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 whose 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? Is 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 none 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.

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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.

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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.

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Good Boys

good boys

Markus Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

The plot surrounds three boys, newly dubbed sixth graders, getting into adult situations (drinking beer, kissing, drug stuff, raunchy sex stuff; it’s more skits than story) and saying bad words. That’s it.

There’s not much to write about regarding this new Seth Rogen produced comedy. Not because it’s unfunny. Quite the contrary. It probably contains the most “laugh out loud” jokes per two minute interval than any other movie of 2019. The reason there isn’t much to say about “Good Boys” is that there really isn’t much story or anything worth mentioning besides the jokes. Actually, strike that. The three boys, played by Jacob Tremblay (Room, Wonder) Keith L. Williams and Brady Noon are very charismatic (although cookie cutter characters) making some of the jokes that really shouldn’t have landed (and undoubtedly didn’t work on paper) land with authority. But yeah, everything else about this movie is a mixed bag of poor editing and clumsy direction from Gene Stupnitsky.

Final Thought: Am I trying to say that without the high quality of comedy throughout, this movie would’ve been unwatchable? Pretty much. Good thing there is a ton of funny stuff here. “Good Boys” is an R-Rated joke machine where 80% of the jokes work. It’s a comedy that is guaranteed to make its target audience laugh. So, I guess it’s a successful comedy? Anyway, it’s no “Superbad”.

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The Farewell

the farewell

4 out of 5 Stars

Based on a true story, or “based on an actual lie” as the movie states, “The Farewell” is the tale of a Chinese grandmother (the matriarch of the family) who has a terminal illness, but doesn’t know it. Instead of telling her, her family decides to stage a fake wedding in order to bring everyone together to say goodbye. This lie is meant to make her final interaction with her family more of a celebration than a sad farewell. As the story progresses, moral questions revolving what constitutes a “good lie”, arise. That said, it’s a soft comedy (touching moments, with levity) so…you’ll laugh more than you’ll cry; surprisingly. It’s a tender film. It’s a cathartic film.

The highlight of “The Farewell” is the performance of Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians, Ocean’s Eight) who plays an American grandchild traveling to China in order to say goodbye to a grandmother she is quite close to. Also, she is the only one in the family who doesn’t agree with keeping this type of secret from a dying person. And, as a Westerner, she was the most relatable character to me.

There is a term in sports (boxing, football, etc) described as “staying in the pocket”. This means that you know contact is coming, but unflinchingly choose not to shy away. This encapsulates Awkwafina’s performance. She emotionally leans into some of the heavier scenes, and not only holds her own, but steals the show.

The story itself transcends race/culture due to the excellent direction of writer/director Lulu Wang. Going into this I held high expectations since the plot synopsis (Wang’s autobiographical story) was so strong. But I was shocked to find that it was her graceful and quite operatic direction which made “The Farewell” so defining throughout. She’ll definitely be a filmmaker to watch.

Final Thought: This may seem like an insensitive statement, but the levity (the fact that this movie wasn’t a complete downer) was the reason that I wasn’t totally blown away, and also the reason I can see this movie as a whole (aside from Awkwafina’s performance) being forgotten come award season. I know. I’m heartless. But I’m right.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

once upon a time

Markus Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

I’m a huge fan of the American Westerns of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. My wife (the person who accompanied me to this film) is a huge history buff and knew a lot (going in) about Helter Skelter. And for most part, this movie had us smiling with satisfaction throughout. That said, I can see how someone who lacks interest in these two specific areas, may find “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” meandering, with a story that is almost nonexistent.

Set in 1969, the ninth film from writer/director Quentin Tarantino follows has-been television actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) who made his name as the star of a canceled serial Western, and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they both ruminate on the next chapter of their lives. There is also a secondary plot concerning the murder of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) by the Manson family (not a spoiler alert by any means).

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a Ted Talk, where Tarantino’s thesis seems to be: The Golden Age of Hollywood ended the exact moment Sharon Tate was murdered.

It’s undeniable that there are many technical aspects of this film which are not only nailed, but are perfected. It looks, smells and sounds the way I’d imagined Hollywood 1969 to be. A love letter to old Hollywood or a fetishized fan fiction of an infamous true crime, would both be true assessments. And it’s all done with spectacular attention to detail. Also, the characters are so interesting, that when Tarantino makes us watch Sharon Tate go to the movies and watch as the fictionalized characters Booth and Dalton have seemingly meaningless interactions and pontificate on the “ending of an era” for literally hours, we enjoy doing so. As for the acting, it’s really good, but clearly not the most impressive thing to see here.

Final Thought: Tarantino hates hippies..and editing. The ending was the only real issue I had. And while I won’t spoil it, my problem had nothing to do with accuracy and everything to do with tone. The final 30 minutes is explosive, giving Tarantino fans the pulp brutality we’ve all come to love and expect. But for me, this last bit really just didn’t fit with the story as well as I expect it was supposed to. It played like a short film, detached from the overall plot of the initial two plus hours. Another way of putting it would be to say that I had no problem with the aggressive content, but merely I enjoyed the“day in the life” stuff, more than the final 30 minutes of “action”.

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Avengers: Endgame


Markus Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Be forewarned, this is a spoiler free review from a middling Marvel fan. Meaning, I’ve seen all of the big movies, but I skipped that “Ant-Man” nonsense.

This grand conclusion MCU story sees the Russo brothers (Anthony and Joe,who directed this movie, “Infinity War”, “Captain America: Civil War” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) do a masterful juggling act in this superhero/heist film, juggling multiple plots in the most entertaining way possible, while also keeping it all thankfully coherent.

Synopsis: Since I will be keeping this relatively spoiler-free, I will only state that this movie sees the remaining Avengers, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) Captain America (Chris Evens) Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) Thor (Chris Hemsworth) Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) attempting to find a way to reverse what Thanos did in the last film (snapping the best Avengers out of existence. And when I say “best” I mean T’Challa). How they go about it may seem ridiculous at first, but through the power of good filmmaking, “Endgame” turns into an “Oceans Eleven” movie (only with superpowers) that had me leaning forward in my seat for most of it.

A well constructed finale should have you feeling a majority of emotions at some point. And most of the invested audience will run the gamut with this one. From the visually on-point action sequences, to the more dramatic multiple plot twists that will keep you guessing, to the spoiler bits near the end, the Russo brothers not only show what they can do in a superhero cinematic universe, but also show off their potential to branch out into other genres.

Side Note: My biggest issues with the past Avengers films almost had nothing to do with the stories themselves. I may be in the minority here, but while I enjoyed almost all of Marvel’s superhero films, these ensemble movies always came off as clunky. At the time I figured it came down to an abundance of characters and so I forgave the directors, as I figured it must be hard to have to take time to establish where everybody is before bringing them all together to defeat the bad guy. But it was still always an issue for me in terms of prolonged watchablility during these particular installments. So, if you’re like me at all, you’ll be happy to hear that “Avengers: Endgame” solves this issue quite nicely. It’s difficult to explain how, without giving away plot-points, but what I will say is that the first 15 minutes is crafted so masterfully (reminding me of the aspects of “The Leftovers” I loved the most”) audiences will be hard pressed to feel any kind of “dragging” exposition moments throughout.

Final Thought: Aside from a plot hole or two near the end which may have you asking “How does time travel work again?”, “Avengers: Endgame” not only stands as the best Avengers movie ever made and not only wraps things up with a nice little poetic justice bow, but more importantly it’s a three hour movie that doesn’t feel like one at all. I didn’t have to pee once.

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Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody
Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury)

Markus Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

Possibly the worst thing I could say about a musician biopic is that if you are not a hardcore fan of the music and/or band, then there is no reason to watch this movie. And while “Bohemian Rhapsody” narrowly staves off this insult, it should be noted that that this is a movie where the character of Freddie Mercury is given only slightly more screen-time and lines than the other members of Queen. But if you’re a huge fan of the music, then who cares? If you’re a huge fan of the music, this film gives you exactly what you want, and nothing more.

Synopsis: “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the story of the band Queen, from their rise and culminating with their iconic 1985 Live Aid performance.

Directed (for the most part) by Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Usual Suspects) amidst his rather long fall from grace, with a script written by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) it is the story focus, the overall tameness and the actual formulaic writing which lets this film down. I mean, how many times can a “head of studio” proclaim how Queen isn’t going to make it or that in a few years nobody will know who Queen is? And don’t get me started on the lazy foreshadowing; *cough cough*.  As for the visuals, the stage performances (which there are many) are shot very well.  Even the drawn out finale, during which the audience must sit though the entire 20 minute Live Aid set after sitting though an almost 2 hour film, is handled as well as it could’ve been, almost reminding me of an X-Men battle sequence; this is meant to be a compliment.

It should be noted that Rami Malek, who plays front-man Freddie Mercury, gives a commanding performance, stealing the show (as he should). He stands alone as the only thing spectacular about “Bohemian Rhapsody”.

Final Thought: The biggest issue I had with this movie was throughout the film, the band is shown time and again taking issue with all members of the band not being represented equally. I suspect this was and still is the same in real life, since the characters of Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon get nearly as much face time as Freddie Mercury. If you don’t know who these people are, then like me, you also don’t care about the other members of Queen. And therein lies the problem. Nobody cares about the other members of Queen outside of Mercury! So why is everyone getting nearly equal story time in this movie? That was the biggest flaw for me. And I have to suspect this was the biggest flaw for Sacha Baron Cohen when he left this project in 2013. You wouldn’t make a biopic about the Beatles and give Ringo and George equal story/screen time as Paul and John, would you? Oh, and don’t forget about Pete Best! Let’s not kid ourselves. Freddie is the star. We buy tickets to see Freddie. Before coming into my screening I had asked myself, “Why is a movie about Freddie Mercury not rated R?” And the answer is now perfectly clear; because “Bohemian Rhapsody” is about Queen and not Mercury.

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Markus Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars

As the credits rolled, I stared up at the screen and couldn’t have been more confused; not only as to why this remake was remade, but also as to the content of the movie, literally uttering aloud, “what did I just watch?” It was at this moment that I surmised “Suspiria” to be no more than a non-scary horror flick that interrupts long stretches of meandering and literal mumbling with shocking moments of macabre, grotesque and ultra violence, spread over a span of 2 hours and 32 minutes. And the only question I was left with was, was this meandering and ultra violence mash-up justified by the story director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) and writer David Kajganich were attempting to tell? And the answer was a resounding no. In fact, if anything this is a story that could’ve been told in under an hour…and that’s being generous.

Synopsis: Set in Cold War Germany, an American woman (Dakota Johnson) joins a prestigious all female dance academy lead by an instructor played by Tilda Swinton; an academy which may be a cover for a witch’s coven. There is also a subplot about an elderly male psychotherapist (who for some reason is also played by Swinton) that can only be described as “an exercise in time wasting”.  Oh, and before you raise your eyebrow in interest due to Swinton playing two different characters, the truth is that she actually plays three characters. But, none of these characters lend themselves to powerful performances; only to rather alarming Nutty professor-esque makeup and prosthetics.

Anyway, as the plot pushes forward, “Suspiria” only becomes more unnecessarily messy and pointless. But that Thom Yorke score was really good. So, there’s that.

Not all of “Suspiria” is nonsense. There are some visually striking dance sequences and for a while the mystery aspect of the plot was something that interested me. But again, this movie is 2 hours and 32 minutes. I became disinterested in much of the plot by the end of the first hour.

Final Thought: Having never seen the original Dario Argento Giallo classic in its entirety, Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” was a stand-alone psychological horror/mystery piece for me; and not a very good one. Honestly, the only reason “Suspiria” gets the stars it does is that while I walked out of the theater savagely disappointed, throughout the runtime there was something which compelled me to keep watching and not zone out.  And while the acting is fine, but overshadowed by the repetitive visuals, and much that I feel is wrong with the movie had to do with the storytelling, Guadagnino had to have done something right for me not to absolutely bail on something I was absolutely confused with. At the very least this was a very slow moving, but compellingly filmed dumpster fire that put me into a trance. A part of me simply had to find out how big the fire would get and from what angles looked best.

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Markus Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 Stars

“Hereditary” isn’t for everybody; I understand that. Some people who go to see horror movies come in with an internal ranking of importance, starting with jump-scares, followed by gore, followed by more jump-scares.  For those audiences, this movie may not be for you. But it should be. Honestly, even if you don’t tend to lean towards the more formulaic horror tropes, “Hereditary” may still be a mixed bag for you.  But you should still give it a try. Most of “Hereditary” scared me in a way that kept me up at night, not necessarily causing me to stare into a dark corner waiting for something to jump out, but more so marinating in thought, mulling over the films more disturbing tics. For me this film was like a worm that burrowed into my ear and settled into my brain, only to then make miniature replicas of a worm burrowing into my brain.

The story follows a family (mom, dad, son and daughter) after the death of the grandmother. We follow the mother (Toni Collette) a woman who builds miniature replicas as art installations, as she attempts to come to grips with the loss of her mother, a woman she didn’t much care for. We also follow the daughter (Milly Shapiro) as she begins to notice odd things like men smiling at her grandmother’s funeral, a flickering light that only she can see, and her dead grandmother waving at her from across the street of her school. This goes on for a little while and then things get disturbing. And if you think you know what’s going to happen next, you don’t. We’ll just say, this is a movie that begs for a big fireworks display ending, and it gets one.

Let’s get this out of the way, writer/director Ari Aster (who I’ve been a champion off ever since “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons”) does a fantastic job of slowly cranking up the uncomfortable atmosphere of this over 2 hour movie, until it overflows and burns down the house. Second, the acting here from Collette is award worthy. Even when this movie plays on the edge of ridiculous, I believed every syllable Collette uttered. Also, newcomer Shapiro and Ann Dowd give understated, but strong performances. As for the story, the first half (a half which is perfection) plays out as less of a conventional horror genre piece and more like a movie detailing how different members of a family process the loss of a rather abusive family member, with a nice horror glaze topping.  The second half is more of a calorie filled horror film, but not conventional by any means.  This is where the film will lose some.  I don’t know that even I fully understood or even liked all of the twists and turns “Hereditary” takes in this second half, but I still can’t stop thinking about them and immediately wanted a second viewing.

Final Thought: Maybe this is a better analogy: “Hereditary” is the equivalent of getting into a crowded elevator where one person is facing the back wall.  It’s disturbing the more you stay with it. Some will cut their losses and simply become frustrated and leave the elevator, while others will investigate and try to make sense of it, before maybe becoming frustrated as well. But others will allow the unease of the situation to build and wash over them. It is my opinion that everyone should try and let a movie like this wash over them at least once in their lives. And nowadays, in the era of “Purge” prequels and “Halloween” sequels, what more could you ask for out of your horror movies, other than to be different?

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