post

Jojo Rabbit

jojo

Markus Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Beginning with a montage that compares the frenzy of Hitler’s fan base to Beatlemania, “Jojo Rabbit” shoots immediately into Mel Brooks territory with its “out of bounds” hilarious satire. But it also has that irresistible heart found in other comedies from writer/director Taika Waititi.

Synopsis: Set in Germany during WWII, this comedy follows a young boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) who is a part of Adolf Hitler’s army and has dreams of capturing a Jewish person for Hitler in order to become his best friend. But one day he is confronted with a dilemma, when he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a teenage Jewish girl in the walls of his home. Also, Jojo has an imaginary friend. It’s Hitler. And it’s played by Waititi himself (a Jewish man).

So, I get it. This synopsis sounds like it very well could be an unpleasant watch. A heartwarming comedy about a child Nazi? Yikes. At the every least the logistics of making a movie like this sounds insane; let alone getting us (the audience) to laugh, as well as root for its characters. But this is the magic trick performed by Waititi. And it is a great one.

As much praise as I can heap on the performances from a supporting cast which includes Johansson (who is surprising good in this) Sam Rockwell, who plays the Hitler Youth commander and Stephen Merchant who plays a member of the Gestapo, to adorable newcomer Roman Griffin Davis, who is (again) adorable as the titular Jojo, everything I loved about this movie had to do with Waititi. His performance as the imaginary friend Hitler, is absolutely inspired. But this shouldn’t be a surprise as Waititi has always shown himself to be a fantastic physical comedian. That said, what the man should receive Oscar buzz for is his direction.

Waititi as a director takes this would be “problematic” concept and creates a superb narrative. He keeps the comedy at a high level, while continuously reminding audiences that what we’re watching is set during an actual genocide. Also, he makes Jojo a lovable character, while at the same time showcasing his ignorance and condemning his beliefs.

Final Thought: This may seem odd to hear, but “Jojo Rabbit” is a hilarious coming of age story for the whole family (well, I mean, it’s still PG-13). Also, at the very least this movie answers the question: What would you do if you found out that your son was a Hitler fanatic…or a Trump fanatic?

Follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus.com

post

Gemini Man

gemini man

 

Markus Rating: 3 out 5 Stars

Synopsis: A hitman, Henry Brogan (Will Smith) on the verge of retirement, finds out something he shouldn’t (classified materials). And so someone in upper management (Clive Owen) sends a younger hitman to kill Henry. The thing is, this younger hitman looks just like Henry, but younger.

The synopsis I want to believe to be true: A man (Clive Owen) is Will Smith’s number one fan. After hearing of Smith’s retirement, he devises a plan to create an army of Will Smith’s that will make movies until the end of time.

In the actual movie, after the two Smith’s meet and some very well filmed fight choreography ensues, the story really takes a nosedive.

The actual problem with “Gemini Man” stems from the handling of this quite stiff story. Even with the promise of two Smith’s, the foundation here is a basic action/sci-fi thriller. And there was so much wasted potential. Yes, there is an automation vs. non-automation argument, as well as some spiritual themes inserted throughout the back-half though conversation, but these conversations seemed tacked on. The story continuously lies there like a dead fish and the “tacked on” elements act as a stick attempting to poke the story back to life.

It just seems as though either director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) never read the script or cared to know anything about it past the synopsis. The allure to direct something like this was probably similar to the allure I had to watch it, i.e. the stunts and technology (the high frame rate). And to Lee’s credit, the high frame rate didn’t bother me like it did when I saw “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”. In fact, for the most part, the visuals looked crisp while maintaining their cinematic integrity. For example, there was an underwater sequence that looked more water than water. This may sound silly, but this was the most amazing looking water I’d ever seen. These are the sequences which garnered the majority of the stars in this review. Also, the 3D in this film works extremely well; a fact I hate admitting. Unfortunately if you don’t purchase the twenty dollar ticket, you won’t get the full weight of these effects. On the other hand, Smith is such a strong actor, one could potentially still enjoy watching him do anything for nearly two hours. BUT…

Let’s talk about young Will’s face. It’s pretty painful. Which is to say, the “deaging” CGI of the young Smith face looks off, surrounded by the beautiful HFR on-location cinematography. Not to mention that it seems like it was difficult to get his face to change expression or maintain the same age from scene to scene. The younger Smith CGI really only worked when it was an action sequence or during night scenes. Other than that, young Will’s face was really cringy. This includes a five minute sequence filmed in the daylight, which momentarily made this whole experiment seem regrettable.

Final Thought: “Gemini Man” is a movie with many (many) flaws. But then again, I had a ton of fun with it. And did I mention the water?

Follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus

post

Joker

joker

Markus Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

So…Batman’s dad is Donald Trump. It’s not a spoiler if you really think about it.

If what you’re looking for is an action packed superhero movie, then “Joker” may have you walking out of the theater saying, “That’s not what I expected”.

“Joker” is an R-Rated stand-alone prequel of sorts about the man who would become the titular Batman villain. This version of the Joker story was not one that I was familiar with and thus I was happy with sitting through two hours plus of this mentally unstable character, as he watches the world burn. Even though plot-wise there isn’t really much more to it than that, there’s a lot here to appreciate.

Side Note: I get the “Taxi Driver” Travis Bickle,“The King of Comedy” Rubert Pupkin comparisons, but I’m going to throw something different at you. Remember how “Rocky” was a story about a boxer that nobody cared about, who just wanted to go the distance? “Joker” is like that, but instead of a boxer it’s about a fledgling comedian/clown-for-hire, who just wants to be noticed…it even has a stairs sequence.

I think we all knew Joaquin Phoenix (The Master, You Were Never Really Here) was going to be an excellent Joker. I mean, the man is an eccentric character in street clothes. And he is spectacular in this. Not any better or worse than Heath Ledger’s 2008 performance as the Joker. Phoenix’s Joker is a whole other beast. From his dance inspired erratic contortions, to his body transformation, to that laugh, with this performance Phoenix reinvents the character so much so, that audiences will actually find themselves rooting for the Joker; unironically.

I also want to quickly highlight director Todd Phillips, the director of the horrid “The Hangover” trilogy, who has probably made the best movie he’ll ever make by nailing this fan fiction “Taxi Driver” homage. His love for Martin Scorsese is obvious here, as Phillips’ pacing, tone and visuals focus on the protagonist rather than a more conventional plot-driven narrative. He also presents a Gotham that is so alive and toothy, that when the Joker’s snap comes, it all seems right on cue, like a well orchestrated song.

Not everything works though. Two aspects in particular seem forced and tend to weigh things down a bit. Like a dog wearing a sweater; I mean, it’s not hurting the dog, but the dog would probably be better without it. OK, so first is a love story arch which seems forced, but not unfounded; I did see the point of it. The larger issue here was the same issue I had with “Black Panther”. “Joker” only really stumbles when Phillips has to reel the story back into the DC universe. If this would’ve simply been a story about the rise of Arthur Fleck, a poor, depressed and disillusioned man, living in a violent rat infested city, slowly slipping into madness, this could’ve moved from an award worthy to an award winning “Taxi Driver” homage.

Final Thought: Neither violent video games or violent movies cause people to shoot one another.

Follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus

post

Haunt

haunt

 

Markus Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

“Haunt” (available on VOD) is a new horror flick I would’ve missed if it weren’t for a few “it’s actually pretty fun” reviews I read. But in my defense, the only thing I’d heard prior was that it was produced by Eli Roth. So please forgive me for not being more eager to press play.

Advertised as a movie written and directed by the writers of “A Quiet Place”, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, “Haunt” follows a group of expendable college kids who decide to enter a random extreme haunted house, that one of them saw on a flier earlier that evening; oh, and it’s Halloween night. When they arrive the place looks like an abandoned garage and is riddled with scary clowns. But of course they eagerly enter, split up and terror ensues.

Halfway through this review it sounds like I hated it, but in fact it’s quite the opposite. “Haunt” is fun in the way I remember “Final Destination” being fun. A simple premise with absolutely no expository anything and a really dumb cast of characters, putting themselves into bad situations, which lead to death. The fun is in watching each of these young people meet their fates and try and guess which person (if anybody) survives the night. Also, on a personal note, while this is an R-Rated slasher, it never gets to the point of torture-porn (for which I was grateful) despite Roth’s involvement.

What really differentiates this film from some of the other throw-away horrors you might find online, is what Beck and Woods do visually. They do an excellent job of keeping the tension at an extremely high level by delivering on the fun house scenario scares fairly relentlessly. These two have an excellent grasp of space, visually forcing audiences to get right in there with the characters, trapped in this rusty tetanus filled house of horrors. And it’s this gritty, claustrophobic feeling similarly found in something like 2009’s “The Collector”, which keeps “Haunt” from becoming an over processed low-budget “Escape Room” rip-off.

Final Thought: Yeah, the acting is “meh” and the extended ending seems like an unfortunate afterthought, but this is a movie all about getting from point A to point B in the scariest/most entertaining way possible. And “Haunt” does this well enough to serve as something worth a horror fan’s time and money. Also, as an added bonus the “bad guys” here are actually memorable enough to propel a sequel. Although I have a strange feeling that when people think of Juggalos, the clowns in this movie are what comes to mind.

Follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus

post

Ad Astra

ad astra

Markus Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

This is a meditative space journey that you will either love or think is “kinda boring”. More than a little reminiscent of “Apocalypse Now”, with a splash of “Contact” and dash of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Ad Astra” is a long, slow and near perfect movie. Visually, this thing is flawless and Brad Pitt’s performance is nomination worthy. Look at you, “Ad Astra”. Giving me Andrei Tarkovsky realness.

Synopsis: Set in a near future where humans have colonized the moon and Mars (but not quite to The Jetsons era) we follow an astronaut named Roy McBride (Pitt), who is a blank canvas of a man. Plagued by endless evaluations, he shows no emotions. In the face of fear and stress, his heart rate never rises above 80 BPM. Also, he is a legacy. His father (Tommy Lee Jones) was known as the greatest astronaut to ever live, traveling further into space than anyone to date, before becoming lost in space years ago. Now earth is bombarded with electrical storms from space, coined “The Surge”. Roy is contacted when it is thought that his father, whom he believed to be long dead, may still be alive somewhere in deep space and may also be the one causing said space phenomenon. Roy is instructed to find his father and return him to Earth.

As soon as it fully becomes “Apocalypse Now” in space, “Ad Astra” does struggle a bit to keep up with greatness (mostly due to a few unavoidable moments of sappiness). But what writer/director James Gray (The Lost City of Z, We Own the Night) brings to the table that is unique is some interesting visual sequences including: showing audiences what the future may look like when space travel is more like traveling on a plane, what driving a car in space might look like and most importantly what the beginnings of government space colonization would actually resemble. And for those who’ve already seen this movie and say it was boring, I don’t know what else they could’ve asked for? This movie literally has everything: A father/son element, inner journey stuff, a cool car chase sequence on the surface of the moon that would make Vin Diesel jealous, and even (SPOILER ALERT) space baboons! What other movie can say that?

There’s been this lie perpetuated among  some film-lovers out there questioning if Brad Pitt is truly one of the great actors of his generation. If anything “Ad Astra” reaffirms Pitt as not only a movie star, but also a rangy actor, who adds more to this movie than Martin Sheen did to “Apocalypse Now”.

Final Thought: “Ad Astra” is what “Interstellar” wants to be when it grows up. Fight me.

Follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus

post

Hustlers

hustlers

 

Markus Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

I walked out of the theater extremely high on this film. I think I even leaned over to my wife and said, “I’ve never seen a female stripper movie that strives to portray authentic characters. This may do a lot to destigmatize stripping as a profession.” But a week later I find that little from this movie actually stayed with me.

Exactly like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, I believe “Hustlers” works primarily because of its direction. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (adapted from a 2015 magazine article written by Jessica Pressler) “Hustlers” is a true crime drama about a group of female strippers who (post-financial crisis, circa 2007-2008), devise a plan to steal money from their Wall Street clients.

The directional choices in “Hustlers” will be the only reason anyone remembers this movie in five years. From the opening long-take which moves us from the dressing room to the strip club stage, to every sequence in the club and bars, to the decision to modify and even cut the audio during crucial moments in the film, it all screams of a great big Martin Scorsese homage. She also does a great job of portraying an authentic strip club experience, mostly by accentuating the three dimensional supporting cast, played by Keke Palmer, Cardi B, Lili Reinhart and even Lizzo. And while most of these supporting characters don’t stick around for longer than an hour, this touch really helped create a bond between the audience and a fictitious group of stigmatized women.

Other than the direction, the standouts here were the leads, Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez (both for entirely different reasons). Wu’s performance is the strongest. She definitely has to cover more ground, beginning as someone who (naive to the aggressive world of city strip clubs) takes a job in a strip club in order to support her grandmother, and evolving into a “hustler” (not a spoiler. You know where this story is going the entire time. It’s in the damn title). Wu is particularly strong here, taking advantage of her arc and showing off her versatility as an actress. Lopez on the other hand simply solidifies herself as a triple-threat. For an actress who hasn’t done anything on the big screen that anybody has cared about in nearly a decade (and that’s being generous) she walks on screen and instantly takes over. Not to say that Lopez is a great actress, but it is quite undeniable that she has the ability to walk into a room and command attention.

Final Thought: “Magic Mike” is still the best stripper movie ever made, by a long shot. But unlike “Striptease” or “Showgirls”, at the very least “Hustlers will reignite a conversation that was long thought of to be a joke. Non-exploitative movies about female and/or male strippers can be done.

Follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus

post

It: Chapter Two

it chapter 2

 

Markus Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

“It: Chapter Two” can only be described as nearly three hours of mostly entertaining horror nonsense…well, it could and has been described as much worse, but for the sake of this relatively positive review, “nonsense” is about as negative as I’m going to get.

In this review I’m not really going to touch on “It”, chapter one from 2017, other than to say that I wasn’t really a fan. I felt as though the plot was pushed aside in order to focus on cheap scares and really over-the-top CGI gore. That said, I find myself at a crossroads contradicting myself when I tell you that I mostly enjoyed the lengthier “Chapter Two” because the plot is completely pushed aside in order to focus on cheap scares and over-the-top CGI gore/gross-out effects.

This is the part of the review where I attempt to defend this film.

While not lacking for dutch angles, the story itself doesn’t seem to be important at all to director Andy Muschietti. As I stated earlier, Muschietti has totally thrown the plot aside for “Chapter Two”. That is not to say that he doesn’t tell a story. There is one and it’s as follows: Taking place twenty-seven years after defeating Pennywise the child-eating clown, the titular “It” has come back and has begun to feed again. And with this, most of the group (The Losers Club) gets back together to kill the thing once and for all.

Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, Molly’s Game) playing grown-up Beverly Marsh, James McAvoy (Split) playing grown-up Bill Denbrough and the real star of the show, Bill Hader (Barry) playing grown-up Richie Tozier, and of course Bill Skarsgard returning as Pennywise, all star in this tonally erratic story which fluctuates between drama, comedy and horror at will. Also, with the exceptions of Hader and Skarsgard, all of the big names were horribly miscast; or at the very least, boring to watch. Am I doing a good job defending it so far?

Anyway, the plot then goes on to involve a Native American tribe and some orbs and blah, blah, blah, who cares? Let’s get to the the point. This chapter sees Muschietti laying out a finale that (again) really doesn’t concern itself with telling a story. But furthermore I don’t think he expects people to pay attention to the story or even attempt to follow it. It’s apparent early on that the “story” is nothing more than connective tissue holding around fifteen bizarre horror sequences together. These sequences seem to be the point of the movie. As for the sequences themselves, they also fluctuate. Some are not really that inventive and frankly poor quality horror, while others work in a way which resembled something like “The Evil Dead” (blasphemy, I know) visually repulsive with a hint of humor. And still others (although only three or four) were very much nightmare fuel; visually striking in a way that mimics the unsettling atmosphere felt in a lucid dream.

Now, how could I recommend a nearly three hour movie where the story is not worth paying attention to, and what we’re left with is a highlight reel of horror sequences; horror sequences that don’t all work? Well, the answer is a majority of the horror stuff here does work. It’s nonsense, but it works and is only enhanced by how sloppily this thing is put together. I would venture to say that “It: Chapter Two” is entertaining in the same way a sketch comedy show would be. Also, there is a high dosage of comedy injected into this installment. Not to say it all works. If you can’t tell by now, nothing in this movie completely works. But, the comedy really makes the run-time more palatable. In fact, I would go so far as to say Muschietti may have a future directing straight comedies.

Final Thought: The math works out like this: The movie is nearly three hours long. The sections which include Bill Hader and Pennywise (75% of the movie) are entertaining. This leaves 25%. All of that stuff is forgettable filler garbage. Thus the movie could have been 25% shorter (EASILY). But if you are able to push the plot aside, you may find yourself enjoying the cheap scares and over-the-top CGI gore.

Follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus

post

Luce

luce

Markus Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

My favorite protagonists are highly flawed, my favorite book is “The Stranger” and my favorite movie of the year so far is “Luce”. Speaking as a Black American, “Luce” is everything I want in a movie.

Directed by Julius Onah (The Cloverfrield Paradox) and co-written by J.C. Lee (adapted from his own play) this slow-burn thriller (which makes it sound more simplistic than it is) tells the story of Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) an honor student, originally from war-torn Eritrea and adopted at age ten by white American parents (played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). One day a teacher (Octavia Spencer) becomes suspicious that Luce’s calm and affable exterior may be hiding something a bit more sinister. In the end it leaves you asking one question: How does one go from directing “The Cloverfield Paradox” to this thought provoking masterpiece?

Visually the film comes across as a thriller, meaning the tension is high throughout. It is the story and its characters which serve as the intrigue.

It’s quite fascinating to see all of the dynamics at play. From the white American parents who struggle with how much to trust their black child, to the black teacher who’s ideology comes in direct conflict with Luce’s. And Luce, a character that struggles with his identity as an immigrant person of color, going to a predominately white school, where he is praised for his eloquence and ability to basically make the white people around him feel good about themselves, is a revelation of a character. Harrison Jr.’s performance is quite disturbing, as I spent the entire movie trying to read his eyes but couldn’t.

Final Thought: The beauty of a film like this is that ten different people could watch it and come out with ten differing takeaways. To me this isn’t a story about a sociopath or a star student, but rather a commentary on being black in America; how as a permanent immigrant (based on skin color alone) there is a dichotomy within the community and individual, which causes a schism in mentality and social norms. What does it mean to be a Black American? It it Obama? Is it a rapper on BET? Is it a Mammy? Is it even an American? Or is it all of these things and non of them at the same time? “Luce” asks all of these questions, while making the bold statement that the Black American is culturally schizophrenic and as James Baldwin once said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” To me, “Luce” is an example of how one perfectly tells the story of what it’s like to be black in America.

Follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus

post

Blinded by the Light

blinded by the light

Markus Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

Coming from a working class family that idolizes Bruce Springsteen, I wanted to love this movie. Based on a true story of a Pakistani teenager who falls in love with the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, while living in a mostly white community in 1987 England, I really really wanted to love this movie.

Knowing where this feel-good story is going and how it’s all going to end is not particularity a flaw, since it’s literally impossible not to enjoy the heart of this movie. With Durinder Chadha’s direction there is a kindness and attempt at sincerity, which touches every aspect of the film. She even puts a majority of Springsteen’s lyrics up on the screen, just in case you are one who has always had a hard time understanding The Boss. I mean, how kind is that?

That said, it’s this same “kindness” which really makes this film cringy at times. When attempting to discuss the heavy theme of violent racism, which plays a a large role in this movie, “Blinded by the Light” seems to be too nice to go there; when “going there” would’ve been not only interesting, but appropriate.

The following is a list of everything “Blinded by the Light” attempts to do:

  • Touch on the racial tension of 1980’s Britain and reflect on how relevant these issues still are throughout the world.

  • Hypothesize that Bruce Springsteen’s music transcends culture.

  • Create an immigrant Pakistani story, that translates well for any immigrant family.

  • Give audiences a sincere look at what it’s like to be a brown outsider in a white community.

  • Portray an accurate Asian father/son relationship.

And while it checks all of these boxes, it does so with all of the gusto of an after school special. All of this is the underlying problem. “Blinded by the Light” is kind. It has heart. It’s funny at times. The premise is intriguing, the movie simply is not.

The acting from our protagonist played by Viveik Kalra, is fine. He has a face that relays distress, which is a good thing. This film’s additional flaws stem more so from the script and how poorly the supporting characters were written and how jumpy the timeline gets near the end.

Final Thought: The few times it becomes a pure musical, it works exceptionally well. But the other 70% is a mix of levity, a glossy look at the second rise of skinheads in 1980’s United Kingdom and connective tissue that comes down to amateurish editing. “Blinded by the Light” is harmless and might be enjoyed by Springsteen fans, but it never really reaches its full potential.

Follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus

post

Ready or Not

ready or not

Markus Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Most of “Ready or Not” is fun. The cat and mouse story of a woman who is forced to play a game of Hide and Seek in a mansion, on the night of her wedding, while the billionaire family she’s marrying into attempts to find and kill her (for rich people reasons disclosed later on), plays out like a little roller coaster ride of a film. And as a dark comedy, where the quirky characters really get a chance to breathe and look silly (even while brutally maiming individuals) “Ready or Not” does achieve most of what I’d expect to be it’s entertainment goals.

The main share of praise should go to directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and actors Adam Brody (Shazam!) and Margot Robbie lookalike, Samara Weaving, for making this silly premise as exciting and eccentric as it was. Brody plays the bride’s brother-in-law who openly objects to the game and is the only three dimensional character in the film, which automatically makes him likable from the start. Weaving, our heroine and outsider trapped in a house with wealthy psychopaths, plays it all very over-the-top, which is pretty much all one can ask of her. The direction maintains a high concentration of crowd-pleasing tension throughout. Also, these filmmakers do a great job at manufacturing at least one iconic indie-horror visual; the bride wearing sneakers was a wonderful touch.

The humor is fine. There are a few lines regarding the moral ambivalence of the rich, which work well. But it is in fact the writing which serves as a death blow to this film. As the third act careens towards “The Cabin in the Woods” greatness, it instead settles for a shrug inducing punchline. No, the ending didn’t ruin the movie, but by a certain point you could actually feel it running out of creative juice.

Final Thought: Overall, “Ready or Not” works. It could’ve been better, but it does work in the sense that I did have fun…even though this isn’t much more than Melania Trump fan fiction.

Follow me on Twitter @moviesmarkus