Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Ben’s Column: Bombshell (2019) Movie Review

Bombshell (2019)

Premise: A group of women take on Fox News head Roger Ailes and the toxic atmosphere he presided over at the network.

In the final title card before the credits roll on Bombshell, it states that Roger Ailes was the highest-profiled figure to be taken down from sexual harassment, “and he won’t be the last”. This message of hope is certainly earned after the film that preceded it, but it’s the overall way it was handled that prevents it from really sticking. The film opens with a fourth-wall breaking monologue from Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) to get us all up to speed on the inner workings of the Fox News network where she anchors her own conservative talk show – Bombshell begins in the early days of the Republican presidential primaries and runs roughly up to the election. Because this is 2019 and we’re living in a post-The Big Short world (no surprise that Bombshell was written by Charles Randolph, the Oscar-winning co-writer of the former), I suppose it’s now mandatory for all films with semi-complex true stories to include some direct to camera speeches, breaking down the ideas at work into easily digestible chunks. But after the beginning, these self-aware moments, including some internal monologues from some characters and a weird visual moment, fall by the wayside in order to tell a more straightforward story. Which ultimately end up being a wise decision from director Jay Roach because those moments just feel like dead weight. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: The Two Popes (2019) Movie Review

The Two Popes (2019)

Premise: Behind Vatican walls, the conservative Pope Benedict and the liberal future Pope Francis must find common ground to forge a new path for the Catholic Church.

When you have an event in the Catholic Church that hasn’t occurred in around 700 years, it’s almost inevitable for a film depiction of that event. In the case of The Two Popes, that event was the abdication of the papacy by Pope Benedict XVI in 2013 and the ascension of Pope Francis. Director Fernando Meirelles, with a script from Anthony McCarten, depicts the event as a series of meetings between the Pope (Anthony Hopkins) and then-cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) as the two debate faith, and the role the church plays in helping its members. The film establishes within minutes, following the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 and the election of a new Pope by the conclave of cardinals at the Vatican, the differences between the two and what is at stake for the church as a whole: one is all about reform, and one is more conservative. Pope Benedict (then-Cardinal Ratzinger) is the favorite, who is seen actively campaigning after the first vote, whereas Bergoglio is more reluctant and even seems relieved when he is not elected. Fast forward seven years and Bergoglio considers retirement when he is called to Rome. The bulk of the film takes place at the pope’s summer home in the Italian countryside where Bergoglio attempts to persuade Benedict to accept his resignation, and Benedict stalls, hoping that he will stay. The film is stripped of some of its drama because we already know the end result, but Meirelles uses these scenes to emphasize the differences between the two men; whereas Bergoglio sees himself as a servant of the people (a core teaching of the Jesuit sect to which he belongs), Benedict believes the church is a beacon on a hill, helping to steer people in the right direction while remaining at arms’ length. “Change is compromise”, Benedict states early in their meeting. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Uncut Gems (2019) Movie Review

Uncut Gems (2019)

Premise: A charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score, makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. Howard must perform a precarious high-wire act, balancing business, family, and encroaching adversaries on all sides, in his relentless pursuit of the ultimate win.

Meet Howard Ratner. He’s Jewish, in his 40s, married with three kids but is in the midst of divorcing his wife. He runs a successful* jewelry business to the stars in Manhattan, and has what can laconically be described as a gambling addiction. Almost everyone is tired of Howard’s shtick as soon as they come into contact with him, including his wife and daughter. The only people he has genuine connections with are his teenage son and his girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox, a breakout star in the making). Physiologically speaking, he has to sleep at some point, but there is no evidence to suggest he does. His mind is constantly racing, moving from one deal to the next, trying to get ahead and hit the jackpot. He’s a machete juggler where all of the machetes are on fire, and he’s prone to dropping them a little too frequently. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) Movie Review (Non-Spoiler)

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

Premise: The surviving Resistance faces the First Order once more in the final chapter of the Skywalker saga.

In The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren tells Rey “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” The line, along with many other plot developments, was read as director Rian Johnson’s overt message to fans to let go of any preconceived notions of what a Star Wars movie should be. It was a bold move, considering fans have done nothing but look to the original films, hoping to reclaim the glory and joy that they felt when Star Wars was at its peak. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Frozen II (2019) Movie Review

Frozen II (2019)

Premise: Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven leave Arendelle to travel to an ancient, autumn-bound forest of an enchanted land. They set out to find the origin of Elsa’s powers in order to save their kingdom.

Look. When you’ve got one of the most profitable films of all time like Frozen in your back pocket, there’s bound to be talks of a sequel. This is 2019 after all, and the studio that made Frozen is Disney, who’s never met an original property it couldn’t shoehorn into a prequel, sequel, or spin-off. Not to mention the untold millions Disney has raked in from merchandising ever since – if you’ve gone a single Halloween since 2014 without seeing an Anna or Elsa or Olaf costume, you’re either lying, or weren’t paying attention. None of this is surprising. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: Parasite (2019) Movie Review

Parasite (2019)

Premise: All unemployed, Ki-taek and his family take peculiar interest in the wealthy and glamorous Parks, as they ingratiate themselves into their lives and get entangled in an unexpected incident. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: The King (2019) Movie Review

The King (2019)

Premise: Hal, wayward prince and heir to the English throne, is crowned King Henry V after his tyrannical father dies. Now the young king must navigate palace politics, the war his father left behind, and the emotional strings of his past life.

The King may not be the longest, the most plot-heavy, or even the most complicated movie of 2019, but it may be the most tedious to get through. Here’s a fun parlor game you can play with your friends: gather everyone together and turn on The King. The first person to either nod off or check his or her phone loses. Best of luck to you, because I would have failed this challenge within the first 30 minutes. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: The Lighthouse (2019) Movie Review

The Lighthouse (2019)

Premise: The hypnotic and hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s.

“I knew ye was mad when ye smashed that lifeboat and chased me with that axe” Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake bellows to Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow (or is it Thomas Howard?) late in The Lighthouse, the newest from director Robert Eggers, after his breakout success of The Witch. The question, on its face, isn’t all that significant. What makes it stand out – and emblematic of the entire film – is that, just minutes earlier, we see the exact opposite happening with Dafoe madly chasing Pattinson. Is Dafoe messing with Pattinson? Was it a drunken hallucination? Is Dafoe the crazy one, or is Pattinson (or both)? Throughout The Lighthouse, Eggers has the audience constantly question what he just showed us, as his characters descend deeper and deeper into madness.

When The Witch debuted in 2015, praise was rightfully heaped on Robert Eggers for his thorough commitment to realism. Each detail felt lived in and authentic, from the dialogue to the sets that were built. For The Lighthouse, Eggers continues to raise his game – the crew even built a life-size lighthouse off the coast of Nova Scotia. Not only do both actors talk like they were plucked from the shores of New England at the turn of the century, but the minimalism of the island truly helps to feed the madness as it sets in. Shot by Jarin Blaschke on black and white film and given an almost square aspect ratio to evoke a more claustrophobic mood, The Lighthouse looks unlike any other movie you’ll see this year. Eggers and Blaschke take full advantage of the lack of running electricity to create some fantastically memorable images. Many scenes are only lit by a single light source, and the resulting shadows on Willem Dafoe’s face almost gives him an inhuman appearance. Pattinson at one point makes his way up the lighthouse stairs, where the lens is only visible through a metal grate. Eggers holds the camera on his face as he’s mesmerized by the glow, as patterns of light and darkness constantly dance across his face. He wants to be in the light, but just can’t break through.

The Lighthouse is a film where we can essentially guess the outcome from the beginning, but the process that Eggers takes to get there is full of fun and madness nonetheless. The story is mostly told from Pattinson’s perspective, so we see all of Winslow’s hallucinations and fantasies, though we’re never totally on his side. Is he justified in his accusations, or is he just a paranoid drunk? The cast list is literally three actors long: Dafoe, Pattinson, and Valeriia Karaman, who plays a mermaid, so there is no outside perspective to make any distinction between who is right and wrong. Of course, Pattinson and Dafoe give incredibly layered performances, one seeming to one-up and out-crazy the other. Both characters feel like real people with real grievances though; in lesser hands they could have easily slipped into caricature. And Eggers gives each actor plenty of meat to chew: Pattinson has a great scene where he drunkenly airs his criticisms, and Dafoe gives a terrifying yet exaggerated response.

Ben’s Column: Dolemite Is My Name (2019) Movie Review

Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Premise: Eddie Murphy portrays real-life legend Rudy Ray Moore, a comedy and rap pioneer who proved naysayers wrong when his hilarious, obscene, kung-fu fighting alter ego, Dolemite, became a 1970s Blaxploitation phenomenon. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: The Laundromat (2019) Movie Review

The Laundromat (2019)

Premise: In this dramedy based on the Mossack Fonseca scandal, a cast of characters investigate an insurance fraud, chasing leads to a pair of a flamboyant Panama City law partners exploiting the world’s financial system. Continue reading

HIFF2019: Ben’s Column – Go Back to China (2019)

Go Back to China (2019)

  • Narrative Feature/Official Selection
  • 96 Minutes/2019/USA
  • Comedy/Drama
  • Director: Emily Ting

Premise: When spoiled rich girl Sasha Li blows through most of her trust fund, she is cut off by her father and forced to go back to China and work for the family toy business. Continue reading

HIFF2019: Ben’s Column – International Falls (2019)

mv5bzwu2owywztetyzu1os00mzjllwjmnjutmjnjzdnkowvknda0xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymta1ntazotg40._v1_sy1000_cr007601000_al_
4.5 stars

International Falls

  • Narrative Feature/Official Selection
  • 96 Minutes/2019/USA
  • Comedy/Drama
  • Director: Amber McGinnis

Premise: A woman stuck in a small, snowbound border town has dreams of doing comedy when she meets a washed up, burned out comedian with dreams of doing anything else.

Continue reading

Ben’s Column: El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) Movie Review

mv5bnjk4mzvlm2utzgm0zc00m2m1lthkmwetzjuyn2u2ztc0nmm5xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyotazmtc2mja40._v1_sy1000_sx800_al_
4 stars

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)

Premise: A sequel, of sorts, to Breaking Bad following Jesse Pinkman after the events captured in the finale of Breaking Bad. Jesse is now on the run, as a massive police manhunt for him is in operation.

Continue reading

HIFF 2019: Ben’s Column – A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem (2019)

mv5bnju2nzrmmgetodhmmi00ntvmlwjkywutntqymjqwndvhzduwxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtewota3ndu40._v1_sy1000_cr006691000_al_
3.5 stars

A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem (2019)

  • Documentary Feature/Official Selection
  • 81 Minutes/USA/2019
  • Directed by Yu Gu

Premise: Football and feminism collide in this documentary that follows former NFL cheerleaders battling the league to end wage theft and illegal employment practices that have persisted for 50 years. Continue reading

Ben’s Column: The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) Movie Review

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Premise: A young man searches for home in the changing city that seems to have left him behind.

A young black girl stares up at a man in a hazmat suit while a street preacher rants and raves about the contaminated water poisoning the residents. This is the introduction we get to Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Monty’s (Jonathan Majors) version of San Francisco in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”; far from the trolleys, five-star restaurants and tech headquarters of the city. The Golden Gate Bridge is off in the distance, but it’s far enough away that you may forget that it exists. Reality is certainly heightened here, but not so much to seem unbelievable. The film is loosely based on the true-life story of Jimmie Fails, who shares a story credit with first-time director and his childhood friend, Joe Talbot. Jimmie and Monty- both young, under-employed black men with dreams of bigger and better things- share a crowded bedroom in Monty’s blind grandfather’s house on the outskirts of the city. At night, when Jimmie isn’t working at a nursing home, the three watch old movies as Monty lovingly describes the action. On occasion, the two skate into the city to look after and fix up an old Victorian home in the Mission district that’s currently owned by an elderly white couple. Why is Jimmie so immersed in the upkeep of the home? He explains early on (to a Segway tour full of white people, of course) that the house was designed and built by his grandfather with his own two hands after World War II. Soon, the couple moves out and the home is abandoned, so Jimmie and Monty take over and renovate as they believe it should be, preserving as many details as Jimmie’s grandfather intended.

Continue reading