Film Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

Dir: Ol Parker
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Dominic Cooper, Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth, Andy Garcia, Cher, Meryl Streep, etc.
Runtime: 1hr54min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Some small tidbits, but nothing major.

Ten years ago, Mamma Mia! hit theaters. I went to see it with a high school friend and my mom, and was blown away by how fun it was. Now, the theater we saw it in has been remodeled, and our lives have changed significantly over the last decade – but on Sunday, that same friend, my mother, and I all met up for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. And, yet again, I emerged from the theater humming an ABBA tune and quelling the urge to dance all the way to my car.

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Acting as both a sequel and a prequel to 2008’s Mamma Mia!, Here We Go Again is a rom/com musical that follows Sophie (Seyfried) as she attempts to embark on a new chapter in her life, which somewhat mirrors her mother Donna’s (James) journey to Greece back in 1979.

Following in the first film’s joyful, if occasionally silly footsteps, Mamma Mia! Here We Go again is a charming summer romp with plenty of heart and laughter. Amidst the jaunty song and dance numbers, it also offers a surprisingly meaningful message about love and family. Sure, it’s a sequel no one asked for – but let’s be real, here. This film has Cher, and ABBA music. What more could you want?

First, you can’t talk about this film without mentioning the music. Particular highlights for me include “Waterloo,” “Andante, Andante,” “Angeleyes,” “Fernando,” “My Love, My Life,” and, of course, the staples from the original film, “Mamma Mia!” “Dancing Queen,” and “Super Trouper.” I shall forever maintain that there are two types of people in this world – those who love ABBA, and liars. Each number in this film is performed with tangible enthusiasm, and the actors/singers/dancers seem like they’re having a blast and putting their all into it. “Dancing Queen” is a notable mention just for Firth, Brosnan, and Skarsgård. And for those of you wondering… no, Brosnan doesn’t get a solo number this time around, per se. But he does sing a small, acapella reprise of “S.O.S,” and I’m pleased to say it is genuinely touching.

It’s impressive how well ABBA’s music naturally weaves into the situations of the characters… with the minor infraction of Cher and Garcia singing “Fernando” near the end. It’s a wee bit shoehorned in, though there are some clues leading up to it, so it isn’t entirely unexpected. But it’s forgivable because Cher. It’s also worth noting that a lot of the instrumental motifs in the film are throwbacks and tributes to the original film/musical and other ABBA songs, like “Slipping Through My Fingers.”

Told through both the lens of present day and flashbacks to ’79, each part of the film receives the appropriate amount of attention, and focus shifts seamlessly between the timelines. The transitions in this film are immaculate, which aids the film’s intention to “mirror” Sophie’s experiences and feelings with those of her mother, and keeps the plot at a respectable pace. Viewers get to see Donna’s initial meetings with Bill, Harry, and Sam, and how she ended up staying in Greece, giving a visual history to the premise of the first film, and also how Sophie is trying to honor her mother by making the grand opening of the Hotel Bella Donna a success while also juggling her relationship with Sky. The scenery is gorgeous, the costumes are perfect, and there’s a satisfying amount of laughs to complement what turns out to be an earnest and heartfelt message about the relationship between mother and daughter, and finding one’s way in the world when a storm threatens your path.

And, brief spoiler alert, Meryl has very little screen time in this. I was initially disappointed with the fate of her character – but when she does appear onscreen, it’s worth it. As in, I teared up. I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write this and getting emotional again!

The cast must have had a ton of fun filming this – especially the returning faces. Everyone seems to be having a great time, no one phones it in, and the onscreen chemistry is like actual friends reuniting after a long time apart. The finale performance of “Super Trouper,” is the perfect example of this, and I couldn’t stop smiling through the whole thing. The new faces also do an excellent job of channeling their older counterparts – especially Hugh Skinner as young Harry, Jessica Keenan Wynn as young Tanya, and, of course, Lily James as young Donna. James is both sweet and sassy as Young Donna, and her stellar performance carries the ’79 timeline. Basically, everyone in this film is a delight, plain and simple – and fun pretty much oozes off the screen.

The plot may get a little silly at times, and the film timeline is seriously wack, but this isn’t a movie aiming to garner a shelf full of top-tier awards. For what it is, and what it’s trying to do, it’s a total and absolute jam, and well worth the price of admission. Here We Go Again might not have been a necessary sequel, but it’s also not a shameless cash grab – it’s a great time, with a great cast, and great music, the perfect recipe for an entertaining summer flick.

Overall rating: 8/10

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Film Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Dir: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Peña, Bobby Cannavale, Walton Goggins, Randall Park, Judy Greer, Laurence Fishburne, etc.
Runtime: 1hr58min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Light, some hints here and there. One tidbit beneath the read-more.

I am a big fan of 2015’s Ant-Man, to the point where it’s in my current Pantheon of great Marvel films, so I’ve been eager about the follow-up ever since the post-credits teaser of the original. Like its predecessor, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a departure from the typical superhero formula and the high-stakes, dire nature of most Marvel films, and the result is a humorous palate-cleanser and a much-needed dose of levity with just enough heart and conflict to connect it back to recent installments in the MCU.

Ant-Man_and_the_Wasp_posterAnd-Man and the Wasp follows our hero Scott Lang (Rudd) who seeks to repair his fractured relationship with Hope van Dyne (Lilly) and Hank Pym (Douglas) as they team up once again in order to save Hope’s mother and Hank’s wife Janet (Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm while also fending off a mysterious enemy named Ghost (John-Kamen) who wants their technology for herself.

Overall, this film is a wild ride from start to finish – a well-balanced comedic action film that is relatively self-contained while also tying into the MCU as a whole. Folks might be quick to write off this film as “disposable,” since it doesn’t feature any of the “big,” Avengers, but I’ll attest that it’d be a crime to miss out on this little adventure, especially if you find yourself needing a laugh or two after Infinity War.

The cast turns in great performances all around, from returning crew and newcomers alike. Rudd and Lilly, our titular heroes, play off one another even better than the first film, with Hope’s more straight-laced nature providing a superb contrast to Rudd’s humor and allowing for memorable banter between the two. Lilly’s first official outing as the Wasp is also totally badass as the first officially “titled” female hero in the MCU. The two of them truly carry the film as equals, but the remaining roster isn’t slouching. John-Kamen is intriguing as Ghost, though the character doesn’t quite reach Vulture or Killmonger or Thanos level of development. Douglas is delightfully grumpy and gruff as Pym, Pfeiffer charms in her role as the long-missed Janet, and Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, and Abby Ryder-Forston are wonderful as Scott’s family and loyal support squad. Walton Goggins also appears as the skeevy secondary villain, who is essentially a hammed up version of his role in Tomb Raider.

The appeal of Rudd as Ant-Man is not only his stellar comedic skills, but also his relatability – Scott Lang is the best example in the entire MCU of what would happen if an ordinary man was suddenly thrust into the role of a hero. He messes up, he has real-life issues to deal with, he has a daughter he loves and doesn’t want to disappoint, he’s trying to pick his post-convict career off the ground, he doesn’t know what he’s doing about 48% of the time, and he wants to help the people he cares about save the life of someone they love. Though he pitched in to help Cap in 2016’s Civil War, this film never reaches “save the world” level stakes, but the film still resonates, which is proof that the MCU needs characters like Ant-Man to ground it, and to allow audiences some breathing room after watching characters like Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor grapple with intergalactic threats who seek to bring doom upon the world.

Reed masterfully maintains a swift pace (when was the last time a Marvel movie was under 2 hours?) throughout this film without dropping the ball on either humor and action – in fact, the elements of both genres are seamlessly intertwined thanks to the performances of the actors and the nature of the size-changing hijinks that occur throughout the film. No matter the context, a giant Hello Kitty pez dispenser taking out a bad guy on a motorcycle is hysterical. And even though it relies a lot on comedy, there’s plenty of emotion to be found, especially in the way the film portrays familial relationships, such as the father/daughter bonds between both Hank/Hope and Scott/Cassie (and perhaps another similar bond between two others, though I won’t spoil that). Though the action and fight scenes are great, I will say that a significant portion of them are featured in the trailers, so that was a little disappointing. Maybe they should have saved the giant salt-shaker for the film instead of revealing it beforehand, but regardless, the stunts are just as brilliant as the epic Thomas the Tank Engine scene from the first film.

Arguably, this film feels more “comic-book”-y than lots of the other Marvel titles, due to a combination of a fitting score, jokes and silliness aplenty, unbelievable science, insane stunts, and larger than life characters. Neither Ant-Man nor the Wasp are trying to save the world – nothing as big as that – but the conflicts they face are that much more easy to relate to because of it. Scott doesn’t want to disappoint those he loves, Hope wants to rescue her mom – and even the villain motivations are not as lofty as other MCU baddies. And this film totally delivers on the comedic front, especially thanks to Rudd, Peña’s return as Scott’s best pal and quick-tongued, loose-lipped business partner Luis, and Park’s performance as FBI agent Jimmy Woo, who desperately wants to catch Scott violating the terms of his house-arrest.

Ant-Man might not be the most thrilling hero to grace the silver screen, and, in the wake of April’s Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp seems downright unimportant in the grand scheme of the MCU. However, much like the MCU needs characters like Ant-Man, the MCU needs films like Ant-Man and the Wasp to provide audiences a break from such drastic peril and potentially world-ending battles. Sure, this film might be relatively small in scale, comparatively speaking… but that’s exactly why it packs such a big punch.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10

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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

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

5 Favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe Films

In the lead up to Infinity War this Thursday night, I thought I’d list my favorite films in the MCU thus far! Though, bear in mind, this is a list of my favorites, not what I consider to be the best.

MV5BMjM2NTQ5Mzc2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTcxMDI2NTE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_5.) Ant-Man (2015)
I know this film doesn’t feature on many top Marvel film lists, but I thought this adventure, which feels like a fun side quest instead of a direct installment to the main, over-arcing narrative, was an absolute blast. Paul Rudd is the perfect choice for the role, combining humor and a sort of “every man” affability that made him both likable and relatable as a character (despite his prison record). It’s a superhero movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and sometimes, that’s exactly what’s needed in the midst of intergalactic wars or cities and planets in peril. I laugh every time I see the Thomas the Tank Engine scene, and for some reason, the size-changing hi-jinks don’t get old. I look forward to even more hilarity in the sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, dropping this summer.

MV5BMTg1MTY2MjYzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTc4NTMwNDI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_4.) Black Panther (2018)
This film (coupled with the preceding Thor: Ragnarok) was the perfect installment in the MCU to set up Infinity War because it defies several of the common superhero tropes while still adhering to Marvel’s standards in quality and entertainment. Much like Ant-Man, this film is a palette cleanser, a nice break for those suffering from the “Marvel fatigue” as it helped rejuvenate a genre that sees more and more repetitive installments every year. T’Challa’s journey to assert himself as both an individual hero and a true leader to his people made me excited for superhero movies again, and it also has what is probably the most well-developed and exciting villain in the entire MCU. Plus, this film gave us Okoye and Shuri. Need I say more?

MV5BNjgwNzAzNjk1Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzQ2NjI1OTE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_3.) Doctor Strange (2016)
Alright, alright…. maybe I just really enjoy Benedict Cumberbatch with a beard and a snarky attitude enough to see this film twice in IMAX 3D. But Doctor Strange is a unique character with a level of sarcasm and ego to rival Tony Stark, and his transition to the big screen was a refreshing trip into the world of illusion and different deimensions, as his story focuses more on the abilities of the mind and “magical” manipulation, which provide for absolutely stunning visual segments and complex, entertaining fight scenes. The final confrontation in this film also features a unique twist that is a nice change-up from the standard “hero must beat the big bad” recipe. And the cape is easily the best sidekick in the entire MCU (sorry, Falcon).

MV5BMTAwMjU5OTgxNjZeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDUxNDYxODEx._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_2.) Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
I knew nothing about the titular characters going into this film, and came out of it blown away at how hilarious this motley crew of space adventurers could be. This film is a visual and auditory feast of bright colors, unique characters, and 80’s and 70’s jams coming together for one epic and laugh-out-loud romp across the galaxy. And while Groot is an absolute delight, and one scene in particular makes me tear up every single re-watch, Rocket Raccoon and his foul mouth will always be my favorite member of this ragtag squad. Plus, this film has the great distinction of being the only MCU film to feature a final confrontation that contains a dance-off. And that should be enough to convince any one to see it, if for some reason they live under a rock and haven’t watched this MCU gem yet.

download.jpg1.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
From the moment I saw Chris Evans in Captain America: the First Avenger back in 2011, his position as my favorite Avenger was sealed… and that conviction only grew stronger with the sequel, which I still consider to be one of the best all-around films in the whole MCU. Winter Soldier is equal parts political/espionage-laced thriller and action-packed superhero movie that blurs the line between right and wrong and good and bad, with an impeccable focus on character development and a lot of build up to future movies in this series, especially Civil War, which only narrowly missed this list. The Captain America-based storyline is (arguably) the most integral in the entire MCU, as his actions and decisions bear so much weight on the Avengers/S.H.I.E.L.D as a whole. For me, Steve Rogers/Captain America is the easiest character to feel attached to, to be inspired by, and his journey and development as an individual and as a member of the Avengers is the one I am most invested in, and his portrayal in Winter Soldier is him at his finest and truly coming into his own, learning that his shield cannot only be used to defend, but it must be a weapon too. Plus, this movie gave us Bucky/The Winter Soldier. Enough said.

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: 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.