Review – Atomic Blonde

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Based upon the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde undergoes a change of title (for the better) and delivers on every level I was praying that it would.  Set during the Cold War, the film follows MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) as she endeavors to recover a stolen list of double agents – a list that is cripplingly deadly in the wrong hands.  And the wrong hands, by the way, would be anyone’s hands.

Okay, look.  There are many things one may look for in a quality film.  Typically, great story and character rank at – or at least near – the top of the list.  And, worry not, Atomic Blonde has a great story and great characters.  But it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t.  Even.  Matter.  Why?  Well, it doesn’t matter because I barely had the energy to invest in the characters and story due to the fact that the rest of the film was routinely, easily, and quite handily kicking my @$$.

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Not only is Atomic Blonde set in the eighties, but it’s also a product of the eighties.  It’s essentially a classic eighties film featuring time-traveling stars and filmmakers from 2017.  The film is unapologetically and casually explicit, with raw sexuality, bone-splitting brutality, and sensibilities from a time when filmmakers worried not about how audiences would react or what fabricated accusations might be hurled at them by people who are looking for a cause where there is none and instead just made the movies that they, themselves, wanted to see.  The result is splendidly refreshing.

While Atomic Blonde does have a layer of depth to the proceedings – especially where Broughton’s arc is concerned, as she searches for anything real in a life constructed of deception – depth is in no way the ultimate goal of the film.  Instead, Atomic Blonde dangles a carrot on a stick to our baser instincts.  It appeals to our senses – our sight, our hearing, our adrenaline, our libidos – and asks us – maybe even forces us – to, just for two hours, stop pretending that we don’t want the things that we want.  It wants us to stop pretending that we don’t enjoy the things that we enjoy.  It wants us to acknowledge that we all have someone we’d love to crack upside the head with a telephone.  It wants us to acknowledge that we have all seen people on the street who we’ve never met, who we’ve never spoken to, yet who could have gotten us to do anything they wanted with just a look or a single word.  Atomic Blonde wants us to acknowledge our primal desires, our biological imperatives . . . our forbidden humanity.  It’s joyfully gratuitous and almost becomes a cathartic viewing experience as it allows us to live out the deep-seeded reality of what it means to be an animal pretending at enlightenment.

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If that isn’t enough, director David Leitch ensnares a cast enriched by stars who are not only favored by general audiences but are well-respected within the industry and the critical community, as well.  I have never heard anyone say anything truly and completely derogatory about Charlize Theron or James McAvoy.  Then we have Toby Jones, John Goodman, and burgeoning star Sofia Boutella and this begins to feel like a prestige film.  They all play their parts flawlessly and I have personally never been as awed by Charlize Theron as I am after seeing this film.  Her Lorraine Broughton is deadly and seductive – the kind of woman that most men (and many women) would love to take to their own home, but not to their mother’s.  Theron is striking in the part, ensuring that every single scene has an impact and taking it upon herself to guarantee that the film will be unforgettable and unavoidable in the midst of a mountain of summertime competition.  Charlize Theron, despite being surrounded by extraordinary talent at every turn, is Atomic Blonde.

The entire film is kind of like that, actually.  Atomic Blonde is the cool kid with a mysterious dark side that you know you shouldn’t hang out with but you’re going to, anyway.  It’s the guy with the leather jacket, ripped jeans, and shades.  It’s the girl with the plunging neckline, knee-high boots, and short leather miniskirt.  It’s that one person who is absolutely cooler than we can ever be, but who makes us feel equally cool when in their presence.

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There are elements that are missing from the film that you can find elsewhere.  It doesn’t have the heart of Wonder Woman.  It doesn’t have the special effects of Spider-Man: Homecoming.  It’s not as poignant as War for the Planet of the Apes.  Or as relatable as The Big Sick.  But, again, it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t have to be the best at everything – or even anything – because it’s the coolest, man!  Atomic Blonde the coolest movie of the year, with the coolest action scenes, the coolest title, the coolest soundtrack, the coolest characters, and a cool new director (who’s coming for Deadpool, next!).  I feel like this is the experience everyone else said they were having with Baby Driver but never quite translated to me.  But I got it in Atomic Blonde!  And you will, too . . . if you aren’t afraid to face your true self.

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Review – Atomic Blonde

#ThrowbackThursday – Juno

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Original US release date: December 5, 2007
Production budget: $7,500,000
Worldwide gross: $231,411,584

Squeezed out at the end of 2007 in order to be eligible for the 2008 awards season, Juno was a rare example of a small little independent film that caught fire with general audiences and became a bit of a phenomenon at the beginning of 2008.  The film was nominated for Best Picture at (among others) the Academy Awards and Diablo Cody won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, making the film a raging success with audiences, critics, and within the industry, itself.  I don’t hear much about it, anymore, suggesting that the film has become somewhat forgotten over the last decade, so here I am to remind people about the little engine that could that went by the name of Juno.

The premise behind Juno is simple: the precocious sixteen-year-old title character (Ellen Page) is impregnated by her friend-with-benefits/maybe-boyfriend/look-it’s-complicated-okay? Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera).  Filling out the tremendous supporting cast are Juno’s parents (J. K. Simmons and Allison Janney), who have no choice but to take the situation in stride, and the potential adoptive parents of Juno’s unborn child, Marc and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner).

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It’s a cast that virtually anyone should love, though I suspect that Cera can be polarizing.  Paulie Bleeker is essentially the exact same character that Cera always portrays, but this was only his second major film role at this point, so the act had yet to wear thin.  Also, I take Cera’s very presence to be a deliberate choice to assist in crafting the tone and the humor of the film.  Seriously, is it easy to imagine Michael Cera, of all people, accidentally impregnating someone?  Even Simmons’s Mac makes a comment to that point, and in that moment, Juno’s supportive best friend Thea (Olivia Thirlby) seems relieved that someone finally says what she’s been thinking.  It didn’t have to be Cera, but the fact that he’s the father adds to the charm of the picture and he does well in the role.

The film also served as another stepping stone to stardom for Ellen Page.  Her visibility has dropped off in recent years (despite the fact that she is, in fact, still working regularly), but ten years ago, she was blossoming into the new It Girl in Hollywood.  She received major praise for her performance in the disturbing revenge thriller Hard Candy, but most general audiences missed it.  After that, she was (perfectly) cast as the legendary X-Man Kitty Pryde in X-Men: The Last Stand.  Lots of people saw that one, but she wasn’t the lead, so her impact was minimal.  She had a couple of small releases after that, but it was Juno that then brought her to the forefront of audiences’ radar and almost single-handedly made her a household name for a few years.

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Juno is a quick-witted, well-read, intelligent girl who wasn’t quite as ready for life as she wanted everyone to think she was.  She knows things most sixteen-year-olds don’t know, thinks in ways they don’t think, and handles situations with respectable maturity, even after getting into them due to her own poor judgement.  She plays everything off as No Big Deal, but Juno wants to handle the situation responsibly and is trying to do what will be best for the unborn child.

As she gets to know the adoptive parents, her path becomes clearer.  Jennifer Garner does well as the softhearted housewife who only ever wanted to be a mother, though the part hardly stretches her abilities.  Jason Bateman’s Marc is more against-type for him.  While he usually plays the deadpan comedian, here – even though he certainly has a sense of humor – he’s a little heavier.  There’s something going on with Marc that we don’t know, and Bateman conveys that to audience with apparent ease.

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The film was directed by Jason Reitman (who also directed one of my two favorite George Clooney films, Up in the Air) but I only remember how so many people were throwing around Diablo Cody’s name in the wake of the success of Juno.  And I don’t just mean people within and around the industry; fans and even people I knew were suddenly discussing her as if they had known her all along and were just waiting for her to hit it big.  Huge fans, they were.  So huge that they didn’t really follow her to her other projects such as Young Adult (which was great), Jennifer’s Body (also great, but people won’t admit it because it stars Megan Fox), and Ricki and the Flash (never got around to seeing it.  Sorry?).  It’s no surprise that everyone wanted to jump on the Diablo Cody bandwagon with the emergence of Juno, however.  The script is quick, sharp, clever, and heartfelt.  Her characters make mistakes, learn, grow, and move on with their lives, all while looking at life with the tongue-in-cheek resignation of people who know they don’t really have control of anything.  They live their lives and just do what they can to make it from day to day.  There’s something appealing in that.

Juno is a creative success in every way that Reitman and company intended it to be.  But, ultimately, it was a financial success because of its unrelenting charm.  It’s tough not to fall for Juno, herself, and Page radiates energy throughout the entire film.  The rest of the cast (especially Simmons) helps her along at every turn and the whole film is a fun, lighthearted look at the serious issue of teen pregnancy.  It’s not a topic that’s often tackled in film, and it can be a delicate one, but Juno handles it with class, poise, and a whimsical wink that enchants the viewer from the very beginning and never lets go.  Don’t forget about Juno.  It deserves better.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Juno

Review – Dunkirk

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Christopher Nolan has been my favorite director since the one-two punch of Memento and The Prestige.  He always brings such intelligence and flair to his stories and I feel like a thought-provoking experience is always guaranteed when he releases a new film.  Having said that, I haven’t been all that excited for Dunkirk.  War films often fall flat with me because they sometimes tell the same stories with the same themes and feature the same, interchangeably underdeveloped, white male characters.  There are exceptions – such as last year’s Hacksaw Ridge, but they are relatively infrequent.  Still, I trust in Nolan and wasn’t about to skip this one.

Unfortunately, I walk away disappointed as Dunkirk falls prey to those same tropes and clichés that I fear with all war films.  Visually speaking, the film is very much a Christopher Nolan creation, with his familiar framing, editing, and color palette all firmly in place.  Throw in another adrenaline-fueled Hans Zimmer score and there can be little question regarding who is sitting behind the camera of Dunkirk.  But, aside from that, the film is just another run-of-the-mill war movie.

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The premise itself, based upon a true story, potentially lends itself to some originality.  Allied soldiers find themselves surrounded by German forces on the beach of Dunkirk during World War II with little hope of escape or options for defending themselves.  It’s a simple and focused story, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  But it also leaves little room for engaging narrative hooks or twists.  The film is virtually one elongated combat scene, with the aforementioned interchangeable soldiers trying to cling to their lives and find some measure of escape.

Only Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson and his immediate associates stand out as memorable amongst the large cast.  Dawson drives his boat (of some kind.  I’m going to state right now that I don’t know boats.), named the Moonstone, around the waters of the battle, hoping to assist the Allies in whatever ways he can.  He is assisted by a young crew and also comes across a downed soldier (Nolan favorite Cillian Murphy).  This group of characters comes the closest to providing any real meat to the film and Rylance easily delivers the best performance – in part because he’s the best actor in the movie and in part because his role grants him the opportunity to do so.

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There are several additional high-caliber talents among the cast, but they have little to do.  James D’Arcy, who was so charming on and a highlight of Marvel’s “Agent Carter” television series as Edwin Jarvis, shuffles around, delivering monotonous war jargon.  Kenneth Branagh looks worrisome as he glares out at the carnage, feeling utterly helpless.  And Tom Hardy is completely wasted as a bomber pilot.  Hardy’s face was actually visible longer when he played Bane for Nolan in The Dark Knight Rises but, in that film, he actually had engaging dialogue and a character arc.  Not so, here.

Look, I still love Nolan’s work.  It’s unknown what his next film will be, but I guarantee that I’ll be there to see it on opening weekend.  But I have such a high standard for his films that I can’t help but be disappointed, here.  I don’t want to pigeonhole or artificially restrain him by suggesting that all of his projects need to be deep, intellectual mindbenders, but that’s certainly his strength.  His Batman trilogy didn’t exactly fall under that umbrella but they also didn’t allow me to drift away to the degree that I did during Dunkirk, either.  I once started thinking about Marvel’s announcement that Captain Marvel would center around the Kree/Skrull war and wondering how that’s possible when we had been led to believe that Fox owns the rights to the Skrulls.  I have never before lost focus during a Nolan movie, and I’ve seen them all.

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Speaking of Marvel, I expect we’ll see some viewer hypocrisy when Infinity War hits, should it focus more on the epic battle with Thanos and less on character development and furthering the story of the MCU.  The same people who overlooked that same issue in Dunkirk will whine about it, then, ignoring the fact that Marvel had nearly 20 other films in which to give us that groundwork and development.

That obviously isn’t the case with Dunkirk and I just can’t get past it.  Maybe I’m supposed to be invested in the fates of the Allies just because they’re the good guys or because they’re on America’s side or something like that.  But I will never be dragged into a character’s plight out of some dutiful sense of manufactured patriotism.  These are individuals with names and histories and specific life goals unique unto themselves.  Without getting a taste of that, they come off as video game collateral damage.

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As I said, I can do without an intellectual backbone to the film, as long as it offers up a standout experience in some other way(s).  How about sharp dialogue?  No, not here.  Memorable, relatable characters or performances?  Other than Rylance, no, sorry.  Dazzling action scenes?  Well, they aren’t bad action scenes.  And they’re shot well enough.  But they’re also not unlike any other action scene in virtually every other war film in recent memory: standard, uninventive gunplay (though, there is admittedly an occasional masterful shot of a plane going down).  That’s another criticism that people like to level at comic book movies but clearly, a Spider-Man action scene is going to be different from a Wonder Woman action scene which will be different from a Hulk action scene, and so on.  But again, it’s okay for war films to be alike because PATRIOTISM and ‘MURICA, folks!

So, yes, I like Christopher Nolan.  And I like much of the cast of Dunkirk – especially Mark Rylance.  But I did not like Dunkirk, itself.  I hope Nolan will get back to form with his next project, whatever it is, and leave the World War II films to the more desperate filmmakers who need to rely on the current political climate to bring in the bucks.  The film is far superior to the tripe that was American Sniper, but far beneath more character-driven fare such as Hacksaw Ridge.  Heck, it’s not even the best war film of the summer as Wonder Woman blows it away as an emotionally-rewarding viewing experience with arresting characters, affecting dialogue, and enthralling action.  Christopher Nolan is better than Dunkirk.  I now wait patiently for that Nolan to return.

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Review – Dunkirk

Review – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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There has been a lot of buzz around the latest film from Luc Besson (The Fifth Element).  The trailers and television spots have been eye-dazzling and very encouraging.  Based on a French comic book, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets follows the efforts of law-enforcement agents Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) as they must uncover the mystery behind the fate of a formerly-prosperous planet and how that fate is connected to the presence that currently threatens their home – a home which also houses thousands of other species from across all of existence.

Before I get into the film, itself, I want to talk about that title.  Yes, it’s a mouthful, but that’s not the big issue.  The title of the comic book upon which the film is based is Valerian and Laureline.  I hate to create trouble where there might not be any, but that title change is a problem for me.  Narratively speaking, Valerian and Laureline are unquestionably equals.  Sometimes he saves her, sometimes she saves him.  He’s generally the brawn while she’s typically the brain.  That’s a little stereotypical, but it’s a case of stereotyping that is generally accepted as truth and not particularly offensive to most.  Plus, both characters have opportunity to prove that they aren’t unilaterally-equipped for conflict, as Valerian thinks his way out of a situation or two and Laureline fights her way through some conundrums, as well.

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So, why is Laureline not sharing headlining status?  The title of the comic is no worse than the title that Besson settled on.  And not only are the characters a true, even-keeled team, but Delevingne arguably steals the film for herself with a cheeky, charismatic performance that’s sure to catch some attention from important people in the industry.  This is only her second high-profile role.  The first – as Enchantress in last year’s Suicide Squad – didn’t go particularly well.  It was mostly not her fault, as the writing was atrocious, but she was also unable to elevate her character above that issue.  Here, she knocks it out of the park with a turn that electrifies the screen and makes it nearly impossible to look away from her.  She exudes confidence and seems completely at home in the part.  If enough people see the film, this is the role she’ll be remembered for (so far.  We’ll see what’s in her future), rather than Enchantress.  I haven’t seen enough of her, yet, to state that I am unequivocally a fan of hers, but I can say without hesitation that I am a fan of this performance.

I want to talk about Dane DeHaan, too, but I’m not sure if I should.  I want to be unbiased, but there’s just always been something about him that irks me.  I won’t elaborate because I’m not here to insult people who have done nothing to me, personally, over things they can’t even help, but I’ve just had a hard time warming up to him as a performer.  I will say that I didn’t hate him in this movie and that nothing he did, in particular, was bothersome.  So, maybe he can win me over.  I once felt the same way about Kurt Russell, and he eventually converted me, so it’s not unprecedented.  Therefore, for now, I’ll ask you to decide for yourself about Mr. DeHaan.  I hope he does continue to change my mind with future performances.

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Nonetheless, while there are other actors of note in the film (welcome back, Clive Owen!  Where have you been?!), DeHaan and Delevingne are the stars who carry the entire project on their backs from the audience’s perspective and Delevingne does at least as much of the heavy lifting as does DeHaan.  She and her character deserve equal billing, no matter the excuses that were concocted in order to justify the change.

Digging into the rest of the film, I had much more fun with it than I expected to have.  There was never any question that the movie was going to be beautiful, and it is.  There will be a lot of comparisons to Star Wars and maybe some to the market scene in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, but, while there are nods to other science-fiction films and stories of the past, Valerian is very much its own thing.

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The biggest complaint I have seen – and the only one I’ve seen with any consistency – is that it lacks emotional depth.  And, yeah, that’s probably true.  But I really don’t care.  I didn’t pay to watch it based on any “emotional depth” I picked up on in the trailers.  I wanted an escapist adventure full of wacky aliens, quirky and cool leads, and exciting action set pieces.  That’s what I got.  And I even got some pretty decent comedy on top of all of that (the comedy is served in quality, not quantity – a wise choice), which I didn’t expect.  I’m not saying a little thought-provocation or emotional resonance would have been bad.  It just isn’t necessary for this kind of film.  I think this class of critique comes from the very truth that I keep mentioning in my reviews: Marvel has raised the game – and expectations – by crafting each of their films into a total-package offering.  That’s great, but it doesn’t mean everyone else must do the same.  The last thing we all need is for every blockbuster to be a carbon copy of every other blockbuster.  Let the filmmakers decide what offerings they wish to set out for their cinematic buffets.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets isn’t likely to win many awards (maybe some visual effects statues), but it’s still a blast.  It’s a film that needed and deserved an IMAX release but didn’t get one, which I hate.  The screening I saw was slightly out of focus and had muted colors, so I’m anxious to get this one home and really see it pop on my personal television.  I had a great time with it, anyway.  Delevingne charmed me, DeHaan didn’t offend me, and Besson redeemed himself after the credibility-straining Lucy.  There are a lot of theatrical options out there, right now, and Valerian is one of the many that are worthy of your dollar.  (But why that title?)

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Review – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

#ThrowbackThursday – Bridesmaids

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Original US release date: May 13, 2011
Production budget: $32,500,000
Worldwide gross: $288,383,523

In May of 2011, director Paul Feig released his new comedy Bridesmaids to the public and turned it into a hit far beyond the level of what anyone had anticipated.  Focusing on complex and realistic female characters, Bridesmaids tapped into an underserved audience during the typical male-driven blockbuster season, opening one week after Marvel Studios’ Thor.  The counterprogramming worked and Bridesmaids earned nearly $300 million worldwide and significantly raised the profiles of not only Feig, but some cast members, as well.

Kristen Wiig takes the lead in the film as Annie.  Middle-aged and down on her luck, Annie now has to find it within herself to be supportive of her life-long best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) after Lillian gets engaged.  Though Annie is chosen as Lillian’s maid-of-honor, a jealous streak emerges after Annie meets Lillian’s newer – and seemingly more put-together – bridesmaid BFF, Helen (Rose Byrne).  From there, hilarity ensues.

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And that’s not an overstatement.  Bridesmaids is genuinely hilarious, to a far greater degree than most films that are advertised and marketed as comedies.  One scene in particular featuring Annie and a young boy is brilliantly funny and a scene that I immediately wanted to find and send to friends.  But the film as a whole, though heartfelt, never loses its comedic slant and even presents the more dramatic moments with a wink of the eye and tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Two supporting stars in particular positioned themselves to get a lot of mileage out of this film.  Melissa McCarthy had been primarily relegated to television roles or small film parts until Bridesmaids.  She unquestionably made the most of her opportunity to play bridesmaid Megan, as I recall her being the most-talked about character from the film.  After that, she hit the ground running and has been a huge star ever since.  And it’s no wonder; not only is she consistently funny in the movie, but she radiates sincerity and relatability.  She’s naturally somewhat exaggerated in order to get the desired laughs, but it’s easy to understand why so many people fell in love with her performance, here.

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Rose Byrne had been featured in a handful of films before she portrayed Helen, but none that put her as firmly in the spotlight as this particular film.  Only one month after the release of Bridesmaids, Byrne was prominently featured in the underperforming but excellent X-Men: First Class as longtime comic character Moira MacTaggert.  It was the one-two punch she needed, as the disparate natures of the roles, combined with the high profiles of both, firmly gave her the opportunity to craft a stable, versatile career for herself.  As Helen, she largely plays it straight, but in future roles (such as the Neighbors franchise), she really got to flex her own comedic muscles, which have plenty of power.

So, the impact of Bridesmaids can’t be denied.  But even if careers hadn’t been solidified by the popularity of the film, it’s still a great movie, anchored in the idea that one can’t love others without loving oneself.  Kristen Wiig’s Annie has a charming arc and while she gives a low-key and subtle performance, it’s no-less hilarious than anyone else’s in the picture.  She essentially represents the layperson who wants to be happy for their friends’ successes but can only find the strength to do so if they, themselves, are content in their own life.  She’s a good person in a bad place and she doesn’t know how to handle it properly.  On the flip side, Maya Rudolph’s Lillian is getting everything she’s ever dreamed of, but might lose her best friend in exchange.

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The core of Bridesmaids‘s success was centered in its genuinely funny humor and its presentation of the female perspective.  All of the women in the film feel real and whole and like people we all could know.  I would imagine that, for many of the female viewers, the characters feel a lot like them, but I can only speculate.  I just know that, in spite of the necessary comedic hyperbole, the entire film is grounded in reality and presents the idea that we can all find a way to laugh at ourselves, in most cases.  And, even if that’s a difficult task, laughing at Bridesmaids is not – and that’s the hallmark of a truly successful comedy.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Bridesmaids

Review – The Big Sick

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There are many, many small-budget films that are released in any given year.  Most of them are overlooked due to the lack of an advertising budget or are swallowed up by the large-scale blockbusters that monopolize most theaters.  And then, on occasion, one breaks through.  It strikes a chord with film lovers.  Word-of-mouth builds.  It makes itself known to general audiences.  And it finds true cinematic life.  The Big Sick is one of those films.

Directed by Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris), The Big Sick recounts the true story of star Kumail Nanjiani (star of “Silicon Valley”, fan of “The X-Files”) as he meets his future wife, Emily Gordon.  Nanjiani and Gordon co-wrote the script themselves and – as suggested above – Nanjiani plays himself, with Emily being portrayed by the wonderful Zoe Kazan (The Monster – check that one out for a completely different side of Kazan).  Having co-written the film, themselves, Nanjiani and Gordon retained control of the story and kept firm hold of all the highs and lows, laughs and cries, and failures and successes of their own, intimate tale.

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Knowing that the two lead characters co-wrote the actual film naturally leads to some unavoidable spoilers, but the heart of this narrative lies in its journey, not its destination.  Nanjiani has been heavily promoting the film and actively proclaiming it as a labor of love between he and his wife.  They want the audience to know how it ends – with Kumail and Emily together.  The point is what they overcame to get there and how one can never be sure what may lie in their own future.

In today’s world, a lot is made about America and their ongoing levels of intolerance, much of which stems from closed-minded religious practices.  And, certainly, much should be made of it.  But The Big Sick reminds us that America isn’t isolated in its culpability regarding dogmatism.  Originally hailing from Pakistan before moving to Chicago, Nanjiani’s family clings tightly to their traditional Muslim beliefs, whereas Nanjiani has grown to embrace a more open, liberal view of the world and of love.  Understandably, he wants no part of an arranged marriage, despite how insistent his mother (Zenobia Shroff) is upon the custom.  Once Kumail meets and falls for Emily, he fears telling his family about his relationship with “a white girl” as he knows his family well enough to predictably expect them to force his hand in choosing between them or to be excommunicated.  Complications organically arise and are only furthered when Emily falls suddenly and mysteriously ill (hence the film’s title) and Kumail is introduced to her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) under severely unfortunate circumstances.

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The Big Sick is a slice of modern life.  In fact, I have often (and unimaginatively) referred to films such as this one as “Life Movies”, because they don’t paint themselves into one specific corner with regards to genre, just as a day in real life doesn’t.  The goal here is simply to tell the story in a clear, concise, and – most importantly – honest fashion.  It’s a comedy when it’s appropriate.  It’s a drama when it’s appropriate.  And, like many of us (including me), Kumail uses humor as a defense mechanism, so, sometimes, it’s even a comedy when it isn’t appropriate (one such instance got a bigger laugh from me than any other moment in the entire film).  But the film never loses its charm nor its perpetual sincerity.  There are no evil villains.  There are no perfect heroes.  There are just real people who are the sums of their life experiences and are trying desperately to reconcile themselves with the complex world around them.

For me, personally, the film brought back some memories.  It took me back to the One That Got Away.  It made me question how I let that happen, or even if I could have done anything to prevent it, at all.  Did I screw it up?  Did she?  Did both of us?  After time, would I have even wanted to be with her?  What if she had voted for Trump?  What a horrible way for it to have ended (and it would have ended).  It’s that horrible purgatory of not-knowing that has left me where I am today – unable to move on and holding her high on a pedestal that she likely doesn’t even deserve.  But it’s movies like The Big Sick that turn its audience into introspective soul-sleuths and that’s largely the purpose of art, is it not?  To make one think about the reality of life and what may or may not happen, down the line (not for me, probably.  She’s married.  With a kid.  And I’m pretty sure she hates me, too.) – to open one’s eyes to previously discounted possibilities – to remind one of the delicate nature of existence and that tomorrow is not guaranteed – these are the hallmarks of films that are more than just simple movies.  They’re important.

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The Big Sick is not flashy.  It’s not loud.  There are no exorbitant special effects.  There’s no soundtrack full of hip, flash-in-the-pan, wannabe garage bands.  The Big Sick is a poignant reminder that life is unpredictable and should be cherished as such.  It should be embraced and not resisted.  Love, not hate, drives progression, both on a worldly scale and on a personal one.  See those big movies.  See Wonder Woman (again) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (again) and War for the Planet of the Apes.  But leave a few dollars for The Big Sick.  Ironically, it may just be the cure you’ve been looking for.

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Review – The Big Sick

Review – War for the Planet of the Apes

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Back in 2011, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes surprised the world simply by nature of its quality.  Though the Planet of the Apes franchise was once mighty, Tim Burton had attempted to revive it in 2001 to little success.  The film was a financial success, but seemingly failed to stir up much excitement among audiences, with most viewers looking for reasons to hate to the film at every turn.  Following that film, there wasn’t much reason to believe that audiences wanted more from the property but 20th Century Fox was hoping otherwise.  In order to reignite audience interest with its 2011 prequel, they knew that the film had to be good.  But, instead of merely delivering a good film, Wyatt delivered an amazing one.  People flocked to it, spread overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth, and a new take on a classic franchise was launched.

After a second, also well-received, sequel by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, here we are at the conclusion of the prequel trilogy as Reeves returns to finish the job and Caesar’s story with War for the Planet of the Apes.  I was actually unaware that this was a planned finale until the trailers and television spots began advertising it as such.  Knowing that certainly adds an extra level of urgency to the proceedings, which is saying something as this particular series has never lacked a sense of urgency.

Andy Serkis in Twentieth Century Fox's "War for the Planet of the Apes."

That doesn’t change with War.  I really can’t say much about the story because spoileriffic events occur early on in the film, so suffice it to say that we pick up where Dawn left off and a full-scale war for survival has erupted between the apes and the humans.  The apes are – as before – unquestionably and unflinchingly positioned as the protagonists.  Caesar and his brethren don’t wish for war.  They only want to live their lives in peace.  The humans, however, fear what they don’t understand (so, so true) and insist on a them-or-us mentality, forcing Caesar’s opposable-thumb-equipped hand, lest he want all of his friends and family to die.

Leading the humans, this time around, is Woody Harrelson’s nameless Colonel.  He’s merciless and driven by an unquenchable survival instinct that isn’t so blind as to miss the bigger picture.  Tactful and intelligent, the Colonel makes a worthy foe for fan-favorite Caesar and carries the war from the battlefield to the soul, demanding that Caesar confront sides of himself that he has never been required to confront, before.

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Caesar, himself, has become one of the great cinematic characters . . . well, I was going to say “of recent years”, but I think it extends far beyond that.  Not only is he a wondrous technical achievement (I’d single him out as the greatest CGI character in film history), but he is a fully fleshed-out, extraordinarily complex character.  From one film to the next, Caesar has grown, experienced, grown more, learned from his trials, and responded accordingly.  He clings to the memory of the good he knows to be in people – the good he saw in James Franco’s Will back in 2011’s original installment – and refuses to give in to the belief that all humans are bad.  Simultaneously, his conflict with Koba in 2014’s Dawn – as well as Koba’s general philosophy – haunt him with the knowledge that Koba’s views don’t ring completely false, even if his actions were poorly conceived.

It’s this internal battle that adds the extra layer of psychologically-enticing character work to War.  Most of us always want to do what’s good and what’s right.  But in real life, what’s “good” and “right” isn’t always so easily determined.  And when your entire species’ survival depends upon your singular judgement (with some counsel from steadfast Maurice), how can you be sure that you’re making the right decisions without compromising yourself?  And should that potential compromise even be a concern when the stakes are so high?

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These are all questions raised in War.  And each principle character reflects those questions in their own unique ways.  All of them, on both sides of the conflict, have their own understandable, believable motivations, conveying the true labyrinthine nature of war.  So, while this is technically a war movie, the film truly explores the personal battles that are also waged while the gunfire erupts and the grenades explode, providing the viewer with much more to latch onto than just the clichéd war-is-hell trope.

It seems almost insulting to even mention special effects when discussing a film as thoughtful and eloquent as this one, but it would in actuality be insulting not to.  If War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t awarded with the Best Achievement in Visual Effects award at the Academy Awards, next year, then a true travesty will have occurred.  If I didn’t know better, I would believe that apes had truly gained the ability to speak and then also act.  The visuals are absolutely flawless and I had to perpetually remind myself that, for much of the filming, director Reeves was pointing his cameras at empty sets and backgrounds.  The fact that this series of films not only leans on effects, but directly relies on them in order to keep the viewer engaged and the narrative gripping must place extreme pressure on the effects artists, but effects house WETA constantly outdoes themselves and they have truly managed something special with Caesar and his fellow apes.

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Reeves has truly found his voice and his eye as a storyteller.  War for the Planet of the Apes is an elegant, frequently violent, sometimes painful, occasionally funny work of pure art that transcends genre to remind its audience that life is precious and war is not something to be glorified or sought, but something to be avoided, when possible, and hastened, when not.  It reminds me of a modern-day Beowulf, because the whole production feels like a poem – a brutal, thrilling, moving poem.  Each shot is another line, each scene is another stanza, until suddenly we have a complete picture of a fabled hero named Caesar.  But, unlike the dictator who was his namesake, this Caesar aims to be a liberator; he desires a different story.  He gets one, and it’s a complete triumph.

With War of the Planet of the Apes, the modern Planet of the Apes trilogy has to be considered one of the great all-time trilogies.  I’m hard-pressed to come up with too many that could conceivably, objectively be considered better.  Taken as a whole, Caesar’s story is a poignant, sprawling tale of resilience, honor, and apotheosis.  Taken as a third chapter, War is a large-scale, unpredictable tale of life, sacrifice, and resignation.  There are a lot of great movies out there, right now.  War for the Planet of the Apes is as deserving of your money as any of them.

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Review – War for the Planet of the Apes