Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Bullitt (Re-Release)
Star Rating: 2.5/4

Bullitt is without a doubt a stylish thriller with impressive technical achievements, but that's about it. The picture follows Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) as an esteemed police lieutenant in San Francisco assigned to protect Johnny Ross (Pat Renella), a former criminal turned federal consultant from harm. However, in his motel room, Ross is murdered by an unknown suspect. Bullitt sets out to bring the killer to justice only to discover that Ross wasn't who he was thought to be. Bullitt continues and shows us what it's like to be a cop but what more?

It's a case of mistaken identity that reminds me of Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) in a sense. Both films were released during the American Cold War period. As both protagonists get tied up in the suspense involving conspiracy, it ties back to the question of identity. For Frank Bullitt, he has done his job for a long time and remains indifferent to the unfortunate horrors he finds in his investigation. With McQueen's calm and cool demeanor, he portrays Bullitt as a casual observer who must resolve the whole conflict. He's not necessarily robotic but perhaps the character's mentality has to be repetitive as a way to cope with his every day tasks.

          On the contrary, I have a feeling a car chase in the middle of San Francisco isn't an ordinary day for every cop in the United States. Yes, here we go with the chase. Don't get the wrong impression from me though, I was quite excited to watch it on the big screen and it lived up to the hype it gets. The scene is considered to be the greatest chase in film history and I understand that. The music builds up to the Charger and Bullitt's Mustang encountering each other to where it stops and we only bask in the roars of the engines. No dramatic score, no green screen, no visual effects or touch-ups, just clever planning with camera movements and nice editing. The funny thing is how the Charger blows up in the end of that scene. Since the Charger is now tied to those Fast and Furious movies, we could probably consider it a joke in terms of Bullitt's significance to pop culture as opposed to its rivals. Some coincidence, right?

          The tension is everywhere thanks to its editing and score. Frank P. Keller's editing is one of the factors that adds to it. Bullitt takes its time to lead up to where it wants to surprise the audience. The length of it even reflects the protagonist's thought process to deducing new clues. As for the acclaimed car chase, it's as clean as the engines of the two muscle cars seemed to be. In terms of the score, the jazz approach is sleek. It gives it this noir feel which is a good match for Bullitt's role as an investigator and even goes well with McQueen's "King of Cool" persona.

          Despite these aspects which are quite revolutionary in the action-thriller genre, especially those with cars in them, I'm not entirely sure of this film's purpose. It's based on a book by Robert L. Fish but what was his intention in writing it? Is it a comment on the Cold War in terms of being tied into conspiracy? Was it released the year it was to ponder one's identities of those times or is it just a simple story about a man wondering if he's a good guy or not? Anyone's guess is as good as mine. If it was more focused in its goals, I would have much more respect for it than I do already.

          Also, I must say that I've become so used to action movies of this century that it feels strange for me to watch a feature from before my time. The genre today tries hard to get the thrills out of its viewers while Bullitt has a much more gradual pace. It may work for some but unfortunately, I haven't adjusted to it yet. However, that doesn't mean I'll disregard this movie from here on out. I'm sure I will give it another watch but that's for another time.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

A Star Is Born
Star Rating: 3/4

[Before we get started, I'd like to note that I am reviewing this without ever seeing any of the other interpretations of this story. This is simply fresh in my mind with this viewing.]

There are many times in A Star is Born where the picture feels like a rip-off of La La Land (2016) but the ideas behind both still resonate. In his directing debut, Bradley Cooper has given the world a gut-punching look at the price of fame.

It starts off with renowned alcoholic singer Jackson Maine (Cooper) trying to find a bar after performing. After he find one, he watches the performances of young singer Ally (Lady Gaga). Jackson is blown away and meets her backstage afterward. They spend the night together and develop an attraction toward each other. Jackson discovers her singer-songwriter talent and decides to take her on tour with him.

          Everything that happens covers many years of their relationship. The chemistry between the two leads is so well-crafted. Their first night getting to know each other feels so authentic in the fact that they give off 'I like you but I can't admit it yet' vibes. Normal people know that good relationships take their time to be what they are. Anything hasty ruins it. The film may seem somewhat slow-paced with its 135-minute-runtime but it's taking its time to build off the arcs of the two protagonists. Also, the spark between them becomes more powerful in the can't-miss scenes on stage. When either of them perform solo, it's electrifying to watch but when they're together, now there's some special.

          To be specific, let's start with the auteur himself, Bradley Cooper. I'll say right now: it's nice to see him play something other than Rocket Raccoon, even though he lends a perfect voice for that character, but here we see him direct, write, produce, act, sing and play guitar. Taking on the mantle of actor and director is one thing but the other ones show his range of talents I'm sure many didn't know he had. It's amazing to know he accomplished all feats. His singing is on-key and his guitar playing is impressive. To compare his performance to that of Ryan Gosling's in La La Land, he definitely shines more with his ambitions but the truth is, he has to deal with being upstaged by his female opposite.

          Lady Gaga actually can act and thank God we don't have to see her in those bizarre, tacky outfits at any point in this movie. She seems real and this quality translates into rawness. That rawness defines the character of Ally, a fresh talent who just needed a golden opportunity in her life. This role feels like a new chapter in Lady Gaga's career and boy does she sing her heart out in this movie. Many people may not be fans of her due to people considering all of her fans to be gay, which is why I never was one, but that notion has now been completely shattered. Now might be the time to give her another chance plus my dad started respecting her after she sung the national anthem so if he's OK with her, we all can be too.

          Moving on. To go back to what I said about being a La La Land rip-off, I mean that. This picture presents us with a love story between a man and a woman struggling to make names for themselves and to stay relevant. One of them then goes so far to do so to the point of becoming a hypocrite while the other tries to cope with it. Cooper may have watched La La Land many times for his musical project and while La La Land is better in terms of innovation, craftsmanship and approach, Cooper treats A Star Is Born like a warmup. However, his approach adds more to the message he wants to convey: fame isn't everything people dream it to be.

          The story arcs mirror what may have occurred in each actor's careers. Cooper may even be personally trying to say that even though he likes what he does and feels privileged, he would like to have it on his own terms. It sounds implausible to ask for, but it's probably worth trying. He even gets Dave Chappelle, a known detractor of fame and ironically a well-known actor and comedian, on board his work. Perhaps Cooper chose these people because they all believe in the same idea.

          As a filmmaker, Cooper could do more to wow audiences such as having more elaborate camera movements, even though what we see here is exceptional, but I should cut him some slack. It's his first time directing but I look forward to what he'll do next. As for now, if someone were to ask me if a star is born at any point in the narrative, I'll respond: get to the end and decide for yourself. A Star Is Born works as a talent show for everyone on board and they shine brightly, in front of the camera and behind it.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Star Rating: 4/4

At first discovery, I was flabbergasted to know that such a tale was true. BlacKkKlansman, to me, was first broadcasted as the story of a black man who willingly joins the Ku Klux Klan. Why would Spike Lee make a film like that? It could have been interpreted as African-Americans forced to comply with Donald Trump's presidency but fortunately, that's not what this movie is about. BlacKkKlansman is anything but comfortable viewing but that's what allows audiences to understand its timeliness. I knew I needed to see this film sometime. My only regret is that I didn't see it sooner.

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is an ordinary black man who joins the Colorado Springs Police Department. As he expects, he experiences discrimination from the white cops that work with him in the building. Reading a local newspaper, he sees an advertisement to join the Ku Klux Klan and comes up with an idea: infiltrate it. He dials the number by changing into what he calls his "white voice" and has white man Detective Zimmerman (Adam Driver) pose as him for the operation.

            So, yeah, people could call it the police drama version of Sorry to Bother You from earlier this year, but that would merely be the superficial description. Lee conveys this like a history lesson to show where America was at one point in order to lead up to his views on where it is today. At many points in the movie, Lee's description is rather cynical but he has every right to be so. Dealing with a subject matter such as this one requires blistering critique so people can think the same way and that is what Lee has done.

            One thing people notice about Lee is how he tries to incorporate humor in his otherwise serious projects. That's what many say about his fantastic film Do the Right Thing (1989), but I didn't find it to be funny. For BlacKkKlansman, there are some funny moments such as Stallworth trying to teach Zimmerman how to be white so he can accomplish his mission but it's more blunt with its objective than anything. Sure, the humor calms us down but it's as cringe-worthy as Lady Bird (2017) was. Do the Right Thing and BlacKkKlansman are similar in the sense that people feel they shouldn't be laughing when they know it's supposed to gather that kind of reaction. Nevertheless, the laughs can still be somewhat appreciated. Somewhat.

            Anyway, the heart of it all is its characters. Stallworth has a strong idea of the world around him but he still has much to learn. He is the guy in the middle of everything and keeps watching everything unfold. He is tired o the discrimination around him as is Zimmerman, a Jewish detective. As the Klan discriminates against non-whites and non-Christians, it presents a dynamic that goes beyond black-and-white. These are two characters forced to assimilate to the hatred that surrounds them and are now forced to be involved in something where the hatred is much more obvious. Everything they uncover is rather appalling as it should be for us as viewers.

            As Stallworth and Zimmerman go deeper into their task, the more we learn about the members within the KKK. It is disgusting to the point where it becomes quite scary. They gleefully shout out racial epithets and take pride in killing those who look different from them. These people are natural born killers who could create some sort of Holocaust of their own. It gets even more frightening as we know that David Duke (Topher Grace) is still alive and not incarcerated. Grace seems like an everyman and that makes him convincing as an enemy. This quality is so casual that it can make us believe that racism can bleed through any white man. Lee made a good choice casting Grace.

           The longer this film goes on, the more it hurts seeing it. The writers give subtle nods to where we are now. Duke talks about reverting America to a former "greatness" and shouts "America First" at a rally. This is just the dialogue. There is even one scene where Stallworth questions fellow cops about corrupt cop Andy Landers (the creepy Frederick Weller) and how he pulled over Kwame Kure (a memorable Corey Hawkins). Landers then proceeds to sexually assault Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), who is in the car with True. Stallworth asks why they don't fire Landers. They respond, "Because we're a family" and that they will always be loyal to each other like brothers no matter what. Stallworth then retaliates, "You sound like another group." See where I'm getting at?

            Another scene is where Stallworth talks with one of his superiors about the KKK's war against civil rights and Duke's ambition for public office. Stallworth believes someone as bigoted as Duke could never be elected. His superior basically says: This is America. He then adds that the country has quite a tolerance for people like Duke.

            As BlacKkKlansman comes to its conclusion, Lee shows how American society feels like there is always some equilibrium that takes us nowhere. Cops mistreat black people and view them as criminals. White people accuse black people of horrific crimes and all this continues. The film ends with footage of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year. Duke was there and President Trump ended up defending the white nationalists. The point Lee feels is true has now been made: the KKK is winning their war.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Christopher Robin
Star Rating: 2.5/4

            It is easy to become attached to Christopher Robin and the events that unfold within it. His friends in the Hundred Acre Wood were introduced in the mid-1920s so everyone alive today has been exposed to them at some point. As an audience, we can care for Robin enough to overshadow the formulaic story. It works the way anyone would expect which might have been intentional as a way to make us all feel like kids again. However, it is worth seeing on a personal level.

            Beloved Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) is to leave his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood to attend boarding school. Through a lovely montage reminiscent of Up (2009), we discover that he is left his parents’ house after their passing, became a soldier in World War II and eventually settled down into a normal life with his wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and their daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Robin now works for a luggage company and has long forgotten about his old animal friends. If it wasn’t for this montage, no one would feel so shocked at his gradual loss of innocence. Re-enter Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings).

As anyone could guess, Pooh is innocence personified. Somehow, he manages to enter the real world and finds Robin. Pooh is silly as always but he functions like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994) being wisdom blowing in the wind like a feather. Though it is a bit much due to his rather excessive chatter, it is shown to be useful later on. Personally, I have always been intrigued by voice acting. How can one person be more than one voice for another? Cummings has been playing this character for decades and it is nearly impossible to picture anyone else playing him. The sweet and soft whisper he lends Pooh amplifies the idea of what he is supposed to represent.

So, how does this movie work if it’s not animated like many of Pooh’s adventures have been in the past? Well, it’s not Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) where live-action and animation are half-and-half. The idea is to mix real actors with visual effects. They take the toys of the characters and use the computers to make them move. Fortunately, it is entirely authentic. These instances are not uncommon in this century of movies but it makes Christopher Robin more appealing to the public. It is a brilliant idea for this picture.

Yes, the main idea is to rejuvenate our inner child and Ewan McGregor definitely helps convey this. As the movie progresses, it’s easy to see how much fun he’s having. He should have had fun playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequel trilogy (1999-2005) but he was honestly miscast. McGregor lacked delivery playing Kenobi but brings out the best in himself here with Robin. He is the heart of this film and that is what he provides.

While on the topic of being miscast though, Mark Gatiss, who plays Robin’s boss, may seem that way at first. He portrays his role as somewhat psychotic but towards the end, we become accustomed to it as more time is spent on Christopher Robin. To go back to my interest in voice acting, I am so used to Peter Cullen playing Eeyore that I was reluctant to accept Brad Garrett portraying him, but he did well. Also, I am glad Cummings returned to voice Tigger. The wonderful thing about Tigger is how Cummings plays him with such enthusiasm and joy so the filmmakers made a good call replacing Chris O’Dowd with the man who must play him every time. [Oh bother. I let my childhood bias get in the way of this review. Forgive me.]

On a serious note, the main issue with Christopher Robin is how it unfolds so easily. It is quite predictable. Whatever people thinks happens will certainly happen. I could have expected more to be unraveled if Robin’s family spent more time with Pooh and his friends which would lead to them coming together to help Robin find his joy again. We have a sweet tale of friendship, yes, but there aren’t any stakes for him. He doesn’t risk it all. There’s no crisis. It may be a mid-life crisis but no crisis within it.

Christopher Robin as a whole is flawed. The script knows its characters but it doesn’t entirely know how to be enthralling. Regardless, kids will want to see it as will the kids at heart. Adults may enjoy it but as Pooh says, “it’s always a sunny day when Christopher Robin comes to play.” The sun will shine and smiles will be formed.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Star Rating: 3.5/4

            Fallout, the latest installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise, continues the story presented in the last chapter, Rogue Nation (2015), the way it should. Auteur Christopher McQuarrie’s strategy to bring the best out of the saga is to raise the stakes on both a personal and emotional level and he does. Even though the main point of this film is to just provide some form of escapism for people, it still takes its characters in a new direction. Action movies can do this but this picture uses its clever plot to create an end result that will take one’s breath away.

            Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) captured anarchy-based terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) two years ago but Lane’s followers, known as the Apostles, remain at large. With his teammates Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), they intercept a deal regarding plutonium that would allow the Apostles to cause massive destruction around the world. After a shootout, Ethan manages to save his team but fails in retrieving the plutonium. Millions of lives are now at risk and the team must obtain it before the Apostles can use it while being placed under supervision of CIA Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) to prevent anything getting out of hand.

The best way to escalate anything in a saga is to hit the protagonist right in the heart. Solomon Lane is a villain as cunning as the Joker from The Dark Knight (2008) but knows his enemy’s next decision before they even consider the options. He knows where to attack Ethan. He knows how to exploit the weakness of someone who is considered untouchable. His goal is to always be one step ahead but so is Ethan’s. McQuarrie, who also returns as screenwriter, successfully constructs a labyrinth-like dilemma for Ethan’s team that no one know who will outsmart who. It’s breathtaking.

McQuarrie has worked with Cruise for quite some time now on various projects. They work well together. He can be considered a good asset for the series as we learn what Ethan’s weakness is: his dedication to protecting the innocent. I considered Rogue Nation, McQuarrie’s first time as a director for this franchise, the best one but now that there is more at risk for Ethan in Fallout, it now as a rival. Everything feels big, especially when we get the large overview shots of landscapes and cities. Ethan usually stands in the middle of it all. The look by Rob Hardy is beautiful but it’s more than that. Much more.

In addition to that, some shots look CGI but according to featurettes, they are not. Looking at the action sequences, I can say this: Tom Cruise is insane. He does every stunt on his own because he feels a stunt double would ruin the effect of the scene. He’s right. We can admire any actor who does something crazy. Though I shake my head in disbelief with the fact that he did some of the stunts, he earns respect for his commitment to the craft. In the end, it truly is exciting to watch.

All that aside, the hard truth about Fallout is this: it’s just an action movie. There are no reflections on government or politics here. If there was any inclusion of it into the carefully constructed web already in place and if it was done right, McQuarrie would deserve another Oscar. However, many argue that films need to be all about character in order to be a real film. Fortunately, it is. Ethan and his team remain those people can become attached to and worry about. Although most of that can be from the stunts, the race-against-the-clock motif seen throughout the franchise and other action pictures comes into play the way it is expected and the way it needs to be.

This series became memorable after Ghost Protocol (2011). It was a good film because it just was. With Rogue Nation, there was more to fight for. In Fallout, the same can be said. The difference now is how the villain challenges the hero at every opportunity and does that in more complex manners. Yes, the goal is to just give people a thrill but to that I say: mission accomplished.