September 30, 2021

Expanding the Universe: September 2021

You might think that with college beginning, I won’t have as much time for my typical viewing habits. To that I say, nonsense! I very easily struck a balance in being responsible with my work and doing my duties as a lover of pop culture -- and what a jam-packed month for those duties! What follows is what I watched in September 2021.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Viewed on: September 3
Rewatched on: September 19

Read my full review here.

The Princess Bride (1987)
Viewed on: September 4

It can be hard to imagine a more culturally iconic movie with more quotable lines than The Princess Bride. Based on indelible source material, the incredibly sweet, exciting, and absolutely hilarious film features Cary Elwes and Robin Wright as Wesley and Buttercup, a dynamic duo if there ever was one. Anchored by its heart and ability to balance timeless comedy and true drama (with some truly amazing performances to boot), a classic like The Princess Bride only comes along so many would be inconceivable not to appreciate it! [Grade: A]

Jerry Maguire (1996)
Viewed on: September 4

Like Ted Lasso, Jerry Maguire is a sports story that isn’t really about sports. Tom Cruise is the eponymous disgraced athletic manager who attempts to gain relevance again by representing football player Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.). Jerry Maguire is a bit too long, but that isn’t unheard of for a sports film -- not to mention Cameron Crowe is in the writer/director behind it all. There’s sports, there’s romance, there’s comedy, but most of all, there’s heart. It may not be my favorite kind of genre-blending movie, but Jerry Maguire had me at hello. [Grade: A-]

Fight Club (1999)
Viewed on: September 6

The first rule of fight club is, and say it with don’t talk about fight club. This is an unfortunate development, as I had hoped to review it in this post, but I suppose this will have to do. But...if we’re not allowed to talk about fight club, how did all those people find out about the fight club? Some mixed messages there (completely coincidentally, just like this movie)...hmmm... [Grade: A]

Sing Street (2016)
Viewed on: September 7

Being a teenager in Ireland during the Troubles can’t have been easy. Derry Girls offers a satirical take on the idea, and Sing Street approaches it from a more adolescent point of view. Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) starts a band to impress a girl, and that’s just about all there is too it. Sing Street is an undeniably good time, giving us characters we can easily empathize with and some stunning realized sequences, elevated by some really solid performances. Throw an excellent soundtrack into the mix, and you have a charming musical with heart to spare. That last bit seems to be a theme so far this month, doesn’t it? [Grade: A]

Their Finest (2016)
Viewed on: September 8

Broaching philosophical and ethical questions about the nature of honor during World War II is not the only thing Their Finest does well. The film examines a fictional story of Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), who helps craft the perfect propaganda film to boost the reputation of the Allies after Dunkirk. One thing I did not expect Their Finest to be is bitterly funny (mostly due to the out-of-work actor Ambrose Hilliard, playing impeccably by Bill Nighy), but it brings a particular attitude to the aspect of the war that most have forgotten about. I had never heard of this movie before watching it, and I believe more should see it. [Grade: A-]

Malignant (2021)
Viewed on: September 10

Read my full review here.

Black Mirror: Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too (2019)
Viewed on: September 10

Being the first Black Mirror episode I watched after a long break, I expected a dismal and depressing episode with an incredibly bleak ending (something anthology series seem to rely on). Instead, I was treated to a weirdly upbeat episode where Miley Cyrus plays pop superstar Ashley O. Angourie Rice and Madison Davenport co-star as teenagers who have to rescue Ashley when her parasitic aunt (Susan Pourfar) forcefully puts her into a coma. The episode definitely gets stronger with a better sense of story direction in its second half, but the performances really make the viewing experience what it is. If this were the last Black Mirror episode I watched, you would have no problems from me. Unfortunately, it was not yet September 23... [Grade: A-]

Twilight (2008)
Viewed on: September 11

Before watching Twilight, I genuinely thought the term “sparkly vampires” was an exaggeration, but no, it turns out it was a very literal description of the effect of the sun on Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and his vampiric family. Kristen Stewart stars as Bella, the new girl in town, who finds herself falling for Edward, not caring about his true identity. Twilight was not nearly as bad as I was expecting, but it still presents itself as essentially a zero-sum movie. Despite the establishment of characters, nothing much happens. The conflict is jammed-in and secondary to everything else. Did I have to watch this series? Absolutely not, but I had to see what all the fuss was about. Let’s just get on with it. [Grade: C]

First Cow
Viewed on: September 12

The acting is undeniably fantastic and the character development is strong, but First Cow drags on endlessly. I suppose I should expect this from an A24 film, and hey, maybe The Green Knight was the exception. [Grade: B]

Lucifer Season Six (2021)
Viewed from: September 10-13

Read my full review here.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)
Viewed on: September 13

While it maintains a visual edge over its predecessor, New Moon is in no ways a better film. Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart still need acting coaches, but at least the fight sequences are marginally better and Michael Sheen makes a scene-stealing appearance. If the rest of the series continues in this vein, it might leave me dead in the water. Please help me with my vampire puns. [Grade: C]

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Viewed on: September 14

The innovation that has come in the last century is absolutely remarkable, and experimental documentaries like Man with a Movie Camera serve to further impress us as snapshots of what was possible way back when. Progressive documentarian Dziga Vertov (real name: David Kaufman) is behind the camera along with his brother Mikhail, and over a period of three years, they filmed pieces in three major Soviet cities. You will be genuinely amazed at some of their methods, and they still hold up to this very day. It just goes to show what a man with a movie camera can really do. [Grade: A]

I Love Sarah Jane (2009)
Viewed on: September 15

A small, contained story set during an evidently larger conflict, this short film debuted at Sundance, and I can only imagine the reaction it got. Every other piece of dialogue is a curse word, but it manages to incorporate a surprising amount of themes into its brief runtime -- including, but not limited to: boyhood, toxic masculinity, devastating loss, and fitting in. Future Disney star and del Toro darling Mia Wasikowska plays the titular Sarah Jane, whom young Jimbo (Brad Ashby) is smitten with. Zombies roam the world and they are surrounded by idiots, but Sarah Jane is the only thing that matters to him. Fantastic production design and makeup aside, I Love Sarah Jane is far too brief, but it certainly has its well-paced moments. [Grade: B+]

The Company of Wolves (1984)
Viewed on: September 17

Like Man with a Movie Camera and Sarah Jane, I watched The Company of Wolves in an academic context, but I still very much enjoyed it. The best way to describe it is as existential fairy tale horror, a tamely R-rated film crowded with metaphors about desire, willful repression and everything in between. We, as the audience, keep descending through layers of dreamlike narrative until the climax brings us a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood that is...odd, to say the least. Still, like Sarah Jane, the makeup is exceptional and the performances are solid. This is 1980s fairy tale if ever I saw one. [Grade: A-]

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)
Viewed on: September 15

I fear I am becoming numb to the mundanities these movies are subjecting me to. While Eclipse mercifully has some action built up and some actual skill behind the camera, there is still the undeniable fact that the leads are just blatantly uninteresting. Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner have proven their acting skills elsewhere (Lautner less so), but they are still just so lifeless in their Twilight roles. My puns are getting better, right? Still, the plot moves slightly forward, and the love triangle between Bella, Edward and Jacob seems to be coming to a welcome end. Unfortunately, there are still two more movies, but this means the story has to start picking up steam, right? Right?! [Grade: C+]

Candyman (2021)
Viewed on: September 20

Read my full review here.

Rocky (1976)
Viewed on: September 20

I could do Sylvester Stallone impressions all day. Maybe not all day, but most of the day. To watch the movie (for the first time) that made him a star with the hindsight we have on his career now is truly astounding. Rocky is a victorious, self-contained power anthem disguised as a movie, and it really is Stallone that tethers it; as the writer and star, he has a personal tie to this movie that will not be ignored. I also did not expect to genuinely laugh at this movie as much as I was expecting to -- it definitely has charm to spare, which again can be contributed to its lead. Seeing Rocky in theaters must have been a true experience, even more so than watching it with retrospective. [Grade: A]

Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan
Viewed on: September 21

Las Hurdes, also known as Land Without Bread or Unpromised Land, was directed by Luis Buñuel to showcase a village that is poor to such extremes that it is barely comprehendible. I will not spoil its true nature (do more research if you wish), but I believe it is better once looked at in hindsight. Its ethics are certainly debatable, but it remains a very interesting examination of poverty and suffering, no matter its presentation method. [Grade: B]

Star Wars: Visions Season One (2021)
Viewed from: September 22-25

Read my full review here.

Black Mirror: Men Against Fire (2016)
Viewed on: September 23

Subtlety is not the specialty of Black Mirror, and this became apparent when I watched Men Against Fire, the finale of the third season. A by-the-numbers story that follows a futuristic soldier (Malachi Kirby) hunting mutants known as roaches, Men Against Fire makes its message known very early and has no use for delicacy when addressing it. Unfortunately, though, that same message is as timeless as it ever has been, which is by no means a good thing. [Grade: C+]

Psycho (1960)
Viewed on: September 25

I can only imagine what it must have been like to sit in a theater and watch Janet Leigh get brutally stabbed in glorious black-and-white on the big screen sixty-one years ago. Psycho plays its cards close to its chest, all while masterfully setting up (sometimes albeit confusingly) an amazing twist that allows Anthony Perkins to show off his off-kilter, multi-varietal acting talent. Not only is it a convincing horror, Psycho is also a great mystery, capped off by one of the most unnerving and slowly exciting endings of the 20th century. [Grade: A+]

Dear Evan Hansen (2021)
Viewed on: September 26

Read my full review here.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1
Viewed on: September 27

If you were looking for proof that Twilight was an extended metaphor for abstinence and caution, I present to you Breaking Dawn Part 1. In a movie that absolutely did not need to be the commencement of a two-part finale, Bella and Edward get married and have a baby, all in the span of a week. Everything you love to hate about the Twilight series is here, from the bizarre editing choices to the weirdly underperformed drama. The conflict is different but still feels exactly the same, and just like the last installments, I have absolutely no idea where the story can go from here. Also, I feel lied to -- the Netflix cover art for this movie featured Aro, played by the magnificent Michael Sheen, sitting on a throne in a pure white room. Not only does Michael Sheen make a brief ten-second appearance, but the throne was nowhere to be seen. I would be surprised if the last movie offers any sort of penance for the unfortunate mess the series not only started as, but has progressed further into. [Grade: D]

The Power of Ten (1977)
Viewed on: September 28

If you want to ponder our place in the universe and have a small existential crisis, watch The Power of Ten and take a good, long look inside yourself. No, seriously, watch it[Grade: A+]

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021)
Viewed on: September 30

Read my full review here.

September 28, 2021

Review: “Visions” Offers Unique Interpretations of the “Star Wars” Universe

As any timeless franchise should, Star Wars continues to grow and evolve in the era of streaming, and suddenly we have instant access to more content than we’ve ever had before, including every movie, every series, every LEGO special and many more. Disney+ has begun to expand its Star Wars roster, and this endeavor includes a series that received only limited promotion — Star Wars: Visions.

Seven Japanese anime studios were given an allocated amount of time to tell a story set in the Star Wars universe, and the results range from remarkably entertaining to passably interesting. I should preface this by saying that I am not necessarily a fan of anime, but these shorts are, for the most part, accessible to those unfamiliar with the genre. Their involvement in the overall Star Wars universe varies as well, with some telling minimalist stories with one or two characters, and some introducing revolutionary ideas that could make their way into future stories.

September 26, 2021

Review: “Dear Evan Hansen” Brings Broadway to Cinema, with Mixed Results

There are certain things that are meant to be seen on the stage. Some of these translate very well to the screen — Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd and Little Shop of Horrors are prime examples — but unfortunately, Dear Evan Hansen isn’t one of them.

I've seen the stage play twice, and I’ve loved it both times. Upon its release, it received praise from critics and audiences alike for being an emotional, empathetic tale about growing up, facing the truth and the value of family — some very strong themes, that by all means should translate very well into any medium.

The film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen brings original Broadway star Ben Platt back as the titular lead, and yes, it’s as jarring as you’ve heard. Platt is a 28-year-old playing a high school student, and that was all I could think about most of the time he was on screen. The aged-down makeup, involving some curly hair to disguise his age, is only partially successful, and it can be distracting. It doesn’t detract from his performance in any way, though — Platt is still the best part of the film, from his stellar vocals to his heartbreaking performance as a teenager struggling with deep-set (if at times stylized) anxiety.

September 21, 2021

Review: “Candyman” Returns in a Visual (and Visceral) Rebootquel

Horror sequels that feature a more modern take on the source material while simultaneously continuing the story begun by the original are nothing new. Leprechaun Returns, Halloween, Spiral (and, to a lesser extent, Wrong Turn) have all thrown their hats into the ring, with Scream, Texas Chainsaw and Jeepers Creepers all set to continue the tradition in coming years. Of course, the strategy makes sense — it needs to be accessible for new audiences, while also satisfying for longtime fans. It’s a tough balance to strike.

Nia DaCosta’s Candyman (also continuing the trend of having the same name as the original) isn’t sure what it wants to be. Is it a reboot? Is it a sequel? Does it want to maintain its unique spin on the villain, or keep reminding its viewers of the original killer, played by the incomparable Tony Todd?

As a standalone movie, Candyman is absolutely fantastic. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II gives another star turn as Anthony McCoy, a struggling artist living in the now-gentrified neighborhood of Cabrini Green, a prominent setting of the original Candyman. He becomes obsessed with the local legend of the titular hook-wielding murderer, even incorporating it into his art pieces.

September 14, 2021

Review: “Lucifer” Bows Out with a Bang

Somewhere, there’s a textbook that final seasons of established series use to chart out their conclusions. The sixth and final season of Lucifer doesn’t follow that textbook exactly, but it was definitely used as a reference guide.

One luxury that Lucifer can afford with its sixth season, especially with a Netflix budget and no runtime constraints, is being able to reflect on its progress through its five-year run (including flashbacks that show just how much Tom Ellis’s look has changed from the debut season), even poking fun at the formula that its procedural aspect has done to death. The show goes about this in clever ways and doesn’t skimp on giving every character a perspective, showing how far each of them has come throughout the show’s run. Even Dan (Kevin Alejandro) returns — a somewhat puzzling turn after his character conclusion in Season 5 — but it’s for the best, and it’s all in the name of tying up loose ends, another must-do in the textbook of final seasons.

September 11, 2021

Review: “Malignant” Shows Cinematic Horror is Back

Unfortunately, any hope of director James Wan abandoning his penchant for jump scares is abandoned in the very first scene of Malignant, which serves as a return to the genre for Wan (who hasn’t directed horror since 2016’s The Conjuring 2). However, Wan has proven himself to be a reliable measure for success — whether that holds up during a global pandemic is to be determined — and while I’m not thrilled about mainstream modern horror being mainly jump scare-focused, Malignant is effective in what it strives to do.

After a Saw-style intro sequence with very similar music, we meet Madison (familiar horror actor Annabelle Wallis), a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with her husband (Jake Abel). Without spending too much time on character, Malignant delves into horror very quickly — household objects begin moving, lights turn on and off, and weapons are fashioned from strangely-shaped decorations. Madison begins to see visions of some incredibly grisly murders, and from there it’s a hop, skip and a jump to deducing that she’s somehow connected to the victims.

September 5, 2021

Expanding the Universe: August 2021 (Part Two)

Read the first part of the article here.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

Even though it shows just how overcomplicated the Pirates franchise can be, Dead Man’s Chest still manages to be an enchanting adventure that properly utilizes the talents of its stars, most predominantly Bill Nighy as the fearsome CGI creation that is Davy Jones. It shows that the adventures of Jack Sparrow can thrive off of new ideas and the infusion of new lore, even if it wears itself thin more than a few times. [Grade: B+]

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Heroes converge from throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe to stop a purple giant from wiping out half the universe. Infinity War never needed any big selling points -- its position as the culmination of the MCU was enough -- and yet it delivers on any expectations we might have had, giving us incredible action, flawless visual effects and great character moments that continue the storylines and arcs of the heroes we love. It may be a little overcrowded, but the fan service moments are rife and the emotional momenta hit hard, just as they should. [Grade: A]

September 4, 2021

Review: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a Mystical MCU Adventure

Just as light has darkness, yin has yang, Cheech has Chong, Quentin Tarantino has Samuel L. Jackson, Marvel movies have…clichés.

This isn’t, by any stretch, a bad thing. Movies sustain these clichés for one simple reason: because they work, and success is often borne from their use. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel’s latest (and rather unconventional) film, is also an origin story for its titular hero, which further seems to limit its capacity for novel ideas.

Nearly every Marvel Cinematic Universe origin story, from Ant-Man to Black Panther and everywhere in between, has orbited the theme of family, mostly dysfunctional ones. As I mentioned, it’s a formula that works, but it’s gotten somewhat tiring over the years.

September 1, 2021

Expanding the Universe: August 2021 (Part One)

As you are reading this, I am heading off to college, so you might imagine that my last month living at home was a busy one. However, as the summer wound to a close, I still found time to sit down and enjoy movies (and TV series) alike. Without further ado, here is what I watched in August 2021.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Gary Oldman enters the fold as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter film that dares to go deeper, and darker, with its narrative. With new revelations come new villains, and the story is so compelling you might completely forget Voldemort is completely absent. David Thewlis is also an excellent addition to the cast, in a beautiful adaptation that has some of the best character moments of the franchise. [Grade: A+]

Scream 4 (2011)

While not the best Scream sequel, the franchise continues to honor its influences and pay tribute to the horror of its time with Scream 4. Sidney, Gail and Dewey are all back, and while the supporting cast is not nearly as delightful as the big three, Wes Craven still knows how to make a damn good horror movie. Not necessarily a scary one, but a fun one nonetheless. [Grade: A-]