On a given Saturday evening I was searching to watch something, when I came across this little entry on Amazon prime. The poster and the trailer looked fun enough, and since it is a fresh 2020 release, I was more than curious to check it out. The trailer had an Attack The Block feeling with a bit of Hard Target sprinkled in. Should be fun, I said. To make things more legit, a critic that I follow on Letterboxd gave this movie a rather positive review, so I was expecting to discover a hidden gem. You know, the movie that is really good, but it is too small for anybody to discover it since it went straight to VOD or streaming and has 0 big names in it or attached. The kind of movie one can be snobbish about that they know it and others do not. I was expecting that. What I got was probably a worthy candidate for the top 10 worst movies I saw in this decade.
My initial plan for this weeks review was to write about Terminator: Dark Fate. It has opened this week and I had some pretty good ideas for it. But then I saw Sátántangó, and I had to change my mind. Now, despite being a self-appointed movie connoisseur, I have to admit that I have some serious gaps in my repertoire as far as movie classics go and even more so when it comes to Hungarian cinema. I am Hungarian, but somehow my native country’s movies never really managed to grab my interest, as most of them felt like they are following the same cook book: grab a handful of the countries biggest acting names and use them to sell the movie, no need for scripts. So I think I can be excused for not showing enthusiasm for Hungarian films. Nevertheless, the opportunity has presented itself for me to take part of the screening of one of the most critically acclaimed Hungarian movie of all time, Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó, so I went for it. The event marked the 25th anniversary of the original release of the movie and also celebrated the fact that the movie has been transferred to 4K and will be rereleased on Blu-ray and digital VOD in the following months.
The story is as follows: a small group of people are living in a run down, middle of nowhere, isolated little agricole commune. It is late autumn, it is constantly raining and everybody is awaiting their big payday for their year long toil. Some have more ambitious plans for the money, than others. However, all their plans are blown out of the water when they learn that Irimiás and Petrina, 2 long gone colleagues that everybody thought to be dead, are on their way back to the commune. Everybody is afraid that Irimiás will take away their one chance of getting out of the shithole they are living in. As such, they began scheming.
“Nothing good can happen when two men are trapped alone in a giant phallus.”said the director of this film, Robert Eggers. And he wasn’t wrong. Two men, tending a lighthouse on a small rock in the middle of the ocean… what could go wrong? Well, plenty.
Whatever you thought you knew about the Joker before, from the comics, cartoons, movies… whatever expectations you had for this movie based on the trailers, movie news and rumors, interviews, released pictures, whatever… best leave them all behind when you enter the screening room to see this movie. Seriously. This is not the movie you were expecting. Trust me on this one. I was ready to unload a barrage of hate on Joker. I thought that it was a gimmick, another empty shell of a movie to offer an excuse for an actor to go full method in front of the camera while the studios fill up their pockets on brand recognition. I was ready to declare it useless, top 10 worst of the year… and then I went and saw it. Most of what I saw, I did not like. There were many moments in this movie that I out right hated. But I have to admit it, this movie is powerful. This movie has a message. Many people will get the wrong message out of the story. Perhaps I did too. Non the less, Joker is a memorable watch and unlike other “masterpieces” it will not fade away after the end of the awards season. That being said, I still wish that this movie would not have been made…
*** possible spoilers ahead***
It is rare for me to watch the same movie twice in theaters and even more so to do it within 24 hours. In fact, I have not done this ever, until today, but this film demanded it. I did not know much about the story before the first viewing. I knew that it was a space opera, so I was really hoping for it to be good, as this is probably my utmost favorite genre and there aren’t that many entries in it, at least not in the last two decades. Brad Pitt was the lead actor, so I knew that the acting will be good, and the buzz from the critics seemed favorable enough, so I was hoping for this movie to become the next best thing ever, at least in my eyes. Afterwards, knowing what the movie was about, I went back to see it again, to find out if there is anything that I might have missed the first time around, some hidden subtleties, details, which would confer extra meaning or depth to the movie. But, alas, Ad Astra is not what I hope it would be. It is probably the most realistic depiction of space travel though, as it feels longer than a rainy Monday and is boring as hell…
The acting, as mentioned in the opening, is great. Brad Pitt gives a great performance, taking a page out of Ryan Goslings book. By this I mean that his performance is really restraint, and instead of talking he lets his eyes convey his reaction/message. It is an unusual approach from Pitt, but it works wonders. Second most important role goes to Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the father of Roy. Jones too gives a great performance, although he has a fairly small screen time and a role that he could carry easily woken from a drunken stupor. Other supporting roles go to Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga, both of which are fine. Liv Tyler is also credited, but she is barely on screen, and has just one scene where she talks, and even there, she talks of a mobile device as a recorded video message. Now, revisiting the trailers after watching the movie, it is clear to me that the first act of the movie was somewhat different at one time and there is a lot of shots that ended on the editing rooms floor. So, it is possible that all the secondary actors had bigger parts in the beginning. Maybe we will find out when the movie is released on home video.
This is mainly due to the fact that, in essence, Ad Astra is nothing more than a 2 hour long therapy session. How the obsession of the father becomes a destructive force in his child’s life. In this regard, Ad Astra is a perfect companion to Grays previous film, The Lost City of Z, where the protagonist becomes so obsessed by the idea of finding a lost city, that he neglects his family and his son, once at age, in an attempt to win his fathers love, joins one of his expeditions, only to die in it. Here too, we have something similar, but now the viewpoint is the one of the child’s, how he tried to win his absentee fathers love all his life, by shaping his own life in his father’s image, dedicating himself to his father’s ideals, ending up to embark on the same journey to the end of the world in order to reconnect. All the big ideas that are touched upon in the movie, like “is there life out in the universe besides us?”, “where does humanity go in the future?”, “what if we are all there is?”, are nothing more than afterthoughts, something cool to wave in front our eyes, but they are never examined, never explored. These ideas should be the driving force for something like Ad Astra, instead they are barely footnotes. Granted, these concepts are far more complex to process than a screwed-up father-son relationship. To re-enforce the idea of the therapy session, the hero needs to undergo regular psychological evaluations, in order to gain permission to go further with his mission. Apparently, it is not a good thing to be emotional for astronauts.
If in the coming weeks you are in a conversation where someone complains that there are no more original films being made by Hollywood, you have only 2 acceptable courses of action to choose from as a response. Option A, the fitting response would be to bash that person over the head with a shovel, as he or she has no idea what they are talking about, they just talk for love of the sound of their own voice, which is obnoxious. Option B, the socially acceptable one, is to ask them is they have seen Bat Times At The El Royale and subsequently invite them to shut the hell up. Because this movie is a 100% original story, executed flawlessly that went under the general audience’s radar. It is THE most underrated movie of this season and a poster perfect example why it is so difficult to make a solid, standalone movie nowadays. This is the first movie to come out under the hand of Drew Goddard in years, as despite a great number of projects he was attached to, the last film he directed was The Cabin In The Woods, way back in 2012. In the case of both movies, Goddard pulled double duty, as he was not only the director but the screenwriter as well.
The setup for the story is a classic. There is a remote hotel, some guests check in. Everybody is sketchy and tries to mind their own business, but inevitably, things go sideways, really quick and really bad. And there is a storm coming. As I said, a classic. But the execution of the story is masterful. After the initial meet of the characters, everybody goes on their merry way with the focus on the character portrayed by Jon Hamm. We get to see what he is up to and how his story unfolds, during which we also get some glimpses, previews in the stories of the other characters. Not enough to understand what is going on with them, but just enough to become curious about them. Once we are finished with Hamm’s character, we rewind the clock and we got to spend the same time interval with another character, witnessing things from their perspectives, seeing previews for other protagonists, and so on, like dancing the same song with different partners, one after the other. And once we are up to date with everybody, the story can move forward in time, and the dance floor gets smaller and smaller every time, until all story lines converge into one big finale. I really like this approach. For one thing, this allows the audience to really focus on the events. If all points of view would have been presented in parallel, jumping from one character to the other every 20 seconds, this movie would have been unwatchable. Many details would have been lost on the audience, no emotional bonds would have been created and would turn the entire story into one giant mess, which it actually is, at least for the characters. But as things are, you get to know every protagonist intimately. Their backstory is being told in the form of a brief flashback, inserted at the right moment for it to be relevant to present events. You get to understand how things got from A to B to Z, even if the events were not showed in that order, because you were given all the story elements in a most palatable way. There are no “blink and you miss” type of clues here. All you have to do is pay attention to what is happening on the screen and you will understand everything. After an appropriate time of tease, that is.
But beyond the great storytelling, this movie is a great vehicle for the actors to showcase their talents. Jeff Bridges and Jon Hamm are having a great time making this movie and it shows on screen. Cynthia Erivo is charming and steals nearly every scene she is in. Not to mention her singing… Lewis Pullman, son of Bill Pullman, pulls a breakout performance here (excuse the pun) that most likely will put him on the map, and Chris Hemsworth is just hypnotic. I don’t think I ever saw Hemsworth portraying a villain before, but he is one charming devil.
Overall, if you still have the chance to see Bad Times At The El Royal in theaters, do go and see it. It deserves, and needs, all the views it can get. So, go on, reward original movies when they do appear on the big screens. Otherwise we will end up in an era where the next Scorsese movie goes straight to Netflix… oh wait, that is already happening….
A Star Is Born is the 3rd remake of a movie released with the same title in 1937. The original had Janet Gaynor and Fredric March as headliners. The remake in 54 had Judy Garland and James Mason, and the one in 76 had Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Apparently, all 3 previous incarnations of this movie had been winners, or the very least, contenders for the Oscars. This latest version stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, and what do you know, it too seems to be a contender for the Oscar race. In fact, it seems to be one of its front runners. This is quite remarkable since Bradley Cooper pulled double duty on this one, both as lead actor and director, the latter being his debut. The story itself is rather straightforward. An established but fading star (actor in the first 2 films, singer in the latter ones) finds a promising new talent which leads also to love. This love reinvigorates the fading star, but as the proteges star is on the rise, he falls back into the shadows and things start to go rather dark from there.
To be honest, I have not seen any of the previous incarnation of this story. I knew they exist, I even skimmed trough a lengthy account about the making of the 3rd film that the director has released much to Barbra Streisand’s displeasure. But not once was I considering watching any of the other 3 movies, let alone all of them, so that I have a basis for comparison for the current version. I have too many titles that I actually want to see in my free time to do this kind of optional homework, and besides, this kind of story just doesn’t do it for me. There are far too many tropes here that I have seen elsewhere, executed with various degree of success. In fact, I was pretty sure how the story will roll out, just based on the premise alone. So why did I go to see this movie in the first place? Because it is one of the happening movies right now, so I kind of felt like I have to see it. Plus, I was curious if the Oscar buzz that it is getting is for real or not. Well, the buzz it is real. And I would gladly buy this movie for my collection and watch it again. It is that GOOD.
Don’t get me wrong. My expectations regarding the general direction of the plot was met by the movie. But the key word here is “general”. When we get to the specifics, this script gets rather original with things, or at least compared with the other tropes used by rise to/fall from stardom movies. And even though I knew the “beat” of the film and saw the turnings in the story coming, it never felt boring. Authentic, heart breaking, yes. Boring? Never.
But the story here is nothing but an excuse for the actors to unleash their powers and to glue your eyes on the screen. Bradley Cooper is phenomenal as Jack, the jaded rock star. Whenever I hear Coopers name, I cannot help myself of thinking back to the tv series Alias, where he made his breakout performance, or to most of his roles so far, where he is a pretty face with a cocky attitude. But that dude is miles away from this movie. Cooper is looks legit worn out here, tired and disappointed from all that stardom has to offer. I mean he looks old. He feels old. And it is not just the make-up or the acting… There was something in his eyes, a form of quiet sadness, that sold me everything. His nomination for best leading actor at the Oscars is pretty much a given, and if the awards were given out tomorrow, he would get it too. But since most of his real competition will only roll out in December, we will have to wait to see. Sam Elliot is also in the movie, although with way less screen time as Cooper. Non the less, he works wonders with the little that he is given, even if half the time I could not understand a word that he was mumbling under that big mustache of his. But there is a scene in the 3rd act with him, where there are no words spoken, and that scene alone should get him a best supporting actor nomination. I don’t think that a win is a realistic goal for Elliot, but I would be rather upset no to see him on the nominee list. However, let us not kid ourselves. The true breakout performance here is given by Lady Gaga. Which is, again, super weird. Just as same with Cooper, whenever I think of Gaga, I have a specific image in mind. There was a meme a long time ago with Gaga and Eminem on stage at an award show that had a text similar to “you know you are fucked up when you are on stage with Eminem and he is the normal one”. All the while Gaga was in a full body red suit with some weird full face mask on, that made her look like something out of Guillermo del Toro film. And generally that what Gaga was for a really long time, a provocateur, in lack of a better word. But not here. Here she is down to earth, she is vulnerable, she is loving. And she is goddamn gorgeous without spending half the day behind the make-up mirror. Despite whatever image she was selling 10 years ago, she is a totally different person here and I had no problems in buying it. The fact how she managed to keep her love for Coopers character, despite the hard times he put her trough, and how she constantly needs to compromise in her singing carrier but managing to stay true to herself, all of these make her just as much a tragic character as Cooper, and she pulls it off effortlessly. Now, many have made the argument that the reason she is so good here is that she basically has to play herself, but I do not agree. She already built a successful acting career in the world of television, so her talent was not something “borrowed”. Also, the director and script writer knew exactly how to get the most out of Gaga acting in front of the camera. As for her singing… well, there is a reason why she was an international hit as a singer before turning to acting. Just like Cooper, Gaga is also a sure thing for getting an Oscar nomination for lead actress, and I am confident that she will taking it for home too. But as talented as Cooper and Gaga are individually, together they are a veritable powerhouse. They have great chemistry in front of the cameras, their interaction with each other is seamless, natural. You get why they care for each other, why they are disappointed by each other, why they are still together. When they share a scene, they do so as equals, there is no preferential focus on one specific person based on who is the biggest star, who has the better selling name.
There is one more player in this movie that needs to be mentioned, which is the music. And the music is great! All the songs written for the movie have the potential to stand their grounds on their own in today’s music charts. Gaga brings her A game in terms of singing, which is to be expected, but Cooper also performs his own singing and playing, and his performance is on par. In fact, all the singing in the movie is recorded live, in front of the camera, not in the studio as one might expect. Also, the concerts scenes are extraordinary. They were shot at Coachella and Glastonbury, during actual concerts with the actual concert going audience, and it feels. The crowd’s feedback, the lights, all the sounds, everything is authentic.
There are only 2 issues with this movie. The first would be its length, which being 2 hours and a quarter is a bit too long. This is the most telling sign that Cooper has never directed a movie before and is unable to let certain scenes go or trim down to improve the overall flow of the film. Fortunately, the film is good enough for this not to become a major issue. The second issue is that this movie is a sad one, as you might expect it from a tragedy. Now, the reason why this is an issue is that you will not watch this movie for a second or third time as easily as might do with other movies. This is by no way a complaint about the quality of the movie, on the contrary, but once the initial incentives for the watch are gone (the hype, the curiosity, the recommendations) and you are fully aware what this story is about and what it can deliver, you need to be in a specific mindset to watch it again. I have not reached that mindset since, which is a shame, since I am convinced that a second viewing would be tremendously rewarding.
First Man is Damien Chazelle’s latest directorial effort. Just like his previous works, Whiplash and La La Land, this too is marked as an academy award contender. It has all the right ingredients for it. It is a biopic; it is also a period piece. It is heavy with the drama, both on a personal and on a historical scale, and it has plenty of the right actors in the right places for the critics to eat it up. Also, the fact that the director is the newest wunderkind in Hollywood just makes things easier. I mean Chazelle is only 33 at this point, but he already has an Oscar for directing and 2 other nominations for screenplay, one for original and on for adapted. This story could not have been made more for award consideration. It is also has annoyed the fuck out of me.
This is, yet again, an instance, where I and the critics walk away with totally different appreciation of the movie that we just saw. Based on the current Rotten Tomatoes score, 9 out 10 critics have liked this movie. I am the lonely 10th schmuck that doesn’t gets it. This movie just does not compile together as it should. I understand the idea behind it and why it has looked so promising on paper. You take one of the biggest human achievements ever, you find its main protagonist and you film his journey to reach that achievement, but you focus on his private struggles and tribulations instead of the grand story, all the small sacrifices he had to make to get where he was going. It is, without a doubt a great premise. But it just doesn’t work here, and the reason for it is remarkably simple. Neil Armstrong, despite of his multiple remarkable traits and merits, is a boring person. As far as I can tell, the filmmakers went to extraordinary lengths to make everything as authentic as possible. If they succeeded, that means that Armstrong had the charisma of a dried potato, which is bad if you want to build an entire movie on his shoulders, instead on the events. Because everything that was related in this movie to the Gemini and Apollo space programs was great. Those elements were really exciting. But they only account for about 40% of the movie. Everything else is an intimate look into the Armstrong household and the relationship between Neil and Janet. They live in a small housing community, filled with the families of the people working in the space program. So most of the talk is either shop talk, or shop related talk or just plain household drama. The men are pilots/engineers and the women are housewives. You can just imagine how diversified the talking points can be in an environment like that. Also, there are a lot of kids around and all they do is run around and scream and shout. I know that this is actually an accurate depiction of how things were back then, but still, it drove me up the frickin’ walls. Thank God for the occasional funeral every now and then. Basically, to focus on the man instead of the mission was a choice the result of which did not live up to expectations. Not with this execution, at least.
Speaking of execution, I also have an ax to grind with the way this movie was shot. There was a lot of talk on how during the lunar landing the camera is focusing on Ryan Goslings face instead of the actual landing and how the movie does not show how the flag was planted on the moon. I could not care less about any of this. BUT, when we are on the ground, on earth, which is 95% of the movie, for whatever reason, the film makers decided to go with hand held cameras. The cameramen are either unable to keep the cameras steady or they were going for some 60’s documentary film style of shooting, which sounds about right given the time period the story unfolds in, but it looks like something I shoot with my camera over the weekend. Watching a close-up always moving on the big screen, while the character was clearly still in its surroundings, was horrible. I almost got sea-sick.
As far as the acting goes, I cannot have complaints there. Ryan Goslings brings another one of his stoic performances as Neil Armstrong, which I am guessing is fitting. Claire Foy, as his wife Janet, is a powerhouse. I know this because she has annoyed me the most as a character, so she, as an actress, managed to punch through the weak script. Jason Clarke and Corey Stoll are also memorable in their roles. Kyle Chandler and Ciarán Hinds are in this movie too, but just long enough to recognize their faces, otherwise they are totally underused. I saw cameos longer than their screen time here.
Overall, First Man, is an ambitious project, that had an original concept and all the right ingredients to become an incredible, epic movie, a classic. Except, it didn’t. I choose Apollo 13 over this on any given day of the week.
Try to imagine the movie Hitchcock would be able to do in today’s age of social media. All the new types of horrors he could unleash upon us thanks to this new playground called the internet. Searching provides a rather convincing picture of what that might have be like. This is a gripping thriller that will sneak up on you and catch you by surprise. I certainly was not prepared for it. The trailer didn’t do much for me and if it wasn’t for the excellent word of mouth this movie was getting, I would have never gone out to see it. But I am glad that I did, because this movie will definitely end up in my top 10 of this year.
The story, in itself, is rather simple. Margot, the young daughter of David Kim (John Cho) goes missing. Desperate to find his daughter, David deep dives into Margot’s emails, facebook profile and other parts of her digital life, only to discover that Margot is not the daughter he believed her to be.
So far there is nothing new, we have seen this movie a thousand times before. What is different here that everything is unfolding on a computer screen. We never get to see a traditional shot in this movie. We see texting, people talking on facetime, posts on different social media platforms, vlog-ing, youtube videos and countless other things we might witness on a computer screen. And despite my initial expectation, it is a super effective form of delivery for the story. It provides an intimate perspective; it is almost voyeuristic. Every one of us have moved a good portion of their social interaction and personality (sort to speak) online, and this is what the movie is exploring, the fact that we are more real in the digital space than in actual, day to day life. And because of this, watching how the events unfold on a computer screen feels more real than if we would have witnessed it first hand in real life. According to the movies producer, Timur Bekmambetov, this idea came to him after a skype call with a friend of his, where they used the then newly introduced feature of screen sharing. After they have concluded the call, the friend has forgot to disable the screen share and Timur got a few minutes glimpse of his friends actual digital self, the one we all display when nobody else is watching our screen. Naturally, he notified the friend that the share is still ongoing.
However, even the best concepts can fail if they are not executed well. Thankfully, this is not the case. The story is properly customized for this kind of delivery system. We establish an emotional bond with David and Margot in the first minutes of the movie by learning their story through pictures, home videos, emails and a calendar schedules. I know that it sounds rather dry, but trust me, it is anything but. It is one of the most effective exposition I have seen in years. Within a couple of minutes, we are up to date with everything, we care about the characters and are ready to go for the plot. And the plot unfolds beautifully. The pace is fast but even. We go from A to B to C and so on with a steady speed. None of the plot points overstay their welcome to become boring. And this is a good thing, because based on the trailer I was convinced that the filmmakers will insist upon the hypocrisy of social media, which they do point out but without over doing it. Instead, they concentrate on the tension, which, just like the view count of a viral video, just goes up, and up. And just like with any viral video or news, you get hooked in and you stay with it until the very end. And it is a great ride. The film makers are very clever in making connections through the story and you can understand how the characters reach certain conclusions, or in the case of big reveals, you can understand what they are based upon, despite the surprise. Also, the movie is filled with clues about what happened, but the misdirects employed by the script are damned good and kept me from guessing the actual ending of the story. Not until the final clue was I able to figure out what was going on, but even then I was short on the details. All in all, this is a mystery done right.
Unfortunately, there is a major flaw in this movie. It will not age well. One of the factors that really boosts the effectiveness of our connection to the story is the fact that we are familiar with most of the platforms and processes we witness. We use facebook, email, youtube and any other digital playground on a daily basis. So all the layouts, the sounds, actions are like second nature to us, we need no explanation of what is happening there because we know it in our sleep. However… The movie opens up with David making an account for (a then about 10 years old) Margot on the family PC, which ran Windows XP. Now, I am old enough to remember that operating system, I have used it for almost a decade, but I am no longer as familiar with it as I once used to. I am sure that most teenagers watching this movie understood the concept what was going on the screen, adding another user to a computer, but had no idea what they are looking at. And here in lies the problem. The movie is so rooted in today’s technology that it will automatically be outdated with it, regardless of the overall performance in storytelling. Yes, we know facebook, and we know Gmail, but what happens 5 years from now? During 5 years, all these platforms can perform design changes to which we get accustomed to and then this movie will not feel as much familiar and intimate as it does now. Now try the same thing 10 years from now, try 20… When I was a teenager, mIRC was a thing, now it is not. So was yahoo messenger, myspace… There were a bunch of platforms that we knew inside and out back then and which we barely remember today. The same is true for today’s platforms, with the passing of time, they too will become irrelevant, and together with them this movie will pass too into oblivion. Don’t believe me? In 2004 there was this movie called Cellular, with Chris Evans in the lead. One of its major plot twist was that the heroes cell phone could record video and the bad guys did not know that… Sounds silly? It is today, but back in the day that was a rare thing. And again, who remembers that movie today? Same in our case, 10-20 years from now, everything that looks interesting from a tech point of view will become laughable, or the very least cute. This is why good sci-fi films are never rooted into today’s tech. Even if their special effects no longer hold up, the movie itself is timeless, it doesn’t become irrelevant because the storytelling is still done the same way is it always has been. And great sci-fi films are never rooted into today’s tech either, but tomorrows tech is rooted into them. So this is one major pitfall Searching did not miss.
But, there is no time like now, and now this is one of the best movies 2018 has to offer. It is thrilling, it is exciting and it provides a great topic of conversation. I highly recommend it for everyone to see it, before it expires.