Film Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Dir: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Thandie Newton, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany.
Runtime: 2hr 15min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Light, some hints here and there.

After facing a (rumored) fraught production, during which the original directors were fired due to “creative differences” and replaced with Ron Howard in the eleventh hour, which led to significant portions of the film being re-shot, expectations for Solo seemed to be teetering between “bad” and “disastrous.” My own hopes for the film were decidedly low as negative rumors swirled in the lead up to release, but after seeing it, I can safely say that I should not have had such a bad feeling about it.

Solo_A_Star_Wars_Story_posterSolo follows the young titular character (Ehrenreich) as he breaks free from his life on the streets and pursues his ambitions to become the best pilot in the galaxy – though, along the way, he gets sidetracked by a heist or two and learns a few important lessons about who to trust, the price of loyalty, and the weight of betrayal.

This romp of a film capably blends nuances from various genres – space opera, noir, western, thriller – and the result is a well-crafted, if somewhat overlong jaunt through space that chronicles young Han Solo’s life and achievements prior to Episode IV: A New Hope. Though Solo features such iconic moments and fanboy fodder as Han’s first encounter and blossoming partnership with Chewie, his infamous Kessel Run (in under 12 parsecs) and and his acquisition of the Millennium Falcon, it (surprisingly) does not over-rely on nostalgia and fan service to tell its story and weave an original, if occasionally predictable narrative. Overall, Solo is a worthy addition to the Star Wars Anthology series and an enjoyable space adventure that offers thrills and a compelling look into the backstory of the galaxy’s favorite stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder.

Asking Alden Ehrenreich to live up to the legacy of Harrison Ford in the role of Han is like asking a guppy to fill the fins of Jaws, or a tennis ball to pack the same emotional wallop as Wilson the volleyball – it’s an impossible task. BUT, that is hardly Ehrenriech’s fault, and he delivers enough charm and charisma to convince the audience to root for him and have faith in his burgeoning career and confidence as an outlaw, and his developing camaraderie with Chewbacca (Suotamo) is an emotional high point of the film. Ehrenreich certainly has the infamous smirk and the stance down pat, and seeing Han and Chewie sit in the Falcon together for the first time with the iconic theme playing is almost worth the price of admission alone.

As far as the rest of the supporting cast goes, Woody Harrelson as the outlaw Beckett is… well, Woody Harrelson. In the best way, of course. Thandie Newton is great as Val, despite limited screen time. Our new Chewbacca, Joonas Suotamo, warbles and fights and interacts with Han in a way that would make Peter Mayhew proud. Glover – predictably – offers a convincing impression as the debonair Lando Calrission and plays off Ehrenreich exceptionally well. Bettany is somewhat underused as the villainous Dryden, though what we do get from him is enough to prove how sinister and vicious his reputation as the Crimson Dawn ringleader implies. Clarke is lovely as the enigmatic Qi’ra, Han’s old friend from his time on the streets in Corellia, and it will be a shame if we don’t see more of her in future installments. Plus, that “little” cameo at the end – which made my jaw drop – has made me excited to see what the next anthology installment has in store. But perhaps the most compelling new addition to the growing Star Wars cast list is the mysterious Enfys Nest – I sincerely hope we see that character again, because Enfys has the potential to become f*cking AWESOME.

However enjoyable this film is, and how it may well have crawled back from the jaws of potential ruin after the crisis of losing two directors, it is far from perfect. One major drawback is the lack of humor – there are jokes scattered here and there, and a few of them might earn some genuine chuckles, but a significant portion of them fail to land as intended. It didn’t need to be a comedy film, but Han’s one-liners could have been stronger and the humor we did get was lackluster. The character of L3, for me, was also a massive miss and I disliked most of her scenes. The whole “equal rights for droids” schtick is a worthwhile thread to follow, but in this film, it comes off as a silly parody instead of a sincere focus on what could translate to a relatable and genuine issue. Much of the cinematography is dark and muddled, which, during some action scenes, makes it difficult to peg who is who, though – in true Star Wars fashion – the creature effects are stellar.

It is unfortunate that Solo comes on the tail of The Last Jedi, which is perhaps the most polarizing Star Wars film of them all. Fans who disliked Episode VIII might feel less inclined to indulge in the latest space adventure from Disney’s rejuvenated Star Wars franchise, and I was stunned that the theater I went to had only about six other folks in it on the second Saturday of release. Even if you dislike the new main trilogy, I’d say it’s worth taking a chance on Solo, if only to go off on a new adventure without the burdensome weight of the often frustrating mythos to bog it down. Perhaps, if it can fill more seats in the coming weeks, Solo can give some jaded fans new hope in the franchise.

Overall Rating: 8/10

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Film Review: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Dir: The Russo Bros
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chrises Evans, Hemsworth, and Pratt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Scarlett Johansson, Josh Brolin, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Chadwick Boseman, Peter Dinklage, Tom Holland, lots and lots of other amazing humans, possibly some aliens, and one badass cape.
Runtime: 2hr 29min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Light, if any. No major plot points revealed.

At last, the moment Marvel fans have been waiting for since Iron Man’s debut film in 2008 has dawned. A decade in the making, those loyal to the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe get to see dozens of superheroes (and a few villains) meet onsceen in what is being marketed as one of the largest collaborative efforts in film history, and the result is an ambitious and unrelenting crossover spectacle that is sure to keep fans on the edge of their seats until the lights go up in the theater and the last name ticks by on the credit scroll.

img_20180426_184828_4731152136814.jpgAvengers: Infinity War follows the fractured Avengers (and a ragtag crew of other heroes) as they attempt to stop the intergalactic threat Thanos from securing the all-powerful infinity stones and thus wreaking his judgment upon the earth. And… that’s pretty much all to be said without wandering into spoiler territory.

First of all, for those going into this film spoiler-free (as one should) I have only one word of advice: Forget everything you think you know. With a film series that now spans 19 installments, it’s difficult not to speculate and generate theories as to what will happen to the much-beloved characters fans have grown to know and become attached to over the last ten years. But I assure you, Infinity War defies expectations and unfurls enough twists and surprises to keep the most intuitive fans guessing until the final seconds.

This film features a massive cast, and while some faces do get more screen time and focus than others, no one feels shoved to the side or left out. The smaller story-lines are all connected by one major over-arcing conflict (named Thanos), which keeps the story churning ahead like a train barreling down the tracks, and prevents the plot from meandering too far off course. Several of the unorthodox pairs and groupings that come about in this movie are flat out strokes of comedic and narrative genius, with interactions and rapport that practically ooze chemistry. I never realized how badly I wanted a Thor and Rocket Raccoon team-up movie until now, but if it ever happens, Marvel has my money. Somehow, even in such a jam-packed film, several characters manage to undergo a decent and impressive amount of character development despite sharing the screen with so many colorful personalities. This film could very easily have felt like “too much,” but because the cast is broken up into different factions most of the time, it manages to escape coming across as bloated and bogged down.

The writing capably balances comedic moments (with several jokes that had me laughing out loud) and the heavier, more serious scenes that strive to yank at the heartstrings and appeal to the viewer’s emotional investment in the series. The result is a well-paced film where some of the smaller moments are more charming and evocative than the bombastic high-stakes events. A film of this magnitude also promises a wealth of action, and once the fight-scenes start, they hardly ever let up, except some breaks for exposition and banter. There are numerous instances of creative combat and fan-service that are certain to please and thrill, though fans who disliked the large cast and epic fight scenes in Civil War will possibly find little to appreciate about the action sequences in this film. Likewise, those who are looking for a more casual movie-going experience or have missed the major films in this series might want to skip this one until they’re caught up. Many of the jokes and references in this film will not make sense to those who have skipped a few chapters – in fact, the opening scene is proof that this isn’t a film meant to draw in new viewers and initiate fresh fans. The first seeds for Infinity War were planted ten years ago when Tony Stark first graced the silver screen, and for the nineteenth chapter, the Russo Bros and other hands behind this film have delivered an explosive, emotionally-jarring, and potentially scarring adventure that hardly takes a breather from start to finish.

On a visual level, the effects are of standard Marvel quality. Some CGI looks fake, other times it’s seamless… that’s more or less par for the course for these movies. Alan Silvestri’s score makes an excellent addition and expansion to the existing themes and music from previous films, and adds a bit of extra power to both the emotional scenes and the ones rife with combat.

Folks who have witnessed all or most of the eighteen films leading up to this one, who flock to early screenings and don their favorite character’s colors and symbols for premieres and eschew sneak peaks and early footage in favor of going in blind, will find a lot to like about this film, but might also find parts of it frustrating simply because there is such a great level of investment in the fan-base. This is a film with a lot on the line, and not everyone will be pleased with the result. Obviously, the most contentious and hotly-discussed moment(s) of this movie will mainly concern the ending… which is why I’m not going to go into it. But I will say that my jaw dropped more than once, there are some loose threads left dangling, fan reactions are likely to be split, and I’m already concocting theories as to what will happen in the sequel, which is an entire year away. It is frustrating to have to wait that long, but at least we have the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel to make it more endurable.

Infinity War has had an entire decade of build up, and though it’s not a definitive conclusion to the current phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is apparent that the end is nigh, and this war might exact a greater toll than fans are prepared for. But overall, Infinity War is a wild ride that Marvel fans absolutely should not miss.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

Film Review: Chappaquiddick (2018)

Dir: John Curran
Starring: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern, Jim Gaffigan, etc.
Runtime: 1hr 41min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Light

Chappaquiddick is based on the true story of the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, in which a car accident involving senator Ted Kennedy (Clark) resulted in the death of political campaign secretary Mary Jo Kopechne (Mara). As controversy erupts regarding his level of involvement in Kopechne’s death, the senator must decide which is more important – the legacy and reputation of his family, or the truth.

Chappaquiddick_(film)Chappaquiddick presents a compelling and relevant commentary on the perceived moral infallibility of politicians and public figures versus the truth of their glaring flaws and inherent humanity. The film lingers on the word “integrity” more than once, and it seems that is the idea that haunts Kennedy as the events of that night on Chappaquiddick consume his life and threaten his career. As the senator smooths his hair and adjusts his appearance in mirrors and ensures that he looks good for the cameras, he is the picture of integrity, the image of an upstanding man of high moral character – and yet, so often, his words and actions behind closed doors contradict that. The outside fails to reflect the inside, though the outside is all that the public sees.

Clarke’s portrayal is gripping and nuanced as the last Kennedy son, living in the engulfing shadow of Robert and Jack, a man slowly breaking beneath the burdensome reputation of his celebrated family, struggling to appease the rigid demands of his wheelchair-bound, yet intimidating father (Dern), and the truth surrounding a young woman who met her death, cold and alone, in the depths of a lake. Early in the film, a wet, defeated Ted Kennedy tells his cousin Joe Gargan (Helms) “I’m not going to be president,” and that statement encompasses the truth of who Kennedy is, in this film. A man who will never escape the shadows that eclipse him.

Though Clarke’s performance easily dominates the screen, the supporting roles in this film are superb, especially Mara as Mary Jo, as she is, essentially, the ghost that trails Kennedy throughout this film, resonating long after that car plummets into the water, a presence that cannot merely be relegated to a footnote in someone else’s history. Helms also delivers a solid performance as Gargan, torn between his loyalty and familial ties to the Kennedy family, and the struggle to do what is right. Andria Blackman as Ted’s wife Joan Kennedy gets the film’s lone F-bomb, and it’s my personal favorite line in the entire film. Dern is powerful as Kennedy family patriarch, and, though the senior Kennedy was confined to a wheelchair and suffering from the effects of a stroke that left his movement and speech impaired, Dern’s portrayal makes him a dominant force to be reckoned with, with a glare that could freeze anyone in place.

One major strength of the film is how it subtly presents different “sides,” or compares viewpoints and situations. In the film, the problems swarming Kennedy are juxtaposed against the efforts of the Space Race – a fitting contrast, as Ted Kennedy’s political career and social life plunge into purgatory while Neil Armstrong takes his first victorious steps on the surface of the moon. One giant leap for mankind, and one massive misstep for Ted Kennedy. It’s a nice touch, aiding the tone of the film, and makes Ted’s mistakes all the more apparent. Another contrast is the way Mary Jo is treated, often referred to as “the girl,” by the Kennedy’s collection of black suits, but referred to by name by Gargan and those close to her, even by Kennedy himself. The core of this film is the way it shows ideas butting heads with each other – most prominently, the weight of a family’s reputation against the importance of truth and honesty, and politics versus morality and how they often fail to intersect.

What truly happened on the night of July 18th, 1969 at a bridge on Chappaquiddick island, might never be fully explained or revealed, and many of the details have remained unclear. The film does a fair job of keeping this relatively ambiguous tone, as the true nature of the relationship between Ted and Mary Jo is left to interpretation, and Ted appears conflicted enough about his choices that the film avoids entering character assassination territory. Viewers can form their own opinion of him – I’ve never held the Kennedy family on a golden, untouchable pedestal, so I found the portrayal to be well-balanced. Sharp editing and writing assist in making Chappaquiddick a partially completed puzzle that offers enough of a clear picture to satisfy audiences and answer pesky questions, while leaving enough blurred ideas and “what ifs?” and “might haves” to avoid straying too far into slanderous artistic liberty pitfalls that plague so many films based on “true” events. However, those with a rosy perception of the Kennedy dynasty might think otherwise.

Overall rating: 8/10

Film Review: A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

Dir: Ava DuVernay
Starring: Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Zack Galifanakis, Storm Reid, Deric McCabe, Levi Miller, etc.
Runtime: 1hr49min
Rating: PG
Spoiler level: Light

A Wrinkle in Time, one of the most-hyped releases of 2018, and based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Madeleine L’Engle, follows uncertain teenager Meg (Reid), who, along with her younger brother, friend Calvin, and three mysterious beings known as the Mrs., must embark on a journey across the universe to rescue her scientist father from a darkness known only as “IT.”

TAWrinkleInTimeTeaser.jpghough some folks adhere to the idea that films should be judged apart from their source material, I think it is more appropriate to judge a film both as an adaptation and then as a film. Therefore, as a fan of the original novel/series, I feel it is important to say that this film is not a good adaptation of L’Engle’s work.

Though it features characters with the same names, similar worlds, and strives to teach at least part of the same lessons, the film and the book are not on the same frequency, and for die-hard fans of the classic book, this adaptation will likely be disappointing. Much of the core message of the original book is lost to a sheen of glossy special effects, nonsensical (if beautiful) costumes, and a convoluted plot that allows some of the most beautiful sentiments from the book to slip through the cracks, lost to the universe.

A Wrinkle in Time (1962) is notable for it’s seamless blending and consideration of both science and religion, and how it handled sensitive social issues and other problems plaguing children like Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin, and continue to plague children and young adults in today’s society. The film touches on this particular aspect exceptionally well – exploring Meg’s insecurities and doubts about herself, especially – but because the focus is all over the place, the impact of that message is dampened. Religion is removed entirely from the film, as is a portion of the science, to the detriment of the narrative. So much is cut from L’Engle’s original story that the movie feels disjointed, the pacing suffers, and much of the plot comes across as confusing and the explanations insufficient for those not familiar with the source material.

It seems like those behind the film were trying to bend the book’s story to fit the message they wanted to tell, instead of adapting and doing justice to L’Engle’s work. I’m generally accepting of artistic liberties when it comes to adaptations, but when Aunt Beast gets trimmed down to a 2 second cameo so the kids can go on a CGI-laden sky ride above on a plant creature, and something that was so important to the author and a vital component of the story (religion) gets removed entirely, then I get a little steamed. And I’m an atheist, so that’s not any sort of bias speaking. There’s a difference between trimming superfluous scenes from the source material in order to accommodate run-time, and straight-up butchering the intended themes and vital components of the story itself.

I will say, however, that the “IT” stuff with Charles Wallace near the end (no spoilers) was impressive, and made me recall just how much I feared “IT” as a kid when I first experienced the book. However, though it is briefly touched upon, the whole “conformity” idea as it pertains to “IT” and Camazotz does not get explored in the film with as much depth as it does in the novel.

But… that’s just my views of A Wrinkle in Time as an adaptation.

As a film, the movie is a passable adventure aimed at children and young audiences that will charm and enchant them, and hopefully inspire them to believe in their own inner-strength and be “warriors” themselves. The message this film strives to impart upon its viewers – which, though it differs in the way L’Engle’s story is told, is no less important or powerful – about embracing your perceived “flaws” and using them as your strength will hopefully resonate with kids, and maybe even older viewers as well. Some threads of the plot – such as Meg’s insecurities about her appearance and intelligence and the father/daughter bond between Meg and Alex – are a success, but because there is so much going on in other aspects of the film, the focus is fractured, and those few shining moments often get drowned by the admittedly beautiful special effects, such as the sweeping, floral-kissed landscapes and storm-tossed forests.

The acting, for the most part, is commendable – the Mrs. (Kaling, Winfrey, and Witherspoon) do what they can, though, as a die-hard fan of the book, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the way they were depicted. The children, especially Reid as Meg and Deric McCabe as Charles Wallace, give believable and occasionally heart-wrenching performances, especially at the climax of the film, and though Levi Miller’s Calvin is underdeveloped, his acting isn’t at fault for that. Pine and Mbatha-Raw also turn in excellent performances, though the spotlight shines mainly on the younger cast members.

For a film that is meant to explore the vastness and wonder of both the light and dark of the universe, the end result feels disproportionately small. An ambitious effort on the part of the visionary director and talented cast, A Wrinkle in Time falls short of greatness and might not please fans of L’Engle’s work, but even though it’s a bit of a mess, it is a beautiful mess. For an afternoon out with the kids for some popcorn and stunning visuals, this film might be worth a watch to pass a couple of hours.

But for older viewers like myself, capable of getting into R-rated movies… if you’re looking for a female-empowering/led, diverse (which A Wrinkle in Time is, don’t get me wrong) sci-fi film with excellent visuals and an exploratory, unconventional, and compelling plot, please, please, please check out Annihilation (2018) if it is playing in your area. Fair warning, it’s got some gore and horror elements, but it completely blew me away – it’s not getting nearly enough praise, and deserves much more.

Overall rating: 6/10

Best Picture Countdown #2: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

“This didn’t put an end to shit, you fucking retard; this is just the fucking start. Why don’t you put that on your Good Morning Missouri fucking wake up broadcast, bitch?”Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Dir: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, etc.
Runtime: 1hr55min
Rating: R

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri follows Mildred Hayes (McDormand) as she utilizes three billboards to air her grievances with the local police department over the unsolved murder of her daughter. Her desire for vengeance puts her at odds not only with the police, but with her own family and others in the town.

Whooo boy, this one was tough!

Three_Billboards_Outside_Ebbing,_Missouri.png

I’m going to say this straight up, although Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was only my second favorite Oscar-nominated film this year… I do think it is going to win Best Picture. And that would be a 100% justified victory, because this film is incredible.

As a personal anecdote about how powerful this film is, my father – who does not get into awards shows or artsy/indie films to the extent that I do – asked me to tell him when the Supporting Actor, Lead Actress, and other relevant categories were announced during the BAFTAs so he could watch, and he cheered out loud when “my boy!” Sam Rockwell won the Golden Globe. He is actively rooting for this film and continues to praise it whenever it pops up in conversation. Also, when I saw this film with my parents, we were the only people in the film aside from one other man, who I’m 75% sure snuck in without paying. That’s a crime, considering how brilliant this movie is. We also call it “Three Billbos” in my house, because that’s what the marquee said when we were at the theater, but I digress…

Sam Rockwell is, as far as I’m concerned, a lock for Best Supporting Actor. I don’t think it’s even a contest. I have never, ever in my life had such a back-and-forth, rollercoaster of a reaction to a film character, and it’s all down to Rockwell’s performance. I went from thinking Dixon was a moron, to hating him, to really hating him, to kind of liking him, to rooting for his success, to feeling ambiguous about him, and so on. Though Harrelson turns in a spectacular performance as Willoughby, he’s easily eclipsed by his co-star – though the moments their characters share onscreen are a treat to witness.

Similarly, I consider Frances McDormand the front-runner for Best Actress – she perfectly executes the simmering rage of a mother out for vengeance over the cruel, unsolved murder of her daughter, spitting vitriol at anyone who would try to impede her mission, yet she also shows the vulnerability and heartbreak of a woman who has suffered an unimaginable loss and is still trying to piece together the fragments of her life. There are moments – as with Dixon – where I didn’t like Mildred, either because of some heartless jape she says, or something she does that seems more vindictive than justified, and also moments where I wanted her to torch the entire town to ashes or reach through the screen to pat her shoulder. She is the heart of this film and carries it on her shoulders, in her fury, her pain, her moments of delinquency, and her emotional struggle. The nuanced characters and the emotionally-layered performances of the actors are a major strength of this film – but it’s also a testament to the writing.

Martin McDonagh’s screenplay is rife with dark humor, sharp dialogue and a relevant social commentary, unpredictable and jaw-dropping moments, cutting insults and heart-wrenching expressions of pain and soul-stirring explosions of anger, and characters that pop off of the screen like real, breathing people. Even the side characters, like James (Dinklage), are distinct and have memorable lines and scenes. This film is poignant, dark, and the type of narrative that will illicit emotions that you might not want to feel, but the powerful, lingering message it delivers is one that deserves and demands to be heard and seen. If it doesn’t win Best Original Screenplay, I’ll be surprised – and I think McDonagh was totally snubbed for Best Director. The “window” scene with Dixon and Red was pure cinematic gold – I was actually squirming in my seat through the whole thing, and I think my pounding heart left bruises on my ribs.

Though Burwell is an underdog for Best Score, I actually like his score the best of all the nominees – regardless, I don’t think he’ll win, but it does make me excited to hear more from him in future films. Film Editing is up in the air, but I’m predicting at least three wins for Three Billboards…and maybe four, if it can edge out the rest in the close race for Best Picture. And if the awards season trend continues as it has been, Three Billboards just might take it home.
Oscar Nominations
Best Supporting Actor (Harrelson)
Best Supporting Actor (Rockwell)
Best Actress (McDormand)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Film Editing
Best Original Score
Best Film

Film Review: Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Dir. Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois
Rating: R
Runtime: 2hr 12min
Spoiler level: Minor (some dialogue is revealed)

Each year, I make an effort to see every Best Picture nominee for the Academy Awards, and was lucky enough to have time to see Luca Guadagnino’s film Call Me By Your Name on the last day it was playing in my town, after a mere 6-day run at one of two local chains. I went into this film unsure of what to expect, and emerged from the theater, 2.5 hours later and teary-eyed, with a new personal favorite for Best Picture at the Oscars this year.

CallMeByYourName2017
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54670536

Adapted from André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, Call Me By Your Name explores the relationship between seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman (Chalamet) and twenty-four-year-old Oliver (Hammer), an American scholar who is staying with the Perlman family as an assistant to Elio’s father (Stuhlbarg), as it evolves over a summer in 1980’s Italy.

Call Me By Your Name‘s strength is a combination of beautiful cinematography, strong performances from a brilliant cast, and the way it delivers its messages and themes to the viewers. While fellow Best Picture contender Phantom Thread (which I saw the day prior) is a film that makes you think, to wrack your brain trying to pick apart the character’s motivations and desires and connections to one another, Call Me By Your Name is a film that makes you feel. It draws on emotions from various different angles – from the awkwardness of adolescence, to the conflicting pain and elation of first love, to the lamentation of wasted days and the curiosity of sexuality, to the bond between parents and children and family of different generations, to the thrills of desire – and it never feels disingenuous. The emotions felt and expressed by the characters resonate off the screen and linger long after the credits have rolled and the lights come on, and it will be a film that sticks with me for a long time.

Overall, the film is paced in a way that allows the relationships between the characters – not only the leads, but the supporting cast as well – to develop in an organic manner, that does not feel rushed or forced. The film also does a marvelous job in exploring the beauty of small moments – small gestures, brief touches, the flicker of a gaze or a soft sigh – and it makes every scene, even the ones with no dialogue (only the excellent soundtrack) – explode with purpose and meaning. The scenery of a summer in Italy provides a gorgeous, lush backdrop for the character interactions, and is shown in a way that I could almost feel the heat or the gentle breeze or the coolness of the river.

Though it will be a challenge to dethrone current award-season Best Actor champion Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), Chalamet’s performance as Elio is remarkable, and might just be my current favorite dark horse in the Oscar race. His nuanced portrayal of a seventeen-year-old experiencing the roller coaster of emotion that comes with a first love is rife with subtle mannerisms, evocative dialogue, and familiar elements that anyone who has felt a similar way, or who has ever been a somewhat awkward teenager growing up in a world they don’t fully understand yet, can likely relate to. His final scene in the film was enough to draw a tear or two, and the way his voice broke on the “Can you come get me?” line was enough to split even my cold heart in half.

Hammer delivers a powerful and moving performance as Oliver – I found myself often focusing on his facial expressions, and how he was able to masterfully portray a myriad of emotion in such small, subtle motions and gestures, especially as he grapples with his feelings for Elio and the worry of how his actions might be perceived. Though the age gap between the characters might draw the side-eye from some (and understandably so) their relationship unfolds in a way that does not come off as exploitative or manipulative, and does not rely on common LGBTQ tropes or themes. Their chemistry is palpable, their conversations feel raw and genuine, and their connection to each other is expressed more prominently in their growing emotional intimacy than the physical. It’s somewhat of a subversion of the genre, and a breath of fresh air – as is Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as Elio’s father. His speech to Elio in the third act of the film is so real, and so wonderful – the line “But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!” (which originates in the novel) is the single greatest line I’ve heard in a film all year, and Stuhlbarg delivers it beautifully as he attempts to support and help his son navigate the tribulations that come with such an intense emotional journey.

Call Me By Your Name is a unique coming-of-age-film that expertly handles matters of the body, heart, and soul, and exposes the vulnerability of emotion, relationships, and first love in a beautiful, compelling, and heart-wrenching fashion. It might be a dark horse, but any gold statues it takes home on March 4th (and I hope it gets some) will be utterly deserved.

Overall rating: 9.5/10

Film Review: Darkest Hour (2017)

Dir. Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn, etc.
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 2hr 5min
Spoiler level: Minor

The moment I saw a screenshot of Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill some months ago, I knew I was going to see this movie. I had to travel an hour away to do it (drawbacks of small-town living) but Oldman’s Golden Globe win last Sunday solidified that his turn in Darkest Hour was a performance I didn’t want to miss on the big screen. Also, The Shape of Water isn’t playing within 50 miles of me, so…

dhFollowing Winston Churchill (Oldman) as he takes the mantle of Prime Minister in May 1940 with World War II brewing ominously on the mainland, Darkest Hour offers insight (both in public and behind closed doors) into Churchill’s first tenuous/strenuous days in office as he faces opposition and doubt from his fellow party members, the crown, and himself.

First things first; the cast is superb. Kristin Scott Thomas is great as Clementine Churchill, as she conveys the inner and outer struggle of a wife and her efforts to support her husband as he endures such intense scrutiny. Ben Mendelsohn (who I didn’t even recognize, a total fail on my part) does an excellent job expressing the turmoil of King George VI, who grapples with his opinion of Churchill and what is best for the nation as a whole as it faces the possibility of invasion. Lily James turns in a nuanced performance as Churchill’s personal secretary, Elizabeth Layton, and Stannis Baratheon Stephen Dillane’s determined and frustrated Halifax stands toe to toe with Oldman’s Churchill as he argues for appeasement over war. But obviously, the film is carried by Oldman, who delivers Churchill’s famous speeches with passion and fire, but also shows vulnerability as he is assailed by doubt and criticism from all sides, not to mention the looming war with the Axis Powers on the horizon. He plays off of the other key characters with aplomb, as the chemistry Oldman shares with Scott Thomas, while only shown in a few scenes, is an inspiring look into the strengths and strains of an enduring marriage, while Oldman’s scenes with Mendelsohn evolve over the course of the film as their interactions go from tension-riddled and uncertain to tempered hostility to grudging respect and beyond. Hearing the “We shall fight them on the beaches,” speech coming from Oldman is electrifying, as his words build in intensity and fervor and serve as a contrast to those poignant flickers of uncertainty and wavering confidence he suffers while debating whether or not to enter peace negotiations with the monster threatening to invade and conquer.

One of the film’s main strengths is that it isn’t a wide-spanning look at Churchill’s life and career, sprawling over the course of several years; it’s a snapshot centered on Churchill’s earliest days in office, which encompasses only a few weeks and culminates in the evacuation at Dunkirk. This lends the film a greater sense of focus and a deeper look into Churchill’s mindset and emotional state, and permits a greater exploration into the opinions of those around him, particularly Halifax and Chamberlain. It doesn’t seek to show Churchill’s entire legacy in two hours, and the result is a more intimate film with a greater focus on the gravity of his decisions and their possible consequences, rather than a blustering epic about his greatness with no time to breathe in-between scenes. The pacing is a bit dodgy at times, but the film also strives to show the criticism that Churchill faced during his tenure and references some of his more controversial actions, including the Gallipoli Campaign, which provides a somewhat more “balanced” portrayal of the historical icon, rather than a 2-hour lovefest.

Darkest Hour also shines on a technical level, as the cinematography, lighting, sound (including Dario Marianelli’s score) and direction are stellar, and all components function together to make a visually (and audibly) beautiful film. Certain shots and sequences are framed and shot in such a evocative, visceral way, it gives even more weight to whatever is happening onscreen at the time. Lots of great “hallway” shots and tracking shots, and one particular shot of Churchill in an elevator shows the perfect image of a man who feels utterly “alone” not only physically, but in his convictions. Plus, I’d be shocked if Tsuji and team don’t win the Oscar for Makeup and Hairstyling (Sorry, Beauty & The Beast), as Gary Oldman’s galvanizing performance is enhanced by the amazing physical transformation he undergoes to become one of the most well-known and revered figures in British history.

One of Darkest Hour‘s taglines is also one of Churchill’s most famous phrases, “Never surrender.” And though those famous words have been heard countless times, and WWII has been depicted repeatedly on screens of all sizes, Darkest Hour is a semi-unconventional “war” film that brings something fresh and new to the table in offering a closer look into Winston Churchill’s life and legacy, his personal and professional relationships, and his unwillingness to give in, even when facing such grave odds and innumerable doubts.

P.S. I might suggest this film and Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk as a double feature, though viewing both films back-to-back could be pretty draining… though you could start off with Tom Hooper’s 2010 Oscar-winner The King’s Speech, for a bit of levity.