Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Wow…it’s been a while! I am back from my unofficial year-long writing hiatus. To be honest, I just wasn’t motivated to write about the movies I saw in theaters over the past year. I never would have guessed that a Quentin Tarantino film would be the one to revive my passion for review writing.

I’m not going to lie, my anticipation to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was not high in weeks prior to the film’s release. Leonardo DiCaprio is my favorite actor, but I am not the biggest fan of Tarantino. I’ve seen several of his films, and I dislike his use of extreme violence and racially-charged language. However, the cast and premise of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood caught my attention. I love portrayals of retro Hollywood and stories with a historical twist. That being said, I purposefully did not do much research before going to see it.*

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, and Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. Rick Dalton is a fading television western star, and Cliff Booth is his best friend and stunt double. The film follows this fictitious storyline while somewhat depicting the real events involving Sharon Tate and the Manson murders. But, in classic Tarantino fashion, it lacks a defined narrative. There is no three-act structure and no overarching conflict. Because of this, I think Tarantino risks losing many audience members to boredom. The majority of the film focuses on depicting the daily life of these stars in the late 1960s. The colors, wardrobes, and sets are incredibly nostalgic and visually stunning. Great acting performances, particularly by DiCaprio, keep the audience hanging on until the latter third of the film, when action involving the plot finally kicks in. I have seen it twice now, and my reactions differed. I loved it the first time, but naturally noticed many flaws after the second viewing.

Before I start the review, I thought I’d share something pretty cool. One of Robbie’s scenes was shot in Westwood where she attends a screening of The Wrecking Crew, which Tate starred in. Most of the scene takes place inside the historic Regency Bruin Theater, which is where I saw the film on opening night! It was surreal to watch the scene unfold in the very theater I was watching in. The picture on the right is the current marquee outside the theater. Anyways, back to my review…

*Light spoilers, don’t read further if you haven’t seen the film!*

Without a doubt, DiCaprio’s performance steals the show. I think he carries the film. I definitely would not have been as invested in the story had the performance not been one of his bests. Brad Pitt is good as his sidekick, but some of the lines he delivers come off awkwardly. I think we can attribute that to the odd nature of his character and weak screenwriting. DiCaprio and Pitt really do work well together, and I hope we get to see future collaborations. Margot Robbie does not have many lines; she is primarily there to present Tate’s persona and beauty. It was nice to see appearances by legends like Al Pacino, Bruce Dern, and Kurt Russell. Overall, the acting in the film is solid and does not falter.

Most of the criticisms towards Once Upon a Time in Hollywood target Tarantino’s directorial decisions. The film does have its absurd moments, but I think he intentionally exaggerates for entertainment. It does pay off, because I laughed out loud with the rest of the audience several times during the opening night screening. Like I said previously, there is no established conflict for a good portion of the film. As a result, several scenes meander with no clear purpose. I didn’t mind this, for the most part, because the good scenes are really good. Some of the drawn-out scenes with Tate, particularly in Westwood, could have been trimmed. If the goal was to create parallel narratives between Tate’s life and the duo of Dalton/Booth, I think Tarantino fails. She comes off as a background character who lacks a substantial storyline. There are some moments of sloppy editing, but being familiar with Tarantino’s style, it was difficult to know whether or not those imperfections were intentional. Critiquing the noticeable “flaws” in this film is challenging because they obviously stem from Tarantino’s unique vision. The film is not bad because of his choices. The key filmmaking elements of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, such as the acting and cinematography, are excellent. It’s in the little things, like unusual pacing and editing, where viewers may find fault. However, I have found that what some may describe as a mistake will not resonate with all viewers. Therefore, it is difficult to refer to his unconventional directorial choices as “flaws.”

I genuinely did admire Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I say that with hesitation because the film is abnormal. It has taken some serious reflection to pinpoint exactly what I liked about it. I think the strong acting performances, homage to an old era, and pure entertainment value of the film makes it an enjoyable watch. Understandably, the “day-in-the-life” nature of it will leave some viewers wondering what the point of it is. Everyone will have a different experience and reaction. I think you have to take it for what it is and leave the heavy analysis at the door. Tarantino crafted a fairytale to indulge in and express his love for Hollywood in the late 1960s. 

Comment your opinions of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood below!

*Having an idea of the circumstances surrounding Sharon Tate and the Manson family will make the film more meaningful.

Rated R for language and violence, although it’s not quite as violent as Tarantino’s other films. 

Phantom Thread (2017)

In June of 2017, Daniel Day-Lewis officially announced that he would be retiring from acting with the completion of Phantom Thread. The sixty-year-old actor is the only person ever to win three Academy Awards for Best Actor. Although it is unfortunate that such a talent will not be on-screen again, Day-Lewis delivers a remarkable performance to end his career.

Phantom Thread made its limited debut on Christmas, and it was released nationwide on January 19th. Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film is set in 1950s London at Reynolds Woodcock’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) famed dressmaking house. He is an obsessive craftsman whose perfectionist lifestyle is interrupted by the presence of Alma (Vicky Krieps), who becomes Reynolds’ muse and lover. Anderson credits the inspiration for the story to watching hours of Turner Classic Movies while being extremely sick for three days. I was pleasantly surprised by the film, as I was mesmerized by the incredible acting, script, cinematography, and score. However, it took me several hours after viewing to digest and comprehend the meaning of the story. I felt that I had just read a 20th century romance novel that required reflection into the themes and characters. I am curious to see if other people are reacting the same way.

Krieps’ character Alma greatly contrasts from Day-Lewis’ Reynolds. The latter is much older and does not have the carefree spontaneity that Alma possesses. That is why their relationship is odd and the audience is left uncertain on how it will end. At first, Alma reminded me of Mrs. de Winter from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Anderson actually said that Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Rebecca influenced his story. As the plot progresses, Alma proves she is strong-willed and capable of matching Reynolds’ stubborn attitude. This is where Krieps’ performance shines. Day-Lewis is equally as good and his rare talent is displayed in his dedication to the performance. He apprenticed in the costume department at the New York City Ballet and even sewed a Balenciaga dress. The script is filled with witty but caustic remarks that Day-Lewis delivers without a pause. The outstanding acting does the well-written script justice.

The reason I compared watching Phantom Thread to reading a classic romance novel is because the visuals are extremely similar. My imagination when reading one of those novels is comparable to how Phantom Thread looks. It is tremendously aesthetically pleasing. The detail put into the cinematography is so precise; it is like an actual painting. Rumor has it that Anderson did his own camerawork because no official director of photography was hired. But Anderson claims it was more of a collaboration between the gaffers, the camera operators, and himself.

Even if the story is tedious at particular points, the visuals are compelling enough to keep the audience engaged. There is always something to focus on, so it is difficult to be distracted by boredom. I noticed moments when the story does crawl, but I was never truly uninterested. Plus, the nature of the relationship between Reynolds and Alma creates suspense and anticipation.

Phantom Thread is one of the highest rated films going into the 2018 awards season. I can see why it is getting such positive marks from critics and viewers. I can also understand the critiques that have surfaced. The story can be described as eccentric, but it fits the unusual personality and lifestyle of Reynolds Woodcock. I recommend it, especially to those who are fans of Daniel Day-Lewis. Please comment below any opinions or questions!

Rated R for language. 

Image Credit(s): Variety and IndieWire

Lady Bird (2017)

The awards’ nomination season is suddenly upon us! I finally got around to seeing Lady Bird, which was recently nominated for four Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. On top of these nominations, Lady Bird has broken a significant record. It is currently the Best Reviewed film in Rotten Tomatoes nineteen-year history. I had to see what the hype was all about.

Lady Bird, directed and written by Greta Gerwig, has been in theaters across the United States since November 3rd. The success it has seen so far is impressive because the film is actually Gerwig’s directorial debut. She is already an accomplished actress. Lady Bird tells a coming-of-age story involving Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson and her senior year of high school. She is an artistic and outspoken girl who is determined to go to college on the East Coast, far away from her “obnoxious” family in Sacramento, California. The typical teenager themes are illustrated through a turbulent mother-daughter relationship and a confusing first love. Needless to say, the film has been remarkably popular amongst teenagers and young adults. I enjoyed it, although I felt something was missing.

The acting is exceptional and definitely not the area where Lady Bird slacks. Saoirse Ronan must have been on Gerwig’s mind as she was writing the script, because Ronan plays the part of Lady Bird superbly. It is within Ronan’s repertoire to play such a youthful and spunky character because she has previously in Brooklyn. In my opinion, a good performance must subtlety coerce the audience into thinking that they are watching a real-life person, not an actor. This is what Ronan does. She is joined on-screen by Lucas Hedges in the role of Danny and up-and-coming star Timothée Chalamet in the role of Kyle. Personally, I adored Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, played by Beanie Feldstein. The talent in this cast is undeniable and enables the film to be about more than just a cliché high school experience. In fact, I think that is what I appreciated about it the most.

It is obvious that the subject matter of Lady Bird comes from the heart. Gerwig has attested that her screenplay was inspired by her personal adolescent anecdotes. In fact, some characteristics are extremely similar to her own life. The first draft of the script was 350 pages long, a six hour film!* This is interesting because it demonstrates what Gerwig (now 34) has learned by reflecting on her teenage years. It is as if she is telling the youths in the audience that everything will turn out fine, despite the seemingly huge bumps in the road. I really loved how she included a spiritual aspect in the story. Lady Bird attends a Catholic all-girls school where she is labeled as the rebellious student. At the time, she strongly dislikes the rigid structure of the school and behaves rather nonchalantly towards its traditions. But, at the end of the film, she finds herself back in a church, a place she probably figured she would never set foot in again. Lady Bird realizes that this spiritual element she grew up with will always be a part of her. It is a touching moment.

The issue I had with Lady Bird lies in the fact that there was no extremely compelling aspect of the story. I was never bored, but I was never completely captivated either. There is not necessarily a climax, and nothing shocking lingers to affect the storyline. The best way to describe the structure of the plot would be as a timeline, because it basically follows Lady Bird from the start of her senior of high school to the beginning of her freshman year in college. Some audience members may not notice the lack of “Hollywood intrigue,” but I felt it needed an extra dash of excitement.

I recommend that everyone, especially younger individuals, try to see Lady Bird because it is something that many will be able to relate to. A lot of teenage drama is universal, which is why I think it resonates with those who have loved it. Anyone who grew up during the early 2000s (when the film is set) will get a kick out of the outfit and song choices. If you have seen it, I would love to hear your opinions! Feel free to comment below.

Lady Bird is rated R. 

Image Credit to Variety.com

*Trivia credit to IMDb.com

The Disaster Artist (2017)

Ever heard a film called The Room? You probably have, as it is universally considered the worst film ever made. I have never seen The Room, but I have always been curious as to why it has such a terrible reputation. Funnily enough, the film is now considered a cult classic. The Disaster Artist gives an inside look at the creation of this mess of a film.

The Disaster Artist was released in limited theaters on December 1st. It will be available in most theaters across the United States on December 8th. James Franco directed the film, but also stars in it alongside his brother Dave Franco. This marks the first time that the Franco brothers have worked together on a film. The cast includes a whole list of recognizable names including Alison Brie (Dave Franco’s wife), Seth Rogen (frequent collaborator with James Franco), Zac Efron, and Josh Hutcherson. It is obviously based on a true story as it tells the journey of two aspiring actors, Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), and their attempt to follow their dreams in Hollywood. I really enjoyed this film. Although it is hilarious, there is a very sincere side to it.

One of the reasons The Disaster Artist is so hysterical and engaging is because of the writing behind it. The adapted screenplay, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, is based on the book, “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made.” The quick banter holds up the pacing of the film and almost every single line is funny. Even though the story is modeled after real-life events, the writers put their own creativity into it. Some parts are embellished for the sake of entertainment, but they still manage to convey the important details.

Of course, a good screenplay is even better when it is paralleled with excellent acting. James Franco does an incredible job of playing the eccentric Tommy Wiseau. Everything, from his European accent to his exaggerated mannerisms, is spot on. I will not be surprised if he receives some major award nods. Dave Franco’s character, Greg Sestero, is more or less the “straight man.” He is more down-to-earth but a bit naive. I think that the audience sympathizes with Greg because of what he endures in his friendship with Tommy. Dave Franco gives a great performance of this likable guy. Seth Rogen has the role of Sandy the script supervisor, and his sharp wit is what one would expect from Rogen. He once again displays his comedic talent and adds another level of hilarity to the film. Each person brings a creative and necessary aspect to the story, which is a main reason why it is compelling.

Despite how funny The Disaster Artist is, there are some moments when the audience realizes how Tommy Wiseau never saw The Room as a joke. It was his dream. It is unfortunate to watch someone, no matter how weird he or she might be, work hard only to see his or her final product become a flop. Tommy sunk $6 million into the film, and it only made $1800 in its opening weekend. The scene of the premiere is bittersweet as Tommy comes to terms with how his film will be received by movie-goers and critics. Alas, Tommy was saved by cult audiences. The Room has now made a significant amount of money due to midnight showings with die-hard fans and film enthusiasts.

The Disaster Artist is a must-see for those who enjoy dramedies, especially true ones! There is no need to have seen The Room prior to seeing this film. In fact, having no background information may make The Disaster Artist even more amusing. The Franco brothers lead a skilled cast in telling a story that provides an inside look into the making of what became part of film history.

This film is rated R. 

Image from the Toronto International Film Festival. 

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

It is the most wonderful time of the year! Holiday films are popping up on all of the movie channels. It is a great time to watch some classic Christmas stories while spending time with family. Turner Classic Movies features some of the best holiday films during their November and December schedules. The Shop Around the Corner is one of the great seasonal stories that features charming individuals and serves as a reminder of what the holidays are all about.

The Shop Around the Corner premiered in the winter of 1940. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, it stars Jimmy Stewart as Alfred Kralik and Margaret Sullavan as Klara Novak. The plot takes place in a small shop in Budapest, Hungary. Alfred and Klara are pen pals who fall in love through their letters to one another. Because the letters are anonymous, neither has any idea that they actually work in the shop together. Ironically, Alfred and Klara despise each other in real life. The story follows the relationship of the two as well as the rest of the characters that are employed in the shop. It is a classic Golden Age romantic comedy with timeless and universal themes.

Jimmy Stewart was born to play these kinds of roles. His character, Alfred Kralik, has the audience’s attention throughout the entire film. He is the one that everyone roots for. Margaret Sullavan plays the perfect female lead opposite Stewart. She is funny and intelligent. Sullavan is not a “sex symbol” as some other Old Hollywood actresses were called. Her simplicity adds to how special and meaningful this film is. Apparently, Lubitsch was so insistent on having Stewart and Sullavan as the leading roles that he delayed shooting until they were both available. The chemistry between the two may be attributed to the fact that Stewart and Sullavan were long-time friends prior to the making of the film. Both of them feed off of each other’s charm and quick wit. However, unlike many formulaic romantic comedies, all of the characters are given depth. My favorite supporting actor was Felix Bressart who played Pirovitch. He is a humble family man who truly cares about his friends. He frequently acts as Alfred Kralik’s right-hand man. Every single character has his or her place within the film and adds value to the overall story.

Although this film is nostalgic and romantic, there is a very real and serious element to it. One of the main characters, Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), discovers that his wife is having an affair. He tries to commit suicide, but luckily one of his employees prevents him from doing so. Mr. Matuschek suffers from loneliness, but realizes that he can be fulfilled through acts of humanity. At the end of the film, he offers a Christmas feast to the new errand boy who has no family to celebrate with. This moment is touching and acknowledges the true “holiday spirit.” The universal love for this film is a credit to its ability to reach to all audiences, no matter who might be watching.

The importance of family and love shines through in The Shop Around the Corner. Even though the employees at the shop are not related, they resemble a family. They quarrel but also rely on each other. They get lonely but love reminds them of what they have. Life has its ups and downs, but sometimes the positive notes are so great that they can outweigh any negativity. After finishing the film Ernst Lubitsch said, “It’s not a big picture, just a quiet little story that seemed to have some charm. It didn’t cost very much, for such a cast, under $500,000. It was made in twenty-eight days. I hope it has some charm.” I believe the reason this film continues to be an annual holiday classic is because of its simplicity and honesty.

I highly recommend The Shop Around the Corner. If you have seen it or if you have any questions, feel free to comment below!

This film is not rated. 


Stronger (2017)

It does not take much to convince me to see a film with Jake Gyllenhaal in it. I have sat through his good and bad films, and I consider him one of the greatest actors currently in Hollywood. He is one of those actors that forces you to forget that he is “acting,” which is no small feat. Once again, Gyllenhaal did not disappoint in Stronger.

Stronger debuted in theaters across America last weekend. Directed by David Gordon Green, the film stars not only Jake Gyllenhaal, but successful TV and film actress Tatiana Maslany as well. The true story of Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman is told as the audience gets a bigger glimpse at the tragic incident. The media at the time failed to cover the emotional distraught and internal conflict that Bauman faced afterwards. It is actually based on the book Stronger by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter. The story is intense, of course, and it is also emotionally draining. There were few dry eyes in the theater.

Good acting is essential in a biopic because the audience must be drawn into the world that the film is portraying. The director does not have a “fantasy” world to experiment with because all of the events happened in real life. Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany perfectly executed their roles as Jeff Bauman and his girlfriend (now wife) Erin Hurley. Gyllenhaal delivers a great Boston accent, but he also captures Bauman’s personality and mannerisms. In a recent interview, Gyllenhaal stated that he asked Bauman how he gets up out of chairs and other similar movements so that he could portray exactly what it was like to lose both legs. It is these nuances that make Gyllenhaal such a prominent actor, especially in this role. Maslany is completely believable as Bauman’s girlfriend. Her life became a roller coaster after the bombing, and Maslany conveys that up and down emotion to the audience. A powerful story needs compelling performances, and I think the acting was the best aspect of the film.

Jeff Bauman’s life was dramatically changed from working at Costco to being Boston’s hero. He represented “Boston Strong,” the phrase that was attached to the memorable day in Boston. Bauman became somewhat of a celebrity just because he happened to be in a certain place at a certain time. I cannot even begin to imagine the emotional stress and burden that he endured, but Stronger does a fantastic job of detailing it. David Gordon Green uses traumatic flashbacks and thoughts to explain the PTSD that Bauman suffered. No one outside of Bauman and Erin had an idea of what he was experiencing, which made it all the more difficult. Bauman, before the incident, was capable of taking care of himself. Afterwards, he has to succumb all of his power to the caretakers around him. That transition set him back, but he eventually found a way to battle through it.

Although Stronger depicts something heroic, it is never exaggerated. Green never downplays Bauman’s flaws. He shows Bauman’s dysfunctional family, his breaking point in physical therapy, and the mistakes that he makes in his relationships. Nothing about these shortcomings screams “hero.” This decision to include all of these faults not only keeps the audience intrigued, but it keeps the story very realistic. No one can easily go from a life of anonymity to a life of fame overnight as Bauman did. The film ends on a positive note as Bauman begins to accept his new life, and he throws out the first pitch at the Red Sox game.

Stronger tells a profound story that not many individuals know both sides to. Solid acting performances and great directing helps shed light on the personal survival story of Boston hero Jeff Bauman. It is obvious that everyone who worked on the film wanted to present the true and realistic story of what happened. If you like inspiring but emotional films, do not miss Stronger.

Stronger is rated R. 

Splendor In the Grass (1961)

While scrolling through the Watch TCM app*, I came across Splendor In the Grass. I had heard of the film before, so I clicked on it to see more details. I saw Natalie Wood’s name attached to it and immediately decided to watch it. I love a good story and interesting characters, and this film did not disappoint.

Splendor In the Grass was released in the fall of 1961. It was directed by the notable Elia Kazan and written for the screen by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer William Inge. The film stars Natalie Wood as Deanie Loomis and Warren Beatty as Bud Stamper. This was Beatty’s film debut. They are supported by Pat Hingle, Audrey Christie, and Barbara Loden. The screenplay won an Academy Award and Natalie Wood garnered her second nomination for Best Actress.

Splendor In the Grass, set in late 1920s Kansas, follows the seemingly perfect high school romance of Deanie Loomis and Bud Stamper. They intend to marry, but sinful actions and domineering parents wreak havoc on the young couple’s love. Immorality, innocence, and insanity are a few of the themes displayed in the bittersweet story. It was considered risqué and a bit controversial at the time of the its release. The film contains the first-ever French kiss shown on screen and touches on sensitive topics like suicide. But Elia Kazan was known for creating films of such material, and he always motivated his actors to put their best efforts forward.

The acting in Splendor In the Grass, in addition to the complex characters, is part of what makes the story captivating. Deanie’s personality ranges significantly as the film progresses, which Natalie Wood captures perfectly. Her role was anything but simple, especially considering the physical and mental demands. Wood had a great fear of water, and there are several scenes where she is involved with water in some way. I was surprised to learn that this film was Warren Beatty’s film debut, because he played his role of Bud extremely well. It is easy for the audience to sympathize with his character, which is aided by Beatty’s performance. Bud’s obnoxious father is played by Pat Hingle. His father is incredibly annoying and frustrating, but I think that is an indicator of good acting. Kazan did a fantastic job of casting and directing actors who could take the already intriguing characters a step further.

As I was watching the film, I kept noticing that there were so many factors that could have changed for the better had certain characters modified their mentalities, had some guidance, or been able to express what was really bothering them. If Bud and Deanie’s parents had developed better and healthier relationships with their kids, then particular events would not have played out the way that they did. Splendor In the Grass has a lesson for audience members of all ages. It is a real and human story that most can find something to identify with. Kazan expertly shows both Deanie and Bud’s upbringings and how that molds them into who they are and what they become. Deanie comes from a poor, strongly conservative family and her parents choose not to deeply discuss any issues she may be having. Deanie struggles to have a close relationship with her mother, causing her to feel isolated. Bud is from the opposite side of the spectrum. His family is wealthy and has everything, even alcohol that was prohibited at the time. But Bud is emotionally neglected by his outspoken and belligerent father. His father makes all of Bud’s life decisions without consulting him, which silences Bud for the most part. It is sad to see the struggle that Bud and Deanie go through, pushing the audience to really care for them. It is hard to hate the parents though, because as the film progresses we see that they are just human too.

Splendor In the Grass is a classic coming-of-age story if anything, and it is displayed in an authentic and emotional way. Many scenes are shocking and heartbreaking, but not everything is sorrowful. The title of the film is based on a poem by William Wordsworth. The most remarkable line is:

“Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower, we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.”

Even though some situations may seem bleak and go against our will, there is always something to look back on in gratitude. The very last scene of the film encapsulates this line. Splendor In the Grass is definitely worth the watch.

*It is available on the Watch TCM website and app until September 14.

This film does not have an official rating, but I would say it is PG-13. 

Image Credit: http://www.mark-markmywords.blogspot.com

Dunkirk (2017)

Most history buffs and movie fans have been waiting for the release of Dunkirk for a while. I, of course, was one of those people. With a name like “Christopher Nolan” attached to it, the film comes with extremely high expectations. I was not disappointed.

As I mentioned above, Christopher Nolan wrote and directed this summer blockbuster that opened on July 21 in the U.S.A. Although Nolan has a long list of film accomplishments, Dunkirk is his first war picture. Despite the huge cast, the film does not have a list of recognizable stars besides Mark Rylance, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hardy. Nolan used mostly young and unknown actors to highlight that fact that the soldiers at Dunkirk were young and inexperienced as well.

Although most people are familiar with the story of Dunkirk, it does help to have some background knowledge before seeing the film. During World War II, approximately 400,000 British and French soldiers were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk after having been forced to retreat from the advancing German army. They were stuck with little food and water; survival looked bleak. Fortunately, the German advance was stopped for 48 hours, giving the Allied troops time to evacuate off the island and head to England. Hundreds of civilian boats and some military boats came to the rescue. War and humanity are not often synonymous, but this feat displayed otherwise.

The cinematography of Dunkirk is stunning. Nolan teamed up with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema for the second time, the first being for the critically acclaimed Interstellar.  There are many breathtaking shots involving the water and boats, but the shots of the planes flying throughout the sky caught my attention. The color palette perfectly fit the theme of the grit of war, but it also brought moments of warmth. Sky blue, dark blue, and orange were the dominant colors, and this was done on purpose to incorporate the idea of the air, the sea, and the land. Every color worked together to create a visually appealing product that added to an already compelling story.

Although Dunkirk has received extremely high praise from critics and audiences, there have been some complaints. The biggest criticisms seem to be that there is a lack of depth in the characters, providing no reason to be emotionally invested in them. While, compared to other successful films, this may be true, I do not believe that is what Nolan wanted to accomplish. Instead, he focuses on the battle as a whole. His script concentrates on the heroic act of a whole country, not just one person. If he were to narrow in on one or two characters, then the audience may have disregarded the other hundreds of thousands of men on the beach. Nolan was able to present a narrative that allows the audience to care for every single character. He is telling the story of Dunkirk, not the story of one particular brave soldier. There would not be much to develop anyways, because the only thing the men wanted was survival. To make something more out of that would be unrealistic.

I cannot write a review of this film without talking about Hans Zimmer’s music score. Nolan has used Zimmer for five of his other films, so this collaboration was no surprise. The combination of ominous instrumentals and a ticking clock increased the pulse of the Dunkirk. Zimmer actually used Nolan’s pocket watch to create the ticking noise on the score. I loved this aspect because it was a reoccurring theme and reminder that the time for evacuation from Dunkirk was limited. The score was not overpowering, but instead effectively complimented the pace and purpose of the film.

Dunkirk forces the audience to look beyond the characters and into the thematic elements of a major historical event. This was not a typical heroic war story. In fact, it was a serious blunder. But courage and perseverance shine through as the film presents a crucial moral victory. Nolan captures the importance of patriotism and how selfless civilians put their lives on the line to try and rescue the stranded soldiers. Disaster turned triumph and the Dunkirk incident ended up being a turning point in World War II. Dunkirk is authentic and a truly great historical film. I recommend!

Rated PG-13 for intense war sequences and some language. 

Image Credit: IndieWire

Wonder Woman (2017)

Written by guest contributor, Blake Harpold. 

While walking into the theatre to see Wonder Woman, I had many thoughts swirling through my head. 2017 marks the 9th year we have lived through since the historic launching of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the then edgy and exhilarating Iron Man (2009). Since then viewers have been pulled through fifteen Marvel movies and almost thirty other superhero films trying to hop on the money train that is Marvel. To say I am burnt out on superheroes is an understatement.

In an effort to jumpstart their rich catalog of characters, DC launched its extended universe with Man of Steel (met with mediocre reception) and then the polarizing Batman VS. Superman, and finally the disastrous Suicide Squad. All that being said, Wonder Woman has arrived at a time where DC is indeed in need of a Savior, a shot in the arm to get people interested in their franchise, and proof that DC can offer movies that have more depth and connection than Marvel’s shallow and fun popcorn flicks. Thankfully, Wonder Woman accomplishes this and much more.

From the very start it is clear Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is an absolute scene stealer. Her charisma, charm, and blissful naivety to the problems that plague a dark World War I is infectious and immediately captivating. Her counterpart Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is equally appealing and their chemistry is real, genuine, and laugh out loud funny at times, but not because of any cheesy one liners. Instead smart writing and great situational humor is found by putting a woman who has been raised by women in the male dominated society of the early nineteenth century. It really is quite the treat.

The depth to characters and real attachment missing from most marvel films is found in spoonfuls here. With a compelling backstory tied deeply in Greek Mythology, Diana’s quest to save the modern world is believable and grounded in a very interesting and dynamic way. Big questions are central to the story and the characters’ development and eventual change as they contemplate the origin of evil, why mankind fights and kills one another, is humanity redeemable, and why love, true selfless love, is the answer. This takes me back to depth and connection. Because of a well-crafted backstory, interesting and dynamic characters that feel like real people and not just plot ushering interactions, Wonder Woman succeeds in making you believe this story is real. Real people, real problems, and real solutions that are insightful and ahead of their time.

As to its entertainment, Wonder Woman soars. Gal Godot is stunning but also believably strong. She rides the line between a tough Ellen Ridley and a beautiful but not believable Laura Croft. The action scenes in this film are brutal and visceral but do not drag on like many found in modern super hero films. (X-Men Apocalypse, Age of Ultron 2, Civil War). Each scene is also brought down to earth by the constant reminder of the suffering around her, but the hope she is bringing to each scenario. She is unflinchingly pure, strong, and committed to helping others no matter the cost.

The depth and connection that is the highlight of this movie falls short a couple of times, most noticeably with the caring but often goofy crew that travels across enemy lines with Diana on her adventures.

Overall Wonder Woman succeeds on almost every front. It has given me a reason to care about super heroes, to care about DC and their roster of complex heroes, and most importantly it gives the viewer the perfect combination of fun, action, and drama that brings difficult questions to light. It is a rewarding experience and one that should be shared with the whole family.


Rated PG-13 for some action, violence, and suggestive content. 


October Sky (1999)

Since it is Thursday, I figured I would do a “throwback” review to one of my favorite films. October Sky is a film that I grew up watching, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. It is a good family drama and a genuine story.

October Sky, directed by Joe Johnston, was released in February of 1999. It is a true story adapted from the memoir, Rocket Boys, written by Homer Hickam. The film follows the story of Homer, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, a teenager who lives in a small town in West Virginia. Homer grows avidly interested in rockets after the Soviet Union’s launch of the first Sputnik. With the help of his math teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), and several friends, he builds many successful small rockets. However, Homer faces several obstacles along the way, including his own father, played by the great Chris Cooper. Gyllenhaal’s role in this film is often considered his break out performance; he was only 18 at the time.

“No. Coal mining may be your life, but it’s not mine. I’m never going down there again. I wanna go into space.” – Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal)

Storytelling is one of the features that makes October Sky stand out. It is simple and incredibly touching, especially since it is a true story. There is conflict between father and son, which many viewers can relate to, no matter their age. The film depicts a traditional coal mining town, and how there is a cycle of what boys are expected to do once they graduate high school. The only way they can escape the life of a coal miner is to receive an athletic scholarship. Homer is different. He wants to be a scientist. He does not want to follow his father’s footsteps into the coal mining business, and he is not good enough at football to catch the attention of a collegiate scout. It is no surprise that Homer’s uncommon rocketry interest causes a rift in the Hickam family. Homer fights to win his father’s approval, but he matures from the experience. The story gives every audience member something to focus on or take away from the film.

The presence of Miss Riley, Homer’s math teacher, has a huge impact on the outcome of the rocket building adventures. She encourages the boys, specifically Homer, to follow their dreams. Miss Riley acts as a silver lining in a town where the “Rocket Boys” are mocked and insulted. She allows them to see that there are other options besides being a coal miner, and that it is okay to stand up to the barriers that block them. Laura Dern was an excellent choice for this character because she brings tenderness to the role. The audience sees how supportive she was of Homer, and how much that attributed to his success. Miss Riley is a reminder of how important teachers are to young students, and how teaching can be such a rewarding job. Of course, Chris Cooper nailed his performance as Homer’s father, John. He took on the role of an extremely stubborn person that seemed incapable of showing his soft side. But Cooper does let the audience catch a glimpse at his vulnerability. As mentioned before, this film pushed Jake Gyllenhaal into stardom. He always has an incredible ability to show emotion through his expressions. He acts charming but intelligent, which makes his character immediately likable. Apparently, the real Homer Hickam looked like a “typical nerd” and Quentin (one of the “Rocket Boys”) was more handsome. But Gyllenhaal was considered a teenage heartthrob at the time, so the physical appearances of the characters were reversed for the film. The cast was solid and supported the compelling story.

October Sky is an authentic “Americana” narrative. Because it is based on a true story, it is considerably influential. It displays the working class sector of a small and struggling town. American pastimes such as football are involved as well as the coal mining industry, which helped build the economy for the country. And of course, the space race. By taking Homer Hickam’s memoir and putting it on the screen, Joe Johnston is able to reach to various backgrounds and individuals. The significance of perseverance when striving for a goal is highlighted along with the trials of a middle class family. These factors, plus the all-star cast, are why the film remains timeless and relevant.

I highly recommend watching October Sky if you have not had the chance. Please comment below if you have any questions or remarks about the film.

Rated PG for some mild language and sensuality. 

For more information about Jake Gyllenhaal, one of my favorite actors, click here.