Serenity

Serenity (2019)In Steven Knight’s “Serenity”, Matthew McConaughey plays a fisherman named Baker Dill on Plymouth Island who really has it out for this one tuna. He can’t catch this one fish, and as a viewer, you can’t help but wonder what this fish has done to piss him off so much. After he attempts to fight for his supposed revenge against this tuna, his ex-wife shows up with an odd request. If Baker Dill kills her current abusive husband, she will reward him with ten million dollars. But does Baker Dill have better ethics than that? Will he succumb to temptation?

Many of the questions you’ll have during the runtime, won’t really get answered. Instead, the movie decides to throw an out of place twist at you about halfway in. For obvious reasons, that twist won’t be spoiled here, but it’s important to keep in mind that the way “Serenity” turns out will be incredibly frustrating and confusing (but even somewhat laughable). This twist may have actually worked though if there was a better written screenplay and characters that didn’t seem so out of touch with the audience.

McConaughey does just alright as Baker Dill (and yes, that name is ridiculous) as far as McConaughey performances go. He’s a great actor and has delivered some truly transformative performances throughout his career, but in “Serenity” all you really see is Matthew McConaughey trying to angrily catch a fish and ponder his existence.

Anne Hathaway (one of the greatest working actresses today) plays Baker Dill’s ex-wife Karen, but even she delivers a so-so performance here. Clearly though, with the stellar cast at play here, the lack of talented acting comes from the poorly written characters. Baker Dill, Karen and Karen’s abusive husband Frank (Jason Clarke) say things that no human being on planet Earth would ever say, making the characters and plot completely unrelatable to the audience.

“Serenity” is a total mess from start to finish. The tone is all over the place, character’s motives seem to change without any signs, and the plot lines fade out through the director’s attempt at a very strange twist. Even from the opening shot, you can tell right off the bat that this movie thinks it’s something that it’s not. “Serenity” feels like it should be a philosophical think-piece, when really it feels like a high-school film project with some surprising camerawork.

However, I cannot completely say audiences shouldn’t venture out to see it. The film is so over the top, so ridiculous, and so poorly written, that at times it is more entertaining than it’s meant to be. When you see what happens at the end, your jaw may drop, but not for the right reason. You’ll experience frustration and confusion, sure, but you’ll also laugh. Bring a buddy.

If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)Based on the novel of the same name, this James Baldwin adaptation directed by film genius Barry Jenkins focuses on a young African American woman (Tish) in Harlem who is pregnant with her first child, while the father (Fonny) is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. She and her supporting family scramble to prove his innocence before the baby is born. The film is a celebration of the importance of love and family, but also shows the dark side of humanity through its portrayals of racism and hatred.

Barry Jenkins is a fairly new filmmaker, but a talented one. He wrote and directed 2016’s Best Picture winner “Moonlight”, a story about a gay African American in Miami Florida, and his journey through self-discovery. Now, with “If Beale Street Could Talk”, he ups the game on emotion and powerhouse performances.

Jenkins has a distinct visual style to his films. He loves to use close up shots of a character looking directly into the camera, as if subtly communicating their emotions with the audience. His films are also very color-driven. Moonlight has tons of purple and blue shots, while “If Beale Street Could Talk” is riddled with shades of yellow and brown. His films are beautifully to look at, especially his latest feature.

Tish is played superbly by Kiki Layne, a promising newcomer to the industry. With her performance alongside Stephan James (Homecoming) as Fonny, this on screen couple is one of the most chemistry-driven and realistic depictions of true love in years. “If Beale Street Could Talk” will surely set these two excellent performances on the map for greater gigs to come.

The powerhouse performance here though is Regina King as Tish’s mother Sharon. King gives the audience her raw emotion that seems to get more intense scene by scene. The exception though, might be in a moment towards the beginning where family dynamics clash in a heated and gut-punching argument that ends up being the scene that stays in the mind for hours after viewing.

From start to finish, watching “If Beale Street Could Talk” is more of an emotional experience than anything else. The love and romance is so real, the cinematography brings the story to life, and the music wins you over, making the film one of the most beautiful romance films in recent years. 2018 was a pretty good year for romance with Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” making noise with mainstream audiences and “If Beale Street Could Talk” quietly coming through under the radar. As outstanding as both of these films are, it’s “Beale Street” that takes the cake in terms of bringing fictionalized love to life.

Rated R for language and some sexual content

Welcome to Marwen

Steve Carell in Welcome to Marwen (2018)Robert Zemeckis’s newest film focuses on the true story of Mark Hogancamp, a victim of a brutal attack who uses his own doll creations as a way to cope and help himself through recovery. Zemeckis is known best for directing the groundbreaking films; “Forrest Gump”, “Cast Away” and “Back to the Future”. However, with “Welcome to Marwen”, his directing talents don’t shine as bright as they do in his other films.

The film stars Steve Carell in both live action and animation. In his live action scenes, he’s Mark Hogancamp. In the animated scenes, he’s Cap’n Hogie, a miniaturized version of himself as a World War II soldier who fights for both his own life and for the women of Marwen; the fictional town his doll creations are set in. Throughout the whole film we see snippets of his personal life and the struggles that come with his recovery, and animated recreations of what Mark visualities as he takes pictures of his Marwen dolls.

The concept of “Welcome to Marwen” is pretty captivating. However, if you really want to understand what Mark went through, seeing the documentary on his life would most likely be much more informative. “Welcome to Marwen” attempts to add heart and humor to this story, and unfortunately much of it falls flat. There are clear positive intentions behind this screenplay (also written by Zemeckis), but the film never seems to be what it’s trying to be.

Steve Carell delivers a great performance as always. He is one of the most raged actors working today as shown from his silly, yet layered performance as Michael Scott in “The Office” to playing the deeply disturbed wrestling coach in “Foxcatcher”. Here, he delivers just as much range and is without a doubt, the best reason to watch “Welcome to Marwen”.

Other than Carell though, the film isn’t as worth the trip to the theater as you would think. The animation sequences seem oddly out of place (although it is clear what they were going for), the dialogue is often questionable, and we don’t get to see as much of the other vital supporting characters as we think we would. The film is an overall disappointment, which is surprising given the name of the lead actor and the reputation of the director. However, all that is important to know is that “Welcome to Marwen” isn’t the touching, biopic its markets itself to be.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)Currently available to stream on Netflix is the latest Coen Brothers’ dark comedy, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”. The movie is an anthology film that consist of six different stories, each taking place in the Old West where death and mayhem can ensue at moment and with any individual. That seems to be the central theme through these six stories; death. However, the Coen Brothers, being the brilliant filmmakers they are, are able to make that central theme comedic, thrilling, somber, enthralling, romantic, or even mysterious.

The first story is about a man named Buster Scruggs, an outlaw whose choices of killing and mayhem may come back to bite him. This one is only about ten minutes long, even though this story’s title is also the film’s. We then move on to a story about a robber who constantly finds himself getting hung by the neck, a story about an entertainer on the road who uses the misfortunes of another to make money, a gold digger who finds himself in a messy situation, a romance formed from the death of a relative, and a ride in a station wagon that is anything but what it seems.

Some stories are better told than others, some more fascinating than others. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is not consistent enough to be all that rewatchable. However, what the Coen Brothers never fail to do is entertain. Their unique form of storytelling, dialogue, direction, and their ability to make humor out of the darkest of things are what keeps this film together and allows for an entertaining experience on that first watch.

The movie stars Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Clancy Brown, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson and many others. No actors are ever reused, so each story seems completely fresh after the previous one.

The Coen Brothers are best known for their work on their previous films “Fargo”, “The Big Lebowski”, “Inside Lewin Davis”, “A Serious Man”, and ‘No Country for Old Men”. The list does go on, but their resume is so packed, it would take up too much room here. Not all of their movies were as well done as these, but what they manage to do throughout their filmography is stimulate the mind in a philosophical sense. Their films may make you laugh (“The Big Lebowski”), disturb you (“No Country for Old Men”), or do both (“Fargo”). However what all of their films seem to do is make audiences reflect on a philosophical question that the film asks. This time, it does it six times in one film.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” goes up there with some of their better films. Whether it be because of the cast, the cinematography, the dialogue or the filmmakers’ brilliance, the film deserves to be seen at least once.

Rated R for some strong violence 

Green Book

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in Green Book (2018)Directed by Peter Farrelly, “Green Book” is a true story about an Italian bouncer who becomes a driver and personal assistant to an African American pianist in the early 1960s. After Tony Lip’s bouncing job gets put on hold for a few months, he is referred to Dr. Don Shirley, an extremely talented musician who is going on a two month tour in the Southern States until Christmas. He hires him to get him from gig to gig, but also to protect him from those who do not accept his skin color. After hearing what he’ll be paid, Tony takes the job, but during their time together, a friendship blooms and turns into something neither of them expected.

Race is a recurring theme throughout “Green Book” as Dr. Shirley consistently experiences discrimination, even at the venue’s that are paying him for his talents. At first, Tony seems indifferent when it comes to African Americans and has plenty of ignorant assumptions. However, after getting to know him, we see Tony begin to change and become a caring and compassionate friend to Dr. Shirley. While that transition has plenty of emotional bumps on the road, their connection seems innate.

While race is a huge factor of the movie, the film is actually more about friendship and the strong impact it can have on the human heart. Sometimes friendships can unexpectedly develop and go on to last a lifetime. “Green Book” beautifully displays this message in the most heartwarming of ways. The film can be similarly compared to John Hughes’s “Planes Trains and Automobiles”, a comedy about two strangers who meet attempting to get home for Thanksgiving and end up becoming best of friends in the process. Not enough bromance movies are made these days, but “Green Book” can fill that gaps on its own.

The most noticeable reason for the film’s success is the acting. The two main roles were perfectly casted and its difficult to see anyone else playing them and doing as great of a job. Viggo Mortensen plays Tony and Mahershala Ali plays Shirley. The chemistry between these two is perfectly acted out, and their talents seem to bounce off each other in a way that makes for a touching bromance. Both have an excellent track record, with Viggo starring in the critically acclaimed “Lord of the Ring” trilogy and “Captain Fantastic, and Mahershala Ali winning a well-deserved Oscar for 2016’s “Moonlight”.

“Green Book” is an incredibly heartfelt and touching story that keeps a smile on each audience members’ face for the majority of the runtime. With the holiday season officially here, this film could not have arrived at a better time. If you’re in the mood for a nice feel-good story, “Green Book” is without a doubt the one to see.

Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material 

Suspiria

Suspiria (2018)For those unfamiliar with the original, “Suspiria” is about a ballet academy run by witches. When a new coming dancer named Susie Bannion shows us, she begins to discover what truly lies behind the company’s mask. That’s about all that Luca Guadagnino’s version has in common with Dario Argento’s original. However, that does not mean, in any sense, that “Suspiria” does not live up to its predecessor. This film is one of the most unique, original, horrifying, mystifying and stomach churning movies in years.

In this version, when Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives, she is welcomed in open arms by Madam Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and Miss Tanner (Angela Winkler). Contrary to Argento’s “Suspiria”, here we know right off the bat that witches inhabit the school and are in search of a replacement for the dying Mother Markos, a grotesque looking witch who is only talked about until the end. Miss Tanner and Madam Blanc see potential in Susie, which shakes the school to its core, as Susie’s friend, Sarah (Mia Goth), grows more suspicious scene by scene.

Separate from the main plot is a story about a psychologist named Dr. Josef Klemperer who is helping a former troubled student (Patricia, played by Chloe Grace Moretz) overcome her traumatic experiences. As he investigates into this girl’s then sudden disappearance, he too becomes involved in what turns into one of the most blood drenched nightmares put on screen.

“Suspiria” is completely dark in tone and gets somehow darker as the film progresses. Audiences slowly get increasingly sucked into this nightmare that came right from the mind of Guadagnino. Surprisingly, this gifted filmmaker was the man behind last year’s “Call Me By Your Name”, a touching yet heartbreaking romance that takes place in a breathtakingly beautiful setting in 1970s Italy. The very fact that he can make that one year, and then step right into a topic like this shows how ranged he can be. Many more awe-inspiring films will come from this genius’s mind and he will surely continue to bring us to places we never thought we could go.

Mia Goth is brilliant and Chloe Grace Moretz gives us something captivating that she’s never done before. However, this is Dakota Johnson’s most transformative role. Given her roles in the “Fifty Shades” movies, she needed a film that could set her on the path for more diverse roles. “Suspiria” will, without a doubt, give her more chances to express her talents. Although, as great as she is, the big talk about this film is Tilda Swinton as there is a secret about her performance that has been revealed to the public. However, for those who don’t know, its better to not look it up. Realizing after movie will have much more of a mind-blowing effect. That said, her talents shine bright here.

The make up department for “Suspiria” deserves massive praise. There is a scene about thirty or forty minutes into the film that induces nausea. An incredible amount of makeup had to be put to work for this scene to come to life, and its one of the most horrifyingly realistic body horror scenes ever made. You’ll know it when you see it, trust me.

The film’s nightmarish qualities come to life through its mixing of horror sub-genres. It mixes body horror with supernatural and psychological horror. There are some incredibly grotesque scenes throughout, and from start to finish there is a foreboding feeling of dread that stays in our minds, even hours after viewing, much like in “The Shining”. “Suspiria” is clearly inspired by countless other horror films but takes many visual inspirations from the works of Stanley Kubrick and emotional ones from David Lynch (“Eraserhead”, “Blue Velvet”, “Mulholland Dr.”).

Watching “Suspiria” is an experience different from any other, one that many will not dare to venture on. Admittedly, it’s not for everyone. It’s weird, creepy, and not at all like the other conventional type of horror films that are constantly released (“The Nun”, “The Conjuring” etc). This film can’t be confidently recommend for everyone, but it’s worth the shot and is masterfully crafted enough to deserve attention and praise as one of the greatest horror films ever made.

Rated R for disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some language including sexual references

Roma

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (2018)Alfonso Cuaron, the brilliant director of “Gravity” and “Children of Men” used his creative direction yet again to masterfully create one of the most visually stunning and emotionally provocative films in years. It’s difficult to describe, as seeing his films is an experience that lies beyond words. Cuaron is one of the most artistic and talented directors working today, and his most recent work on “Roma” reflects everything about the man himself and the world he grew up in.

Throughout the film, we observe a year in the life of Cleo, a maid in 1970s Mexico City. On her journey, we get to know the family she works for, the setting’s political turmoil, and her relationship with a man named Fermin. All of these elements clash together, and the story turns into an emotional ride that both lifts spirits and devastates. Words cannot fully describe the emotions that “Roma” elicits.

This is a passion project for Cuaron as the film reflects his own times growing up in Mexico City. Every event in “Roma” truly happened in Cuaron’s childhood. Cleo represents the maid he knew as a child and everything she goes through is true. From the first opening shot to the last, “Roma” feels like a surreal memory taken right from the mind of the director. It’s a brilliant work of art that deserves to be watched and studied for years to come.

Cleo is beautifully played by Yalitza Aparicio in her very first acting gig and during the film’s entire runtime, you really feel for her character. Not only is that Cuaron’s doing, but Yalitza’s as well. She gives one of the most immersive performances of the year, which will hopefully skyrocket her into a full on acting career. It’s hard to tell at the moment if she is going to continue acting, but if she does, it’s safe to say she’ll never disappoint.

Throughout “Roma” we feel as though we are with these characters and are experiencing their lives with them through ever devastating moment. When a film can successfully bring you into the lives of the characters, it’s a masterpiece. Cuaron’s masterpiece deserves to be remembered as future classic, muck like the way we currently see films like “Gone With the Wind” and “Casablanca”.

“Roma” will be released as a Netflix original film this December, however it will also receive a limited theater released. While it is a Netflix film, the film begs to be seen in theaters. The sound design, long camera takes, cinematography, production design, and its use of black and white all make “Roma” theater worthy. Watching it on the small screen will still be great but seeing it in the theaters will give audiences the experience they’re meant to have. “Roma” is, after all, an experience more than a movie.

Rated R for graphic nudity, some disturbing images, and language

First Man

Ryan Gosling in First Man (2018)Damien Chazelle’s latest project focuses on Neil Armstrong and the struggles he faced while collaborating with NASA for the moon landing. We see Neil from the loss of his daughter to… (spoiler alert) the moon landing. Throughout the entire runtime of the film, we’re shown what made Neil who he was. Not only is “First Man” about the difficulties it took to land on the moon, but it also showcases Neil’s change in character throughout that time. It’s definitely a fascinating bio pic and one that doesn’t cease to be intense and gripping.

Chazelle’s previous films include “Whiplash” and “La La Land”, but this time jazz isn’t one of the main themes. It’s clear from those film though, that he can direct the hell out of a film. It’s more than likely that he will become one of the all-time greats like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. His directing talents really came into great use with “First Man”. While he didn’t write the screenplay for this one, it is absolutely a Chazelle film.

Armstrong is played by the great Ryan Gosling, who also stared in “La La Land”, which he was nominated for an Oscar for. The same is quite possible here. Gosling perfectly portrays Neil from the first shot of the film and its no doubt that it will be one of his finer performances of his career. In addition to “La La Land”, he gave riveting performances in “Drive” and “Blade Runner 2040”.

Claire Foy plays Janet Armstrong. Again, like Gosling she gives a ranged performance and one that will hopefully receive some award recognition when the time comes. She could have been more compelling if there was more to her character though, but instead she is, for the most part, the worrying wife at home with the kids. However, she does an outstanding job with the material given.

On a technical level, “First Man” is an outstanding achievement. The sound design brings you right there into the cockpit with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and the flight sequences and even the on-ground practice trials are incredibly intense, making you aware that being an astronaut is no easy business.

In addition to the sound design, the musical score is one of the bests of the year. Justin Hurwitz (also the composer of “La La Land”), composed a beautiful score and one that reminds many cinephiles of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

Chazelle’s vision of this story is both unique and realistic. Nothing is over the top, fantasized or exaggerated. “First Man” gives us a compelling and even somewhat gritty look into Neil Armstrong and one of the most difficult achievements of mankind.

Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language 

Venom

Tom Hardy in Venom (2018)The latest installation in the Marvel franchise is the story of a journalist named Eddie Brock whose goal is to take down the corrupt Carlton Drake, the founder of the Life Foundation. However, after overstepping his boundaries, he loses his job. Six months later, he learns that Carlton Drake is using symbiotes and testing them on innocent bystanders, killing them in the process. Eddie is then infused with an alien symbiote that takes over his body as he becomes a superhuman with immense strength and power. Now it’s up to Eddie and Venom to stop Drake from destroying the planet.

For those unfamiliar with Venom, he’s a villain from the Spider-Man franchise who we originally saw in the poorly made “Spider-Man 3” back in 2007. He’s much more uniquely designed here with his long tongue, sharp teeth, wide eyes and a deep dark voice that’s much more menacing and cunning than expected. When comparing Venom here to his appearance in “Spider-Man 3”, this is the more superior role.

Venom’s scenes can be quite fun, and the action can be thrilling at times. However, those elements don’t tend to stay consistent throughout the entire movie and at times they can even be bland. One scene shows Venom and Eddie fighting off a squad of NYPD SWAT officers and it feels more like a cut away scene in a video game than a movie.

Tom Hardy did as well he could with the material given to him in this role. It’s clear from films like “The Revenant” that he can act, but this definitely isn’t his greatest performance. He is convincing enough as Eddie, but he would have been able to put his acting talents to a bigger test if the writing wasn’t so flat and unoriginal.

What would have helped “Venom” stay consistently engaging is an R-rating. Many were hoping for gritty, raunchy, and super violent movie about a man struggling with a parasite that he can’t get rid of. Not to sound sadistic, but more blood and decapitated heads would have made the film much more enjoyable. Instead, “Venom” attempted to be both dark and light-hearted at the same time, leading to inconsistent tones. We jump from a gritty scene of a little girl with a symbiote to a comical scene of Eddie attempting to fight off Venom.

There is a good movie here somewhere, but many improvements were needed to make it one of the better Marvel films. With the success of “Deadpool” and “Logan”, “Venom” would have been more original and entertaining if it were more like those films. Hopefully Marvel will make this change for the inevitable sequel.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for language

A Star is Born

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born (2018)Everybody knows Bradley Cooper can act and Lady Gaga can sing, but what people don’t know is that they are both able to sing and act. They showcase their talents in the newest remake of “A Star is Born”, the story of a talented singer named Ally who meets and falls in love with a famous country musician named Jackson Maine. It’s love at first sigh when he sees her performing “La Vie En Rose” in a drag bar. When he meets her backstage, they go for a drink and their talents and passions merge to form one of the most realistic romantic couples on screen. Ally becomes famous through her singing talents and songwriting abilities, but as her career sky-rockets, the same isn’t necessarily true for their relationship.

Cooper brilliantly plays Jack in the most ranged performance of his career. It is clear from watching “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Sniper” that he can act, but this is the first role where he combines his musical talents with his acting talents. He can sing just as well as any of the country music stars you hear on the radio and apparently the guy knows his way around a guitar as well. After taking over a year of guitar lessons to prepare for the role, he basically became a country star. Jack’s music on stage makes us forget that its Bradley Cooper up there singing and performing “Black Eyes” and “Maybe its Time”.

As amazing as Cooper is, Lady Gaga steals the show with both her voice and her eyes. She acts with her eyes in every scene with Cooper, making for a realistic couple with perfect chemistry. When an actor can do that while conveying emotion, that is talent at its finest. Her performance is her best as well, which will surely give her more opportunities for roles like this. She has acted in a few things here and there and even performed in a few seasons of “American Horror Story”, but this is the first time where she was truly able to put her acting talents to the fullest test, and she passed.

What’s even more impressive is that “A Star is Born” is the directorial debut of Bradley Cooper. After seeing this film, it would seem as though Cooper directed many films before, but that’s not the case. Cooper is clearly a talented director and one that will hopefully make more films in the future.

This is the fourth adaptation of “A Star is Born”. It can be easy to shrug off remakes as lazy and uninventive, but this film is anything but that. It’s a self-aware film with incredible talent behind it. The acting, music, direction and costume design all shine as some of the best we’ve seen in years.

Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse