D A R K – What Television Has Aspired To

Is there a God? Is he still active? Is there such thing as coincidence? Or, is history perhaps written millennia before our birth, and none of us can escape our fate?

I did not expect to ask myself these questions from a fucking television show, much less from one with a narrative, compelling characters, and a feeling and scope that cleverly balances the intimate with grandiose. But here we are.

Dark has two season available on Netflix, and, as of this writing, in less than a month there will be a third; should it stick the landing properly, it will be cemented in this writer’s opinion as not only the greatest television show ever conceived, but one of the best stories that anyone (writers, filmmakers, poets and playwrights) has ever told me. 

In 2019 (two years after the show’s initial release), in the small fictitious town of Winden, Germany, a man commits suicide. We don’t know his name, or why we should care, nor how he matters to the grand scheme; all we know is that we watched his final hanging moments in great distress, as the camera lingers as he retches and sputters for air. 

Just before this, we see a twisted map of photographs, looking like that of a conspiracy theorist (or simply a madman), which spoils little details that we aren’t even consciously aware of yet. Over this we get a voice-over from a man proclaiming time (and its terminology [past, present, and future]) is simply an illusion, one that is maintained by our own denial and desire to have control over the paths we take.

Then, after the hanging, we see a young man, a teenager, wake up from what we presume to be his dreaming about the man’s suicide. He is doused in cold sweat, obviously distressed, and has to sit at the edge of his bed in order to regain control.

That’s when the first title sequence begins. 

Dark is the culmination of a German couple, a partnership of business and pleasure, consisting of Baran Bo Odar, who directs each episode, and Jantje Friese, who has a writing credit for every installment. It lives up to its title, depicting a consistently rainy and dreary Autumn in its initial season, but also in its characters actions, as well as what appears to be a hand of an indifferent or even cruel God reigning over all.

Should one strip away the sci-fi elements of Dark, one would still have a solid small-town melodrama. It depicts characters of all ages, and all the ingredients are present—sex, envy, cheating, lying, angst, the works. In these qualities, paired with its intimate closed-in setting and even in the pretense description of children going missing (and turning up dead), one could easily compare this show to the legendary Twin Peaks or the recent (and trending) Stranger Things. But (like I said, should Odar and Friese stick the landing) such comparisons will be immediately be shrugged off by the patient and observant viewer by time they conclude so much as the second episode. This show, albeit dreary, is not a horror show, and although it might raise (at times) similar questions of the conscious as Twin Peaks, I’d say the similarities end there. As for a comparison to Stranger Things, what Dark lacks in a color palette, it makes up for in better pacing, more genuine characters, and a lack of catering to your nostalgia. 

No, this one stands on its own. This could be considered a spoiler, but its very minor: Dark is about time travel. But its hardly the new Endgame action film or the goofy Back to the Future films. This show’s approach to the notion of time travel is grounded and realistic, many characters scoffing at other characters’ ability to accept it as a possibility. 

But its not even this grounded nature that makes this one-of-a-kind. The show boasts a large cast of characters, primarily four families who, secretly or not, have gripes both inside and outside their households, whose lives are changed forever when the strange nuclear-charged void in the woods is not only causing people to vanish, but for their secrets to come out. Very few of them are genuinely bad people, but that void in the woods has been controlling their lives for longer than they think.

Strangely enough, no one in this backwoods world of Winden ever seems to actually leave, despite their own personal miseries. Such family history is shown in what has, at the time of this writing, spanned into five separate time periods, both in this century and the one preceding it, where we see ancestors and descendants still locked into similar roles, all making the same claim: that they’re going to get out of this town one day.

This being a show about literal journeys through time, it is indeed possible for one to literally see themselves in other times. Absurd as such an idea is, it actually depicts with very literal demonstrations how people always change either for the better or worse, become more or less moral, smarter or more ignorant, or simply more tired and jaded.

It may sound ridiculous, and frankly, if I were told two years ago that what appears to be a brooding small-town show about perhaps a serial killer or even an alternate dimension was about fucking time travel, I would have merely scoffed and presumed its plot to be full of holes and liable to be quite boring. But when I warmed up to the idea and pursued Dark, I was pleasantly surprised, albeit, at the end of the initial season, extremely confused.

No other show that I’ve seen has warranted (or simply demanded) a second viewing (at least). In its intricate timelines (most prominently the ‘50s, the ‘80s, and the ‘10s), it depicts sprawling amounts of characters (with Game of Thrones levels of confusing family trees [and incest]) and circumstances that give way to an unfathomable amount of mind-numbing paradoxes. It requires the full span and width of one’s attention span, for, while many thematic questions are read out loud, its basic plotting does not by any means downplay the audience’s intelligence. If Christopher Nolan made a television show, I’m convinced it’d look something like this.

All this eventually factors into the occult, the Bible, and the apocalypse. But none of these inclusions feel unearned; like a well-nursed planted tree it grows on both ends, in stem and roots, gradually and gracefully, until those around it are in awe. I’m genuinely convinced that its lack of American status are what most heavily affects its viewership; that said I wouldn’t be surprised if it gained more traction over the years, ascending from cult status to that of something that can change the storytelling structure as we know it across all mediums. Should I be correct about its upcoming finale, I can only assume that Odar and Friese have always had its ending in mind, a grand scheme of their own and a near-singular vision coming to a beautiful fruition. Quite literally, one could call Dark, and the resources surrounding it, ahead of its time. 

The Best Films of 2019.

The Best Films (that I saw) of 2019

I was hoping to see and log a few more films before publishing this, but due to this coronavirus situation, I think, as an aspiring critic, I should give my recommendations now; for the struggle of choosing what to watch may be more relevant now than ever with so many people staying at home or in quarantine.

Anyway, if you’re reading this, stay safe, stay home, wash your goddamn hands. Here’s the article as titled:

The time is now. The time for your pretentious hipster friends to rag on you for enjoying the new Spider-Man film and for not seeing Monos for the week or so it was actually playing in that one theater about forty-five minutes away from your house. Anyhow, this was a grandiose year for movies and filmmaking, with films stretched across genres and countries seeing riveting success with critics, audiences, and (surprisingly) the Academy, who gave out a Best Picture to a non-English film since the awards show began, (congratulations, Parasite), a benchmark in film history that I’m glad to be alive for.

Full disclosure, I work fulltime and I’m not made of time and money, so there are a few films that slipped under my radar. I’m yet to see The Souvenir or Richard Jewell or Star Wars, as well as a few others. To be frank, there’s never been a year in which I saw every film I wanted to see.

There’s also films that I simply don’t want to see as well. Frankly, I think I’ve fed the Disney live-action-remake-cash-cow enough with The Lion King, and that film was a monstrosity, so no, I don’t plan on seeing the new Aladdin or Dumbo no matter how much I may appreciate the likes of Tim Burton or Guy Ritchie. And I never bothered to sat through the first Frozen, so I also never bothered to see its sequel. Also, I will not be seeing Cats.

Here are a few films that I’ve deemed “the leftovers,” i.e. films that may’ve technically released in 2018 but I couldn’t see until 2019 (or even 2020). Exact release dates and the “official” year of a movie is often debatable, so I’ll just list a few of those films here (in order of quality):

5. The Nightingale – Director: Jennifer Kent – A revenge fantasy grounded in a grim reality. Depicting the process of grief, loss, and eventually the hope you get on the way out, The Nightingale is firing on many genre cylinders, including thriller, adventure, and, of course, tragedy. I’ve rarely seen any film that went to such lengths to have its audience gain sympathy for its protagonist, nor have I seen one in which I hated the villain this much. Jennifer Kent has the potential of being a great auteur of dark fiction with this film, as well as with her debut The Babadook.

4. Under the Silver Lake – Director: David Robert Mitchell – What a surreal adventure this film is! A must-see for fans of The Big Lebowski or Inherent Vice, two movies that were just as initially divisive as this one, which possibly slates director David Robert Mitchell as an upcoming surge of cinematic greatness. Taking notes from noir (both classic and Chinatown-esque) and stoner comedy, this mystery about a fundamentally poor man in his twenties trying to track down a one-night-stand might be the most adventurous film I’ve seen in a while.

3. At Eternity’s Gate – Julien Schnabel – When an artist becomes famous and influential worldwide after their own death, the little details of their life, the things that inspired the work in the first place, become all the more fascinating and elusive. Following a less popular theory on the death of the famous painter, At Eternity’s Gate follows Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh in a transformative (and at times insane) journey as he navigates his painting and life, enduring distractions, the harassment and lack of compliance from others, and the demons of his own mind. Displaying renditions of the influences of van Gogh and many steps of his own painting process, this is a much more pleasing film than the other recent biopic of the painter’s life (Loving Vincent).

2. Burning – Director: Lee Chang-dong – The best Korean film of the decade, in my humble opinion. This was my first Lee Chang-dong experience, and since then I’ve explored all of his features, save for his debut (which I can’t find anywhere). This is, on the surface, a movie about a would-be writer who reconnects with a childhood acquaintance. First it’s a drama, then a romance, then a thriller, then something else entirely. This film explores basically whatever you want it to. Is it about class divide, jealousy, the yearning for some sense of purpose? I couldn’t tell you. The first time I saw Burning, I thought very little of it, but it has grown to become my all-time favorite Korean film.

1. Climax – Director: Gaspar Noe – The New French Extremity movement can pack up and leave now. It’s officially peaked. I didn’t see this film until March 2019, but, having said that, it caused me to entirely revise my perspective on 2018, the #1 spot being dethroned by Climax. This film is absolute insanity. With some of the most impressive long takes I’ve ever seen in my life and character actions that’ll ruin your day, your week, maybe even your month, this is the end-all be-all of psychological destruction. The antithesis of Kubrick’s 2001, it perfectly embodies the deterioration of human nature and abandons all things civilized. I wouldn’t know, but I’d bet to say that those who take psychedelics should abstain for the duration of Climax, should they want to maintain their sanity.

And here are some honorable mentions of 2019, in no order. Quality stuff, just not good enough to make the cut:

Doctor Sleep – Director: Mike Flanagan – I never thought we’d see something like a worthy sequel to a Kubrick film. I’d still never think that, but Doctor Sleep was pretty close. Doctor Sleep walks a tightrope between King and Kubrick, originality and nostalgia. All for the sake of a story that may not wow audiences, but may grant them that Stephen King warmth that King himself wanted to see in Kubrick’s vision.

Shazam! – Director: David F. Sandberg – It’s about damn time. A quality DCEU flick. This film is childish, sure, juvenile even, but it manages to carry about a maturity in its craft. If only that maturity were carried in the special effects and budgetary departments.

-Fighting With My Family – Director: Stephan Merchant – Florence Pugh has been proving more than capable at handling all fronts with this heartfelt WWE comedy, alongside Aster’s Midsommar.

Avengers: Endgame – Director: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo – So I haven’t seen Star Wars, but heard horrible things, and the ending of Game of Thrones bombed. So even if the MCU goes into decline after this, lets view Endgame as the spiritual finale to the sci-fi/fantasy/superhero saga.

First Love – Director: Takishi Miike – Miike might very well be the Robert Rodriguez of Japan. Fun and bloody albeit overtly convoluted, First Love is a hit from a hit-or-miss filmmaker.

The Farewell – Director: Lulu Wang – Who knew Awkwafina could act? Anyway, this film, while being nothing particularly special, manages to find time to make us feel a full range of emotions via a Chinese practice that most Americans would view as bizarre.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – Director: Andre Ovredal – A horror gateway drug for the kids.

Ready or Not – Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillet – Humor black as coal, this movie is a prime example of a B-movie being fully aware of its status in the spectrum of films.

Queen & Slim – Director: Melina Matsoukas – A lack of subtlety made up for with great characters and a heartbreaking finale.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie – Director: Vince Gilligan – A proper send-off to one of television’s most beloved characters.

Pain & Glory – Director: Pedro Almodovar – Didn’t quite make the cut for me to be in my “top” films, but still manages to be the second-best 2019 film about a seasoned character in the movies. This film makes me love what I’ve seen by Almodovar all the more and crave his remaining filmography.

Yesterday – Director: Danny Boyle – A bit of a downgrade for Danny Boyle, although still manages to be heartfelt, humorous, and at times romantic—just like the music of the Beatles.

Little Women – Director: Greta Gerwig – So I didn’t fall in love with this film like I thought I was supposed to, finding it to be too in-your-face with its cheesy dialog and general wholesomeness. Nevertheless, it depicts what I’m told to be a classic story without compromise, helmed by actresses of talent and a director whose talents are still blossoming. Still doesn’t excuse the lame rom-com ending though.

And, without further ado, my favorite films of 2019:

25. The King – Director: David Michôd – I never saw War Machine. It looked silly and stupid. I saw the trailer and assumed Michôd had reached a career peak with his awesomely apocalyptic The Rover in 2014. Despite this, whether or not War Machine is any good is irrelevant when talking about this vast Shakespearean effort. Like Us, it manages to feel both personal and have a scope of grandiosity; the kind you’d expect from a film entitled The King. When recollecting this film, a full month after seeing it, the shot that comes to mind is that of one where a battle is depicted; the frame is shot from above and filled with knighted men butchering their way through one another in heroic efforts. A part of all of us wants to be king, except of course Timothee Chalamet, who embodies the age-old archetype of a humble and easygoing young man thrust into power seemingly at random. From naturalistic dialog that maintains its Shakespearean roots to its balancing the beauty of nature and the grotesqueness of war, this is one of the many Netflix films worth watching.

24. Knives Out – Director: Rian Johnson – I expected this movie to be cheesy and abhorrent. Thankfully I was only half-right. This film is glorious in its camp factors. It redeems Johnson for his preceding Star Wars film and it’s one of the best blockbusters of the year. Knowing we’ve seen Daniel Craig as James Bond, Johnson casts him as a man with a Southern drawl that drapes over the characters that write him off in the film’s beginning. Ana de Armas’ character has a condition that may not exist, puking when she lies, and if that weren’t enough, there are several left turns and revelations that feel to be two hours too early in the film. And yet, we forgive these things because Johnson has crafted this film with a confidence that simply wasn’t there when he made Star Wars. An all-star cast plays the family, so the culprit’s identity is basically anyone’s game. The best whodunnit in years, and possibly my favorite role of Craig’s.

23. The Lodge – Director: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala – A film with equally cold insides and outsides. This taut and familial psychological horror follows two reluctant children joining their future stepmother to a trip to the family lodge, in a snowy location, but as the pasts of the characters (particularly that of Riley Keough’s) begin to unravel, we dip into the age-old themes of our demons being revisited but in a way that’s both refreshing and eerie. Jaeden Martell proves once again (after It) to be an up-and-coming talent to keep eyes on as he plays the withheld but caring older brother in a sibling bond that is tested by Keough’s character. But the best part of this horror film lies in its mysteries. This film does not spoon-feed its audience, and just the right amount is left unsaid, and when the credits roll, you’ll sit there as cold as the cabin in the woods. “Repent.”

22. Sorry We Missed You – Director: Ken Loach – A man’s gotta work. That can be seen as the message or the caution of the newest Ken Loach tale. This film was my introduction to Loach, whose other work apparently also deals with the impoverished and the unlucky. This may have one of the simplest premises of any film on this list—a blue-collar family’s patriarch gets a new job, and must balance this work with his familial and personal life. It sounds derivative, sure, but it sucks you in better than most films of such a nature. Its presentation is documentary-esque and hyper-realistic; even the little girl does a tremendous job. Subplots grow subtly in the background of this working stiff’s home life and slowly invade his working one, immersing us in pity, sorrow, and all too much relatability. It is reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers’ work in a few ways, particularly its anguished and bleak outlook on life, especially in a tearjerker of an ending.

21. Us – Director: Jordan Peele – Get Out earned me initial curiosity in Peele, both as a filmmaker and as a director, but with Us, he officially has my interest. With a unique blend of social satire and good old-fashioned horror trope entertainment, this movie manages to bend genres, tell a compelling story with tremendous scope and fascinating (and oftentimes humorous) characters. Peele is one of three horror filmmakers to have had a terrific sophomoric effort in 2019, and Us being the weakest of the three is a testament to the quality of the year we’ve had for movies.

20. A Hidden Life – Director: Terrence Malick – My first theatrical experience with Malick, and a grand return-to-form it was. It seems he was going for a trilogy with his most recent experimental productions, and is now returning to narrative filmmaking. Even though this film stumbles upon its scenery and depictions of romance (as Malick films often do), that doesn’t stop it from telling a story that is both grandiose and minimalist, raising the simplest questions of morality, while also playing into Malick’s personal tastes of nature, religion, and, as Roger Ebert would put it, “The overarching majesty of the world.”

19. The Irishman – Director: Martin Scorsese – Great. Just what we needed. Another mob epic from Martin Scorsese that stars Robert De Niro. Hell; if they can keep pulling it off this well when they’re deep in their nineties, I wish them the best of luck. Of the four mob epics Scorsese has directed (including this one), each seem to touch on different themes, all corresponding with the juxtaposition of morality and immorality, crime and the law, good ol’ good vs. evil, and what that constant battle can do to people. For Henry Hill it eventually made him an outcast to both sides of the law and put him in protective care indefinitely. For Frank Sheeran, however, it brought about a loneliness and emptiness that no money nor woman nor power could cure. The final shot haunts me to this very moment (spoilers ahead); it’s as though Frank is waiting for Pacino’s Hoffa to burst through that door at any moment and welcome him with open arms, as if nothing had happened. Including this film, I’ve seen extensive de-aging three times at the movies this year (It: Chapter 2 and Captain Marvel) and this one, despite taking place over the course of multiple decades, does it so organically and gracefully, that at a certain point, you forget it’s a factor and just become immersed in this morally gray world that Scorsese has created.

18. Atlantics – Director: Mati Diop – One of the eeriest romances I’ve ever witnessed, and one of the strongest feature debuts I’ve seen in a while. It opens with a young girl, set to marry someone in her financial class, yet smitten with a poorer laborer. You think you’ve seen this story before, but I assure you, you haven’t. It is a tale of lost love, gender and class oppression, and the frustrations of youth. Laced with melancholy and tragedy, yet somehow also with hopefulness, Diop has crafted quite possibly the best ghost story of the year with Atlantics. Bong Joon-Ho mentioned in his GGA speech about how breaking down the language barrier of subtitles can improve one’s perspective on cinema, and this is the exact type of cinema I wanted to see from other countries; the kind that takes foreign mythologies and not only educates us on them, but expands on them in the cinematic medium.

17. I Lost My Body – Director: Jeremy Clapin – One of the few animated films I watched in 2019, I Lost My Body is not a family film, nor should it’s viewing be restricted by one’s age; it is not terribly supernatural, but it falls under the realm of fantasy; and it’s not quite a tale of realism, but it is one we can all relate to. Despite its more mature moments, I found a certain whimsical and warmhearted nature in Jeremy Clapin’s feature debut, and unlike the Pixar and Disney films, this one does not hesitate to make bold choices for its hero, played by Hakim Faris (Dev Patel in the English dub). This film exists as a testament to what can be done when a mature and introspective writer/director is at the helm of an animated movie, using the drawn content to its full extent, while also capturing humans in their natural element; there’s only so many filmmakers who can manage the tightrope walk between whimsy and realism; Brad Bird and Hayao Miyazaki are a couple—Jeremy Clapin may be another.

16. Marriage Story – Director: Noah Baumbach – The concept as old as time—the disintegrating marriage. We’ve seen it been tackled by the greats (Bergman, Cassavetes), even the simply “good,” (Cianfrance), and Baumbach’s attempt lands somewhere between the great and the good. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannsen give their performances of the year (or even decade?) as a struggling couple who are only forcibly glued together by their surprisingly well-acted child Henry, played by Azhy Robertson. What’s also surprising about Marriage Story is just how humorous it manages to be while unfolding its tragedy of two decent human beings falling apart and flexing their ugliest selves before each other’s eyes. While Baumbach is possibly the leading figure of the naturalistic and comedic mumblecore movement, he rarely gets credit for his comedies, including the comedy in Marriage Story. While some characters are indeed caricatures meant to be humorous, they are oftentimes a breath of fresh air from the tense and tear-duct-tightening scenes surrounding said characters’ moments. As of this writing, it’s the most emotional and best Netflix original of the year.

15. Ad Astra – Director: James Gray – I’ve never seen The Lost City of Z or The Immigrant but now I’d rapidly accept the opportunity to see such works as James Gray startled and struck me with both a simultaneous childlike wonder and a feeling of pure terror with his latest adventure. Although it may borrow elements of 2001 and Apocalypse Now (and not quite live up to either film), this film manages to outdo other space dramas with its patience and subdued performances by Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones. Although its pacing suffers during a few scenes and its ending is more definite than many would appreciate, James Gray proves to be a man with a vision and highly adventurous intentions.

14. Monos – Director: Alejandro Landes – I’d never heard of Landes before this movie, and, in fact, I wasn’t too keen on seeing it in the first place. I saw it on a whim during a night of boredom, knowing only that it had the recommendations of the likes of Iñárritu and del Toro. The result was something heartbreaking and disturbing. Child soldiers in total isolation with an imprisoned woman—the possibilities are endless and in the course of 103 minutes most of them are explored. Both the fierce and fragile loyalty of children, as well as their fragile perspectives are on display in Monos. While the film raises more questions than answers, its final shot implies that Landes wants us to have discussions about the morality of the circumstances, how far away we are from a similar vision, and what the hell happened after the camera cut to black.

13. Joker – Director: Todd Phillips – Being a fan of the comic-book genre, I expected to like Joker. I did not expect to love it as I did, however. I consider this to be a big step for the genre (a genre that even I’m growing wary of), its realistic and brute depictions of violence paired with a display of a man’s downward spiral (i.e. early Scorsese). This film doesn’t follow the traditions of a comic-book film script (‘must include an action sequence every six pages’), instead taking notes from Taxi Driver and other gritty character studies. They give Joker a name – Arthur Fleck – and instead of shriveling at the notion of upsetting the uppity fans of the source material, this film embraces itself as a glorious standalone piece of art, whose boldness could even be admitted by its detractors. And it’s not without its messages; mental health is still to this day seen as a “touchy” subject. This film asks “Isn’t it time we address this?” I still maintain that most of its negative critics went in with the intention of resisting it.

12. Jojo Rabbit – Director: Taika Waititi – While this understated little gem could, at first, easily be considered a “Wes Anderson-wannabe” there’s no denying the audacity of its satire, the multi-talents of Waititi, and the bizarre warmth that it seduces you with along the way. I didn’t expect this movie to be so emotional given the trailer, but it slowly evolved into one of the best films of 2019. It introduces the new talents of Roman Griffin Davis as the young Jojo, convinced he’s a Nazi when in actuality he’s just a blank slate of a child, and Thomasin McKenzie, whose career I expect to flourish even further when she completes the project she has with Edgar Wright. Jojo Rabbit would have not been great, but only decent, if it weren’t for its director starring alongside Davis and McKenzie as the most hilarious depiction of Adolf Hitler I’ve seen to date; but he did so. And therefore, it is great.

11. In Fabric – Director: Peter Strickland – The second-weirdest film I saw all year was the giallo-laced bloodlust-fueled In Fabric, a film that I only saw due to an advance screening in a neighboring city. Featuring two primary stories, a whole gallery of commentary about consumerism and vanity, and humor blacker than the winter solstice, there’s not a lot missing from In Fabric. In the center of all this a haunted dress, worn both for beauty and as a joke, neither scenario ending well for the wearers. Film critic Mark Kermode called this film “all Peter Strickland” in style, saying that it would take a certain amount of laziness to compare this style to that of David Lynch. It was this statement and this film that compelled me to begin watching Strickland’s very limited (and very bizarre) filmography, and it’s the small gems like this one reignite the idea that suffering through lesser films is all worth it to find gems like this.

10. Midsommar (Director’s Cut) – Director: Ari Aster – The first time I saw Midsommar in theaters, I was admittedly weary, as I was with Aster’s preceding film. I gave it three out of four stars and argued that Aster was yet to peak as a filmmaker. But whether critics acknowledge it or not, opinions change. I suspected it may have been better than I gave it credit for, and, when I saw the director’s cut, these suspicions were confirmed. This film, like many greats, is about many things, but mostly about what it’s like to be an outsider and the accompanying loneliness. The third act may look like random occurrences but when you look behind the curtain, you can see a multitude of influences from real-life communes and cults, adding a thick layer of authenticity to Aster’s sophomore feature. In both his films Aster creates tension and horrors in the most relatable of subjects. And shreds our nerves in the process. He may not be a master of terror quite yet, but he is a master of grief, and all the screaming moans of despair that come with it.

9. Honey Boy – Director: Alma Har’el – I’d be lying if I called this a revolutionary piece of filmmaking. That said, I’d also be lying if I were to downplay the promise of this new (narrative) filmmaker. I never would have guessed that an autobiographical film by Shia LaBeouf would be good, let alone rank so high upon such a list, but here we are. This film’s ranking is not a testament to anything new, but to the age-old tradition of the movies eliciting an emotional reaction from its audience. It’s easy for one who attends movie theaters regularly to become disoriented and jaded with the craft to the extent that they forget why they’re there at all. Films like Honey Boy remind us.

8. 1917 – Director: Sam Mendes – Birdman meets Dunkirk, Mendes is back. One of the simplest movies of the year in regards to objective, 1917 tells the tale of two soldiers delivering a message across enemy lines. All of the film’s scenes were woven together artfully by cinematic legend Roger Deakins to look like a singular continuous shot, and not a moment feels wasted. Bogged down by a few plot devices and conveniences, sure, but this story manages to be epic in scope and personal in its deliverance. This film is based in part on historical retellings of Sam Mendes’ own grandfather, adding in the distinct vision of an auteur, which is a lot to say of a former James Bond director.

7. The Last Black Man in San Francisco – Director: Joe Talbot – Every frame is picturesque beauty. Never would’ve I thought that a true-to-life feel-good story would make the top 10 movies of the year, but first-time director Joe Talbot has convinced me. On the surface it’s about a young man who wants to have his grandfather’s house, but if you peer right underneath this surface, there’s a vast array of themes—purpose, race, masculinity, friendship, gentrification, legacy, it’s all there. And it’s all woven together by possibly the best directing and camerawork I’ve seen in a film all year. I went into this experience weary and uncertain, thinking it’d be pandering its themes and telling a half-assed story. About five minutes later I realized I was wrong.

6. Uncut Gems – Director: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie – Even though Good Time lived up to its title, it admittedly left me a bit cold. Having seen three other films by the Safdie brothers, I now believe that to be the point of their films. They’re about the morally ambiguous, self-destructive Yankees who ultimately doom themselves in the end. And with Uncut Gems, I theorize that the pair have reached their peak with this trend, that they have scoured the mountaintop of their self-made genre and that there will never be a better film of such a concoction. Adam Sandler gives the best performance of his career (beating even Punch-Drunk Love) as a manic, eccentric and ultimately selfish jeweler who seems to owe about half the city of New York various amounts of money. This is not so much a film about the value of a dollar, however, and more one about the idea of luck and randomness, one of the films that seem to propose that we are insignificant specks hurling through an indifferent universe. Scary to think about, maybe, but what a rush this movie is.

5. The Lighthouse – Director: Robert Eggers – The best sophomore effort and the best horror film of the year. Robert Pattinson, an actor whose “prospects” of the craft I’d scoff at ten years prior, (spoilers) makes analogies about (literally) fucking steaks and is convinced there’s a mermaid out on the shore and treats Willem Dafoe like a dog; Willem Dafoe, who, in turn, gets treated like a dog and buried alive, only does so after pseudo-romantic moments with Pattinson and talking nonstop and farting in several consecutive scenes. The weirdest film of the year that we just can’t get enough of. Bergmanesque enough to be a film from about forty years ago, themes and male-on-male sexuality modern enough to have been made yesterday, and utter chaos in every frame make The Lighthouse the current undisputed peak of the new wave of arthouse horror that the world is receiving.

4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire – Director: Celine Sciamma – “Rich” is the key word when describing director Celine Sciamma’s latest effort about a forbidden and doomed romance. Rich in character, nuance (both visual and screenplay nuance), and visuals, there is not a single cylinder unfired in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The story is Tokyo Story levels of simple; a painter goes to an island with the intent of depicting a young woman shortly before her marriage. The young woman is reluctant to be married, even more so to be painted, so the painter must pretend to be a friend first. She’s a painter first, then a friend, then something else entirely to this young woman in the most heart-wrenching and tortuous depictions of love I’ve seen in 2019. Heavily employing a static camera, it oftentimes resembles Kubrick’s often unsung Barry Lyndon, the film looks very much like a painting from centuries ago. This film called to mind two other films—Phantom Thread, for its restrained yet passionate affair, and Call Me By Your Name, not for its LTBTQ elements but for its naturalistic approach to a period-piece romance. And I think this film exceeds them both. This is a special film.

3. Parasite – Director: Bong Joon-Ho – The best Asian film of the year. A story that begins as a light comedy unravels into the dramatic, the tragic, the off-kilter, and even the horrific and absurd. A lingering question I love to toy with regarding Parasite is the exact nature of its title. Is it referring to the impoverished family that slowly infects the richer one? Is it an indicator to the housekeeper’s secrets? Or is it just about an insect dilemma the primary family suffers from? The Korean New Wave has been kind to us, with the likes of Joon-Ho and company taking the likes of social dilemmas and tragedies to new heights and even interjecting humor into the mix.

2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – Director: Quentin Tarantino – This movie is simply incredible. I say this not as one who aspires to be involved in filmmaking, nor one who aspires to critique them professionally, but as simply someone who loves the craft and the business, from the artistry to the trashiness of it. Leonardo DiCaprio presents my favorite of all his characters (who, according to the director, has an undiagnosed bipolar illness), Rick Dalton, a fading star in Hollywood who can’t decide which is worse—disappearing from relevance or starring in Spaghetti Westerns. Brad Pitt brings forth all his charisma as a man who (spoilers) may have just killed his wife. Despite this, he is oftentimes showing a caring and compassionate side, content with a modest trailer lifestyle with his loyal dog. And finally, there’s the true-to-life aspect of the film, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, a woman who gradually earns both the audience’s adoration and suspense in her minimal odyssey of growing stardom. We think we know what’s coming in those final twenty minutes, but no matter how many times we may have watched Inglourious Basterds, there is no logical way to prepare ourselves for the howling laughter of what’s to come. Upon its release, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood immediately became my contender for top film of 2019 and it was not once surpassed until very recently. I asked myself a multitude of times if this was based on any bias (or even fanboyism) toward the director who made me so interested in cinema in the first place; and during said considerations, I’d simply remember the passion and effort put into all the old-Hollywood settings and landscapes, the little attentions to detail in every frame, and its walk between realism and fantasy, ceasing to question myself thereafter. The bridge between the Golden Age of Hollywood and New Hollywood has never looked so beautiful, nor does the ever-lingering question of “What could have been?” So far I’ve seen this film on four separate occasions, I’d love to see it again, and, as it stands, it is my second favorite film of Tarantino’s.

1. Waves – Director: Trey Edward Shults – An emotional soundscape. I can’t think of a single person who wouldn’t get something out of Waves. Tackling several themes that can also be found in Honey Boy and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Waves uses the simplest of details like the alternating of the aspect ratios to tell the story from frequently differentiating perspectives and moods. Director Trey Edward Shults (who managed to make his debut feature with a cast of his friends and family) takes visual notes from modern Malick and quite possibly the early Southern films of David Gordon Green in a familial tale of tragedy and forgiveness. Taking place in two halves, the film, much like its title, pulls and tugs at your expectations and emotional reactions at the events onscreen, making its South Florida location all the more relevant. Shults proves himself to be an aficionado of popular music as well, with a near-constant and frankly loud soundtrack featuring the likes of Frank Ocean, Animal Collective and Alabama Shakes. And visually there is an explosive color palette to perfectly compliment every setting and surrounding present in every frame (a stark contrast to Shults’ last feature). While I cannot promise this to be a life-changing experience, I can promise that your emotional capacities will be tested upon entering this film. It’s with Shults’ Waves (alongside Krisha and It Comes at Night) that give him an officially diverse albeit high-quality filmography, and cement him as one of cinema’s most prominent talents. This is the best movie of 2019, and that says a lot.

-JCE, 2020

Midsommar- Movie Review

Year: 2019

Director: Ari Aster

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor

3/4

If nothing else, horror auteur Ari Aster has proven over the course of two films that he is a master at capturing the essence of grief and suffering. What he does with (or to?) his actors during filming, I am uncertain. But I’ve learned through watching Hereditary and Midsommar just how discomforting and unsettling it can be to hear someone’s seemingly endless wailing, as if they’re striving to be heard by their lost loved from beyond the grave.

This is perfectly encapsulated in the first twenty minutes of Midsommar, a well-shot cocktail of horror and drama with just enough mystery to keep you watching. I’ve always resented the horror cliché of beginning with dread, always preferring a slow descent into madness rather than a full 140-minute barrage of despair. But Midsommar’s inciting incident is so subtly executed and realistically performed, I was not bothered in the slightest, more intrigued and empathetic toward Dani (Florence Pugh), our emotionally dependent and romantically lost heroine, and wanted to see her through her sojourn of overcoming her neglectful oppression.

After the aforementioned incident, and after awkwardly humorous banter between her, her boyfriend (Jack Reynor), and his college companions, we see them go as a group to a Swedish “commune” to witness a midsommar celebration, one that supposedly occurs only once every ninety years.

The premise is begging for caricatures of character idiocy and boring by-the-numbers drivel, but thankfully Aster shows himself to be a disciplined filmmaker. In the first ninety minutes he doesn’t try to keep our attention with predictable jump scares but with small character revelations and establishing this new culture they’ve immersed themselves in. Although they don’t have the depth of Paul Thomas Anderson’s characters, the group of young students are reasonably well-rounded and complete with flaws, passions, and genuine personalities. As for the commune, Aster treats it like an aging home; seemingly as ancient as time itself, and filled with secrets that are only granted to the careful observer. But, like in much of horror fiction, not all the secrets of Midsommar are gratuitous reveals.

As the group initially traversed the commune, I could not be more invested. It brings about the great question of importance regarding traditional versus progressive ideals, and our sheltered fears of the uncanny lifestyles of foreigners. None of these themes are ever spoken out loud, as Aster teaches us to show our stories in cinema, not simply tell them.

However, that didn’t stop this film from overreaching its ambitions. Clocking in at almost two-and-a-half hours, Midsommar eventually beats its themes over our heads, and begins taking its characters in absurd and rather tortuous directions that at times seem to betray the story it was telling in its beginning. One could easily watch this film and conclude that it had two (albeit strong) ideas for a horror drama and meshed them into one movie, hoping for a masterpiece but sacrificing some of its altogether cohesiveness.

After the film was over, I read online that Aster was expressing his frustrations over a painful breakup through Midsommar, calling it “a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror movie.” Speaking as a lover of film, I love nothing more than a clever balance between entertainment value, thematic artistry, and something more personal. Although all three of these elements are present in Midsommar, the result was lukewarm, particularly in a third act with overarching themes and a dragging plot weighing the film down into a rut that mainstream audiences will likely label “pretentious.” Self-indulgence is a disease amongst artists, and its frankly disconcerting to see such a clearly talented filmmaker overindulge during his second feature.

There is a wonderful story in Midsommar, one I’d even argue to be better than that of Hereditary. But what Hereditary lacks in originality, Midsommar lacks in realized vision. To surmise, I give both these films the same rating, and encourage Ari Aster to continue his filmmaking endeavors if for no other reason than to learn to properly walk the narrow path between entertainment and artistry without toppling down to one side.

 

-JCE, 2019

Greta- Movie Review

Year: 2018

Director: Neill Jordan

Starring: Chloe Grace-Moretz, Isabelle Huppert

3/4

After seeing The Prodigy only days earlier, it was entirely refreshing to see the lighting and color palette of Greta. Here is a thriller that doesn’t rely on dark tones and gray matter to shove its genre in your face. This doesn’t take away from the dread or lonesomeness that Chloe Grace-Moretz feels throughout the experiences of Greta though. All one should want or expect from Neill Jordan’s newest film is a simple and intriguing at best viewing experience, qualities that this reviewer feels it delivers.

Grace-Moretz plays Frances McCullen, a young waitress and novice to the New York scene, living with her rather insufferable friend Erica, portrayed by scream queen Maika Monroe. Frances finds a bag on the subway in the film’s opening credits, and, upon discovering an ID for a Greta Hideg, she decides to return the lost item. Upon doing so, she meets the gentle and seemingly compassionate older woman, who is played by Isabelle Huppert, who is more known for French films and the works of Michael Haneke.

Anyone who knows the film’s premise knows the drill. There’s something off about Greta, but we can’t quite place our finger on it. For a woman with apparently no friends, she seems awfully sociable with Frances. And our first real red flag is raised when we see her, by herself, looking up information on Frances on her laptop, after making it clear only minutes beforehand that she was terrible with technology. Despite this, Frances falls victim to her through her desire for a surrogate mother, as her biological one had recently passed.

What this film excels at is building its tension, and understanding the effectiveness of a certain minimalism and mystery that’s uncommon in modern thrillers. Instead of giving us tsunami of answers, it unfolds gradually, like a kaleidoscope, revealing small secrets about who both our female leads are, both in personality and in history. And when we do get answers, they aren’t necessarily grandiose. There’s no grand scheme, there’s nothing abhorrently large that’s been functioning in the background the entire time. And many of the factors about Greta remain an enigma for the entirely of the film, which this reviewer personally sees as a positive. The scariest thing about Michael Myers was his lack of motive or backstory. Greta is definitely more human than the Halloween antagonist, but director Neill Jordan doesn’t give us needless information.

There are a few slip-ups for Greta, however. Some moments of lashing out are a bit overused. The manner of speaking and the facial expressions of a brilliantly bitchy Isabelle Huppert are substance enough, to the extent that we don’t need her to spit gum in Frances’ hair. And there’s a rather obnoxious plot hole toward the end of the film, as well as a murder that, in my opinion, took away from the mysteriousness I cherished so much about Greta’s character.

Even if the flaws listed weren’t a factor, its easy to complain that this premise is something that has been reformatted in both better and lesser films within the preceding two decades. There’s nothing revolutionary about Greta the film or Greta the woman, and I likely won’t be revisiting this film. But if you enjoy thrillers and want to kill 98 minutes, go ahead.

-JCE, 2019

Perfect Blue- Movie Review

Year: 1997

Director: Satoshi Kon

Starring: Junko Iwao

4/4

I needed to see this film a second time to affirm my love for it. The first time, I was admittedly uncertain  how I felt about it. There’s a lot to digest in the Satoshi Kon masterpiece known as Perfect Blue, and certainly plenty to unpack in its themes of fame and psychological duality. I’m lucky enough to have recently received a theatrical experience the second time, and in this, I found myself leaving the theater quite invested.

Perfect Blue is about a Japanese pop idol named Mima Kirigoe, who, in the first scene, announces her departure from the girl group CHAM to pursue a career in acting. Simultaneously, as she performs her final show, we watch as a man cups his hand before his eyes so he can envision himself holding Mima, as if she were a prize. This is the first dosage of disturbing imagery, and the first implication that we’re not getting a standard anime experience, or a story that takes place in the sugar-coated world of pop music. As Mima traverses her newfound career in acting, we see the unraveling of multiple facets—the compromises one has to make for their artistic endurances, for one. And for another, her own psychological well-being. There’s plenty of scenes that may be dreams and may be hallucinations. Mima thinks she’s going crazy, and we believe her.

This film instigates a great deal of discussion to the dual nature of artistic and professional work, similar to Alejandro Iñárritu’s recent Birdman. Mima sees herself as a blossoming artist, but her passionate fans refuse to see her as anything more than a pop icon. The aforementioned disturbed fan in particular disputes this by posting slander from his idealized perspective of her online. When she agrees to suggestive photography, he furiously buys them all so nobody will see it. We realize it’s not love but obsession, and that this man is in need of serious help, but that’s not quite the point Satoshi Kon is making. He represents the mob mentality in seeing these monolithic figures not as people, but as servants to his perfectionist vision. He is the fans, and in some situations, he’s all of us.

Mima struggles with this image in all factions of her life, both externally and even more so internally. She has hallucinations of herself in a pink dress, a vision that jovially declines to be in a rape scene for a film. It’s a side of herself that both she and the audience soon begin to expect has taken a mind of its own, going as far as to be suspected of murder. From the scene of the first murder, this could be perceived as an animated slasher film, but it never loses its tone or deliberately unkempt narrative of a tale of insanity and/or inner conflict.

It’s entirely understandable if, upon first viewing, people find this film to be overtly jarring or relentlessly confusing, and therefore walk away with a certain distaste for it. But like many classics (2001: A Space Odyssey) or many potential future classics (Inherent Vice), if those same audience members gave Perfect Blue repeated viewings or let the substance of the film simply wash over them, I think they’d find it to be more worthy of consideration, or, at the very least, thorough analysis.

-JCE, 2019

Everybody Knows- Movie Review

Year: 2018

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Starring: Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz

3/4

Everybody Knows is clearly an exercise of great passion for everyone involved, but will it stand the test of time? While I enjoyed Asghar Farhadi’s latest, I am not terribly optimistic the answer is in this film’s favor. This is my first foray into Farhadi’s work, and while it makes me want to explore what critics are calling his “better” films, this one left me in no complete rush.

Everybody Knows takes place outside Madrid, and its photography is one of its finest selling points. Its location is lush and picturesque, which only adds to the disquiet and unsettling nature of the actions to come. Penelope Cruz plays Laura, a woman who, with her teenaged daughter Irene (Carla Campra) and her young son in tow, visits a small villa for a wedding, reuniting with her childhood sweetheart Paco (Javier Bardem) in the process. In the set-up and even in the earlier sweetness of the meet-and-greets, you can feel a sense of tension between Paco and Laura and her family.

Then, on the night of celebration, Irene suddenly disappears from her room, whereas kidnappers send threatening texts, demanding a ransom. They say if they go to the cops, they’ll kill her immediately. And naturally, she doesn’t have her inhaler with her, narrowing the time frame even more. This causes the psyches and emotions of the characters to unravel, in a web tangled by secrets and things left unsaid. People question their trust and loyalty in one another, as well as the love they receive from each other.

This is more a film about tradition and first love than it is one about the disarray of a kidnapping. Everyone suspects one another, but that’s not where Farhadi’s fixations lie. They lie more within the dynamic between Bardem’s Paco and Cruz’s Laura. Married in real life, these two actors show a certain intimacy onscreen that is difficult for even the best of actors to emulate, especially when portraying characters who are married to separate people. Everybody Knows depicts the rough parts of certain relationship-based therapeutic measures through the guise of a kidnapping story, with all the breakdowns and distrusts that come with it.

Unfortunately, the film does seem to be bogged down by unnecessary amount of characters and repetitive nature. Paco will have the same conversation with three or four different people before he has the one that really seems to count, and by then we’re less invested. This film is 132-minutes long, and could’ve easily been at least 20 minutes shorter. By the time the culprits and their plan are revealed (in a way that feels shoehorned at the last second), a small part of us just wants the film to wrap up. And there are so many characters with so little depth and investment. The cast list could’ve easily been severed and the film would be no different.

Despite its flaws, this is an enjoyable film that transcends the genres of thriller, drama, and romance in ways that are mostly seamless. I still strive to see films like A Separation and The Salesman. I just hope those films are more consistent to Farhadi’s reputation.

-JCE, 2019

The Prodigy- Movie Review

Year: 2019

Director: Nicholas McCarthy

Starring: Taylor Schilling, Jackson Robert Scott

1.5/4

You know what I realized on the drive home from watching The Prodigy? Its title is completely irrelevant. If the character played by Jackson Robert Scott was completely average-minded, the film would be no different. No spark of genius is necessary for the events of Nicholas McCarthy’s new film to take place. And, unlike in the character of Miles Blume, there’s no genius to be found in The Prodigy.

This irrelevancy is only one of many problems, my main issue being the level of disappoint I received after watching the first fifteen minutes. There’s great horrific juxtaposition established between the connections of both birth and death in two seemingly unconnected events in two different states. Despite these scenes being well-directed, cutting at similar angles to indicate their similarities, it does instantaneously plant within the viewer all notion as to the film’s twists, and a great deal of suspense is lost.

One night in 2010, one person dies while another is born. The mother of this new child is Taylor Schilling, working hard despite her rather unpolished and cheesy dialog. The child grows to the age of eight, and is played by Jackson Robert Scott, another decent performance that is sometimes hindered by the script. The playful nature between mother and son is never convincing in the words exchanged between the two, and Taylor Schilling’s Sarah Bloom may as well have a big tattoo on her forehead that reads “VICTIM”. Aside from these two and the psychologist portrayed by Arthur Jacobson, you never feel like any actor onscreen truly wants to be there. This is a typical early-year horror film. Just a stepping stone in their careers.

Anyway, Scott’s Miles Blume begins displaying bizarre behavior, in sequences any seasoned horror fan has likely seen before and will likely roll their eyes at. So then we gradually see his problems unfold into not only the supernatural, but hints at the thematic content of rebirth and the way unfinished deeds leave their mark on the world. Think The Sixth Sense, except twenty years later with tired concepts and uninspired presentation. As early Shamaylan proved, there’s a great deal of potential in this subject matter, but The Prodigy goes about one of the safest routes imaginable, all for the stereotypical “horror” ending and the open-ended sequel ideas. The color palette is the typical modern horror setup of dark blue and gray tints. This is a dreadful film, not only in its overarching sense of despair, but in its quality.

There are other clear inspirations here. Child’s Play, The Exorcist, even the more recent Hereditary come to mind. But those films at least have consistent tones and unique presentations. Child’s Play brought an original concept for the slasher film to fruition, one that in its time would have been conceived as extremely difficult to pull off. The Exorcist expanded our ideas of what could be done with child actors in the world of horror. And Hereditary had plenty of clichés, but at least it portrayed them in the best directorial execution and gave us more nuances about real-life horrors, particularly familial stressors and mental illness. The Prodigy, however is subpar and forgettable in all these aspects.

-JCE, 2019

Loveless- Movie Review

Year: 2017

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Starring: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvei Novikov

4/4

Loveless begins with the eerie “11 Cycles of E” during the studio credits. Before we even glimpse into director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s world we get a taste of the dread in what’s to come. Then after beautifully composed stills of a frigid 2012 Leningrad, we see young Alyosha (played surprisingly well by Matvei Novikov) throw a strip of police tape onto a tree branch, where it flows freely in the wind. This tape is the only thing with any essence of freedom in Loveless, the latest tragedy from the Russian visionary. I doubt I’ve seen such a dreadful film since Klimov’s Come and See, in a tearful family drama reminiscent of a classic Bergman film.

The central family live up to the feeling of the film’s title; Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) make no attempts to guise their spite toward one another, nor their disinterest in their only son. They’ve both taken new lovers, and consider sending Alyosha off elsewhere when their divorce is finalized. Sure, they never fight directly in front of him, but don’t even bother to lower their voices when they think he’s sleeping in the next room. This is a modern couple in the worst of ways. She is constantly glued to her phone, he is more interested in his career life than his home life, and they both move on from each other without missing a beat.

Then, as if by some cosmic force, one morning when returning from her lover’s home, Zhenya finds that Alyosha has vanished. In the last moments we see of him, he seems very intent on leaving, but there’s no distinct evidence that points to him being a runaway. This causes the two to reunite, much to their disdain, to help find the boy. As the plot and characters unfold, its impossible to not be fixated on the performance and directorial subtleties.

Is this a meditation on modern dispassion, a comment on the paralleling 2012 apocalyptic theories, or something more political? At this point in Zvyagintsev’s career, we can trust him enough to assume any one of these possibilities, or even all of them at once. But even on a surface level, there’s a lot to chew on in regards to acting and filmmaking. Spivak’s Zhenya is a woman who wields a sharp tongue at every opportunity and Boris constantly carries a solemn and sad quietude, beaten down by the path he’s been set on. There are multiple long takes of character-based sequences, including one where a tearful Alyosha listens from the bathroom as his parents argue, and another where Boris secretly talks to a coworker about his fears of his disintegrating marriage causing his career to go down with it. We also get long sequences of both Zhenya and Boris in intimate moments with each of their respective lovers, and see them having long talks about their futures and their pasts, fleshing them out and making their dialogue recitations all the more impressive. These are not bad people, and anyone could find themselves in their shoes. But who they are to the outer world is petty and despicable, maybe even irredeemable.

There are many photogenic but distant shots of the outer world of the snowy cities and suburbs of Leningrad, showing that freedom is always from a distance. It is not the fact that Alyosha has disappeared; its how the world reacts to it—so detached and uncaring. They seek him out as a form of duty, not desire. The couple make it more about them then about their son. No matter who’s face is on the poster of Loveless, it was never about anything other than their them. Zhenya and Boris are over at the time of the film’s beginning, and although Alyosha never made any impact on them with his presence, his absence may be their permanent undoing as free individuals.

-JCE, 2019

Django Unchained- Movie Review

Year: 2012

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

4/4

Django Unchained is the movie that made me fall in love with movies. For me, it transcended what cinema could do. At the time of its release, I had gone through phases of loving things like slasher films and comic-book blockbusters, but this was something completely new. I’d already seen Kill Bill (and loved it) but that film had more value in exploitation than that of the social relevance of Django. This film inspired me to learn everything about it, which involved going down the rabbit hole of Tarantino’s influence, which eventually motivated me to know as much as possible about cinema. There’s no film like Django Unchained, and the feeling of seeing it for the first time is one that has not been replicated, only vaguely emulated.

A film about slavery in the guise of a western, Django Unchained is set in the antebellum South in 1858, just before all this “slavery malarkey” is over and done with. Upon a chance meeting with Christoph Waltz’s wonderfully eccentric and mysterious dentist-turned-bounty hunter King Schultz, a slave known as Django (Jamie Foxx) garners his freedom and embarks on a quest to save the love of his life, who was lost in the slave trade. In doing so, the doctor and the freeman meet with DiCaprio’s volatile Calvin Candie, a man who pits muscular slaves against one another to fight to the death. And upon uncovering this illegal trade within Candie’s plantation, they not only find Broomhilda, Django’s lost love, but they also encounter the Uncle Tom slave, played by Samuel L. Jackson in the single most despicable role I’ve ever seen him in.

The synopsis in the preceding paragraph contains no spoilers, but it does trim a great deal of baggage of the film’s 165-minute runtime. In the events leading up to the meeting of Calvin Candie, there’s bounties, blood, and a great deal of humor. I’ve always maintained that some of the best humor comes from moments of ironic comedy in the most serious of environments. Breaking Bad is one example, Django Unchained is another. There’s a scene that involves a pre-Civil War Ku Klux Klan-like group, which is one of the funniest sequences I’ve ever seen in any film. In his more modern films, legendary director Quentin Tarantino sprinkles in jokes that are satirical to the time and genres they are parodying, jokes that are never pretentious or exclusive to those who don’t get his obscure cinematic references.

Then there’s the performances, and the more serious parts of the script. Christoph Waltz earned and was awarded an Academy Award for his role as Dr. King Schultz, who spends every moment onscreen as charismatic as he is bloodthirsty for the next bounty. He strokes the intrigue of every individual he confronts, and has more of a clear moral compass than that of the typical western bounty hunter. DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is the other kind of charming; he carries a menacing presence as he is introduced by jovially sentencing a slave to his death. Despite this, he is less terrifying the more you learn about the person underneath, an insecure and uncertain pseudo-intellectual, whose hate only signifies himself as someone who will be forgotten or dismissed by history. Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen is, as stated, one of film’s most pathetic characters. He worships the ground that Calvin walks on, and doesn’t mind indulging in his nonsense to maintain his status as the head house slave. Jamie Foxx’s Django shows some of the strongest character growth in a Tarantino film. He is like most slaves when we first meet him; subdued, timid. But through his escapades with Dr. King Schultz and his natural ability to fire a gun, we see him transform into a smooth and confident western hero tradition, something that the African-American community had been deprived of up until this point.

Being quintessential Tarantino, the film is riddled with references and nuances to other films. The namesake of Django is a tribute to the original Django from 1966, complete with a cameo from Franco Nero himself. The name Broomhilda von Shaft is a subtle implication that Django and Broomhilda are the distant relatives of the blaxploitation hero Shaft. Mandingo fighting was never real, but there certainly was a film called Mandingo. I could go on, but you get the idea.

For its bloodshed and its use of a certain infamous word, this film has received a certain backlash from certain audience members, including Tarantino’s contemporary Spike Lee. I think those who fixate on these matters are simply missing the point. There’s so much substance in every frame of Django Unchained, and so much to read into, I can’t help but pity those who write this film off due to small details like violence and cuss words, and I feel those individuals are depriving themselves of one of the few cinematic experiences that are truly worthy of applause.

-JCE, 2019

Lords of Chaos- Movie Review

Year: 2018

Director: Jonas Akerlund

Starring: Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira

2/4

If there’s any real takeaway from Lords of Chaos, it’s that everyone with any moral compass or genuine opinions is a poser. At least, that’s what one can ascertain from watching this cinematic adaptation of the history book in which the film is based. There’s some interesting genre-mixing at work in Lords of Chaos, but it never creates a coherent or sustainable mesh to compensate for its flaws. As someone who was a huge fan of black metal in his teenage years, I feel that if my teenaged self sat down to watch Lords of Chaos, he would be disappointed, not for the bad filmmaking, but for the petty and consistently insecure depictions of these musicians I’d so admired.

In a small Norwegian town where nothing seems to happen, a guitarist who dubbed the name Euronymous (Rory Culkin, with no accent) formulated a musical concoction known as black metal, featuring a heavily distorted sound and screeched lyrics, praising the devil and everything malevolent in the world. It begins not as the serious thriller/horror its been labelled as, but as a comedic capturing of a certain music-based scene, similar to SLC Punk. Things become more disturbing however, when they get a new vocalist, who dubs the name Dead, played by Jack Kilmer.

The personality and dynamic of Dead were easily the most intriguing part of the film. As someone who studied black metal as a teenager, I already knew the end results of leading black metal figures like Dead, Euronymous, and Varg Vikernes in the early 1990s; however, it was very enthralling to see the unravelling of Dead’s psyche and his entire mental breakdown leading to his final actions. Had the film simply been about him rather than the pettiness in the back-and-forth between Euronymous and Varg, I’m sure this film would’ve functioned much better as a character study.

However, this may not have been true to the source material and its not what the film did. After an unfortunate incident, Dead is out of the picture and Euronymous amorally capitalizes on this, eventually meeting a man named Christian, who modified his name into Varg Vikernes to become more “satanic.” At first, Euronymous writes him off as a poser due to the “Scorpions” patch on his vest. But its Varg’s much less interesting unravelling that sets the film into its downward spiral. There are interesting themes here about mob mentality and the occult that could’ve been helmed better by a more seasoned filmmaker (Akerlund has mostly directed music videos up until now). There are attempted messages about those who feel outcasted by the heavily-religious European societies who lash out in rage that never feels truly justified. It doesn’t feel like pure evil, or even circumstantial evil, just late adolescent angst. You never feel there’s real pent-up anger within these characters. The direction feels like its simply listing off events instead of building up a story. In one scene a black metal musician stabs and kills a man, and we know virtually nothing about him except that he was interested in doing so.

Like I said, there’s some comedy in the first act of Lords of Chaos. Some of it works, the rest is the kind of schlock you’d see in a trashy mean-spirited comedy like Step Brothers. After that, most of the comedy comes from the musicians’ attempts at being hardcore. Even the press is openly mocking them. In the second and third acts, there are attempts at a healthy blend of thriller and horror in this historical story. While there are scenes of undoubtable intensity, the horror is mostly absent, save for a couple of scenes of cheap jump-scare sequences, in which they finally delve into the psychological state of Euronymous, and how his relationship with Dead had affected him. Nevertheless, had it not been for the inclusion of Varg Vikernes’ arc, this film could have ascended to the potential it showed.

-JCE, 2019