Mark’s Best of 2021

By Mark Saldana

While 2021 was not the dumpster fire 2020 was, COVID-19 in its variant forms has still remained with us and is on the rise once again. Thankfully, things did improve with multiple vaccines available. As more people got immunized for the virus, the numbers of COVID-19 cases reduced. This allowed for people to gather again socially (as long as responsibly), and for movie theaters to reopen and begin showcasing new movies once again.

I have to say, that, after a year of being away from the cinema, it was an absolute joy to return to screening films in person, as well as attend a couple of film festivals (also in person). And even though 2021 started off slowly and blandly (as most year's often do), it was great to see the big summer blockbusters return to theaters, along with the awards darlings toward the end. I don't know exactly what 2022 and COVID-19 Omicron has in store for us, but I feel grateful and blessed that at least 2021 offered us some hope and joy in all kinds of ways.

So, as the year comes to an end, I am here once again with my selections for the top ten films of the year, along with my choices for more specific film award categories. I am always grateful for my readers, supporters, colleagues, friends and family members who follow me on my yearly journeys through cinema and either applaud, or merely put up with my opinions and takes on the movies. To all of you, I say cheers, and I wish you a very happy, safe and prosperous new year. Here's to hoping 2022 is not a step backward and that things improve further.

Mark's Top Ten Films of 2021

  1. Drive My Car
  2. The Power of the Dog
  3. The Green Knight
  4. In the Heights
  5. The Tragedy of Macbeth
  6. Summer of Soul (...Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  7. Language Lessons
  8. The Fallout
  9. West Side Story
  10. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Honorable Mentions: Belle, Mass, The Mitchells vs. The Machines, A Hero, Pig, Licorice Pizza, Dune

Best Director: Jane Campion/The Power of the Dog

Best Actor: Denzel Washington/The Tragedy of Macbeth

Best Actress: Kristen Stewart/Spencer

Best Supporting Actor: Vincent Lindon/Titane

Best Supporting Actress: Ann Dowd/Mass

Best Orignal Screenplay: Mass

Best Adapted Screenplay: Drive My Car

Best Cinematography: Ari Wegner/The Power of the Dog

Best Score: Jonny Greenwood/The Power of the Dog

Best International Film: Drive My Car

Best Documentary: Summer of Soul (...Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Best Animated Film: Belle

Best Editing: Nellie Quettier/Annette

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

Acclaimed filmmaker Joel Coen tackles Shakespeare and the results are miraculous. I wasn't exactly sure what I was getting into when I attended this screening, because Coen, who usually works with his brother Ethan, usually has a penchant for off-beat and idiosyncratic movies, storytelling, and characters. Well, Joel Coen obviously has mu ch love for the source material, because his take on The Bard's tragic story of corruptive ambition is a transcendant and incredible experience that is sure to please both fans of Coen and Shakespeare.

For those unfamiliar with the play, Macbeth tells the story of Scottish Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington), who has served the English crown dutifully, but is given the suggestion that he deserves so much more. Once this seed is planted, his even hungrier wife (Frances McDormand) pushes her husband to do whatever is necessary, by any means necessary to see this rise in the ranks to fruition. This goal, even if it involves murder and treason, is what Macbeth sets out to accomplish; however, as his soul is further corrupted by his desires, his journey can only end in disaster.

Written and directed by Joel Coen, based on Shakespeare's iconic play, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a cinematic experience that reflects both the influences of Ingmar Bergman and Laurence Olivier. As I beheld this incredible theatrical film, I could easily see how both Bergman and Olivier inspired the visual pallette of the movie. It is an amazing aesthetic presentation that feels rather surreal and otherworldly.

But this never takes away from the goals of the original story. The visual and auditory impact only enhance the story and launch Shakespeare's play into the stratosphere. This experience could not have been pulled off without the outstanding performances by the cast, though. Coen and his casting department have assembled a superb assortment of talents that interpret their roles perfectly.

The movie features top notch work by Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Katherine Hunter, Corey Hawkins, and several others. Frances McDormand is exceptional (as always) as Lady Macbeth, but it is the stupendous work by Denzel Washington as the titular Macbeth. Washington obviously has a zeal and passion for Shakespeare that is clearly reflected in his realization here. I can definitely see him receiving awards nominations for his work in The Tragedy of Macbeth, and he definitely deserves it.

I also feel that Joel Coen deserves high praise and respect for his incredible interpretation of Shakespeare's play. It is clearly a cinematic take on the story that rises above the experience of watching stage productions. The Tragedy of Macbeth will be both available for viewing theatrically and on Apple TV+ and I feel that the theater offers the best way to take all that this movie has to offer.

LICORICE PIZZA

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

If one happens to be a fan of time capsule, "ride along," slice-of-life movies, then Paul Thomas Anderson's Licorice Pizza is definitely one's jam. Other similar movies include Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, and George Lucas' American Graffiti. In fact the title cards that Anderson uses in his opening and closing credits look nearly identical to the one's that Lucasfilm use in Graffiti. While there is no singular plot to Licorice Pizza (and other similar films that have inspired it), the movie captures a particular era in human history, and the audience rides along with the character's lives and (mis)adventures.

With gorgeous cinematography, equally beautiful set and production design, and some compelling and colorful characters, P.T. Anderson takes his audiences on journey involving two young people as they struggle with life, love, and uncertain futures. The movie takes place in 1973 San Fernando Valley. 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) might be a young high school student, but he certainly aspires to find success as either an actor or businessman. He is a goal-oriented go-getter, and when he crosses paths with 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), he falls hard and sets his sights on becoming her boyfriend.

Kane, who is a somewhat cynical and tough young woman, initially feels annoyed that a young high school kid wants to woo her, but there is definitely a charming and disarming quality to Gary with which she cannot help but become enamored. Alana, though 25, has been struggling to discover a career that feels right to her and suffers from a bit of arrested development, despite tough facade. As she becomes friends with Gary and more involved in his life and exploits, she begins to develop feelings for him.

Though have a few gripes with this movie, I still found myself so captivated with this fillm and these characters. Anderson has such a wonderful talent for transporting his audience to his world and totally immersing them in it. The writing, the direction, and the use of music feels much more akin to his previous film Boogie Nights which takes audiences into the world of the 1970s porn business. Though the proceeds of this movie are much more sweet and innocent, Anderson simply knows how to enchant people with his sensory experience and knows how to work the heartstrings.

He also has a delightful and sharp sense of humor that works tremendously in this movie. I feel that there is one particular gag in this movie that will probably offend some people, and that's a fair reaction. However, I also believe that it was his intention for these jokes to be cringey for the sake of commentary on racism and how it drives people to utterly ridiculous behavior.

Initially, I was a little put off by the age difference between Alana and Gary, but Anderson keeps their interactions mostly innocent and never delves into expoitative sexual territory. His intention is to tell a heartfelt story of young love and capture how exciting that experience is. That said; I still wonder why Anderson didn't just simply make Alana either the same age as Gary or at least closer in age. Alana Haim actually could believably portray a slightly older teenager than Gary and I thought that would have been a wiser choice.

And regardless of her character's age, Alana Haim still shines in her debut role as an actor. She beautifully captures the internal conflicts of her character that involve her desires for love and happiness, but shows a palpable vulnerability and sensitivity that makes Alana Kane more endearing. As Gary Valentine, Cooper Hoffman shows that the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. Hoffman shows great potential for success as an actor and completely embodies his role. His father Philip Seymour Hoffman would be proud that his son is following in his footsteps and is succeeding so far.

The movie features a wide variety of supporting characters including Alana Haim's entire family portraying Kane's family. And there are a some supporting appearances that stand out and steal the scenes that they are in. Firstly, Sean Penn has a small, but impactful part as actor William Holden and certainly lives up to Holden's reputation. The same goes for Bradley Cooper, who gives an absolutely hilarious and riotous turn as Jon Peters. Peters, who was a hairdresser and Barbra Streisand's boyfriend during the film's era eventually would become a successful movie producer. Throughout the more high profile times of his life he developed quite the reputation as a wild, hot tempered womanizer, and Cooper channels these traits so incredibly. Every scene he is in is insanely funny, but also slightly unnerving, as one doesn't know when Peters will completely fly off the handle.

Though this movie has its imperfections, and certain aspects could've been executed a little better, Licorice Pizza is still a great and admirable entry by Anderson. As a fan of pretty much every film he has made, I was genuinely was not disappointed with the movie, even if it isn't as extraordinary as some of his previous works. I can easily see me doing a double feature of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood with Licorice Pizza or pairing the movie with Anderson's older movie Boogie Nights. I am a big fan of time capsule, "ride along," slice of life movies and this one is one of the great ones.

AMERICAN UNDERDOG

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

After watching the trailer to this movie, a longtime friend and fellow movie buff griped that this film looks like a television movie of the week. While that description is not completely true, American Underdog comes pretty close to being just that. However, the decent writing, solid direction and performances by the lead cast members help keep this movie from wallowin in such banal territory. That said; the movie isn't exactly the most exceptional or remarkable sports movie about an underdog, but has an undeniably heartffelt and exciting true story that is inspirational and rather crowd-pleasing.

Zachary Levi stars as real-life football legend Kurt Warner. Though Warner eventually made a name for himself in the NFL, his journey to this status required much heart and determination. Since a child, Warner has dreamed of becoming a star quarterback for a championship football team. From his humble beginnings, he manages to play well enough in high school and college, but it would take much tenacity to gain the attention of the NFL. Warner would have to take a break from football during his post-collegiate years, but worked hard to support his family and endured some hardship along the way. After a successful stint in the Arena football league, he finallly earns the attention he deserves and is given the opportunity to prove himself in America's big show as a quarterback for the St. Louis Rams.

Directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin, with writing by Jon Erwin, David Aaron Cohen, and Jon Gunn, American Underdog proves to be a mostly compelling movie, though it is a journey that is familiar in structure and style. To be honest and real, the result is a movie that would be suitable for television, but is nevertheless a film that is worth watching and enjoying. As I screened this film in a theater, I still enjoyed what it has to offer, and had I actually paid for my ticket, I would have been okay with what I experienced. The movie has enough great material involving Warner's personal struggles to make his journey relatable and impactful. There is a certain level of schmaltz that people should expect from a story of this nature, but this trait never completely derails the story.

What certainly helps is that the lead actors Levi and Anna Paquin perform their hearts out and do so in some very realistic and natural ways. They both perform beautifully together and credibly portray two souls struggling to get what they want out of life. The other actors offer competent enough turns, but some of them come across as less dimensional. American Underdog also stars Dennis Quaid, Chance Kelly, Cindy Hogan, Ser'Darius Blain, Adam Baldwin, Bruce McGill, and others who perform well enough, but don't necessarily stand out.

While I enjoyed this movie overall, it is a movie that I would recommend my readers to watch when it is available for rental/streaming via a digital source. That doesn't mean I think it is a bad movie, but American Underdog is not a movie that demands to be watched on a theatrical screen.

DON’T LOOK UP

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Well, as we have witnessed and experienced during 2020 and 2021, we all know how the people of the world, our leaders, and America have responded to an international pandemic. Filmmaker Adam McKay applies this experience to a fictional scenario involving a comet headed to our world that is destined to wipe out our world. While Mckay's commentary is too obvious and on the nose, the humor that he and co-writer David Sirota deliver, throhe ugh some awesome comedic performances by the cast, is probably some of the best comic material I have seen this year so far. I have watched many movies this year, and Don't Look Up is definitely reigns (in my opinion) as the top comedy of 2021.

The setting is the present, but this is a world not currently enduring any unusual global disasters. That is, until when Astronomy student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio discover that a comet is headed to our planet and will most definitely collide with Earth and destroy all life on this world. Logically, the scientists decide to alert President Janie Orlean, a politician mainly concerned with defusing her latest scandal. This meeting and any attempts to spread awareness about the implications of this inevitable disaster all seem to fall on deaf ears, as no one wants to take their valid claims seriously.

I cannot remember exactly when I laughed so much and so heartily while watching a movie this year. However, when thinking about this type of experience in 2021, Don't Look Up will always come to mind. The sharp wit, the jabs at humanity's total lack of focus on what is really important, and the total lack of respect for the merits of science are what make this movie so great. In some ways, it is a sad reflection of the state of humanity and how we have strayed so far from reality in the age of social media and disinformation. As I already stated, the commentary is sometimes a bit heavy-handed and over-the-top for the movie, but the heart of the film isn't too far from the truth.

The film has an amazing cast that gives their performances much zest and gusto. Jennifer Hudson and Leonardo DiCaprio are both great as the befuddled and frustrated scientists trying to save humanity, despite most of humanity's lack of common sense and bewildering lackadasical attitude to their warnings. Meryl Streep is an absolute riot as President Janie Orlean, who comes across as a rather amusing hybrid of Donald Trump and Sarah Palin. Cate Blanchett is also crazy funny as television personality Brie Evantee who, with her co-host Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) form a totally clueless and self-involved pair of banal entertainment and "news" talk show hosts. The film also features memorable and/or funny turns by Jonah Hill, Rob Morgan, Mark Rylance, Timothee Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, and several others.

Don't Look Up is currently showing is some theaters, but will be available for streaming on Netflix on December 24. While it isn't exactly the typical holiday fare people often watch and enjoy, it is still a hilarious indictment of humanity and is guaranteed to deliver many laughs. That is, unless you believe the comet isn't a real threat and you'd rather devote your time to the latest social media trends and are concerned with who's dating whom or believe our world leaders are infallible.

SWAN SONG

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Impressing writing, skillful dlrection and an incredible, transcendent performance by Mahershala Ali make Swan Song a must-see science fiction drama. Written and directed by Benjamin Cleary, the film tells the tragic story of a loving and good-hearted man facing his untimely demise due to a terminal illness. As this movie takes place in the future, the science of this world offers some people (probably with deep pockets) the opportunity at a new lease in life through cloning. While the film does delve into the ethics of cloning, it mostly focuses on the personal experience of its protagonist as he is about to hand over the reigns of his life to his exact duplicate. What follows is a very intimate and heartbreaking journey as Ali's character struggles with letting go of his life as he knows it and placing it in the hands of his identical copy.

Ali stars as Cameron Turner, a successful artist who has had a mostly satisfying and happy life with his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) and young son Cory (Dax Rey). That isn't to say that the Turners haven't had their problems and obstacles, but the loving couple have risen above their troubles and look forward to a happier future. This, of course, gets derailed when Cameron gets gravely ill and has only a limited to live. Science has an answer and "solution" to this problem, though. A successful, but still young, cloning business gives the dying an opportunity to replace their ailing selves with an identical clone, who through intensive training can take over without the loved ones knowing any better. Desperate to protect his family and spare them the heartbreak of his loss, Cameron agrees to the process, but as he begins going through it, he starts to have second thoughts and struggles with the idea of totally turning his life over to "someone else."

Writer/director Benjamin Cleary delivers a mostly visionary movie with a compelling and heart breaking movie with some genuinely human moments. Cleary's direction, and the impressive production design by his crew give the movie gorgeous visuals that often enhance the tone and emotions of the film. There is definitely an appropriatly cold, clinical quality to the look of the scenes involving the organization performing the clone replacement, but these are juxtaposed with the powerful and lovely moments of real humanity. The movie does tend to force its protagonist to wallow a little too much in self-pity, but this the only flaw. Regardless of this, Swan Song should have an unforgettable impact on the hearts of its audiences, and this is mostly thanks to the incredible acting of Mahershala Ali.

Ali, who not only portrays the original Cameron Turner, also takes on the role of the clone and brings the perfect awkward and disoriented traits one would expect from a clone brought to life and becoming self aware of his purpose. Ali handles both roles beautifully and powerfully and should, at least, receive some nominations during awards season. The movie also can boast a powerful and lovable turn by Naomie Harris, Cameron's loving and passionate wife Poppy. Poppy has a palpable lust for life and brings much joy and excitement to the relationship. On the other side of things, she takes heartbreak, loss and sadness rather hard and in some debilitating ways. Cameron cannot bear to put Poppy though this experience and she is the main catalyst for his decision to undergo the cloning process. The movie also features great performances by Awkwafina, Glenn Close, Adam Beach, Nayasha Atendi, and Dax Rey.

Swan Song is not only getting a limited theatrical release, it is also be available on Apple TV+. It is a movie I highly recommend as a powerful piece of dramatic science fiction. Fans of Mahershala Ali will be in store for yet another wonderful performance by the actor.

SING 2

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)

Much like the first installment of this animated, juke box musical franchise, Sing 2 is simply good, sacharine fun through and through. Both films do not at have complex stories or plotting, but that's okay. The Sing movies just want people to sing, tap their feet and maybe even dance (if they're watching at home). And speaking of watching at home, this particular installment does not exactly demand to be watched in a theater, but it wouldn't necessarily be a total waste of time and money if one wanted the theatrical experience. I guess what I'm trying to impart to my readers is both Sing and Sing 2 are both totally fine family fare for members of various ages, but doesn't really go deeper into any heart-rending or emotionally complex territory.

Matthew McConaughey reprises his voice role as Buster Moon, a sweet natured, but positively passionate theater owner and show director. After the events of the first film, the once struggling Moon theater has achieved some respectable success with their musical plays charming audiences in their city. However, Moon and his talented performers wish to aim higher. In hopes of getting the attention of entertainment mogul Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale), Moon invites Crystal's talent scout Suki (Chelsea Peretti) to check out their newest production.

Unfortunately, the snooty and stony Suki gets underwhelmed with what she feels is a novelty, amateur show not sophisticated enough for the Crystal label. Despite this disappointing setback, Moon and the crew decide to travel to Crystal's office and pitch their show themselves. So, even though their original idea for a show fails to impress Crystal a wild and imaginative pitch for another show idea by the dancing pig Gunter (Nick Kroll) actually gains his interest. That, and the dishonest promise of signing enigmatic recluse singer Clay Calloway (Bono) by Buster, gets the group signed and headed into production. Not only do Buster and his team have to produce and perform a grade A, science fiction musical with an expensive production value, they must convince the bitter and angry Calloway to come out of retirement.

Written and directed by Garth Jennings, Sing 2 offers sweet, amiable entertainment for the whole family--nothing more, nothing less. I can easily see families watching this movie at home and engaging in sing alongs. The animation is colorful and gorgeous and the songs selected are absolutely joyful and exciting. I found myself constantly smiling, laughing at the solid humor, and tapping my feet to the music.

It is great to see the awesome returning cast members reprise their roles from the first film. In addition to McConaughey, who is perfect as the big-hearted and ambitious Buster Moon, actors Reese Witherspoon (Rosita the pig), Scarlett Johansson (Ash the punk rocking porcupine), Taron Egerton (Johnny the singing gorilla), Meena (the shy, but talented singing elephant), and Nick Kroll (the boisterous and energetic dancing pig) all fill their roles as well as they did the first time around. New cast members Bobby Cannavale, Halsey, Pharrell Williams, Leticia Wright, Eric Andre, Bono, Chelsea Peretti, and Spike Jonze join the fun in this sequel and bring their A-games to their voice work.

There is much else to say about this movie. There isn't anything that is particularly horrendous about the writing, production, direction, or performances. The story is more or less predictable and transparent, but not in any ways that completely ruin the experience. If lookiing for a good family movie for children (of all ages) and adults to enjoy, one could do much worse than Sing 2.

THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

It would seem that, after the events of The Matrix Revolutions, there would be no way to relaunch this movie franchise. However, thanks to the creativitiy and visionary mind of Lana Wachowski, there is always a way to reboot a movie saga that both celebrates and has fun with what was done in the past, while launching the story arc forward into mostly new territory. That said; this new installment of the popular series manages to mostly succeed, but does have its weakness. And that particular flaw has mostly to do with this movie's reliance on what was already accomplished and the fan service and nostalgia that comes with this franchise's success.

Many years after the massive war between humanity and artificial intelligence, the Matrix still exists with most of humanity lost and clueless in within the same construct revealed in the previous movies. Despite the valiant efforts of the resistance, led by Morpheus and Neo, things actually haven't changed all too much. Neo (Keanu Reeves), who miraculously and initially inexplicably lives his new life within the Matrix currently works as a successful video game designer and developer, whose biggest success is a game based on the experiences of his past life. As a new resistance rises to challenge the latest version of the Matrix, the people behind this new rebellion reach out to "Tom Anderson" and hope hope he can rise up once again to challenge the A.I. that continues to oppress humanity, as he once did many years in the past.

Written and directed by Lana Wachowski, who co-wrote the screenplay with David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hernon, The Matrix Resurrections proves to be a mostly welcome reunion with a beloved and celebrated franchise which had a big impact on movie audiences decades ago. With style, panache, meta-humor, wild ideas, gorgeous visuals, and incendiary action, Resurrections is a movie that is guaranteed to please most fans of the series, but will probably bewilder and possibly annoy casual fans. My main complaint, as I noted above, is that the writers rely way too much on beats, sequences, and actual scenes that call back moments from the previous films. Despite this gripe, I certainly enjoyed this revisit to the franchise, and would love to see an another installment or two to get some closure that this re-opening of "Pandora's box" deserves.

It gave me great pleasure to see both Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss reprise their roles as Neo and Trinity, but present a different glimpse of their characters as they are both lost and trapped with the Matrix. The movie allows the actors to show much more vulnerable sides to their characters and how they must re-discover their strengths and courage to become the saviors of humanity. I was also pleased with the newcomers to this franchise, all of whom perform wonderfully.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II performs admiraby as the new Morpheus. I could give more details as to why a new actor was cast in this role, but that would reveal a little too much about the movie's story and plot. Abdul-Mateen not only superbly recreates the qualities and traits of Laurence Fishburne's character, but bring something different that still works exceptionally. As Bugs, a brash and courageous new member of the resistance, Jessica Henwick brings to the character the proper grit and attitude the character needs. As Smith, Tom Anderson's business partner in the Matrix, Jonathan Groff channels some familiar territory beautifullly while displaying some skills and talents of his own. Finally, I was also wowed by the extraordinary turn by Neil Patrick Harris as Tom Anderson's unnamed analyst. As Anderson struggles with visions and flashbacks of his previous life, Harris offers counseling, but has some motives of his own.

As The Matrix Resurrections is one of those movies tailor made for the cinema, I would normally highly recommend that my readers definitely experience this movie in their cinema of choice. However, given the unfortunate resurgence of COVID-19 cases, I would suggest that people go see this knowing that there is a potential risk. The movie is not only available in local cinema's, it is also available for viewing on HBOMax. Either way, I believe that fans of this series are in for a great time.

THE KING’S MAN

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 2 (Out of 4 Stars)

After Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kingsman: The Golden Circle, director Matthew Vaughn decided to give his latest movie franchise a prequel, which tells the origins of this particular movie universe. I do not know what exactly Vaughn is drinking or consuming, but his ideas for the beginning story of his saga is an absolute mess and a simple case of bad ideas and poor taste. The King's Man also lacks the same acerbically and subversively hilarious sense of humor that made his previous entries more entertaining and fun. In fact, this film has an odd feel of seriousness and gravity, despite its ridiculous ideas, that make this film out of place within the entire construct of the series.

During World War I, a phantom menace of a puppet master is pulling the strings behind what is essentially one of the major and catastrophic events of human history. A secret organization plots to control the politics that eventually lead to the world's first major, global conflict, while British Lord Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) attempts to assist his government with all of his skills and resources. Oxford's son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) also wants to do his part, but his over-protective father struggles to keep him as uninvolved as he possibly can. When he finally agrees to let Conrad participate in his high stakes work, Conrad must mature quickly and develop the skills this type of espionage work requires.

Written and directed by Vaughn, The King's Man utilizes the history of World War I, along with other major events and people of our history in some really distasteful and bizarre ways. While the film does have a few (and very few at that) genuinely funny moments, and some rather exciting action sequences, the end result is a strange and ludicrous mess of bad, dull, and bewildering moments that left me mostly flat and uninspired. In addition, the movie's secret puppet master becomes rather obvious and predictable if one is paying close enough attention.

While all of the cast emembers seem to give valiant efforts, despite the weaknesses of the writing, no one in particular definitely stands out. The performances are a mix of over-the-top stereotypes and straightly-played characters that all come across as an outlandish mix of tonally different realizations that reflect Vaughn's lack of focus on the film's overall tone of the movie.

Even if one is a fan of the first two films, I cannot, at all, recommend this strange and sloppily conceived and executed prequel. I honestly feel that The King's Man does so little to properly develop a satisfying backstory for the saga. Not that I have a huge stake in this franchise, but I definitely believe that someone other than Matthew Vaughn could have come up with a more exciting and entertaining origin story for what should be a fun and wildly enjoyable film series.

SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

Immediately following the events of Spider-Man: Far From Home, Jon Watts' latest addition to the MCU's/Sony's live-action Spiderverse challenges Peter Parker in new ways that will eventually threaten his moral code. I must admit that there was a part of me that feared that this movie and all that it promised to offer would fall victim to the usual trappings that often derail other epic superhero/comic book movies of this scope. However, that is not at all the case with this new installment. Spider-Man: No Way Home takes on this challenge of storytelling and succeeds winningly in ways this Spidey franchise hasn't quite accomplished previously.

After Peter Parker's (Tom Holland) battle with Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), his true identity gets revealed to the world when Mysterio leaks this information to conspiracy theory-laden "news" website The Daily Bugle. Panicked and distressed, Parker must deal with the aftermath of this potentially cataclysmic event which will not only affect his life, but the lives and futures of everyone close to him. Desperate to fix this problem, Peter turns to an Infinity War colleague, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has the ability to change the events of the past. However, as Peter knows little about spells and sorcery, his desire to maintain some semblance of his ideal life disrupts Strange's memory spell and creates a crack in the multiverse that makes matters tremendously worse.

Written superbly by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, Jon Watts's Spider-Man: No Way Home delivers an epic Spidey movie that entertains, thrills, with genuine emotional gravity. It is an incredible emotional roller coaster of action, excitement, comedy, and morality that demands real growth on the part of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. While Spidey has faced some amazing challenges in his past adventures, this movie presents a much more personal journey which threatens all that makes him special and admirable.

Now, of course everyone, who hasn't seen the movie, will want to know if the movie delivers on all of the promises and rumors that have been hinted since the basic plot was revealed. I refuse to spoil all of the goods in this movie, but can confidently say that most fans of this trilogy should be pleased with the end result. As for those either lukewarm or negative on the first two entries, most of these people will ultimately admit that this huge third movie succeeds where the others have failed.

In addition to the returning leads (Tom Holland, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, etc.) The new cast members, a lot of whom appeared in other Spider-Man movies and franchises, all reprise their old roles exceptionally. Some of them actually perform way better than they did previously. Another welcome newcomer to the MCU's Spidey franchise is Benedict Cumberbatch, who once again portrays sorcerer Dr. Stephen Strange as great as he usually does.

Now, I cannot say anymore or elaborate any further on this movie, because I would hate to spoil all of the fun, joy, excitement, and emotions that this movie unleashes on its audiences. Spider-Man: No Way Home is an exceptonal celebration of what makes the Marvel Comic character great, loved, and admired by many, and is sure to be lauded by critics, fans and future generations.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

To preface this review, I must disclose that I have never once seen the 1947 film adaptation, nor have I ever read the book that inspired both that movie and this new adaptation by acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. That said; I have watched and enjoyed several noir films from classic cinema. That pulpy intrigue and drama that comes from these movies is something I very much love and appreciate, as it is usually an experience unlike no other. These types of experiences are often difficult to pull off in modern cinema, and many filmmakers have valiantly tried. However, not everyone has managed to capture that lightning, that style, that feeling of being absolutely glued to one's seat and mesmerized by characters behaving badly, and doing so with much gusto and panache.

Well, I must say that Guillermo Del Toro comes very damn close and his adaptation of Nightmare Alley is most certainly a film to be reckoned with and one with an impact that is undeniable. Though I don't particularly agree with some of his, and his crew's, aesthetic choices, I still admire much of what he presents visually and how he and co-writer Kim Morgan interpret a genre which normally feels more at home in an era that is now long gone.

Bradley Cooper stars as Stanton Carlisle, a man with a troubled past seeking a new life anywhere he can find. After literally burning bridges with his past, Stan discovers some lowly and low key work as a carny with a traveling carnival. He quickly works his way up into the graces of carnival performers Zeena (Toni Collette) and Peter Krumbein (David Stathairn), whose clairvoyant attraction is a highlight of the carnival. As Stan learns many of their trade secrets, he soon realizes that he may have discovered the perfect trade for his personality and talents. After an unfortunate accident with Peter, Stan decides to leave the carnival with his new love Molly (Rooney Mara) and the two begin performing a similar show where they target the more affluent members of society. As Stan becomes lost in his confidence games, he eventually becomes a victim of his own greed.

As far as the writing is concerned, I found myself rather impressed with the work of Del Toro and Morgan. They both obviously have much love for the genre of noir and the source material that inspires this film. Now, I did previously state that I had a complaint regarding the look of this movie. Maybe this might seem finicky, but nearly all of the noir movies I love and respect are in black and white. I have pretty much come to point where I expect this signature look for the genre.

That is not to say that cinematography, art direction and production design of this movie is bad. That is not at all the case. This movie is absolutely gorgeous. However, I genuinely feel that noir is a genre best served in black and white. There is a certain metaphorical nature to this presentation. Black and white movies often reflect the nature of humanity quite beautifully, as does the writing of this movie, and the development and realization of its characters. Within every person is black, white, and shades of gray, and the genre of noir reflects these real facets of humanity.

Now, normally I get annoyed or frustrated with movies that have black and white versions available when the original theatrical releases look so amazing in color. For example, I have no interest whatsoever in the "chrome" version of Mad Max: Fury Road or the black and white version of Parasite, because I believe the respective filmmakers of these movies nailed their looks the first time around. With Del Toro's Nightmare Alley, I would very much love to see a black and white version and think it would better suit the film overall.

Regardless of this quibble, I still very much love this movie. In addition to the outstanding writing and skillful direction, I was rather pleased with the acting by the entire cast. Bradley Cooper gives a fantastic performance as Stanton Carlisle. His confidence, charisma, and natural passion make his character all the more compelling. As Stan's love interest Molly, Rooney Mara gives a sweet and endearing turn as a more innocent and impressionable young lady who falls hard for her love. As the Zeena and Peter Krumbein, Toni Collette and David Strathain perform solidly as the more experienced performers who already know the trappings and consequences that can come from the con act.

The real scene stealer, the real shining star of this movie is most definitely Cate Blanchett, who portrays psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter, a sexy and confident lady who sees opportunity in the skills of Stan, considering her personal connections with the rich and famous. It is a role that demands a true femme fatale and Blanchett lives up to the archetype.

Now even though, I have my one complaint, as minor or major as it might seem to some of my readers, I still highly recommend Nightmare Alley. Guillermo Del Toro delivers a stylish and insightful morality tale that hits mostly all of the right notes. Fans of noir cinema should eat up all of what Del Toro and his team are dishing out. That is of course, if one doesn't share the same gripe that I have toward the movie's presentation.

THE HAND OF GOD

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

From acclaimed Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, comes a film that very well feels like a very personal fictionalized depiction of the filmmaker's life during his teen years. Much like Roma does for Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron and Belfast is to Irish filmmaker Kenneth Branagh, The Hand of God is a slice of life film that recreates a particular era that had a huge impact on the future of Sorrentino. Through his protagonist Fabietto, the writer/director gives an intimate glimpse into the stressful, uncertain, and awkward emotions that the filmmaker experienced as a teenager in 1980s Italy. The movie is a compelling an fascinating piece that reveals the types of events which ultimately shaped who the man Sorrentino has become.

During the 1980s, Fabietto Schizo (Filippo Scotti) lives with his loving and passionate family in Naples. Initially, it seems that his life with his family is rather enjoyable and somewhat comfortable, despite the occassional drama of their relatives. Often spending time with their extended family, Fabietto bonds with his aunts, uncles and cousins, and often is amused or intrigued with the troubles they have. As he matures and becomes more aware of his parents' flaws and weaknesses, thing become less certain and more unpredicatable for the impressionable teen which certainly add to pains of growing up.

As I watched this movie, I found myself captivated and intrigued with the story of this family. Writer/director Sorrentino does a mostly outstanding job of realizing and painting this portrait which feels as organic and real as any family one would encounter in real life. Even though, the movie takes place in Italy and there are some obvvious cultural differences from that of families in any other country, Sorrentino cuts to the hearts and souls of his characters and makes their journeys relevant and relatable to his audiences.

Sorrentino and his actors have the talent to give their scenes dimension and tangibility. This is what makes this film work so well, as it does for Cuaron's Roma and Branagh's Belfast. Now I know a lot of filmmakers use their medium to tell their personal stories, but I feel that Sorrentino is holding back a little and his restraint in revealing everything is what holds me back from giving this movie my highest rating.

That said; I still genuinely love what he has shared through this movie. There are moments a genuine, real-life comedy, drama, discomfiture, and craziness with which most people can relate. The entire cast delivers outstanding work with Filippo Scotti giving a subtle and perfectly nuianced performance as protagonist Fabietto. I was also particularly impressed with the work of actor Luisa Ranieri who stars as Fabietto's Aunt Patrizia, a woman in a loveless and abusive marriage.

The Hand of God is currently playing in select theaters and is now available for streaming on Netflix. Though I probably won't select it as my choice for Best International Feature, it is definitely a compelling and satisfying movie worth watching.

RED ROCKET

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

Both Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers, The Beach Bum) and Sean Baker love representing and depicting characters best described as social outcasts on the fringe. However their styles of storytelling certainly differ in that Korine tends to blend realism with cartoonish, over-the-top elements while Baker is much more interested in more honest stories and characters. In Baker's newest film Red Rocket, the filmmaker focuses on the life and misadventures of a former porn star who always fails to stay out of trouble. If one is looking for a story of redemption, Red Rocket is not at all that movie. In fact, Baker's protagonist Mikey Saber is a character who lives by the seat of his pants regardless of the consequences.

The movie begins with Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) hitting near rock bottom once again. He seems to be on the run for some unrevealed misbehaviors from his recent past and seeks refuge in his hometown of Texas City, Texas. Mikey awkwardly attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife Lexi (Bree Elrod) who lives with her chronically ill mother Lil (Brenda Deiss). Both ladies initially refuse to help him, but his seemingly sweet boyish charm and apologetic attitude manage to convince them otherwise. Though Mikey appears to be on the road to redemption and contrition, he soon falls into familiar habits and also makes some highly questionable decisions after becoming enamored with a much younger, local doughnut shot employee who goes by the nickname of Strawberry (Suzanna Son).

Baker, who co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Bergoch, delivers another indie niche film that is absolutely funny, but in more unnerving and uncomfortable ways. Much like his previous feature The Florida Project, Red Rocket depicts a rather disturbed and troubled lead character who cannot seem to get out of his own way to get his life on the right path. Rex's Mikey Saber is pure id with no common sense or any true desire to change his ways. He simply wants to live his life according to his own rules and primal desires with no regard to anyone else's well-being or benefit whatsoever.

It is definitely quite a feat to make Mikey Saber such a watchable and fascinating character, despite his repugnant behavior, stupidity and selfishness. At the end of the day, Saber is an absolute scumbag, and will always be one. That is, until someone kills him or he dies because of his own stupidity. These traits will most definitely turn some people off and have them hating this movie so much. However, I must give some praise to the writing of Bergoch and Baker in addition to the skillful direction by Baker. The writer/director manages to make this movie work rather well and still entertain, despite the bad taste that the protagonist usually leaves behind.

My reaction has a lot to do with the incredible performance by actor SImon Rex. This is the first movie in which I have seen some remarkable range by the actor. There are moments where is actually likable and charming, but these are juxtaposed beautifully by his often infuriating and disgusting moments of misbehavior. Rex gives this role his all. He is an absolute tour-de-force in this film and deserves some nominations when it comes to awards season.

As for the rest of the cast, Baker and his casting department decided to select mostly lesser known actors or first time performers for the rest of the cast. Also notable in the movie is the work of Bree Elrod who stars as Mikey's beleaguered and victimized ex-wife Lexi. As Strawberry, Suzanna Son gives an impressive performance as the young, but savvy teen doughnut shop girl who sees Mikey as a potential way out of her miserable existence in Texas City. Judy Hill and Brittany Rodriguez are great as mother and daughter drug dealers Leondra and June.

This movie will be a tough sell to audiences unfamiliar with Sean Baker's work in cinema. However, anyone familiar with some of his previous movies, and enjoyed or appreciated them, should most certainly check out his latest offering. Red Rocket entertains as much as it disturbs and disgusts, and it is one wild, but realistic ride worth taking.

AMERICAN SICARIO

By Liz Lopez

Rating: B –

Filmmaker RJ Collins, with a long history of being a producer, makes his directorial debut based on the script written by Rich Ronat (The Rising Hawk, Grand Isle, While We Sleep). American Sicario is about the real-life story of Erik Vasquez, also known as La Munequita, a Texas -born United States American who became a sicario (a hitman or hired killer) for the Feliz cartel headed by Roberto (Maurice Compte) and his brother Juan (Johnny Rey Diaz). Erik Vasquez (Philippe A. Haddad, “Green Valley” TV series and various shorts) has ambition and being a hitman is only the beginning of his journey into the cartel world. Although there is not much of a backstory for Vasquez about his life in Texas or why he chose to join the cartel life, there is one scene where he provides a brief statement about not being seen for what he was. According to that scene, he was not lacking for much as far as having a family life and participating in high school sports. At the beginning of the film, we see him in his full sicario lifestyle. 

Erik finds some resistance toward his proposals (and of course upward mobility) by Juan, but brother Roberto (Compte, “Narco,” “Mayans M.C.” TV Series) is the more brash and outspoken of the two and sees the potential for bigger pay offs by supporting Erik. The performances with these actors on the screen together are very engaging, but most definitely Compte excels in his portrayal of this character who relays quite the backstory from his youth for his mania and fearlessness to exact his revenge. He relishes the role of devising the many ways he can get rid of his opponents, including their relatives. As a sicario, Erik has a principle of never hurting women and children. Juan knows this and uses it to a point in a pivotal scene that changes Erik and comes back to haunt him unexpectedly.

Erik is a badass but yields to his pregnant partner Gloria (Cali Morales) when she wants her father Pedro (Danny Trejo) to come live with them for a while. Pedro is a former cartel member who knows this lifestyle very well and tries to counsel Erik that the “game” he is involved in hasn’t changed, despite the use of technology and other means now available to him. The chemistry between the two is good as it reflects Pedro's wisdom and care for his daughter/unborn grandchild and Erik determination. If Pedro does appear to be a bit restrained in his dealings with Erik, he does so in a wise manner for the sake of his own family that he repeats through the film – family is the most important.

American Sicario also stars Dionysio Basco, Paolo Cesar, Maya Stojan, Jaylen Moore, among others.

Philippe A. Haddad has executive produced the film​​​​.

Rated R for violence, pervasive language, drug use, and some sexual material. Run Time: 101 minutes.

The film is available On Demand, Digital, with a Blu-ray™ + Digital and DVD release December 14, 2021.

 Source: Saban Films

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Giveaway: NOBODY

Giveaway: NOBODY

Sources: Universal Pictures, Fandango

TVR, in association with Universal Pictures and Fandango, are giving away Fandango Gift Cards to go see the new action flick Nobody, starring Bob Odenkirk.

Sometimes the man you don’t notice is the most dangerous of all.

Emmy winner Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul, The Post, Nebraska) stars as Hutch Mansell, an underestimated and overlooked dad and husband, taking life’s indignities on the chin and never pushing back. A nobody.  

When two thieves break into his suburban home one night, Hutch declines to defend himself or his family, hoping to prevent serious violence. His teenage son, Blake (Gage Munroe, The Shack), is disappointed in him and his wife, Becca (Connie Nielsen, Wonder Woman), seems to pull only further away.

The aftermath of the incident strikes a match to Hutch’s long-simmering rage, triggering dormant instincts and propelling him on a brutal path that will surface dark secrets and lethal skills. In a barrage of fists, gunfire and squealing tires, Hutch must save his family from a dangerous adversary (famed Russian actor Aleksey Serebryakov, Amazon’s McMafia)—and ensure that he will never be underestimated as a nobody again.

Nobody is directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ilya Naishuller (Hardcore Henry), from a script by Derek Kolstad, the narrative architect of the John Wick franchise, and co-stars legendary Emmy winner Christopher Lloyd as Hutch’s father and multi-hyphenate musician-actor RZA as Hutch’s brother, whose own hidden talents aid Hutch in his quest for vengeance. 

To enter for a chance to win, send an email to trueviewreviews2@gmail.com. Winners will be randomly selected startiing Friday, March 26, 2021.

Official Hashtag:

#NobodyMovie

Facebook:

facebook.com/nobodymovie

Twitter:

twitter.com/NobodyMovie

Instagram:

instagram.com/nobodymovie

Mark’s Best of 2021

Mark’s Best of 2021

By Mark Saldana

While 2021 was not the dumpster fire 2020 was, COVID-19 in its variant forms has still remained with us and is on the rise once again. Thankfully, things did improve with multiple vaccines available. As more people got immunized for the virus, the numbers of COVID-19 cases reduced. This allowed for people to gather again socially (as long as responsibly), and for movie theaters to reopen and begin showcasing new movies once again.

I have to say, that, after a year of being away from the cinema, it was an absolute joy to return to screening films in person, as well as attend a couple of film festivals (also in person). And even though 2021 started off slowly and blandly (as most year’s often do), it was great to see the big summer blockbusters return to theaters, along with the awards darlings toward the end. I don’t know exactly what 2022 and COVID-19 Omicron has in store for us, but I feel grateful and blessed that at least 2021 offered us some hope and joy in all kinds of ways.

So, as the year comes to an end, I am here once again with my selections for the top ten films of the year, along with my choices for more specific film award categories. I am always grateful for my readers, supporters, colleagues, friends and family members who follow me on my yearly journeys through cinema and either applaud, or merely put up with my opinions and takes on the movies. To all of you, I say cheers, and I wish you a very happy, safe and prosperous new year. Here’s to hoping 2022 is not a step backward and that things improve further.

Mark’s Top Ten Films of 2021

  1. Drive My Car
  2. The Power of the Dog
  3. The Green Knight
  4. In the Heights
  5. The Tragedy of Macbeth
  6. Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  7. Language Lessons
  8. The Fallout
  9. West Side Story
  10. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Honorable Mentions: Belle, Mass, The Mitchells vs. The Machines, A Hero, Pig, Licorice Pizza, Dune

Best Director: Jane Campion/The Power of the Dog

Best Actor: Denzel Washington/The Tragedy of Macbeth

Best Actress: Kristen Stewart/Spencer

Best Supporting Actor: Vincent Lindon/Titane

Best Supporting Actress: Ann Dowd/Mass

Best Orignal Screenplay: Mass

Best Adapted Screenplay: Drive My Car

Best Cinematography: Ari Wegner/The Power of the Dog

Best Score: Jonny Greenwood/The Power of the Dog

Best International Film: Drive My Car

Best Documentary: Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Best Animated Film: Belle

Best Editing: Nellie Quettier/Annette

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

Acclaimed filmmaker Joel Coen tackles Shakespeare and the results are miraculous. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into when I attended this screening, because Coen, who usually works with his brother Ethan, usually has a penchant for off-beat and idiosyncratic movies, storytelling, and characters. Well, Joel Coen obviously has mu ch love for the source material, because his take on The Bard’s tragic story of corruptive ambition is a transcendant and incredible experience that is sure to please both fans of Coen and Shakespeare.

For those unfamiliar with the play, Macbeth tells the story of Scottish Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington), who has served the English crown dutifully, but is given the suggestion that he deserves so much more. Once this seed is planted, his even hungrier wife (Frances McDormand) pushes her husband to do whatever is necessary, by any means necessary to see this rise in the ranks to fruition. This goal, even if it involves murder and treason, is what Macbeth sets out to accomplish; however, as his soul is further corrupted by his desires, his journey can only end in disaster.

Written and directed by Joel Coen, based on Shakespeare’s iconic play, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a cinematic experience that reflects both the influences of Ingmar Bergman and Laurence Olivier. As I beheld this incredible theatrical film, I could easily see how both Bergman and Olivier inspired the visual pallette of the movie. It is an amazing aesthetic presentation that feels rather surreal and otherworldly.

But this never takes away from the goals of the original story. The visual and auditory impact only enhance the story and launch Shakespeare’s play into the stratosphere. This experience could not have been pulled off without the outstanding performances by the cast, though. Coen and his casting department have assembled a superb assortment of talents that interpret their roles perfectly.

The movie features top notch work by Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Katherine Hunter, Corey Hawkins, and several others. Frances McDormand is exceptional (as always) as Lady Macbeth, but it is the stupendous work by Denzel Washington as the titular Macbeth. Washington obviously has a zeal and passion for Shakespeare that is clearly reflected in his realization here. I can definitely see him receiving awards nominations for his work in The Tragedy of Macbeth, and he definitely deserves it.

I also feel that Joel Coen deserves high praise and respect for his incredible interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. It is clearly a cinematic take on the story that rises above the experience of watching stage productions. The Tragedy of Macbeth will be both available for viewing theatrically and on Apple TV+ and I feel that the theater offers the best way to take all that this movie has to offer.

LICORICE PIZZA

LICORICE PIZZA

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

If one happens to be a fan of time capsule, “ride along,” slice-of-life movies, then Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is definitely one’s jam. Other similar movies include Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, and George Lucas’ American Graffiti. In fact the title cards that Anderson uses in his opening and closing credits look nearly identical to the one’s that Lucasfilm use in Graffiti. While there is no singular plot to Licorice Pizza (and other similar films that have inspired it), the movie captures a particular era in human history, and the audience rides along with the character’s lives and (mis)adventures.

With gorgeous cinematography, equally beautiful set and production design, and some compelling and colorful characters, P.T. Anderson takes his audiences on journey involving two young people as they struggle with life, love, and uncertain futures. The movie takes place in 1973 San Fernando Valley. 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) might be a young high school student, but he certainly aspires to find success as either an actor or businessman. He is a goal-oriented go-getter, and when he crosses paths with 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), he falls hard and sets his sights on becoming her boyfriend.

Kane, who is a somewhat cynical and tough young woman, initially feels annoyed that a young high school kid wants to woo her, but there is definitely a charming and disarming quality to Gary with which she cannot help but become enamored. Alana, though 25, has been struggling to discover a career that feels right to her and suffers from a bit of arrested development, despite tough facade. As she becomes friends with Gary and more involved in his life and exploits, she begins to develop feelings for him.

Though have a few gripes with this movie, I still found myself so captivated with this fillm and these characters. Anderson has such a wonderful talent for transporting his audience to his world and totally immersing them in it. The writing, the direction, and the use of music feels much more akin to his previous film Boogie Nights which takes audiences into the world of the 1970s porn business. Though the proceeds of this movie are much more sweet and innocent, Anderson simply knows how to enchant people with his sensory experience and knows how to work the heartstrings.

He also has a delightful and sharp sense of humor that works tremendously in this movie. I feel that there is one particular gag in this movie that will probably offend some people, and that’s a fair reaction. However, I also believe that it was his intention for these jokes to be cringey for the sake of commentary on racism and how it drives people to utterly ridiculous behavior.

Initially, I was a little put off by the age difference between Alana and Gary, but Anderson keeps their interactions mostly innocent and never delves into expoitative sexual territory. His intention is to tell a heartfelt story of young love and capture how exciting that experience is. That said; I still wonder why Anderson didn’t just simply make Alana either the same age as Gary or at least closer in age. Alana Haim actually could believably portray a slightly older teenager than Gary and I thought that would have been a wiser choice.

And regardless of her character’s age, Alana Haim still shines in her debut role as an actor. She beautifully captures the internal conflicts of her character that involve her desires for love and happiness, but shows a palpable vulnerability and sensitivity that makes Alana Kane more endearing. As Gary Valentine, Cooper Hoffman shows that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Hoffman shows great potential for success as an actor and completely embodies his role. His father Philip Seymour Hoffman would be proud that his son is following in his footsteps and is succeeding so far.

The movie features a wide variety of supporting characters including Alana Haim’s entire family portraying Kane’s family. And there are a some supporting appearances that stand out and steal the scenes that they are in. Firstly, Sean Penn has a small, but impactful part as actor William Holden and certainly lives up to Holden’s reputation. The same goes for Bradley Cooper, who gives an absolutely hilarious and riotous turn as Jon Peters. Peters, who was a hairdresser and Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend during the film’s era eventually would become a successful movie producer. Throughout the more high profile times of his life he developed quite the reputation as a wild, hot tempered womanizer, and Cooper channels these traits so incredibly. Every scene he is in is insanely funny, but also slightly unnerving, as one doesn’t know when Peters will completely fly off the handle.

Though this movie has its imperfections, and certain aspects could’ve been executed a little better, Licorice Pizza is still a great and admirable entry by Anderson. As a fan of pretty much every film he has made, I was genuinely was not disappointed with the movie, even if it isn’t as extraordinary as some of his previous works. I can easily see me doing a double feature of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood with Licorice Pizza or pairing the movie with Anderson’s older movie Boogie Nights. I am a big fan of time capsule, “ride along,” slice of life movies and this one is one of the great ones.

Mark’s Best of 2021

Mark’s Best of 2021

By Mark Saldana

While 2021 was not the dumpster fire 2020 was, COVID-19 in its variant forms has still remained with us and is on the rise once again. Thankfully, things did improve with multiple vaccines available. As more people got immunized for the virus, the numbers of COVID-19 cases reduced. This allowed for people to gather again socially (as long as responsibly), and for movie theaters to reopen and begin showcasing new movies once again.

I have to say, that, after a year of being away from the cinema, it was an absolute joy to return to screening films in person, as well as attend a couple of film festivals (also in person). And even though 2021 started off slowly and blandly (as most year’s often do), it was great to see the big summer blockbusters return to theaters, along with the awards darlings toward the end. I don’t know exactly what 2022 and COVID-19 Omicron has in store for us, but I feel grateful and blessed that at least 2021 offered us some hope and joy in all kinds of ways.

So, as the year comes to an end, I am here once again with my selections for the top ten films of the year, along with my choices for more specific film award categories. I am always grateful for my readers, supporters, colleagues, friends and family members who follow me on my yearly journeys through cinema and either applaud, or merely put up with my opinions and takes on the movies. To all of you, I say cheers, and I wish you a very happy, safe and prosperous new year. Here’s to hoping 2022 is not a step backward and that things improve further.

Mark’s Top Ten Films of 2021

  1. Drive My Car
  2. The Power of the Dog
  3. The Green Knight
  4. In the Heights
  5. The Tragedy of Macbeth
  6. Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  7. Language Lessons
  8. The Fallout
  9. West Side Story
  10. Spider-Man: No Way Home

Honorable Mentions: Belle, Mass, The Mitchells vs. The Machines, A Hero, Pig, Licorice Pizza, Dune

Best Director: Jane Campion/The Power of the Dog

Best Actor: Denzel Washington/The Tragedy of Macbeth

Best Actress: Kristen Stewart/Spencer

Best Supporting Actor: Vincent Lindon/Titane

Best Supporting Actress: Ann Dowd/Mass

Best Orignal Screenplay: Mass

Best Adapted Screenplay: Drive My Car

Best Cinematography: Ari Wegner/The Power of the Dog

Best Score: Jonny Greenwood/The Power of the Dog

Best International Film: Drive My Car

Best Documentary: Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Best Animated Film: Belle

Best Editing: Nellie Quettier/Annette

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

Acclaimed filmmaker Joel Coen tackles Shakespeare and the results are miraculous. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into when I attended this screening, because Coen, who usually works with his brother Ethan, usually has a penchant for off-beat and idiosyncratic movies, storytelling, and characters. Well, Joel Coen obviously has mu ch love for the source material, because his take on The Bard’s tragic story of corruptive ambition is a transcendant and incredible experience that is sure to please both fans of Coen and Shakespeare.

For those unfamiliar with the play, Macbeth tells the story of Scottish Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington), who has served the English crown dutifully, but is given the suggestion that he deserves so much more. Once this seed is planted, his even hungrier wife (Frances McDormand) pushes her husband to do whatever is necessary, by any means necessary to see this rise in the ranks to fruition. This goal, even if it involves murder and treason, is what Macbeth sets out to accomplish; however, as his soul is further corrupted by his desires, his journey can only end in disaster.

Written and directed by Joel Coen, based on Shakespeare’s iconic play, The Tragedy of Macbeth is a cinematic experience that reflects both the influences of Ingmar Bergman and Laurence Olivier. As I beheld this incredible theatrical film, I could easily see how both Bergman and Olivier inspired the visual pallette of the movie. It is an amazing aesthetic presentation that feels rather surreal and otherworldly.

But this never takes away from the goals of the original story. The visual and auditory impact only enhance the story and launch Shakespeare’s play into the stratosphere. This experience could not have been pulled off without the outstanding performances by the cast, though. Coen and his casting department have assembled a superb assortment of talents that interpret their roles perfectly.

The movie features top notch work by Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Katherine Hunter, Corey Hawkins, and several others. Frances McDormand is exceptional (as always) as Lady Macbeth, but it is the stupendous work by Denzel Washington as the titular Macbeth. Washington obviously has a zeal and passion for Shakespeare that is clearly reflected in his realization here. I can definitely see him receiving awards nominations for his work in The Tragedy of Macbeth, and he definitely deserves it.

I also feel that Joel Coen deserves high praise and respect for his incredible interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. It is clearly a cinematic take on the story that rises above the experience of watching stage productions. The Tragedy of Macbeth will be both available for viewing theatrically and on Apple TV+ and I feel that the theater offers the best way to take all that this movie has to offer.

LICORICE PIZZA

LICORICE PIZZA

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

If one happens to be a fan of time capsule, “ride along,” slice-of-life movies, then Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza is definitely one’s jam. Other similar movies include Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, and George Lucas’ American Graffiti. In fact the title cards that Anderson uses in his opening and closing credits look nearly identical to the one’s that Lucasfilm use in Graffiti. While there is no singular plot to Licorice Pizza (and other similar films that have inspired it), the movie captures a particular era in human history, and the audience rides along with the character’s lives and (mis)adventures.

With gorgeous cinematography, equally beautiful set and production design, and some compelling and colorful characters, P.T. Anderson takes his audiences on journey involving two young people as they struggle with life, love, and uncertain futures. The movie takes place in 1973 San Fernando Valley. 15-year-old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) might be a young high school student, but he certainly aspires to find success as either an actor or businessman. He is a goal-oriented go-getter, and when he crosses paths with 25-year-old Alana Kane (Alana Haim), he falls hard and sets his sights on becoming her boyfriend.

Kane, who is a somewhat cynical and tough young woman, initially feels annoyed that a young high school kid wants to woo her, but there is definitely a charming and disarming quality to Gary with which she cannot help but become enamored. Alana, though 25, has been struggling to discover a career that feels right to her and suffers from a bit of arrested development, despite tough facade. As she becomes friends with Gary and more involved in his life and exploits, she begins to develop feelings for him.

Though have a few gripes with this movie, I still found myself so captivated with this fillm and these characters. Anderson has such a wonderful talent for transporting his audience to his world and totally immersing them in it. The writing, the direction, and the use of music feels much more akin to his previous film Boogie Nights which takes audiences into the world of the 1970s porn business. Though the proceeds of this movie are much more sweet and innocent, Anderson simply knows how to enchant people with his sensory experience and knows how to work the heartstrings.

He also has a delightful and sharp sense of humor that works tremendously in this movie. I feel that there is one particular gag in this movie that will probably offend some people, and that’s a fair reaction. However, I also believe that it was his intention for these jokes to be cringey for the sake of commentary on racism and how it drives people to utterly ridiculous behavior.

Initially, I was a little put off by the age difference between Alana and Gary, but Anderson keeps their interactions mostly innocent and never delves into expoitative sexual territory. His intention is to tell a heartfelt story of young love and capture how exciting that experience is. That said; I still wonder why Anderson didn’t just simply make Alana either the same age as Gary or at least closer in age. Alana Haim actually could believably portray a slightly older teenager than Gary and I thought that would have been a wiser choice.

And regardless of her character’s age, Alana Haim still shines in her debut role as an actor. She beautifully captures the internal conflicts of her character that involve her desires for love and happiness, but shows a palpable vulnerability and sensitivity that makes Alana Kane more endearing. As Gary Valentine, Cooper Hoffman shows that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Hoffman shows great potential for success as an actor and completely embodies his role. His father Philip Seymour Hoffman would be proud that his son is following in his footsteps and is succeeding so far.

The movie features a wide variety of supporting characters including Alana Haim’s entire family portraying Kane’s family. And there are a some supporting appearances that stand out and steal the scenes that they are in. Firstly, Sean Penn has a small, but impactful part as actor William Holden and certainly lives up to Holden’s reputation. The same goes for Bradley Cooper, who gives an absolutely hilarious and riotous turn as Jon Peters. Peters, who was a hairdresser and Barbra Streisand’s boyfriend during the film’s era eventually would become a successful movie producer. Throughout the more high profile times of his life he developed quite the reputation as a wild, hot tempered womanizer, and Cooper channels these traits so incredibly. Every scene he is in is insanely funny, but also slightly unnerving, as one doesn’t know when Peters will completely fly off the handle.

Though this movie has its imperfections, and certain aspects could’ve been executed a little better, Licorice Pizza is still a great and admirable entry by Anderson. As a fan of pretty much every film he has made, I was genuinely was not disappointed with the movie, even if it isn’t as extraordinary as some of his previous works. I can easily see me doing a double feature of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood with Licorice Pizza or pairing the movie with Anderson’s older movie Boogie Nights. I am a big fan of time capsule, “ride along,” slice of life movies and this one is one of the great ones.

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