Exactly 100 years ago today, FW Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror debuted in Berlin. The now infamous horror film was an unauthorized and unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that set the ground rules for a century of horror films to come. Let’s take a look back at Nosferatu and celebrate its 100th birthday.
Nosferatu was backed by Prana Films, a short-lived German film studio founded by Enrico Dieckmann and Albin Grau. Grau was an occultist, who was inspired to produce a vampire movie after a Serbian farmer told him his father was one of the undead. Henrik Galeen was inspired to actualize Grau’s vision and wrote a screenplay largely based on the classic Dracula novel.
Filming took place in the summer of 1921, helmed by director FW Murnau. Max Schreck played the ominous Count Orlok, who has since become a staple imagery in pop culture. Schreck’s performance is so frightening that a film in 2000 called Shadow of the Vampire was developed, which told a fictional take on the making of Nosferatu with Schreck being an actual vampire.
The film made its debut on March 4, 1922 in the Marmorsaal of the Berlin Zoological Garden. Members of Berlin’s elite class were invited to the preview screening and arrived in Biedermeier costume. Nine days later, Nosferatu had its official premiere at Berlin’s Primus-Palast.
So, ultimately, what makes Nosferatu so iconic and why are we talking about it 100 years later? Well, for starters, Nosferatu is genuinely scary. A century on and the film remains chilling and unnerving. Count Orlok’s silhouette is immediately recognizable to this day, and has been the influence of various movie monsters and vampires over the decades, as seen in projects like Salem’s Lot, What We Do in the Shadows, and Midnight Mass. There is an eerie quality to Nosferatu that is difficult to put your finger on. Being a black-and-white silent film, there’s a rawness and somewhat minimalist quality to it that makes it all the more frightening. Nosferatu is a model for how to capture atmosphere in the context of a horror film. The artistry underlying the shadowy and menacing imagery is captivating.
Nosferatu, in many ways, remains the definitive vampire film. It’s a testament to the longevity and sheer quality of the film that it’s still discussed by horror enthusiasts and movie fanatics alike in such glowing terms. If you haven’t seen the legendary vampire picture, now is the time. Happy 100th birthday, Nosferatu!
From Carrie to Get Out to Audition, there have been a fair few entries into the subgenre of ‘romantic’ horror films, but none quite as refreshing (excuse the pun) as Fresh for quite some time. Fresh marks the directorial debut of Mimi Cave, working from a sharp screenplay by Lauryn Kahn. Fresh is an infinitely better experience if you go into it knowing as little as possible. At its bare bones, the film follows a young woman named Noa (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones), who, amidst her struggles in the modern dating scene, falls for a charming man named Steve (played by Sebastian Stan).
Fresh highlights why fans love horror films. This is horror cinema at its most disturbing, timely, and, oddly enough, fun. Director Mimi Cave and screenwriter Lauryn Kahn throw away many of the conventions of cinema we’ve come to expect, which makes Fresh a stylized and gripping film that always keeps you on your toes. For a surprisingly sizable chunk of the runtime, it’s almost entirely unclear what direction the film is heading in. While some may find this pacing frustrating, it positions the audience firmly in the perspective of our lead, making all of the twists and turns that come feel particularly visceral.
Fresh also excels in its excellent demonstration of how horror can (and often is) more effective when it is suggested rather than shown. Disturbing imagery is seldom seen, in favor of an approach that lets your own mind create the horror as the plot unfolds. Screenwriter Lauryn Kahn also demonstrates this approach to horror with a subtle, yet poignant, incorporation of themes related to toxic masculinity and objectifying attitudes toward women. The themes at play here are very much relevant in day-to-day living and, with a sharply written screenplay, brought to life in newly horrifying ways in the film.
All of this wouldn’t work without compelling leads, which, thankfully, Fresh has in abundance. Daisy Edgar-Jones, who viewers may know from television shows such as Normal People, Cold Feet, and War of the Worlds,is perfectly cast as the film’s lead Noa. Edgar-Jones performs so naturally and intuitively, and immediately becomes a protagonist we empathize with and root for. Sebastian Stan plays her counterpart Steve in an equally immersive performance. Stan has had his fair share of excellent performances in projects like I, Tonya, Destroyer, and Pam & Tommy, but this may be his best work yet. From the moment he enters the film, Stan captivates.
Fresh is a surprisingly stylized and poignant entry in the subgenre of romantic horror cinema. Discussing the plot of Fresh is a disservice to the brilliant twists and turns in store, so simply sit back and watch this film knowing as little as possible beforehand. Commanding lead performances from Daisy Edgar-Jones and Sebastian Stan are accompanied by a sharp and mysterious screenplay from Lauryn Kahn in a gripping horror film from Mimi Cave in her directorial debut. Fresh is a film that is equally disturbing, timely, and fun, making it a must watch for horror fans and general movie lovers alike.
Agatha Christie remains one of the best selling authors of all time, only outsold by Shakespeare and The Bible itself. It makes sense then that we’ve seen iteration after iteration of her most famous stories and characters on the big and small screen. The latest is Death on the Nile, once again starring, written, and directed by Kenneth Branagh in a follow-up to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express. The latest Hercule Poirot mystery follows the legendary detective, who finds himself in Egypt with the life of a wealthy heiress under threat.
Death on the Nile is a refreshing, intelligent, and, ultimately, thoroughly enjoyable murder mystery. The film adopts a slower paced structure than what viewers may be used to in this genre, which is a good thing, because the pacing contributes significantly to the tension and intensity of Death on the Nile. Like the incredible source material the film is based on, the ‘murder’ part of this murder mystery doesn’t occur until roughly halfway through, leaving plenty of time for the audience to understand each of the characters and their motives. And, when the murder eventually occurs, we see Branagh’s Poirot fully in action as he unravels the case.
Branagh is the real star of the show here. He’s more settled in the role of Poirot compared to Murder on the Orient Express. With his second film as the character, Branagh is growing more and more confident in the role and has put enough unique spins on the character to make it his own. Unlike Christie’s original novel, Branagh dedicates more time to developing Poirot as a character, which is a little hit-or-miss. A beautifully crafted black and white opening sequence sets the stage for the powerful themes of love in the film, but the attempts to connect this theme more closely to Poirot himself feel a little forced – in particular, a love interest for Poirot that never really works. Outside of Branagh, the effectiveness of the cast is mixed. Performances from Gal Gadot and Letitia Wright fall flat or, unfortunately at times, but across as unintentionally funny. Meanwhile, supporting players Emma Mackey, Tom Bateman, Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders excel in their roles.
Beyond the characterization of Poirot, Branagh remains faithful to Christie’s novel to a film that he makes feel like a grand, cinematic endeavor. The film is beautifully shot, and the on-location shoots add to a sense of genuineness and grandiosity that the film has in abundance. The ship on which the bulk of the film is set is also terrific in feeling like a character unto itself. Branagh intelligently introduces the audience to the geography / layout of the ship, which viewers feel closer to the mystery and characters at hand.
Death on the Nile is a faithful adaptation of Agatha Christie’s iconic novel, marking another grand theatrical effort from writer, director, and star Kenneth Branagh in bringing the iconic Hercule Poirot to the big screen. Some weak performances and misguided characterization of Poirot take away little from what is an enthralling and visually stunning murder mystery. Fingers crossed there are more Agatha Christie adaptations like this in the future.
Uncharted has had a rocky and interesting road to the big screen to say the least. Fifteen years in development, a myriad of directors circling the project, and pandemic-related difficulties and delays have seen fans eagerly wait for this long-awaited video game adaptation. Uncharted follows Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) as he teams up with veteran explorer and scavenger Sully (Mark Wahlberg) in an effort to find Drake’s long lost brother and recover a lost Spanish treasure.
Uncharted is a tricky movie to adapt. The video game is heavily inspired by the Indiana Jones franchise (so much so that Harrison Ford did a nod of the cap to the franchise in a commercial for the game. In translating a franchise to another medium (film to video game), Naughty Dog were able to overcome potential pitfalls with unoriginal storytelling and, eventually, craft one of the best video game franchises of all time. However, with an Uncharted film, we’re dealing, in some ways, with a film to video game to film adaptation. That’s not to minimize the characters, style, humor, puzzles, and everything that the Uncharted games do so brilliantly. It’s just that, unfortunately, this journey to the big screen makes the film feel quite unoriginal. Indeed, viewers who have never played the Uncharted video games are likely to be confused as to what all the fuss was about the source material.
Uncharted plays like a cross between Indiana Jones and National Treasure (which is not necessarily a bad thing). The film has an old fashioned adventure feel to it, with the characters uncovering clue after clue to reach the treasure. It’s not anything we haven’t seen before, but it’s entertaining nonetheless. Fans of the video game will enjoy the puzzles Drake and the others solve along the way, although these fall short of being immersive experiences for the audience. The action is intense, but ultimately serviceable. However, a set piece involving the characters falling from an airplane was very impressive.
Carrying us along this adventure are Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg. The two actors really anchor the film and they have great chemistry from start to finish, often mimicking the relationship of Drake and Sully from the games. That being said, Holland and Wahlberg are ultimately just Holland and Wahlberg in this film. This is nothing we haven’t seen from Mark Wahlberg in a handful of other movies in the past. The same can be said for Tom Holland, who was initially a questionable choice for the role of Drake when announced. Holland does what he can with the writing at hand, but it’s difficult not to imagine what this film would have looked like had it been led by an actor more akin to Drake in the games. As far as villains go, Antonio Banderas is certainly a presence on screen, but unfortunately doesn’t amount to much as the big bad. Sophia Ali and Tati Gabrielle though are terrific as other treasure hunters.
Uncharted is a serviceable action movie, but, unfortunately, not much more. It’s certainly an entertaining watch, with charismatic leads, an easy-going treasure hunting story line, decent action set pieces, and some twists and turns. The film, however, is sorely lacking in originality and, as a video game adaptation, fans may be slightly underwhelmed.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers for Dexter: New Blood
Eight years ago, the groundbreaking Showtime series Dexter ended its original run with a divisive finale, one that is often in the discussion for worst TV endings ever. Dexter needing to kill his sister to put her out of her misery and abandoning his own son before moving to Oregon to become an isolated lumberjack was labeled by some as a betrayal to the audience. In fact, some of the series’ cast and crew even spoke out about the finale, with star Michael C. Hall ruing the execution of the ending and stating he had never even sat down to watch it. Suffice to say, despite being one of the most memorable shows of the century, Dexter’s finale left audiences completely unsatisfied with what they had witnessed.
Enter Dexter: New Blood. Michael C. Hall had never ruled out returning to the role in the years since, but always said that he would only do it if the script was right and enough time had passed. With nearly a decade gone since Remember the Monsters?, enough time had passed to allow audiences to reflect (and perhaps release their anger) over the original ending. Original series showrunner Clyde Phillips was brought on board early, attempting to replicate the “golden years” of the show in seasons 1-4. Hall was convinced by the ideas put forward, and New Blood was born, ready to make up for the finale and divisive latter years of the show.
Of course, from the moment it was announced, everyone wondered about one thing: the finale. But in a ten episode season, the finale is only the one part, albeit the most important one. Therefore, to properly review Dexter: New Blood, we’re going to take a look at the season as a whole before moving into the specifics of the finale.
Dexter: New Blood revolves almost entirely around events that occur in its first episode, in which the title character impulsively kills Matt Caldwell, son of the unofficial mayor of the town, and Harrison arrives in Iron Lake. Caldwell’s killing leads to Dexter scrambling to cover it up, and sets forth a series of events where Angela is hot on his tail for suspicious behavior. Meanwhile, Harrison presents an interesting challenge to Dexter, who wants to connect with his son but doesn’t really know how to, outside of addressing his dark passenger, which he’s extremely hesitant to do.
Broadly speaking, the Matt Caldwell murder plot is well done and a highlight of the season. The actual kill itself hits all of the nostalgic beats from the original run, including Dexter’s famous kill room and saying the two most famous lines in the show’s history: Tonight’s the Night and Hello, Dexter Morgan. Beyond that, the implications of the murder make it so that it wasn’t just a random Dexter kill. Rather, it sets up the entire season, from Dexter covering his tracks to him finding out Kurt Caldwell is a serial killer, to the rivalry between the two.
The Kurt Caldwell Runaway killer plot is certainly slow burn, particularly at the beginning, but it eventually kicks into higher gear around the halfway mark of the season. When Dexter connects the dots that Kurt is a killer, Harrison begins to take a liking to him, causing a dilemma for the protagonist. This push and pull is executed well as it puts Harrison in the middle of two serial killers. In doing so, the audience, and later Harrison, is allowed to compare the morals of the two. Dexter as a show always enjoys pitting the title character’s morals against his enemies, with the Trinity Killer a particular highlight of this. Clancy Brown’s portrayal of Kurt is arguably one of the best of the entire series, as his kindness becomes haunting as the audience learns his true nature. Brown plays Kurt in a similar fashion to John Lithgow and Arthur Mitchell, as both are men with kind exteriors that slowly begin to unravel as the seasons go on and their true nature is exposed. Kurt Caldwell certainly goes down as an all time Dexter adversary, right up there with Trinity and the Ice Truck Killer.
One negative aspect of the Kurt serial killer plot line is its relative unimportance in the grand scheme of things. Dexter and Harrison dispose of him in the ninth episode, leaving the finale to tie up the rest of the plots (more on that later). Ultimately, while Kurt was a big part in notifying Angela of Dexter’s actions against Matt with his note at the end of the penultimate episode, he didn’t serve much of a purpose outside of that. Kurt was more just a serial killer who existed and was active at the same time as Dexter’s life began to change rapidly, and was killed before the end so that the final episode could focus on the more important things.
As mentioned previously, key to the Kurt Caldwell plot is Harrison, who arrives in Iron Lake in episode 1 aiming to reconnect with his father and finally have years worth of questions answered. The relationship between Dex and Harrison is the backbone of the entire season, with every plot threat connecting to the father-son bond, or lack thereof, in some way. Dexter struggles to connect with Harrison in a way that is painful for both characters as well as the audience. The entire 100+ episode series as a whole ultimately comes down to Dexter’s loneliness and attempts to connect with someone on a personal level, and to finally feel accepted. So to have his son in Iron Lake, ready to finally have a relationship with his father, but Dexter’s dark passenger complicating matters is heartbreaking. For Harrison, he feels abandoned and alone, much like his father, and the writers do a great job of making you feel for the character.
All of this is done for a reason, though, and leads up to a great payoff. Dexter and Harrison escaping Kurt, in what was one of the most intense episodes of the entire series, leads to the two finally connecting. Dexter reveals his dark passenger to Harrison and everything goes smoothly (for now). It’s a great moment years in the making, with many fans upset that Dexter left his son in the first place. Now, he finally seemed set to make amends and be there for Harrison in a way that he wasn’t before.
It’s impossible to talk about Dexter without mentioning the amazing Michael C. Hall. His portrayal of the title character is so unique, and the actor gives a performance that no one else would be able to. He embodies the character in such a way that the entire show is made simply by his presence. As long as he’s on screen, even if the writing isn’t up to scratch, the show remains compelling and entertaining. Alongside Hall is another acting highlight of the season, Jack Alcott. Alcott’s role as Harrison could have been a difficult one: he comes in and challenges an already established, beloved main character and butts heads with him. He argues with Dexter, he complains often, and causes his father headaches throughout most of the season. It’s easy to see how the audience could have turned against Harrison in the bulk of this season, but Alcott’s performance makes you feel for him and sympathize with him so much, even amidst the audience’s attachment to Dexter. There’s no doubt that Alcott will go on to do big things in Hollywood from here.
Julia Jones also stars as Angela Bishop, the police chief of Iron Lake. Jones is another who has a solid performance throughout, but her character’s plot is unfortunately bogged down by some strange writing. For the first half of the season, her arc is trying to figure out where her best friend from high school disappeared to, and this comes to a head when she finds her friend’s body in the caves outside of town, and immediately believes Kurt to be the killer (and rightfully so). All of that is fine, and links her to the Runaway Killer plot in a nice way, but the other half of Angela’s storyline in the season is her investigation into Dexter. She becomes suspicious of him after coincidentally bumping into none other than Angel Batista at a police conference, with David Zayas reprising his role as the iconic Miami Metro detective. It’s certainly more than a little convenient that she meets Batista, but it gets even more questionable when they get on the topic of the Trinity Killer. Batista mentions a man named Dexter Morgan as someone who helped solve the case, before mentioning that he died, but not before he had a son named Harrison. For some reason, a man who Angela believed she didn’t know, at least by that name, having a child named Harrison led her to look up Dexter and find his true identity. Thankfully, her daughter Audrey provides the information that Harrison said while intoxicated: that Jim Lindsay is not his real name. This makes the beginning of Angela’s pursuit a little more logical.
The issues with her investigation extend into the Bay Harbor Butcher case as well. Dexter’s brawl with the drug dealer outside of a bar led her to confront the man he beat up, who told Angela that Dexter poked him in the neck with a needle. Angela then finds out that Dexter purchased ketamine, and connects this to the Bay Harbor Butcher case. However, Dexter used M99 in the original run, not ketamine, and no one at Miami Metro or the FBI ever noticed that the BHB victims had needle marks in their neck. Somehow, though, that information found its way onto the internet in the years since, even as the bodies undoubtedly decomposed to the point of no return. The choice to use ketamine is understandable, if a little frustrating at times, as Dexter finding such a controlled substance like M99 in a small town like Iron Lake would have been extremely hard to write. And while it’s possible that someone somewhere noticed the needle marks on all the victims in Miami, it brings up too many questions about the specifics of it all and how that was figured out. While Jones continues to portray Angela well through all of this, it is a little bit of a disservice to her character that her plot is bogged down by these negatives. Another disservice to the character is that she abandoned the investigation into her best friend’s death to focus on Dexter, which is a jarring switch and seems odd given how dedicated she was to that for the first half of the season. One wonders if it might have been better to have her balance both plots at the same time rather than focus solely on Dexter, if only to make her investigation more logical.
All of this leads to the episode that people were most curious, and perhaps nervous, about: the finale. “Sins of the Father” serves as a conclusion to many of the plot lines discussed above, and much of the episode is well done. If you can get over the investigational inconsistencies, Angela coming to arrest Dexter makes total sense in the context of the season, and this event occurring so early in the episode is a startling reminder that anything could happen in the finale. From there, Dexter is up against it in a way that he hadn’t been since LaGuerta brought him in in season 7. He’s being accused of murder, and not just Matt Caldwell’s, but of being the Bay Harbor Butcher as well. The number one rule is don’t get caught, and Dexter gets more than dangerously close here; he is caught, with accusations being thrown at him that threaten to expose who he really is. The suspense here is extremely well done, as the audience truly doesn’t know what will happen next.
What does happen next will prove to be extremely divisive with fans. Dexter panics, scared to be imprisoned and given the death penalty, and tries to escape. In doing so, he breaks the code by killing Logan, an innocent man. While he certainly didn’t set out to kill Logan, he knew what he was doing and was determined to do anything to get out. What’s interesting here is that Dexter was rarely willing to kill someone innocent to free himself from capture. He refused to kill Doakes, and only kidnapped LaGuerta because Deb knew at that point and was in danger of being hurt by the accusations. Moreover, it’s a little odd that Dexter was so panicked by these claims by Angela. She admitted that she didn’t have enough to stick for the murder of Matt Caldwell, and presented pretty circumstantial evidence to link him to the Bay Harbor Butcher murders. We all know Dexter is impulsive and, for all of his intelligence, is capable of making a bad decision, but it’s hard to believe that Dexter would be so frantic and fearful of the accusations, especially given all of the evidence linking Doakes to the crimes. The evidence against Dexter doesn’t really seem enough to throw out the hard “facts” against Doakes, that were there in both seasons 2 and 7. However, Dexter is older now, and he’s on the cusp of a real relationship with his son for the first time, so perhaps these factors played into his erratic decision making.
Then, there’s the ending. It proves to truly be an ending, for Dexter at least. Harrison realizes what he did to Logan and quickly turns on his dad, despite Dexter begging him to come with him and discuss what happened later. Harrison’s abrupt change of heart feels too rushed, especially as he seemed fine with killing in all of episode 9 and the majority of the finale. Dexter killing Logan simply opened Harrison’s eyes to the idea that his father kills people to feed his addiction, not just to save innocent lives as he had been told. However, it seems odd that Harrison didn’t connect those dots before, as the whole point of Dexter’s killing, as he explained to his son, was to feed his dark urges by bringing justice to the world. Logan obviously meant a lot to Harrison, but the events that occurred right after this moment seemed excessive.
Harrison’s turn on his father leads him to see that Dexter’s actions caused the death of his mother, Rita, as well as his aunt Deb and countless others. He quickly makes Dexter realize this, as the title character admits fault in a way he never really has before. The concept of Dexter being indirectly responsible for the death of others is something that the show has played with for a while, but they make it definitive here. This continues as Dexter asks Harrison to kill him, knowing that he won’t go with him and refusing to go to prison. Harrison isn’t like his father, he claims, but still kills anyway. And not just anyone, but his own father, something that not even Dexter did. While Dexter put others in danger, he never directly killed anyone that he cared about. This scene felt rushed, and could have been dragged out for much longer, if only to help smooth out some of these questions. After this, Harrison is told to run by Angela, and it ends with him driving out of Iron Lake.
Ultimately, the ending of this commits to the same concept that the original finale introduced: Dexter is evil, a destructive force, and is not to be sympathized with. It seems as if the reason why the original ending didn’t go down well, and why the conclusion of New Blood will almost certainly suffer the same fate, is because of an inherent disconnect between the writers and the audience. The writers always seem determined to definitively say that Dexter is a bad person, the bad guy of his own show, while the audience seems him in a way the character sees himself: a hero, or an anti-hero at the very least. Audiences’ positive feelings of Dexter seem justified, too, as the same showrunners who made him a villain were also the ones writing him as a sympathetic character for the entirety of the show around these events. Dexter’s bond with Astor and Cody, his sympathy and loyalty to Lumen and his relationship with Harrison as a baby are just some of the reasons why audiences like Dexter as a character, and for those reasons fans want him to succeed. Meanwhile, the writers are so intent on making a realistic, moral ending, and one that simply doesn’t match the rest of the show.
Dexter: New Blood is a great season of the show, with “Jim’s” relationship with his son Harrison being a particular highlight. However, the show ones again fails to stick the landing with a solid ending. Nonetheless, it was amazing to see Dexter back again for this limited series.
by @holocronGeorge, @holocronJosh, and @holocronJulie
In a rough year for many, 2021 has featured a number of films that provided more than just mere escapism. This year marked the return of the theatrical experience for many, saw a new dawn of streaming and home video, and, overall, offered up some incredible films. Here’s an overview of our top 10 films of 2021 in no order.
THE BETA TEST
If you don’t know the name Jim Cummings, you should. Within the last three years, Cummings has firmly cemented his place as one of the compelling filmmakers working today. Cummings is the total filmmaker – director, star, writer, editor, even composer at times. And, while his previous efforts such as Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow are perfect blends of off-kilter dark humor and emotional character journeys, The Beta Test marks his most refined and accomplished effort to date. It’s groundbreaking to see a director/writer tackle so many complex themes/motifs into a motion picture experience that feels so genuine. The Beta Test evokes the best elements of a Hitchockian thriller, while serving as a nuanced Hollywood satire and commentary on contemporary culture – not to mention the depths of psychological horror this film touches. The Beta Test is easily one of 2021’s best films and is more than deserving of a watch. You won’t be disappointed.
SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME
Spider-Man: No Way Home was easily 2021’s most anticipated film and, thankfully, it met and really exceeded any and all of its lofty expectations. No Way Home overcomes some gaps in its narrative to deliver one of the most ambitious and groundbreaking superhero movies to date. Anchored by characteristically excellent performances, the film navigates an interesting, multiversal plot that moves this iteration of Spider-Man somewhat away from its connections to the MCU and toward a Spider-Man more aligned with previous live action adaptations of the character. The action is superb, the emotional points hit hard, and there are moments of this film that will be rewatched for years to come.
Val is an interesting and somewhat overlooked documentary chronicling the life of actor Val Kilmer. Starting in a pre-internet, pre-YouTube era, Kilmer filmed much of his life, including family interactions and behind the scenes of his stage and film productions, in a raw and breathtaking fashion. Val manages to weave together the decades of this home footage into a film that breeds new appreciation for Kilmer as both a performer and a person. Val is a deeply intimate and genuine examination of Kilmer. His successes and tragedies are portrayed with startling honesty. Watching Val will reshape the way you see Kilmer in any of his prior films. This is a man dedicated to and in love with his craft, who is genuine and kind above all else. Val is a must watch.
ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE
Fans had pushed the #ReleasetheSnyderCut movement to the brink until Warner Bros. finally commissioned the release of Zack Snyder’s true vision of Justice League. And the film did not disappoint. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a gargantuan filmmaking effort. Free of previous constraints that married theatrical releases of other films, Snyder tells a story from the heart at his own pace. It’s epic and grand, as one would expect from a Snyder film, but also intimate and emotional. Justice League is a 4 hour odyssey that feels as if you’ve cracked open and dug yourself into a classic, dark comic book. Featuring a mind-blowing epilogue, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is easily the best DCEU movie and one of 2021’s best.
Dune marks another mammoth effort from Warner Bros. in 2021. Dune and the entire world crafted by Frank Herbert have been notoriously difficult to adapt and capture in cinematic format, something Denis Villeneuve manages to do with his latest film. Although Dune ends rather abruptly, feels like only one half of a total story, and somewhat loses momentum as the film progresses, it is nonetheless an incredible filmmaking feat. Villeneuve deftly tackles dense world building, while never making the audience feel left behind. Dune is probably 2021’s most visually stunning film and also one of the year’s most ambitious.
DON’T LOOK UP
Adam McKay continues his journey into more polished and socially relevant filmmaking with Don’t Look Up. Don’t Look Up is most certainly a strange viewing experience. It’s infused from beginning to end with existential dread – make no mistake about it, this is a horror film. And yet, you find yourself laughing consistently throughout. McKay’s film operates at a heightened tone and story for its entire runtime, which may be a bit tiresome for some. However, we see Don’t Look Up as the modern day Dr. Strangelove. Like Kubrick’s classic film, McKay manages to detail the horrors of our world and the fragility of our existence with an unexpectedly outrageous tone. After the spitfire editing and witty jokes subside, you’re left with a feeling of discomfort and dread that, unfortunately, makes Don’t Look Up the year’s most relevant film.
Lin-Manuel Miranda hit the ground running with his feature length directorial debut. Anchored by one of the year’s best performances in Andrew Garfield as composer and playwright Jonathan Larson, Tick, Tick…Boom! spins a fascinating and heartfelt tale of the creative process. This is a film made by artists about an artist making art, and it excels at doing so. The musical seems difficult to adapt for a feature film, but Miranda does so stunningly. In large part, this is due to Garfield’s commanding and captivating lead performance. Not only does he land all of the film’s emotional moments, but his singing talent on display is impressive to say the least.
Nicolas Cage films have been hit or miss in recent years, but Pig is most certainly a hit. The premise of a truffle hunter returning to Portland to track who stole his beloved pig seems out there and likely rife for the sort of (intentional or unintentional) humor we come to expect from many of Cage’s recent efforts, but this is not the case. Nicolas Cage is stunning as the truffle forager Rob. His performance is so raw and so effective. This is not Cage swinging for the fences with his performance, but, rather, a much quieter and more subdued and nuanced portrayal. Pig has the potential to go into John Wick-revenge territory, but unexpectedly never does. This is a deeply emotional chronicle of loss and compassion that has a lot to say about ambition and obsessive focus on wealth. Pig triumphs on every cylinder.
THE LAST DUEL
Ridley Scott delivered, not one, but two terrific films in 2021 and The Last Duel makes our list of the best of the year. The Last Duel works less well as a historical drama and better as a complex tale of conflicting ‘truths.’ The influence of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is felt all over this film. Despite its historical setting, The Last Duel feels extremely timely. It’s a Rashomon-style story for the #MeToo era that tackles victim-blaming, sexual assault, and institutional sexism in a manner that transcends era. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Nicole Holofcener create an intricately woven screenplay that could easily go awry in less capable hands. Jodie Comer and Adam Driver are particular highlights in the film, and further cement The Last Duel as one of 2021’s crowning achievements.
Last, but not least, is Belfast. The semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story written and directed by Kenneth Branagh is perhaps the accomplished filmmaker’s greatest effort to date. Belfast doesn’t break new ground with its narrative, but excels as a crowd pleasing and touching journey for the audience. Belfast is a difficult movie to dislike. It is vibrant, romantic, affectionate, and so much more. Branagh writes one of 2021’s sharpest screenplays here and a supporting performance from Ciarán Hinds proves to be one of the year’s best.
It’s been 22 years since the original The Matrix hit theaters and took the world by storm. From the infamous bullet time sequences to the lofty philosophical themes at play, the film was game-changing and revolutionary to say the least. But, what does a Matrix film look like in 2021? Rampant use of social media, an age of misinformation, a pandemic of an infectious disease – The Matrix has always been cutting-edge in regards to its approach to social commentary in the context of sci-fi action, but is this still the case? With The Matrix Resurrections, the fourth installment in the franchise, Lana Wachowski returns to craft a film that has the potential to be as groundbreaking as the original was in 1999. Indeed, The Matrix Resurrections proves to be an excellent, almost paradoxical, exercise in nostalgia and revision that plummets the world of The Matrix into the year 2021 with disturbing relevance, gorgeous visuals, and, of course, lots of Kung Fu.
The Matrix Resurrections follows Thomas Anderson (played once again the brilliant Keanu Reeves), who, once again, begins to doubt the reality of his ‘reality’ and is left to make a choice between insight and blissful unawareness. On the surface, that sounds an awful lot like the original film in the franchise and, in many ways, it is. But, don’t be mistaken, The Matrix Resurrections is (for the most part) an entirely different animal altogether. This is abundantly clear within the first moments of seeing Reeves’ returning character. And it’s with these first moments that comprise the film’s first act that The Matrix Resurrections really excels. Wachowski approaches the story in a unique and unexpectedly meta-aware way. The events of the original Matrix trilogy are acknowledged and respected, but are incorporated into the fourth film’s narrative in a fascinating way that will get you thinking, keep you on your toes, and stay with you after the film ends. It’s with The Matrix Resurrections’ first act that Wachowski’s film feels the most refreshing and relevant. The dialogue, infused with subtle humor and social commentary, is razor sharp. It’s a bold way to reintroduce viewers to The Matrix after 18 years, and could easily go awry with such evident self-awareness, but Wachowski deftly handles the complexities of the film and truly pulls it off.
The momentum of The Matrix Resurrections’ first act is somewhat lost in an exposition-heavy and somewhat meandering second act. Yes, every frame is carefully crafted and every line of dialogue is meticulously written. But, in contrast to the first act, The Matrix Resurrections feels more like a retread of familiar territory. That being said, Wachowski manages to find a way to make the stakes even higher in this fourth installment, without ever underwhelming our heroes’ accomplishments in The Matrix Revolutions, a difficult feat considering the nature of that film’s conclusion. And it’s with the film’s third act that The Matrix Resurrections picks up again and concludes in an epic, satisfying fashion.
Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss lead the film with the company of an array of new faces to the franchise. Most prominent are Jessica Henwick and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who crash onto the screen from the get-go in characteristically badass fashion, but whose roles decline in importance and screen time as the film progresses. This is particularly evident for Abdul-Mateen II, who breathes exciting new life into the Morpheus character, while evoking Laurence Fishburne’s iconic performances from the original trilogy. This new iteration of Morpheus plays a prominent role in the film’s first half, but his involvement slowly declines to a point where it’s easy to forget about the character altogether. This is a shame, because Abdul-Mateen II is incredible in the film, as he has been in projects ranging from Watchmen to Candyman in recent years. The same can be said for Jessica Henwick, who is criminally underrated and underappreciated, something that is glaringly clear after watching The Matrix Resurrections. From her performance to her outfit to the action she partakes in, Henwick is the definition of badass in this film. But, like Abdul-Mateen II, it’s a shame her role seems to decline in the film’s latter half. Other new additions to the cast are similarly excellent. Jonathan Groff brings a new level of menace and charm to Smith, taking over the role helmed by Hugo Weaving in previous films. Neil Patrick Harris plays The Analyst, Thomas’ therapist who tries to maintain his patient’s sanity (or ignorance).
But, it wouldn’t be The Matrix without Reeves and Moss. Reeves is, as expected, calm, cool, collected, and deeply relatable. Reeves’ real life personality as a genuinely good person continues to seep into his performances and he makes Neo / Thomas extraordinarily easy to empathize with. Reeves is complemented by Moss, who returns to the franchise as Tiffany, unaware of the reality (or fiction) of her life as Trinity. Reeves and Moss have touching chemistry and it’s with their characters’ relationship that the film feels the most emotionally anchored. As much as The Matrix Resurrections is a high octane sci-film, it’s also a touching romance of two people going to incredible lengths to reunite.
After 18 years, The Matrix Resurrections is a return to form for the iconic sci-fi franchise. Lana Wachowski directs and co-writes an intricate, unexpectedly self-aware film that delivers the action and thrills we want from a Matrix film in the context of a deft and intelligent philosophical exploration of themes like choice vs. control, Messianism, and love. With returning and new cast members firing on all cylinders, The Matrix Resurrections particularly triumphs in a refreshing first act and, despite losing momentum in a slower and exposition-heavy second act, concludes in epic and satisfying fashion. The Matrix Resurrections proves to be another win for Wachowski and a very welcomed return to The Matrix.
Acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro follows up his Academy Award winning The Shape of Water with Nightmare Alley, a polished and menacing film that, unfortunately, falls short of greatness. Nightmare Alley is based on the book of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, which was the basis for the 1947 film Nightmare Alley starring Tyrone Power. del Toro’s adaptation of the psychological thriller follows Stan Carlisle, played by Bradley Cooper, an up-and-coming carny, whose ambitions are as great as the darkness lurking within.
It goes without saying at this point, but Guillermo del Toro is truly a masterful filmmaker. Few directors are able to craft a tale that feels simultaneously, and often paradoxically, so contemporary yet classical. And, on this basis, del Toro succeeds with Nightmare Alley. From the sprawling narrative to intricate production design to heightened performances, the film feels like it’s from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
del Toro, however, also leans into the source material here – Nightmare Alley is a true neo-noir psychological thriller. The film methodologically takes its time; del Toro is never in a rush to propel his audience into the structure of a narrative. It’s with this storytelling (which largely dominates Nightmare Alley’s first half) that the film excels. Especially if one came into this movie having no prior exposure to trailers or source material, it would be very difficult to pin down what it’s actually about. Is this just a tale of a man running away from a dark past? Are there supernatural elements? Our lead character Stan (Cooper) is shrouded in mystery and, with the exception of a single ominous and mysterious flashback, we’re given no background on his character for much of the film. Interestingly, it even takes quite a while into the film until Cooper even utters a line of dialogue (which we’ll get to in a second). All of this culminates in an understated sense of tension for much of Nightmare Alley’s first half. It’s mostly uneventful, but captures your attention nevertheless.
Unfortunately, the pressure valve of tension in Nightmare Alley eventually releases in a rather flat and meandering second half. By the time it becomes clearer what the film is about, it’s hard not lose some interest in the narrative. And even the ‘what’ of the statement ‘what the film is about’ seems to be lacking. del Toro’s excellent directing, the gorgeous cinematography and production design, and solid performances from the entire cast can only carry the film so far. Nightmare Alley is crying out to be something more, but, ultimately, it lacks momentum and substance.
That being said, Nightmare Alley deftly explores a number of intriguing themes and features, perhaps, one of 2021’s best movie endings. The film balances quite a few lofty themes and motifs: alcohol use, the American dream, fractured paternalistic relationships, how we treat others. And, amidst a film that drags throughout, it triumphs in its exploration of these films. Nightmare Alley is a film that will stay with you, largely due to these themes and its excellent, poetic, disturbing ending. This may not be the scariest film del Toro has ever made, but its ending is certainly the most haunting.
Nightmare Alley is a beautifully made, polished exercise in cinematic delayed gratification that, unfortunately, doesn’t quite come together. The performances, production design, cinematography, and overall directing are some of the year’s best. The way in which the narrative unfolds, however, is a different story. Nonetheless, Nightmare Alley intelligently and impressively explores a number of moving themes, and concludes with a poignant ending that will stay with you.
Who you gonna call? Who you gonna call to breathe new life into the classic franchise, while honoring what makes the original so brilliant? Apparently, Jason Reitman, McKenna Grace, Paul Rudd, and Carrie Coon, amongst others. Ghostbusters: Afterlife finally hits theaters after several pandemic-related delays and much fan anticipation. Following 2016’s divisive reboot, many fans of the original supernatural comedy classic have been clamoring for more proton packs and PKE meters and, thankfully, the newest film delivers on all cylinders.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife sees a passing of the torch from Reitman-father to Reitman-son as director/co-writer Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) continues the legacy of his father Ivan Reitman’s 1980s series. Right off the bat, it’s very clear just how personal this movie is to Jason Reitman. This is a movie that deeply honors its predecessors. It is (by far) the most emotional, moving, and touching installment in the franchise to date (we’ll get back to this in a moment). Easter eggs, musical cues, and references are everywhere. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is perhaps most reminiscent of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a film that similarly hoped to win back general audiences and wasn’t afraid to reimagine elements of its original. And, while this could easily be construed as misguided fan service, the film, like The Force Awakens, excels in positioning new and exciting characters at its forefront.
Afterlife tracks a new crew of characters – led by McKenna Grace’s Phoebe, her brother Trevor (played by Finn Wolfhard), and her mom Callie (played by Carrie Coon) – who move to a house in Oklahoma they inherited from their grandfather. From their very first scene, this central trio hooks us in. The chemistry between the actors is captivating, genuinely funny one-liners are exchanged throughout, and themes of family and legacy play out, in large part, due to the actors’ performances. Paul Rudd plays Gary Grooberson, Phoebe’s teacher who has been tracking mysterious seismic activity in the area. It goes without saying at this point, but Paul Rudd impresses in everything he is in and Ghostbusters: Afterlife is no exception. Rudd is a scene-stealer as he delivers some of the film’s funniest moments and plays an integral role in the plot. It’s a shame Rudd isn’t involved more, especially in the film’s latter half, but his presence is certainly felt whenever Mr. Grooberson is on screen.
Ultimately, what makes Ghostbusters: Afterlife so great is its lasting emotional impact. This is an incredibly touching, moving film (something that is especially evident in the final act). Afterlife takes its time building up its plot and emotions. The audience is given plenty of time to settle into the new environment and characters, which makes the emotional pay-offs sprinkled throughout so much more impactful. Needless to say, fans of the franchise will not be disappointed by how this film honors its legacy.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife innovates the franchise, while intelligently leaning into nostalgia. The personal touch of Jason Reitman helming his father’s franchise is resonant throughout. The new host of characters are captivating, in particular McKenna Grace, who really commands the screen, and Paul Rudd’s scene-stealing Mr. Grooberson. Overall, the newest Ghostbusters film is not only the most touching installment yet, but also the best since the 1984 original.
The latest chapter in the Fast and Furious franchise, titled F9, finally debuted this weekend after a lengthy delay. Despite the challenges of releasing a movie right now, which have admittedly lessened as the vaccine came, the box office is still not at full strength. Still, F9 took in $70 million from 4,179 domestic theaters. Oddly enough, the pandemic is really put into perspective when one considers that this number is the most any film has made since late 2019, yet still doesn’t come close to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the highest grossing film of the last 18 months or so.
F9 has received mix reviews from critics, while still earning somewhat positive reactions from audiences (a trend in the franchise). As we wrote in our review of the film,
“F9 misses the mark somewhat in an installment that takes the franchise to new heights of absurdity. The film is admittedly entertaining, in large part due to the unintentional humor that comes from the wooden performances and the incredible action directed by Justin Lin, but, ultimately, falls flat as F9’s attempts at grandiosity ultimately feel like parody.”
Elsewhere, A Quiet Place Part II took second spot once again, earning $6.3 million. This continues its strong hold and low drop offs weekend after weekend, and is poised to be one of the big successes of the year. It has already earned $136 million worldwide.
Meanwhile, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard earned $4.8 million, a relatively strong drop off from last weekend’s already lukewarm performance. The film has earned $25.8 million so far. Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway and Cruella rounded out the top 5 with $4.8 million and $3.7 million respectively.
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