Thursday Movie Picks #288: Films Released In 2019

ThursdayMoviePicksHappy Thursday everyone! I can’t believe it’s been five years since I participated in this weekly Thursday Movie Picks blogathon that’s spearheaded by Wandering Through the Shelves Blog.

The rules are simple simple: Each week there is a topic for you to create a list of three movies. Your picks can either be favourites/best, worst, hidden gems, or if you’re up to it one of each. This Thursday’s theme is… 2019 Releases

Well, since I am still working on my Top 10 Best of 2019 that I’m planning to post next week (as I always like to wait at least a week or two after new year before publishing), then consider this post a preview of what you’ll see either on my main list or honorable mentions. I’ll choose three that I haven’t personally reviewed it myself.

So without further ado, here are my picks:

Marriage Story

A stage director and his actor wife struggle through a gruelling, coast-to-coast divorce that pushes them to their personal and creative extremes.

I saw this film back in October 2019 at Twin Cities Film Fest, and I still remember how much I was taken by it. Somehow I haven’t gotten around to writing a review of it, not sure why because I have SO much praise for it. Perhaps it’ll be too long of a review, ahah. If someone were to ask me my favorite film of 2019, I often say this one right away because it’s on my mind so much. I just LOVE Noah Baumbach‘s script, which I feel depicts a dissolution of a marriage in an unflinching-ly real and emotional way, with the actors performing in such a naturalistic way it’s as if I was watching the characters themselves, not a performance. I kind of have a thing for Adam Driver these days, and he’s absolutely phenomenal here (plus he sang, too!)

I actually have only seen one film he directed, While We’re Young, and while I like parts of it, I didn’t really love it. But I know I’ll be rooting for Baumbach to win Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars!

A Hidden Life

Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter faces the threat of execution for refusing to fight for the Nazis during World War II.

I actually just had a discussion about this film with my fellow blogger Keith who also loved this movie (check out his review of this film here). It’s definitely a return to form for Terrence Malick, which tells the true story of a conscientious objector during World War II. It’s a slow, reflective film but not-at-all boring… it’s a typical Malick film with gorgeous cinematography and long silences, but unlike his previous film Knight Of Cups (a film about a screenwriter without a script??!), this time it has such a strong emotional center. I truly felt for Franz and his wife and their struggle is so painstakingly-palpable. Truly an unforgettable film that stays with you long after the end credits roll.

Peanut Butter Falcon

After running away from a residential nursing home to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler, a man who has Down syndrome befriends an outlaw who becomes his coach and ally.

One of my awesome blog contributors Holly P. has reviewed this a while back,  but I had finally seen it this past weekend. Oh it’s such a delightful film and Zack Gottsagen will steal your heart. I think it’s wonderful that the film employed an actor with Down syndrome to portray a character with that condition and he did a marvelous job. I love the relationship between him and his co-stars Dakota Johnson and Shia LaBeouf, there are SO many scenes that pack such emotional wallop. It’s such a funny, uplifting film, definitely one of the best 2019 offerings. In fact, I think it should’ve gotten more awards love than some movies that got nominated recently.


What do you think of my picks? Have you seen any of them?

FlixChatter Review: The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

The Peanut Butter Falcon is a fun revisitation of the classic American adventure story. It follows two unlikely companions, Zak and Tyler, who are thrown together by a mutual need to get out of town. Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man with downs syndrome who is running away from his care home, pursued by the well-meaning Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) is a fisherman who has made the wrong people angry. After a couple narrow escapes both Zak and Tyler realize that they need each other; Zak as a stand-in for Tyler’s brother; and Tyler as one of the few people who sees and treats Zak as a full human being.

Unfortunately, much of the writing in Peanut Butter Falcon is clunky. The introductory scenes in the care home and the fishing yard are stilted:  those scenes wind up feeling undirected, unedited, and rushed. In one scene, Eleanor’s boss urgently calls her into his office, but when she gets there, she, along with the audience, is forced to sit through the tail end of a pointless phone call. Tyler’s rivals talk in an expository way that makes them feel more like super villains than fishermen. They are caricatures of something that does not quite exist:  a confusing mash-up of a bad cliché of an inner-city gang member and an equally bad cliché of a blue-collar worker.

I would have liked more from Dakota Johnson, but her role was more of an outline than a character. She was effortlessly swept off her feet by Tyler, despite the characters seeming incompatible. Tyler mostly made judgmental assumptions about her rather than asking her questions about herself and although we definitely see her come to respect the way Tyler treats Zak, there is never a shift in how Tyler treats Eleanor. Regardless, Johnson played the character with heart and made Eleanor more than she would have been in lesser hands.

Maybe the most egregious writing foul in Peanut Butter Falcon, though, is that one of the movie’s two (count em two) speaking black characters was a “magical negro”. This is a bad move in and of itself, but is made worse because the filmmakers are familiar with the trope. In an interview with City Weekly Mike Shwartz (who wrote and directed alongside Tyler Nilson) said that they wanted to make sure that Zak never came across as a “magical disability person”, directly referencing the magical negro trope. (The film succeeds in this pursuit. Zak’s character has goals, a fun personality, strong opinions, etc.) Those same filmmakers being lazy enough to include a blind black man who lives in the woods and proselytizes to anyone who comes to his door is almost unfathomable when they apparently know that the negro trope exists is incredibly problematic.

So, the positives.

As mentioned above, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a movie that aims to empower people with downs syndrome and it does that well. Not only is Zak a nuanced, interesting character with a big personality, he is also played by a person with downs syndrome. Gottsagen is a great actor and his performance, especially in scenes with Tyler, are really well executed.  We are overdue for casting choices like this one.

Also, the movie did not shy away from the sometimes harsh reality of what life with downs syndrome can be like. Zak is underestimated, bullied, and called names often and although those things hurt his feelings, he remains a resilient man with dreams to fulfill. He is a fully fleshed character from the beginning and over the course of his journey he continues to grow as a person. 

The chemistry between LaBeouf and Gottsagen cannot be overstated. The two share several intimate moments: dancing around a campfire, walking through cornfields, and (my personal favorite) sitting on the edge of their raft gently slapping each other’s faces. The bond they create rests somewhere between brotherhood and friendship and is expressed masterfully by both actors.

The movie is a visual love-letter to the American south. Nigel Bluck creates a scenic backdrop to the story, incorporating drone shots and wide-angles that highlight that beauty of the natural landscape in breathtaking moments that never detract from the story.

Oh, and Thomas Haden Church has a great little cameo as retired wrestler “Salt Water Redneck”.

Overall, this movie has its flaws: the relationship between Zak and Tyler is obviously the element that the filmmakers put the most energy into (and the rest of the movie suffers for that emphasis, even if it is the crux of the story), but the movie is worth a watch for that relationship and for its ultimately empowering story.


Have you seen The Peanut Butter Falcon? Well, what did you think? 

FlixChatter Review: A Bigger Splash (2016)

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When I first heard of this film, I was immediately intrigued by the premise of an idyllic sun-drenched holiday that’s being disrupted by an unexpected visit. The people on holiday are famous rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and her lover, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). When we’re introduced to the couple, they’re stark naked by the pool on their villa. They read books, sun bathe, make love, basically enjoying a blissful time together in this picturesque remote island of Pantelleria, Italy.

Soon though, their moment of euphoric existence comes at an abrupt stop when Marianne’s old flame suddenly arrives on the island. They reluctantly pick them up at the airport to find Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his young daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). What strikes me right away is how exuberant Fiennes was in this role, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so vivacious on screen.

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Things unfold in a rather unhurried fashion. I didn’t realize at first that Marianne is rendered practically mute as she had just undergone throat surgery, so even though there are glimpses of her in rock star mode (a la Bowie), we didn’t hear her voice until later in the film. She communicates with gestures, and Paul pretty much doing the talking for her. I’m glad I hadn’t read much about this film before seeing it, and so I won’t discuss much about the plot in my review. I do however, want to talk about the acting in this film, as it’s truly the highlight.

Fiennes and Swinton are absolutely marvelous here, displaying their acting versatility and proficiency. I’ve mentioned how exuberant Fiennes was. There’s an extended dance sequence where his character express himself through music that’s truly a joy to behold. In contrast, Swinton is much more reserved, communicating her emotions through subtle gestures and facial expressions. I have never seen such a romantic side of Swinton. She looks absolutely sensuous and glamorous here, and casting her as a rock star is absolutely spot on. I also adore every single outfit she wore here, they’re all perfectly-tailored for her. The fact that she’s unable to speak somehow creates an intriguing tension to the nervous energy that’s already present in the group. Every time these two are on screen, I was truly in awe.

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I had seen Schoenaerts in a couple of things (Far From the Madding Crowd, Suite Française) and he’s certainly got a pleasant countenance about him. He displays a certain unpredictability here that the role of Paul requires. As for Johnson, I have to say she’s the weakest link here but I think it’s more to do with the fact that her character is the most underwritten. Up until the end I don’t really have much of a clue what she is all about and thus it’s hard to care for her character.

Working on a script by David Kajganich, Italian director Luca Guadagnino weaved a tale of jealousy, frustrated passion that escalates to a boiling point. What started out as a drama slowly unravels like a whirlwind and turns into something sinister. I’m glad there’s still that element of surprise and I really didn’t know where things will lead. Unpredictability is always something I appreciate in any story. There’s also a bit of humor thrown in throughout, especially that bit with the local police fangirl-ing over Marianne.

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The island of Pantelleria is practically a character itself in this movie. The stunning cinematography by Yorick Le Saux (who also shot Clouds of Sils Maria) is definitely a plus here, but it’s the gripping story and fantastic performances that made this a memorable endeavor. Being that it’s a European production, there’s a frankness with sexuality and nudity, but yet the way it was shot it didn’t feel crude or distasteful. I wouldn’t say the film is perfect however, it felt a bit tedious at times and the filmmaker luxuriate too much on in the scenery. I’ve also mentioned the part about Dakota’s character not being as well-developed. I do think her casting might be more suitable than Margot Robbie who’s initially cast, as she would’ve been too mature-looking to play a late teen.

So overall, this is quite an absorbing psychological drama. I saw this film at a morning press screenings and there were less than five people in the entire theater. That’s too bad as I think this film deserve a larger audience. I highly recommend this if you’re looking for something off the beaten path that’s superbly acted.

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Have you seen ‘A Bigger Splash’? I’d love to hear what you think!

FlixChatter Review: BLACK MASS (2015)

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It’s been almost 20 years since the last time Johnny Depp starred in a modern gangster film, the vastly underrated Donnie Brasco. He’s now back playing another true life gangster character, James “Whitey” Bulger, the most violent criminal in South Boston.

Told in a flashback style, the film starts with the integration of Bulger’s crew members. In the 70s, Bulger was just a small time gangster but then rose to the top by becoming an informant to the FBI. We get to see that he has a normal life with a young beautiful wife Lindsey (Dakota Johnson) and a son. His brother Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the state senator, so we know he has a powerful ally.

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We’re then introduced to an FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who happens to be a childhood friend of the Bulger brothers. Connolly wants to move up the ranks in the FBI office and one day asked Whitey to help him bring down the Italian mafia. Whitey was hesitant at first; he doesn’t want to be known as a “rat”. Connolly convinced him otherwise and as the story progresses, we get to see how far both of these men will go to get what they want. For fans of gangster genre, there are not many new things that haven’t been told before cinematically.

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Depp has been getting lots of good buzz on his performance and I believe he deserves all the praise. At first I thought I was going to see Depp acting like the usual Depp’s character. But to my surprise, he really shines here as the ruthless gangster who has no hesitation to kill anyone who wronged him or come in his way. Bad makeup aside, he really brought a chilling portrayal of a psychopath and made me believe that this was the real Bulger.

The other standout performance belongs to Edgerton, he plays a weasel FBI agent that reminded me of Matt Damon’s character in The Departed. Cumberbatch didn’t really have much to do and his *Boston* accent was kind of distracting a few times. He did have a very good scene with Edgerton though; it’s a scene you’ll have to see to appreciate.

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The last film director Scott Cooper made was the uneven and quite frankly, very frustrating Out of the Furnace. Here he kept the pace moving quite nicely; I’m surprised that he was able to keep the film’s runtime in just over 2 hours. He pretty much borrowed every element from other films such as Goodfellas, The Godfather, The Departed and so on. It’s not a knock on him but I wish he came up with his own style to tell this story.

Even though I thought it’s a good film, I can’t say it’s a great one. This kind of story has been told many times before and I think with a more talented director behind the cameras, this could’ve been a great flick. I’d say see it just for Depp’s and Edgerton’s performances, those two really saves the film from being another average gangster thriller.

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So have you seen Black Mass? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review – Need For Speed

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I’m not a gamer, in fact I haven’t played a video game in 2 years. But I have to admit I was a fan of the Need For Speed games back in my college years. So I was bit intrigued when Hollywood announced back in early 2000s that they were going to make a movie version. If I remember correctly, New Line Cinema was going to produce the movie and attached John Woo as the director and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was going to play the lead role. They even made a teaser poser with the release date of summer 2005. Of course that version never got made and the project was stuck in development hell for years. Well now after almost a decade from its original release date, the movie is ready to be seen by millions.

The movie opens in a not-so-speedy pace, we were introduced to a few characters including the hero Tobey Marshall (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul). He and his pals runs a car shop and also participate in an illegal street racing to earn some extra cash. One night after work, they were at another street race, they ran into Marshall’s ex girlfriend Anita (Dakota Johnson) and her boyfriend Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). Apparently Marshall and Brewster had a history and they don’t like each other much. Then we were treated to one of the most boring car racing scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. Marshall of course won the race and the next day Brewster came to his shop and offer him a project he couldn’t refuse. Apparently Marshall owes the bank a lot of money for the car shop and he needs the money badly. Brewster offered Marshall and his team a job of building the fastest car ever made and if the car is sold, he’ll give 25% of the sale to Marshall. With the magic of movie making, they finished the job in just 2 seconds. The new Ford Mustang they built is supposedly can go as fast as 230mph and this drew an interest from a potential buyer Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots). Maddon turns out to be a rep for some very rich person who’s willing to buy the car for $3 mil but she needs to see that the car can go as fast as Marshall promised.

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Well the next day they took the car out for a drive and proved that it can go pretty darn fast. Maddon and her buyer were quite impressed and said they’ll pay $2.7mil for the car. After they closed the deal, Marshall, his good friend Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) and Brewster decided to make a friendly wager and went for another street racing. If Brewster wins the race, Marshall will have to give up his 25% percent but if he loses than Marshall will keep the $2.7mil. Fortunately this race scene was much better than the first one and of course tragedy strike and Little Pete was killed during the race. For some strange reason Marshall was blamed for his death and spent two years behind bars. Fast forward two years later, Marshall is out of prison on parole and wants revenge. He wants to enter into a super secret street racing which is being organize by the Monarch (Michael Keaton). The grand prize for this race can be as big as $9 mil. He contacted Maddon and ask her to convince her boss to sponsor him in the race. He also contacted his old crew who were more than willing to help him get to the race. Maddon’s boss agreed to sponsor Marshall but insist that Maddon must tag along with him. The rest of the movie was basically about Marshall and his team trying to reach the big race and win the prize.

I wanted to like this movie and for about 20 minutes, I thought it could be a fun mindless action thriller. But then as the movie progresses, it became more and more annoying. I didn’t care about the plot or any of the characters. The script by George Gatins was full of cliche one dimensional characters and I thought for sure it’s written by a 15 year old. Since I’m a fan of Breaking Bad, every time Aaron Paul is on the screen, I just think of him as Jesse and you know what, he’s basically playing the same character here. Lots of whining, yelling and crying, just like Jesse. Not any better is Dominic Cooper‘s one-note villainy performance, I guess he achieved what the role required, just being a big douche bag. The rest of the characters in the movie were a bunch of fillers and Marshall’s pals are supposed to be comic relief, but all of them were annoying to watch.

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Usually when there’s a bad script, the director can somehow turn it into something watchable. Unfortunately director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) is not talented enough for the task. I don’t blame him, his background is in stunt coordination and he should’ve stick to doing that. He has no clue how to put together coherent scenes to create dramatic effect. The scene where Little Pete was killed and Jesse er I mean Marshall started bawling, I wanted to burst out laughing because it has this dramatic music cue that just didn’t fit the scene at all. Since his background is in stunt, he did a pretty good job of staging the climatic chase but by then I didn’t care about the movie and just wish it’s over already. For a pretty decent budget, the movie looked like it’s a made for a TV movie. The cinematography was flat and uninspiring, the movie was shot digitally and it looked like it was shot by someone who bought a camcorder at a electronic store.

It’s still early but this movie will definitely make my worst-of-the-year list. The movie has no redeeming quality whatsoever – it’s full of one clichéd scene after another and I didn’t care for any of the characters. I’m the type that loves dumb action movies but this one was just way too dumb for me to enjoy it. Also, at over 2 hours long, it’s way too long for audiences to sit through this mess. At least 40 minutes of the content could’ve been cut out.

If you’re planning to see it in theater, I recommend you wait till it airs on TV so you won’t have to waste your hard-earned money on this trash.

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What do you think of Need For Speed? Did you like it more or less than I did?