the benefit of making everything feel more authentic, but only works if the actors can roll with the punches, which these little kids cannot. It’s like watching an episode of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” being performed by people who have never done improv in their lives. While they are children and don’t have as much experience with acting, their performances still bring down this movie.

“Lord of the Flies” is a tale about how we all have this savage instinct inside of us. That if we remove the morals of society, we’re all eventually resort to cruel, beastial acts to survive. The film does a fine job of showing this, especially since this is done using little kids, but that same strength is also a weakness. Moments like Ralph standing up to the hunters has about as much menace as an episode of “Rugrats,” so any moments of savagery just feel out of place for these uncaring children.

In other words, while “Lord of the Flies” has a great message, the execution of said-message leaves a lot to be desired.

Final Grade: C+

 

Movie Review – “The Shape of Water” (2017)

 

 

One of the reasons I adore cinema so much is because filmmakers can use it as a platform to say anything they want about the world. Whether they want to talk about how the world needs journalism in “The Post,” make a statement about growing up in a Post-9/11 world in “Lady Bird,” or something as simple and relatable as growing out of adolescence and discovering yourself in “Call Me by Your Name,” film can be a gateway into our society as much as it is into our hearts and souls. But with all of these profound statements and new perspectives on life, we so often forget just how beautiful and joyous film can be at its most basic and simple level.

Sometimes you don’t need to remind the audience of the world we live in or our dilemmas. There are times when the most powerful films are the ones that remind us that there is magic and wonders in this world, and we’re watching one of those right now.

For this reason, I have no problem saying that Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is not only the best film of the year, but one of the greatest fantasies of all time. This is a film built on passion and raw unbridled love for movies in its purest form. Every shot of this film is gorgeous, perfectly thought-out to the point of being visual poetry. The music is phenomenal as it adds an even bigger emotional weight to the story, which is where fantasy and reality blend together flawlessly in a way that only del Toro can. Even performances that range from stellar to some of the most emotionally captivating I’ve ever seen. “The Shape of Water” is an excellent example of why we adore cinema.

The film follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute who works as a janitor at a secret government lab in Baltimore. Even though she doesn’t have the most glamorous life, she still makes the most of it, living above a movie theater while spending time with her elderly neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) as they watch classic movies and television, and enjoying her conversations with co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) while trying to master the dance moves she sees on television.

But her life becomes very difference when the very controlling Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in a top secret specimen into the lab that he’s brought all the way from South America. Elisa quickly finds out this specimen is alive and intelligent, and she develops a close friendship with the creature (Doug Jones) despite the watchful menacing eye of Colonel Strickland.

 

I would describe “The Shape of Water” as “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” meets “Edward Scissorhands,” with Guillermo del Toro’s unique film style for blending reality and fantasy in a fairy tale-like way. The film harkens back to a time long since passed, admiring some aspects like the simplicity of the time, without shying away from some of the harsher uglier parts of the early 1960s. While at other times, there are moments of true horror that one can only get from a monster movie, blurring the line between whether the true monster is man or creature. All the while never losing its love and passion for movies and its style.

The main reason I think “The Shape of Water” works is due to Sally Hawkins’ performance as Elisa and how she gives the most emotionally gripping and raw performance I’ve ever seen. Every scene Hawkins is in, she is acting her heart out and without ever saying a word. It feels like a silent film performance but with far more emotional weight than any silent role I can remember. There were at least three scenes that almost made me cry in this film, and it was always because of Sally Hawkins breath-taking job as showing us a woman that just wants to have her chance at happiness. Whether she’s bursting with joy, upset beyond all reason, or wallowing in despair, Hawkins gives this role everything she has.

Then again, every single performance in “The Shape of Water” is a standout. Richard Jenkins is lovable in his attempt at trying to find some sort of meaning in his old age, Octavia Spencer gives us her usual fiery attitude that I can’t help but love, even Michael Stuhlbarg plays a scientist who wants to protect the creature and he has a great duality to his character.

 

 

But the two other stand outs are Michael Shannon and Doug Jones. Shannon is ruthless, selfish and completely absorbed in his own ego that it makes his evil actions just as entertaining to watch as Hawkins’ performance. Strickland is one of the best villains I’ve seen in a long time and is the slimy glue that holds this film together. Jones plays the creature and adds a charm to the character that this story truly needed. Even under all of that makeup and latex, Jones creates something that is both imposing and surprisingly kind.

Overall, I love every second of “The Shape of Water.” It is bursting with vibrant and colorful storytelling that blends together fantasy, horror and reality in a way that leaves me speechless. The film is ruthless and gross at times, but packs just enough of an emotional punch to make those moments stand out even more. These are all some of the best performances I’ve seen all year and they make this story of love and passion in the face of a ruthless world so much more powerful than it already was. While this may not be a film for everyone, there’s no denying that “The Shape of Water” passion for filmmaking will leave an impression on most audiences as it did with me.

 

 

Final Grade: A+

 

Movie Review – “Call Me by Your Name” (2017)

 

 

I have never seen something quite like “Call Me by Your Name” before that made it hard to turn away from. While there have been plenty of coming-of-age tales and movies that depict a summer romance, “Call Me by Your Name” not only goes all-in on the lust and passion these characters feel for each other, but I’ve honestly never seen something like that done with a homosexual relationship. This might turn some people away, but for those who want to see a film give us every bit of love and desire it can muster then this film will not disappoint.

 

Set in Northern Italy in 1983, the film follows 17-year old Elio Perlman (Timothee Chalamet) on summer vacation with his parents out in the country. Elio’s father is a professor of archaeology and invites American graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) to live with them for the summer and help with the professor’s work. Elio and Oliver initally butt heads due to their vastly different personalities, but eventually develop a solid friendship that very quickly becomes much more than that.

 

If there is one word that describes “Call Me by Your Name” it would be desire. While Elio is an introvert and Oliver is extreme extrovert, it is clear that both of them want more out of life and are looking for the opportunity to explore everything that it has to offer. And once they’ve had a taste of passion and lust, they can hardly contain themselves. They treat life like it’s one big firework and give it everything they have, even if it all explodes at once. These characters are curious and horny, which makes their quiet and tender scenes so fascinating to observe.

 

 

 

I have never seen romance done quite like this before in a movie, where so much heat and appetite is on display, but they’re so gentle with each other. We all have an idea of what love looks like in the movies, and “Call Me by Your Name” turns that on its head in more ways than one. From the way Elio and Oliver talk about classical music and what they want to do with the summer to the kind way they touch and hold one another, this is not what you would expect out of an Italian romance.

 

For this reason, I would certainly recommend “Call Me by Your Name.” It respects the different ways these characters show their affection for each other. It also gives us some great acting from Armie Hammer and a breakthrough role for Timothee Chalamet as a confused quiet boy who goes through one of the most difficult and painful paths a teenager can take and comes out of it a much stronger man. I respect “Call Me by Your Name” for the many chances it takes and its approach to the Hollywood romance, and this is certainly a film worth your time.

 

Final Grade: B

Movie Review – “Phantom Thread” (2017)

 

 

This is one of the few times I went into a movie knowing absolutely nothing about it. All I knew was that Paul Thomas Anderson, the mind behind “There Will Be Blood,” “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” directed it and that this is supposedly Daniel Day-Lewis’ last film role. What I got out of this was a film that didn’t immediately seem attractive to me by setting it in the world of women’s dressmaking (if there’s one thing in this world I don’t care to learn about, it is fashion), yet “Phantom Thread” takes a strange psychological thriller turn that almost feels like a dark modern fairy tale.

In a odd way, you have to respect “Phantom Thread” for taking a subject that would turn most people away and making it into a film that’s hard to take your eyes off of. P.T. Anderson does this by creating an unsettling atmosphere and giving the film a meticulously slow pace, almost like we can see the rusty gears in these characters heads turning methodically. It also helps that Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance adds a layer of quiet class, while still coming off as questionably creepy when left to his own devices. In fact, that’s the word I would use to describe “Phantom Thread” – creepy.

Set in 1950s England, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is one of the most prestigious dress makers in the world, crafting all sorts of gorgeous ball gowns and wedding dresses for the most elegant women around the globe. Reynolds is a skilled designer who likes to keep to himself and his work, but is also very controlling and set in his ways. He keeps having dreams about his mother watching over him from heaven, causing him to lose focus on his work. His equally controlling sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) orders him to take a break and stay out in their old home on the country side, which he does and has a chance encounter with a waitress at the local restaurant, Alma (Vicky Krieps). The two hit it off, even after he introduces her to the world of fashion, but things very quickly become tense and awkward as their lives become more and more integrated.

 

 

A lot of the power in “Phantom Thread” comes from what isn’t said or addressed, or rather what is said through the fashion and the quiet distance between these characters. Reynolds and Alma’s relationship is one built on passion and admiration, but at the same time they hardly address the hidden contempt they feel for each other outside of the dresses and garments.

But the strangest relationship of all is between Reynolds and his sister Cyril and how it comes across like they share the same mind at times. How there’s this undeniable love and trust between the two of them, built on years of growth and business, yet at the same time an undertone that there might be something more than that, which goes unaddressed, only adding to the creepy factor as Cyril looks at Alma like she’s contemplating how to kill her.

Oddly enough, the main reason “Phantom Thread” works as a strange eerie thriller is because of P.T. Anderson’s direction. Even though he’s never made a film quite like this, only he could handle this subject with such personal passion and yet a flawed hubris.

 

 

He always paints his characters in such a selfish light that makes it hard to root for them, like Daniel Planview in “There Will Be Blood” or Frank Mackey in “Magnolia,” but at the same time there’s an undeniable strive for greatness in all his characters that make them so human. Reynolds Woodcock and Alma are the essence of that, set in a cutthroat world while the two make that world more difficult for the other.

Overall, “Phantom Thread” was not at all what I expected it to be, but was enthralling nonetheless. The atmosphere is toxic and unnerving, and the slow pacing only makes the mood more unsettling. The three lead performances are subtle when they need to be, and over-the-top to make the more dramatic moments stand out. Anderson’s direction is the icing on the cake to make this the best thriller in recent memory. Even if you know nothing about this movie like I did, or turned away because of the subject matter, I would suggest giving “Phantom Thread” another chance to impress you.

 

 

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “Darkest Hour” (2017)

 

 

I get a similar feeling about “Darkest Hour” as I did with “The Theory of Everything” – a historical biopic about one of the most fascinating men in the history of modern society that is held together almost entirely by one stellar performance and is otherwise an above-average movie-going experience. Like with the tale of Stephen Hawking’s youth and journey through science and faith being bound by Eddie Redmayne’s performance, “Darkest Hour” gives us a bleak tale about Winston Churchill’s struggle to keep the British empire together when it needs hope the most and its biggest claim to fame is Gary Oldman’s role as Churchill and how he practically disappears in Churchill’s enormously impressive shoes.

But outside of Oldman’s performance, there really isn’t much to “Darkest Hour.” While the atmosphere is heavy and filled with a sense of looming dread and the dialogue can be fun and inventive, the cinematography is drab, the pacing is tedious, and the acting outside of Oldman ranges from okay to passable. The main reason to watch “Darkest Hour” is to see just how Gary Oldman was able to pull this performance off and to hear all the witty and intelligent dialogue he has.

Set in May 1940 as the Nazis take hold over France and begin to take over Western Europe, the British Parliament grows more worried every day that their current prime minister is unfit to lead when war is on its way and demand that he resign so they can choose a new prime minister. After much deliberation, Parliament reluctantly chooses Winston Churchill (Oldman) to be the new prime minister, because he’s the only one the opposition would approve of. Churchill, being a difficult, stubborn man who does everything mostly for himself and his pride, does not want to be prime minister, especially during a time of war. But, with no other choice and England running out of time, Winston agrees despite not having the support he truly needs to succeed.

 

 

Oldman is brilliant as Winston Churchill, practically disappearing into his role and showing us a man who was far more than just inspirational quotes. I will give the movie credit for taking a difficult man who refuses to change and turning him into such a likable, relatable character, and I feel like we can thank Oldman’s subtle gestures and fiery moments for that. Even if I wasn’t able to understand every mumbly word he said, the passion in the way he talked and the emotions on his face conveyed everything he was trying to say, from anger and heartbreak to compassion and trust.

There is certainly a quiet power to “Darkest Hour” and how it perfectly reflected the mood and atmosphere of England at that time, while also showing what Winston Churchill brought to that mood. Some of the better moments in this movie are shots and scenes of average people walking in the street and seeing how they’re taking this news, to see how the war is affecting the homeland and its people, wondering if they’ll even have a homeland soon enough. Churchill’s secretary, Ms. Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) adds a breath of fresh air to the film by keeping it grounded in reality, reminding us that there is more at stake here than just faceless soldiers and one man’s pride.

 

 

However, the pacing does really bring “Darkest Hour” down, as it slows some scenes down to a crawl. Some scenes go on far longer than need to, like many of the encounters with the former prime minister, while others repeat many of the same beats that make the film feel repetitive at times. While the pacing starts out nicely, building up Churchill’s reveal and his rise to power, it does get steadily worse as the film goes on.

Overall, “Darkest Hour” is an above-average war film that analyzes the political and domestic effect WWII had on Britain, bolstered by a top-class performance from Gary Oldman. Even at its worst, the film is still serviceable as a bio-pic of Winston Churchill. While it can be bleak and unforgiving at times, it offers a harsh look at Britain that is often overlooked, which makes this one worth seeing.

Final Grade: C+

 

Movie Reviews – “The Sheik” (1921) and “Son of the Sheik” (1926)

 

 

Imagine if “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” combined with the creepy factor of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and you’d probably be left with something like these two films “The Sheik” and “Son of the Sheik.” Both of these films propelled its star Rudolph Valentino into the realm of living legends at the time, having previously been known for the tango scene in “Four Horseman.” But what Valentino had was a very strange aura of sex appeal – he wasn’t macho or damaged, but he was brave and vibrant, almost brooding, like James Dean.

Both of these films follow Valentino’s titular Sheik, an Arab leader that roams the deserts of North Africa along with his faithful soldiers, taking what they want along the way. In the first film, the Sheik kidnaps a young, independent woman from London and attempts to woo her so that he may win her heart. The second film follows the Sheik’s son (also played by Valentino, who also reprises his role as the Sheik), as he attempts to do basically the same thing his father did, only this time he tries to win the heart of a woman that wronged him.

In other words, like “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” these films’ version of romance is to have men kidnap women that they find attractive, hold them against their will, and just wait until they ultimately fall in love with their captors. Because Stockholm Syndrome is the greatest form of love!

Ultimately, I couldn’t get into either of these films, mostly because of how these romances are formed on such terrible barbaric acts, yet they try to play it off like the Sheik was acting purely out of love and that he was doing the right thing, when he most certainly was not. Valentino’s performances only make this even creepier when he has this face that looks like he’s one bad day away from becoming the Joker.

 

 

I would say that “The Sheik” is slightly better than “Son of the Sheik,” if only because of how the title cards make the desert feel far more alive than it should, with very detailed descriptions to give this pile of sand its own character. It also uses tints of different color to effectively describe the mood and tone of a scene, while “Son of the Sheik” is entirely black-and-white. While that film has double the Valentino and some better comedy, all charm and charisma he had at that point was thrown out the window when he fell in love with the woman that ruined his life for good reason.

I’m not sure if I would recommend these films to anyone outside of film buffs who want to see how Rudolph Valentino became a big star in the 1920s. They’re not bad movies, but they are uninteresting and dull movies. While the Stockholm Syndrome romances made these ones feel icky, they just feel like uninspired action set pieces of the silent era.

Final Grades:

“The Sheik” – C

“Son of the Sheik” – C-