“American Fiction” is a social satire by first-time filmmaker Cord Jefferson. It stars Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a brilliant but struggling African American author frustrated with the popularity of novels based on black stereotypes which almost exclusively serve white people who want to seem more racially conscious and, in oversimplified and overused terms, “woke.” As a joke one night, he writes a book parodying this under an alias, and suddenly the book is taken seriously and becomes a massive hit, much to Monk’s chagrin.
After seeing the trailer for this film, it became my most anticipated movie for the rest of the year. Finally, a Hollywood film that criticizes the leaders of the entertainment industry’s attempt to hide their own racial ignorance/insecurities by “promoting” what they perceive to be “minority stories,” which do not actually represent all of said minority group. This trend has been apparent for years and years, so it’s about time a high-profile film tackles it, especially in comedic form. Unfortunately, “American Fiction” doesn’t fully live up to its ambitions.
This film has a constant internal struggle between the much-needed message and the borderline-melodramatic family dynamics. One half of the film is the satire you actually want to see, whereas the other half is a jumbled, uninteresting exploration of Monk’s family. Whenever “American Fiction” focuses on the comedy, it really, really shines. This film has the funniest scenes of the year, and the gradual elevation of the absurdity is glorious. “American Fiction” is one of those incredibly rare instances where every single joke lands. My theater was roaring with laughter throughout, in large part due to Jeffrey Wright’s career-best performance. He plays the cynical aging man flawlessly; every word out of his mouth seems both inspired and exhausted. It is a truly magnificent performance that is well-deserving of an Oscar nomination.
Yet the theme isn’t only portrayed through comedy, but also through quieter moments. The best scene in the movie is between Monk and Sintara Golden (played by Issa Rae), another African American author who wrote the kind of book Monk despises. There is a wonderful, lengthy exchange of philosophies as they banter, during which the film portrays both sides of the argument thoroughly and objectively.
But then we have to cut from those scenes to Monk talking to his newfound girlfriend, or Monk’s homosexual brother dealing with their parents’ homophobia, or Monk having to put his mother in a nursing home. I’m sorry, but I just don’t care… at least about two of those relationships. The brother dynamic works well within the message and themes of the film, but the girlfriend and mother subplots are insufferably dull and unnecessary. This is a two-hour film and I could really feel it. Jefferson should have cut all of the family elements (except for the brother) out of the script and expanded upon the chaos surrounding Monk’s book. As is, the family drama detracts from the momentum of the actually compelling parts of the story.
“American Fiction” is unintentionally engineered for the Fandango Movieclips YouTube channel since it would be so easy to clip 10 laugh-out-loud satirical moments and leave out the boring family drama. This is Cord Jefferson’s first feature film screenplay and I’m sorry to say that it is blatantly apparent. He desperately needed a script doctor to focus the story. At its current state, “American Fiction” is a collection of moments, of two different films stitched together. One film is the modern-day “Dr. Strangelove” (that’s how phenomenal the satire is) and the other is a slightly elevated Hallmark Channel movie.
“The Holdovers” is the latest film from director Alexander Payne and re-teams him with Paul Giamatti 19 years after their hit movie “Sideways.” The film takes place at Barton Academy, a New England preparatory school, in the winter of 1970. When Christmas break hits, most students return home, and the very few who don’t (the Holdovers) are left at the school under the watch of one unlucky instructor. This year, it is the pretentious and deeply frustrated history teacher Paul Hunham (Giamatti) who receives the duty. When Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), Hunham’s sarcastic and rebellious student, is left behind for the break, the antagonistic pair learn just how similar they are… while launching vicious insults at each other.
I knew “The Holdovers” would be special when its opening credits sequence began with the line, “An Alexander Payne Movie.” Not “picture,” not even “film.” A movie. I know this sounds entirely inconsequential, but Payne’s use of the term “movie” is representative of how unpretentious and warm his filmography is. Payne makes movies for the audience, not just for himself. His films are delightfully character-based and packed full of emotion, wit, and humor. He makes the kind of movies we don’t get anymore, the kind that rejuvenated the film industry in the ’70s and ’80s. That’s why he is one of our finest filmmakers and why “The Holdovers” is one of the best movies of the year.
Payne brilliantly decided to give the film the appearance of a 1970s movie. The frame is consistently grainy, with occasional bursts of black or white specks that add to the life and realism of the film. The sound quality even reflects a ’70s film. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, these techniques would feel flashy, unnecessary, and distracting. Under Payne’s smooth guidance, the grainy film and rough sound is utterly charming and transportive. “The Holdovers” really feels like a ’70s movie, and it’s all the better for it.
The performances are the heart of the movie. Paul Giamatti is impeccable at playing condescending curmudgeons and this is no exception. He balances that fine line of being frustrating but never annoying. He is immensely likable despite the character’s plethora of flaws. The humorous core to his performance is his face, specifically his eyes and cheeks. Hunham is written to have a lazy eye that becomes a motif in the film, adding to the aesthetic insecurities of the character. I have never seen an actor utilize their cheek muscles better than Giamatti does here. He is able to vibrate most of his face to amplify the comedy, most notably during one scene in the middle of the movie at a doctor’s office.
This is Dominic Sessa’s first film and it’s impossible to tell just by watching his performance. Sessa is incredible in this movie, able to fire hilarious and vicious banter so naturally. He completely holds his own against Giamatti and their chemistry is immensely palpable.
I haven’t mentioned the third lead of the film yet: Mary, the head chef of Barton’s cafeteria, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Her character is a deeply tragic one. She’s a mourning mother who just lost her son in the Vietnam War, but despite her anguish, she remains a strong-willed and kind figure. Randolph gives an incredible performance, playing the role with the proper subtlety of a woman storing her grief and with the warmth of a loving mother. She is the heart of the film.
The story, while one that we have seen a million times, remains gripping because of how well the characters, their arcs, and their interactions are written. It’s impossible not to root for them and fall in love with their belly-laugh-inducing banter. Watching Hunham and Angus bond is heartwarming but never cheesy or overwritten. This is a (mostly) incredible screenplay by David Hemingson, one that deserves an Oscar nomination.
I qualify that statement with “mostly” because the first act is noticeably inferior to the second and third acts. The first act is still decent, but it ultimately feels drawn out and trim-worthy. It wastes time by having multiple holdovers because all of them leave except for Angus. The other holdovers don’t really affect much of the story, and therefore feel inconsequential. I understand and agree with the filmmakers’ choice to place Angus alone with Hunham, but it could have been written better. The script should have made Angus the only holdover from the get-go or, preferably, make the other holdovers more important to the story. That said, I eventually stopped caring about the relative insignificance of the other holdovers because of how quickly I became invested in the relationship between Angus, Hunham, and Mary. I’m sure most viewers will feel the same.
“The Holdovers” truly is the movie we need right now. It has a rich, intelligent heart that’s absent from most movies today. We could all use an uplifting film, and Alexander Payne has brought us a great one.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is the latest film from acclaimed director Martin Scorsese. The movie is based on a true story about the abuses against the Osage tribe by white businessmen led by William King Hale (Robert De Niro). After the Osage strike it rich by discovering oil in their land, they’re manipulated by Hale, who moonlights as their ally so that whites can take their oil money by marrying and secretly murdering them. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s dim nephew who returns from World War I. Hale sees an opportunity within young Ernest and marries him to an intelligent Osage woman named Mollie (Lily Gladstone). However, Ernest unexpectedly falls in love with Mollie, and as the film goes on he becomes torn between loyalty to his uncle and wife.
When we see “A Martin Scorsese Picture” on a poster, it’s natural to expect nothing short of excellence. This is the mastermind behind “Goodfellas” and “Taxi Driver.” However, we must resist the urge to blindly love everything he does because of his track record, or any great filmmaker’s track record for that matter. In the case of Killers, which has been hailed as a “masterpiece,” I can’t help but feel it’s not being evaluated objectively. If this was directed by an unknown, it would receive far more mixed reception. The truth of the matter is that “Killers of the Flower Moon” is good,not great.
At three-and-a-half hours, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is… tough. I like to say that if a film is going to be longer than “The Godfather” (3 hours), you better earn it. The Lord of the Rings films do this. “The Godfather Part II” does this. “Schindler’s List” does this. Killers doesn’t. It’s not 206 minutes out of necessity, but out of an auteur’s indulgence. When he first wrote the film with Eric Roth, the script was a detective thriller from the FBI’s perspective, which is how the book of the same name was structured. This would’ve made for a faster, tighter film, but because Scorsese and DiCaprio felt Ernest was the “heart” of the story instead of Tom White (the main FBI agent played by the great Jesse Plemons), Roth and Scorsese tore the film “inside out.” In effect, there’s no intrigue or suspense moving the story along. Also, Ernest simply isn’t interesting. He’s too dimwitted to have the complexity of emotions required for a morally conflicted character. I couldn’t care less about him because he didn’t have the intelligence to reflect upon his flaws, and therefore there wasn’t any interesting character development.
After a while, I just stopped caring about all the characters, especially Ernest. This is generally due to the runtime. Mollie was an interesting character in theory, but the film often forgot about her throughout the second half due to its bloated subplots elsewhere. There were far too many scenes of Ernest meeting up with a new character, asking him to complete a task, and then we watch him complete a task we’ve seen a million times before. The first 2 hours are just that formula repeated to death, except with breaks for De Niro and Gladstone to inject life into the film with their acting chops (we’ll get to them later, as they’re the best parts of the film).
Even the last 90 minutes, which are superior to the first 2 hours, could have been trimmed. Without spoiling anything, the last act has DiCaprio’s character make a decision that resolves the conflict, take back that decision, and make it all over again. Those are 20 minutes we don’t need. It’s not as if the film is strictly dedicated to historical accuracy — De Niro is 30 years older than the real Hale was at that time. Then the movie concludes with the most insulting ending Scorsese has ever crafted. Again, without spoilers, he ends the film with a massive exposition dump detailing what would take about 20-30 minutes more to tell, and which are also far more compelling than the first half of the movie. The exposition concludes with an embarrassingly self-aggrandizing Scorsese cameo in which he essentially looks right at the camera to proclaim, “hey look everybody, it’s me!” The message of the film is too important for that kind of ego, and his appearance detracts from said importance. The most aggravating part of this ending, however, is the fact that it essentially says, “We had three-and-a-half hours and $200 million to tell our story but we still couldn’t finish the whole thing, so here’s Scorsese to verbally rush through the ending at you.”
And yes, to those who’ve seen the film, I’m well aware that the point of the final scene was to illustrate how Americans didn’t take the atrocities committed against the Osage seriously. That’s a powerful and necessary message, but instead of cramming it into an exposition dump at the last second, they should’ve made an epilogue to complete the characters’ stories and, more importantly, properly explore that theme. Scorsese should have cut an hour out of the film to 1) make a smoother runtime and 2) give room for a different, extended ending. That way, we’re not insulted by his inability to make a reasonably long movie and we can also absorb the message properly.
Runtime aside, what works about this film? Despite my crotchety ranting, I was never bored during “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Yes, I was disconnected, but I never felt sleepy, and that’s due to the visuals, performances, and, as always with Scorsese’s films, Thelma Schoonmaker’s magic editing. She always knows what shot to place where to make the scene more interesting, and it’s hard to pinpoint her exact style; she’s just damn good at her job. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is also masterful. The landscapes are nothing short of breathtaking and his lighting brings a truly haunting atmosphere that puts you in the trapped position of the Osage people.
No element better makes you feel the dread and oppression of the Osage better than Lily Gladstone’s performance. Her work is far from flashy, instead expressing Mollie’s emotions through eyes and slight mannerisms. It’s a subdued performance that immediately makes the audience connect to Mollie because of how real she feels. Therefore, when tragedies start befalling her and her family, it’s all the more devastating, especially in one scene in which Gladstone releases this raw, heart-breaking scream that Mollie had been holding in throughout the movie. I’d say Mollie, independently of Ernest, is the true heart of the film.
De Niro was just as excellent. I legitimately believe this is his best role since “Raging Bull.” He instills the fear of God in you, playing Hale with a charming outer shell juxtaposed by a spine-chilling evil beneath his eyes. This is a truly transformative performance, the likes of which he hasn’t done since his early days working with Scorsese. I never saw De Niro, only this destructive soul willing to kill anyone in his path without batting an eye. As long as he’s in a position of power, you feel like no one else is safe, and his subtly vicious performance provides the tension which the script failed to build.
I’m shocked that I’m actually saying this, but the weakest element of this Martin Scorsese film is Martin Scorsese. His visuals and direction of actors are stellar as always, but his gift for story momentum is entirely absent. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is devoid of restraint or consideration for the audience, and due to its self-indulgence, it wasn’t able to fully realize its ambitions, although it had the right intentions. I do think the film accomplishes its most important task, which was to put the audience among the Osage people so we could experience their torment. Therefore, it is a decent film overall, but one that is too long and self-indulgent for me to fully recommend.
This isn’t the abomination against humanity which tons of critics and viewers have claimed, but it’s still quite bad. “Secret Invasion” is an utterly insignificant, unremarkable, and forgettable television series made only to add more content to Disney+. It takes one of the most iconic and compelling Marvel comics storylines (which could’ve made for an entire saga with multiple phases, by the way) and morphs it into a boring footnote of a story.
It also continues the trend of godforsaken and hellish MCU writing. The dialogue is so horrendous that it’ll make viewers ashamed of themselves just for listening to it. The pacing is all over the place, sometimes rushed and sometimes lagging behind. Worst of all, it takes characters we loved from previous MCU projects and obliterates them, particularly Nick Fury. Remember the badass, mysterious, hyper-intelligent super-spy from “The Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier?” Remember how cool it was seeing him to go toe-to-toe with godlike beings? Well he’s long gone now. What this show brings us is a sad old man with the IQ of an 8-year-old who is revealed to have never been all that competent or important. Apparently, he used shape-shifting Skrulls to move his career forward all along, never having actually accomplished anything remarkable on his own. Why does Marvel want to tear down its own characters? I don’t get it.
Anyway, there are some redeeming qualities here. Olivia Coleman is fantastic in her role as the hyper-intimidating yet elegant Sonya Falsworth, who’s really what Nick Fury should’ve been. I also appreciate how this show doesn’t have forced humor and tries to be an adult-oriented spy thriller. It also has a memorable score (that’s unfortunately accompanied by an AI-generated opening title sequence). Ultimately, “Secret Invasion” is actually one of the better MCU Disney+ series, which just goes to show how wretched Marvel has become.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem | A-
Wow, what a pleasant surprise. Mutant Mayhem is an extraordinary coming-of-age film reminiscent of the brilliant teen dramadies by John Hughes, only with humanoid turtles rather than people. It has an excellent wit to it, with snappy dialogue that keeps the film lively and the characters grounded. The turtles all interrupt and talk over each other, making that dialogue feel organic and spontaneous. They feel like actual adolescents, and this film benefits immensely by focusing on the Teenage element of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” more than anything else. Donnie’s voice still hasn’t dropped, Mikey hasn’t hit his growth spurt yet, Raph is full of teen angst, and Leo is distracted by his crush on a girl. The animation is also really unique and perfectly fits the chaotic and youthful nature of the turtles. My only real issue with the film is that the final battle was a little forced and had too many characters and events happening simultaneously. The movie comes to a natural thematic conclusion and then continues for another ten minutes just to get some action sequences in for the trailer. Overall though, this was a wonderful experience that has made me a TMNT fan.
Bottoms | B+
Like Mutant Mayhem, “Bottoms” is another pleasant surprise. It follows two lesbian high schoolers who decide to create a school fight club to become popular. The film is incredibly volatile and crude, and that approach worked for the most part. There’s some hilarious jokes that really go for it; nowadays most comedies are prohibited from taking risks, and “Bottoms” isn’t afraid to get offensive and in your face. I laughed out loud multiple times in the theater, which almost never happens to me. Co-leads Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri (who are close friends in real life) have radiant chemistry and despite their characters’ deep flaws (especially Sennott’s), you can’t help but adore them and root for them. The film moves at a brisk pace that never lets up, and despite its small budget it oddly feels larger in scale than it actually is.
Now, the film has two glaring issues: one is what I call “‘Superbad’ Syndrome” — like so many high school comedies since that film’s release, “Bottoms” shares too many similarities. Sennott essentially plays Jonah Hill’s character and Edebiri essentially plays Michael Cera’s character, and they even have a McLovin-esque sidekick who Sennott (like Jonah Hill) berates constantly. Both plots revolve around “nerds” trying to get popular and catch the attention of their crushes. Now, “Bottoms” isn’t a “Superbad” rip-off (that movie’s called “Booksmart”), but the 2007 film’s influence was distracting. The second issue is this movie’s struggle with realism. At times it’s somewhat grounded in reality and at other times (especially the gory ending) it’s about as realistic as “Moonfall.” There was some major tonal whiplash going on. Yet despite its flaws, “Bottoms” put a huge smile on my face and was one of the funniest comedies of the past few years.
“The Creator” is the latest sci-fi film written and directed by Gareth Edwards, the man behind the stellar and immensely underrated “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” After a nuclear bomb destroys Los Angeles, the United States blames widespread and rapidly growing artificial intelligence. Decades later we’re in 2065, when a global war between the Americans and the A.I., who now rule the eastern hemisphere (renamed “New Asia”), is reaching a devastating climax. John David Washington plays Joshua, a former American operative who lost his wife in this long-running battle. Now, he’s brought back into action by the American government and put on a team to capture a mysterious weapon from an A.I. facility, only to discover it’s a young cybernetic child (later named Alphie). What proceeds is an all-too obvious mixture of “Paper Moon,” “Children of Men,” “Blade Runner,” “The Terminator,” and pretty much all other famous sci-fi flicks you can think of.
I won’t lie: I went into this with really high expectations. But how could I not? One of our finest modern science fiction filmmakers returns to the silver screen after seven years, the trailers looked absolutely incredible, and the early reports from test screenings were stellar. I was rooting for Edwards ever since the film was announced, but after seeing “The Creator,” he’s lost my trust.
The original cut of this film was a whopping five hours, and when watching the two-hour-long final product, it’s abundantly clear. This is a jagged, chopped together, racing-to-the-finish-line mess of a film. While the plot is generally coherent, there’s no emotions or investment holding the film together. All of the scenes meant to make us sympathize with the characters are just gone. Despite the heart of the film supposedly being the cliché father-daughter relationship (so clichéd that they literally stole the “You can talk?!” scene from “Logan” — seriously, it even takes place in a car too), you can’t feel it because there are barely any scenes exploring that relationship. In one scene Joshua will hate Alphie and in the very next scene he’ll suddenly care about her. What happened? Where’s the development? These characters need room to breathe. The film just moves from plot point to plot point and set-piece to set-piece without actually getting us invested in the characters.
“The Creator” isn’t experienced, watched, or even viewed; it’s just looked at. There’s nothing to connect to. It’s such an odd experience, and the worst part is that there’s no excuse for it because they did film those needed character development scenes. Those moments are just lying on the cutting room floor, begging to be added. “The Creator” is one of the very few films nowadays that I’d actually want to be longer. And I don’t just mean 5, 10, 15 minutes longer — there needs to be at least 30 more minutes here. The film is bleeding out and needs that runtime transfusion desperately. This is an absolute skeleton of a movie.
Now let’s address one of this film’s biggest selling points: it’s an original sci-fi film from Hollywood! WoAh HoW cOoL! After seeing it, what’s so original about it? Maybe the robot designs, but what else? The story sure isn’t original. Nor is this high-tech dystopian future. It’s just “Blade Runner.” Almost all of the characters are one-dimensional, and the ones that aren’t are just copy/pasted from other movies. We’ve seen the whole war between man and machine before. “The Terminator,” “The Matrix.” Seriously, what about this concept is “original?” What this film actually is is a non-franchise sci-fi movie. That doesn’t mean original, that just means it’s not a sequel, reboot, or remake. And it’s not as if it’s the first in a long time to do this: 2019’s “Ad Astra,” 2016’s “Arrival,” and 2015’s “Ex Machina” just to name a few. Hell, a new sci-fi movie called “Foe” is releasing one week after “The Creator.”
Plus, just because a film is part of a franchise doesn’t mean it’s any less of a film. Let’s look at examples from this year. MI7 is one of the best films of the year. TMNT: Mutant Mayhem is my favorite animated film of the year. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” remains the best sci-fi film of the year.
So, after all that ranting, do I think “The Creator” is a bad film? No, not at all. I’m just disappointed and, frankly, offended by this film when I know it could’ve been so much better. There are some terrific elements in here. The visuals and cinematography are absolutely gorgeous; this is probably the best looking film of 2023. The action sequences are invigorating, energetic, and utterly badass. Some individual scenes are actually quite memorable, namely one in which Allison Janney’s character uses a computer to resurrect someone for thirty seconds. The third act climax is phenomenal, albeit — like almost everything in the film — rushed. Edwards always delivers on his third acts at least. Then there’s the biggest praise I can give any film, which is that it survived a child actor’s performance: Madeleine Yuna Voyles was never annoying as Alphie.
When “The Creator” gets something right, it really gets something right, but when it gets something wrong, it really gets something wrong. It’s the ultimate mixed bag of a film; one which has just as many strengths as it does weaknesses. But that’s not good enough. That should never be good enough, for any film. Those critics calling this film a “masterpiece” (of whom there are thankfully few) aren’t analyzing this movie properly. Just because you think it’s original doesn’t mean it gets a pass for its mediocrity. When people watch this movie ten years from now, they won’t be thinking, “Finally, an original sci-fi movie!” They won’t care about whether or not original films were being made in 2023; they’re just trying to find a good movie to watch on Netflix in 2033.
“Meg 2: The Trench” stars Jason Statham as Jonas Taylor, a sort of James Bond marine biologist… I think. It’s unclear what exactly his job is other than fighting prehistoric sharks. This film doesn’t have much of a plot — at least not a coherent one — and that can sometimes work for B movies like this as long as it’s entertaining. Meg 2 certainly isn’t that. This is corporate sludge from the deepest abyss.
What’s most compelling about this film isn’t the film itself, but rather its development. This is a joint venture between American and Chinese production companies, but it was engineered to cater toward China more than any other nation. This is blatant throughout, as most of the film takes place in and around China, the characters often speak Mandarin, and the co-lead with Statham is a new character (Jiuming) played by Wu Jing, an immensely famous movie star in China. There’s even a Chinese pop song playing over the end credits.
I have no issue with the involvement of China in an American Warner Bros. film, but what I do have an issue with is how evident it is that Warner Bros. designed the film solely to make money in one market. It’s the definition of a cashgrab. “Meg 2: The Trench” has zero passion or effort behind it. There’s absolutely no soul here because it’s just a compilation of events caught on camera that were carefully engineered for Warner Bros. to make money off of the Chinese population. This is not a film. This is a product. This is not meant to be experienced. This is meant to be consumed.
Beyond its corporate feel, there’s so much else wrong with this film. Firstly, the performances. What happened? How could everyone be so abysmal across the board? Statham is plagued with narcolepsy throughout this thing yet he somehow does the best out of the whole cast, except for maybe Wu Jing who’s just fine. The acting is just as wooden, dull, and uninspired as the story. Most egregious is the work of Skylar Samuels as Jess. She has that irritating CW style of acting with the breathy, exhausted voice and the eyebrows that clench together — it’s absolutely impossible to take her performance seriously.
Speaking of irritating, Meiying (the daughter of Statham’s character) is a parasite that further annihilated this already failing film. Just like the weird clone girl from “Jurassic World: Dominion” (which shares a ton of similarities with Meg 2 by the way), the 14-year-old Meiying is brutally annoying as the script contrives ways for her to get involved in situations she shouldn’t be prepared for. Yet again we have the genius prodigy who talks down to the adults because she’s somehow far more intelligent than those experienced, specialized individuals. Honestly, she was a far more unlikable antagonist than any of the unintimidating megalodons.
Another issue is the dialogue, all of which feels like it was written by a bootleg Chat GPT. Here’s some of the banger lines these hack writers came up with:
“Let’s get this show on the water.”
“We’re a strong group. We can do this.”
“We do what’s in front of us. Then we do the next thing.”
“Hey there, treehugger!”
“Help people! Go help all the people you got!”
Now, the film isn’t all bad. The final twenty minutes are actually quite fun and deliver on what the audience wants from a schlocky movie like this. There’s some pretty clever and intense action sequences, albeit too dependent on CGI. I also appreciate that it had a reasonable runtime under two hours. Modern Hollywood’s three-hour-long movie trend is a plague. That’s it though. There’s not much else to enjoy here and there’s certainly no substance either. Martin Scorsese would despise this thing.
“Oppenheimer” is the latest film from renowned filmmaker Christopher Nolan. It stars Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bomb. The film follows Oppenheimer’s journey from shy college student to cocky professor to persecuted outcast.
One of the main selling points of the film is the technology behind it; the first black-and-white IMAX film stock was invented specifically for this film and Nolan infamously avoided any CGI. The film is photographed to perfection by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, whose visuals are often a representation of Oppenheimer’s thoughts more than literal imagery. Ludwig Göransson’s haunting and exhilarating score is another standout. It’s an incredibly creative piece which incorporates sound beats from certain scenes into the music itself. For example, the crackles of Geiger counters and the booming stomps of fellow scientists are part of the music for their respective scenes.
Cillian Murphy’s work as the title character is undoubtedly the best part of the film. Absolute perfection. He’s not merely doing an imitation of the real-life Oppenheimer, but instead creating an entire character for the audience to connect to, while also not always being sure of his motives. Like Oppenheimer, the portrayal is deeply ambiguous, all punctuated by Murphy’s scorching eyes. This is one of the greatest leading performances of the decade thus far. The film requires Murphy to hold its entire weight on his shoulders and he laughs at the challenge.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, as Nolan has repeatedly said, is one of the most important people who’ve ever lived. Nolan smartly chose to portray him as realistically as possible, basking him in all his flaws, mainly his obstructive ego and indecisiveness. Yet he’s also an incredibly charismatic and remarkable man whose genius is absolutely inspiring. Nolan’s passion for this subject is evident in the screenplay, which is his most creative since “The Prestige.”
In the past, Nolan has always struggled with making his conversations both compelling and natural, and he’s finally cracked the code in “Oppenheimer.” The dialogue is razor sharp here and he does a terrific job of making all the science mumbo jumbo easily understandable for the audience.
However, this film becomes deeply frustrating during the third act. The first two acts (which run about 2h 15m) are borderline flawless, with all the riveting character work and tension you’d want as it tells the creation of the bomb. Then when we head toward the finale, Nolan fumbles the ball a bit and creates a mixed bag. Firstly, the third act is tonally all over the place. The entire film leading up to the finale is extremely grounded and almost documentarian, only to be interrupted by a cartoonish scene with Gary Oldman’s President Truman, a portrayal which couldn’t be more goofy and historically inaccurate. As soon as Oldman walks toward the camera with that laughable fat-suit, we’re in trouble.
Additionally, the third act doesn’t know what it wants to be about. Is it a series of FBI interrogations about communist activities? Is it a story about the rivalry between Lewis Strauss and Oppenheimer? Or is it what it should be, a study of the immense guilt and inner torment that haunted Oppenheimer ever since the bomb was dropped? That’s what’s most interesting about Oppenheimer’s story. The “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds” moments. The film definitely has some of those, and when this aspect of Oppenheimer is explored it’s phenomenal, but that needed to take precedent over the other concluding elements. The movie doesn’t have as many gut-punching emotions as it needs because its ending is so cluttered.
My point is proven by the final scene, which is undoubtedly bound to be iconic. It brings that frightening air needed to close out the film with a— pun somewhat intended — bang, covering the horrors Oppenheimer inadvertently unleashed upon our future and plunging him into that Promethean fire… but there should’ve been more scenes like it in the last 45 minutes.
My final issue with the film is a microscopic one but it needs to be mentioned nonetheless: the sex scenes. I’m not a prude, but they were entirely out of place and unnecessary. I don’t want to spoil much so I’ll be vague: the first one was an inexcusably lazy and misplaced reveal of the “I am become Death” line, and the second was oddly A24-esque and so absurd that it elicited laughs from the audience in my theater.
“Oppenheimer” is the latest movie to be wrongfully crowned a “masterpiece” by critics, but it’s still another solid film from Christopher Nolan thanks to the once-in-a-lifetime performance by Cillian Murphy, astonishing technical achievements, and brilliant imagery. If the film maintained its momentum all the way through, it might just have earned that masterpiece title.
The Mission: Impossible films are incredible action movies and one of cinema’s greatest franchises. With the release of Dead Reckoning Part One, here’s my ranking from worst to best.
7. Mission: Impossible II
“Mission: Impossible II” is the only dud of this otherwise consistent franchise, mainly because it feels so out of place. Ethan Hunt feels and acts completely different from all the other films, as he’s more of a James Bond womanizer type here. Hunt is never supposed to be the suave romantic action hero; he’s an extremely dedicated and focused operative with a heart of gold. This film is mainly just a lame romance flick starring Tom Cruise and Thandiwe Newton (who share as much chemistry as oil and water). The direction by John Woo, while confident, is utterly distracting and often annoying, especially with those dreaded doves. MI2 is no abomination, but it’s persistently dull and misguided.
6. Mission: Impossible III
As everyone familiar with this franchise knows, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian is the best Mission: Impossible villain. Hoffman’s ice cold, almost dead line delivery is spine-chilling. There’s nothing over-the-top about his mannerisms; Hoffman plays the character so matter-of-fact that he completely transforms into this frightening character. Aside from that phenomenal performance (and the fiery opening scene), the rest of the film is just average. The story is entirely forgettable and uninspired. Whenever Hoffman is off-screen it’s challenging to stay invested. I also think that J.J. Abrams is the weakest director of the franchise. He uses that repugnant shaky cam/quick cut editing technique to shoot not just action, but pretty much every scene. Sometime it gets to the point where I can’t even see an actor’s face because Abrams is too busy slapping the camera (which is an actual technique he uses — watch the “Star Trek” (2009) behind-the-scenes). Overall, this is still a good film that far surpasses MI2, but it’s unremarkable nonetheless.
5. Mission: Impossible
The fact that this is only in fifth place shows how extraordinary this franchise is. What a thrill-ride. Out of all the movies, this has the least action but remains one of the most suspenseful due to Brian De Palma’s meticulous direction. Ethan Hunt never fires a gun in this film but his exploits are massively entertaining nonetheless. The iconic CIA wire heist is a masterclass in building tension, as is the shocking opening mission. Cruise is incredibly likable out of the gate as Ethan Hunt, with fire pulsing through his veins as he sprints through the film. What holds this one back is its jumbled mess of a plot that doesn’t quite tie together at the end.
4. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
MI5 is a terrific spy thriller. The clear standout of the film is Rebecca Ferguson as femme fatale Isla Faust, the most compelling side character of the whole franchise. The screenplay effectively makes her actions and motivations unpredictable, enabling Ferguson to craft this dangerously seductive rogue. It’s clear why this was Ferguson’s breakout role. MI5 also has the most gorgeous cinematography of the entire franchise, as well as two of its most thrilling stunts: the airplane sequence and the underwater heist. It’s impossible not to sweat watching some of the challenges Cruise takes on. However, this film suffers from an incredibly forgettable plot and from being a little too long. If ten minutes were cut, this would move a lot quicker and be far more digestible.
3. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
This is easily one of the most rewatchable entries in the franchise. Director Brad Bird instills an incredible energy throughout the film, especially during the first two acts. This thing just moves. We go from a prison break to infiltrating the Kremlin to running from the exploding Kremlin to what is, for my money, still Cruise’s finest stunt: the Burj Khalifa climb. It doesn’t get more nail-biting than watching Ethan Hunt clumsily scale the world’s tallest building with faulty suction gloves. The film also benefits from the incredible team dynamic, which might be the best out of all these movies. Each team member has their own complexities and unique traits that make them work so well together. A common complaint is that this film loses steam after the Dubai sequence, and I don’t necessarily agree. It still has momentum for another twenty minutes. The final climax is when MI4 goes downhill — really downhill. It’s embarrassing how this film ends: Ethan Hunt struggles to defeat an out of shape 55-year-old man in a parking lot, who then kills himself for no good reason. That said, the rest of the film is tremendously memorable and some of the most exciting Mission: Impossible we’ve ever gotten, so I had to put it high on the list.
2. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One
Somehow Tom Cruise keeps finding ways to top himself. MI7 has surprising heart and tragedy due to its exploration of Ethan’s relationships and how it all ties into Grace’s origin. I loved learning the process of becoming an IMF agent, though it’s odd we only discover this in the seventh movie. Then there’s the incredible action sequences we’ve come to expect, especially the chaotic car chase and the exceptional train escape. At 163 minutes the film somehow moves at a brisk pace without feeling too bloated. This is also the best edited movie in the franchise. Putting the performances, technical achievements, and emotional story together, MI7 is another fantastic Mission: Impossible flick.
1. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
I say this without hyperbole: “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is one of the greatest action movies ever made, maybe even the greatest. It’s the most tension-filled, pulse-pounding flick I’ve ever seen. That ticking clock ending sequence, particularly the helicopter chase, is terrifying in the best, most heart-racing way possible. Then there’s the vicious bathroom brawl, the riveting motorcycle chase, the breathtaking halo jump, and tons more standout action sequences. Every single one is iconic and brilliant in its own right. Henry Cavill oozes badassery with his million-dollar mustache and reloading fists. This film is also the only one which really makes Ethan Hunt feel like an actual aging human, as he stumbles and struggles a lot more than he used to in earlier films. Everything about MI6 is utter perfection and it’s one of the most consistently compelling movies I’ve ever seen. This is Tom Cruise’s masterpiece.
“Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” is the latest film in the long-running and gloriously consistent action franchise. Tom Cruise returns as the practically immortal secret agent Ethan Hunt on his latest mission: collect both parts of a key which grants control over the Entity, a super advanced artificial intelligence. Once again, the world is at stake, so Hunt and his team must race against the clock, allowing for Tom Cruise to perform more life-threatening stunts.
This film’s predecessor “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is, I’d argue, one of the greatest action movies ever made. It’s certainly in my top five. Therefore, I went in somewhat hoping this movie would capture just as much magic as Fallout, which is essentially a perfect film. After seeing it, MI7 isn’t on Fallout‘s level, but it’s still super entertaining.
Tom Cruise is a living legend and undoubtedly the last true movie star. He’s willing to put his life on the line to get a couple of cool shots, and you have to respect the man for that. Like in “Top Gun: Maverick,” the screening starts with a clip of him thanking the audience for supporting his film in a theater. Such compassion and dedication to his fellow moviegoers is monumental, and that heart is present throughout this whole film.
Obviously, the action in this film is mindblowing. Whether it’s the chaotic Fiat car chase in Rome or the claustrophobic alleyway fight or the heart-stopping train sequence, Cruise never disappoints. It’s all in-camera with minimal cuts because it’s all happening for real; no stuntman is filling in for him and no CGI is interrupting him. Since all the action sequences are actually happening and Cruise is actually pulling off these incredible feats, the film maintains that edge-of-your-seat energy we want from a Mission: Impossible flick. This movie gets even better when compared to all the other blockbusters of today. CGI-ridden films like “The Flash” and “Fast X” simply don’t have that raw grit of MI7, so they’re far less engaging and emotional. I care dramatically more about Ethan Hunt than I do Barry Allen or Dom Toretto because everything happening on screen is practical stunt work rather than visual effects.
Even in comparison to films like “John Wick: Chapter 4,” which also relies on practical stunt work, MI7 outshines the competition. While the situations Hunt finds himself in are over-the-top, the writing sufficiently supports why they’re occurring and makes all the events believable. In the latest John Wick films, it’s hard to care about Keanu Reeves because there’s no justification for him walking off a Wile E. Coyote fall from a six-story building.
The sequences are heightened even further by McQuarrie’s confident and energetic direction. This is his third Mission: Impossible film and seventh collaboration with Tom Cruise, so he’s steadily expanded his filmmaking prowess to become one of the best action filmmakers of all time. McQuarrie is able to make long dialogue scenes feel as riveting as any fight sequence, particularly an exposition scene with Kittridge that floored me. It’s a masterpiece in direction, editing, and sound design.
Speaking of which, this is one of the best edited films I’ve ever seen. Editor Eddie Hamilton (who also worked on “Top Gun: Maverick” and wrongfully lost the Oscar for it) is a genius. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what he does to make each scene so investing. He’s just able to draw you into each scene and, using McQuarrie’s stellar work behind the camera, he crafts a technical wonder.
MI7 is also the most emotional entry in the franchise. It explores Ethan like no other film has done before and utilizes a new character in Grace (played by Hayley Atwell, who I’ll discuss later) to delve into what makes someone join the IMF. There’s also a story choice concerning a major returning character — who I won’t name to avoid spoilers — halfway through the film which legitimately surprised me. I was stunned that the filmmakers had the guts to do it and I couldn’t be happier. The film’s stakes are all the higher for it, not just for the world but, more importantly, for Ethan Hunt as a character.
Let’s discuss the new characters, starting with Hayley Atwell’s Grace, a thief whose world is turned upside down when she encounters Ethan Hunt. Atwell exudes magnetic charisma and gives an instantly lovable performance. She’s very much the point of view character for the audience and therefore the centerpiece of the film. Esai Morales plays the villain Gabriel (an admittedly underwhelming name for an antagonist), a returning nemesis from Ethan’s past who now works as a sort of avatar for the Entity, carrying out its bidding. What makes him so threatening — besides Morales’ stone cold glare and frightening screen presence — is that he can predict every move Ethan and his team will make with the Entity’s guidance.
Unfortunately, MI7 has that detested flaw plaguing most modern films: an overlong runtime. This is a 2h 43m film and there’s no reason for it to be. It thankfully never bores, but a solid ten minutes could’ve been shaved off. Specifically, there’s a nightclub standoff in the middle of the film that should’ve been trimmed to the bone. It’s utterly repetitive, with characters spewing lofty yet predictable expository dialogue.
While it doesn’t come close to the sky-scraping heights of Fallout, “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” is another stellar film from the most consistent action franchise of all time. It’s sheer unadulterated entertainment and adrenaline from start to finish. Bring on part two.
“Past Lives” is the directorial debut of writer/director Celine Song. The film follows Nora, a Korean immigrant who left behind a childhood romance with classmate Hae Sung when she emigrated at 12 years old. Now, over 20 years later, Hae Sung visits the U.S. for a week-long vacation, reuniting with a married Nora.
With a 97% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes and rave reception after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, it’s easy to go into “Past Lives” expecting the next cinematic masterpiece. I went in with my expectations low, not because I thought the film would be bad, but because I strived to avoid disappointment. Thankfully, I left astounded by this extraordinary film.
The key to this movie’s success is the perpetual realism at its core. There are no irrational characters or trashy rom-com lowbrow humor commonly found in romance films. Like Richard Linklater’s “Before Trilogy,” there’s calculated nuance to the conversations and relationships. All three leads (Nora, her husband Arthur, and Hae Sung) are completely relatable. You can see where Arthur and Hae Sung are coming from; neither fall into love triangle archetypes, and they instead behave like mature adults. The complexity of this situation makes this story of lost opportunities all the more heartbreaking.
Song’s direction also grounds the film, as she carefully prohibits style from getting in the way of drama to fully immerse the audience in the story. Her work is most reminiscent of Todd Field’s direction in last year’s “Tár” (he should’ve won the Best Director Oscar by the way).
Where Song really shines, however, is in her writing. The dialogue is gripping without any showy monologuing. Her meticulous story structure transports us across time with Nora. Each character, as mentioned previously, is completely three-dimensional. They all feel like legitimate people who we could know in reality. The events of the film lead to an immensely satisfying ending which, while crushing, makes perfect sense in light of the grounded tone. Song’s screenplay is the most impressive of 2023 thus far, although I do think the film could’ve been trimmed by five minutes. Unfortunately, that’s an issue common in nearly every film nowadays. It’s a plague which even “Past Lives” succumbed to.
You know you’ve seen a terrific film when you find yourself still thinking about it days, weeks, even months later. By the end of “Past Lives,” I couldn’t stop theorizing about what Nora and Hae Sung’s lives would be like if she had remained in Korea, and that’s the true accomplishment of this film.