New7Wonders of the World

We’re excited to share three videos highlighting the New7Wonders organization and their worldwide voting competition to choose the wonders of the world. The first video highlights traditional wonders of the world, the second video highlights natural wonders, and the third highlights cities that are wonders unto themselves.

Enjoy!

 

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Review: Joker (2019)

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Joker.

Now, there’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s jump straight to it.

The gist.

This is a unique entry into the superhero genre, in that it doesn’t feature a superhero. Instead, we follow Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) as he transforms into the villain Joker. Arthur lives with his mother (Frances Conroy), who has an obsession with Gotham City’s billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Arthur works as a sign-spinner and clown during the day, getting mugged and beaten up on the regular. This movie follows his transformation from helpless victim into homicidal lunatic. We also have a neighbor in Arthur’s building played by Zazie Beetz and a late night talk show host played by Robert De Niro.

What works?

Joaquin Phoenix disappears here, becoming Arthur Fleck. It’s uncomfortable and disturbing but his performance will undoubtedly be nominated for an Oscar, and he’ll likely win. What makes this difficult to watch is that there isn’t a hero, there’s no happy ending here, so you just watch the downward spiral of this man into a life of crime and terror. Instead of trying to recapture what made Heath Ledger’s Joker work, Phoenix does something very different here and it absolutely works, especially the new take on the Joker’s signature laugh, which is simultaneously saddening and terrifying.

The film as a whole is beautifully shot, with vibrant colors, and has an amazing score, often used in unique ways that make you conflicted about how to feel. It’s a masterpiece of a film, but a film I never need to see again. It’s dark and brooding and upsetting, nothing I’d need to rewatch. It reminded me of an Aronofsky movie, like Requiem for a Dream. Beautiful and tragic, yet an experience you only need once.

As a “comic book movie,” it mostly succeeds. There are plenty of ties to the Batman mythology, yet I highly doubt we’ll see Phoenix’s Joker show up again. The ripples of what happens in this film however could totally lay a groundwork for the upcoming The Batman, even if not directly referenced. Gotham becomes Gotham in this film and it’s all because of Arthur Fleck.

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What doesn’t work?

Usually in this section I tell you in what ways the film failed, but this film nailed almost everything. Instead, I’m going to tell you why you might not like it.

The film is problematic, in that it focuses on a mentally deranged murderer who becomes a hero and icon for an entire city, so yes, it can be easily misconstrued by today’s soon-to-be terrorists. People may see this movie and say “That can be me” and that’s absolutely terrifying. But this isn’t new and I don’t think film should shy away from difficult and problematic topics. If you don’t want to see or endorse that particular journey, it’s also your right to vote with your wallets and not see this.

You also may not enjoy this film because it’s just so absolutely bleak. It’s violent and dark and upsetting and altogether lacking humor, which is beautifully ironic. It’s a hard watch though, so if you want popcorn escapism, this isn’t it. This is a movie that will haunt you, and no one will blame you if you don’t want to be haunted.

Overall…

Joker is a divisive film. People will be divided on whether movies like this should be made. People will be divided on the effect of this film on the world, or young impressionable viewers. And then people will divided on whether this, as a film, is good. To me, this film is nearly perfect in how it’s made. It’s got intense moments, award-winning performances, and (not sure if this is good or bad) it will stick with you for a long time to come. It’s a unique entry into the superhero genre and I doubt its success can be replicated with other villains, I feel like this is a one and done sort of success. The goal was to create a movie that is upsetting to watch and they’ve done a nearly perfect job at that.

5

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Review: Brittany Runs a Marathon

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Brittany Runs a Marathon.

This Amazon Studios film isn’t hitting all the big theaters nearby so I had to go a bit out of my way, even knowing it’ll end up on Prime sooner rather than later. I know Jillian Bell from Workaholics and I had high hopes that this might kickstart her feature film career. Let’s see if it did!

The gist.

Brittany (Jillian Bell) has realized her life has become quite stagnant. Her comedy career isn’t going anywhere, she’s struggling to find potential romance, and her doctor confronts her with the fact that her lifestyle is unhealthy. She decides to make tiny goals, such as joining a neighborhood running club, where she becomes friends with a woman going through a divorce (Michaela Watkins) and a father trying to get in shape for his son’s sake (Micah Stock). On her road to eventually running a marathon, she also encounters Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Pitch Perfect), who she slowly starts to develop feelings for.

Other supporting talent includes Lil Rel Howery, Alice Lee, and Mikey Day (Saturday Night Live).

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What works?

Jillian Bell was hilarious on Workaholics so it’s not surprising that she’s also hilarious here. Now, being funny is fine, but what Bell does here is actually much more difficult, because it’s through her jokes and wisecracks that you realize there’s a lot more going on, and that’s my biggest accolade for this film: It’s much more than you expect. You’ll laugh, but there’s a lot of surprise poignancy, about why someone would resort to humor or feel the way that she feels here. Our character Brittany isn’t always likable, in fact there’s a few scenes that you hate her, but it makes this journey incredibly complicated as you’re rooting for one part of Brittany to overcome over the other part. There’s more layers than you’d typically see, and Jillian Bell pulls it off perfectly.

Her supporting cast is also incredible, highlighted by a surprisingly good performance by Michaela Watkins. I know her best from a few seasons of Saturday Night Live, where she eventually was cut from the roster. In this film however, she knocks it out of the park. Likewise, Utkarsh Ambudkar provides a lot of the heart of this film, as the potential love interest for our lead.

If you’re looking for a comedy, this will absolutely do it. Most of this cast has comedic backgrounds, so that burden is carried by the entire cast, and that makes most of the film light-hearted, enjoyable, and authentic.

But like the best comedies, there’s a heart and a depth here. Our character Brittany is changing and her arc isn’t easy for her, so it’s a story of ups and downs. I cried, I laughed, it was the entire package of emotional responses. If we’re rating movies against their genre, this is likely one of the best comedies this year and we’ll see how it fares in my top 10 when December rolls around.

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What doesn’t work?

I’d guess that there aren’t many folks who wouldn’t enjoy this film, except for maybe a sliver of the pie chart that don’t want to be confronted with realistic emotions and depth when trying to escape. It might tarnish the idea of a comedy for them. I, however, found it a perfect blend.

Overall…

If you can find a theater playing Brittany Runs a Marathon, do it. Or wait until its inevitible Prime release. It has both an incredible amount of laughs, paired perfectly with a hefty amount of depth. Jillian Bell is outstanding, hopefully she’ll become a household name following this. If you trust my opinions on comedies, trust me now, and give this one a shot.

5

 

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Review: Ad Astra

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Ad Astra.

Translated from latin, Ad Astra means “to the stars” and that’s exactly what we get here. It’s a cerebral movie, a little out of place in the wake of summer blockbusters, but Brad Pitt’s name alone will help to get people in the seats. But now the bigger question is… Is it good?

The gist.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is an astronaut, living in the shadow of his astronaut father (Tommy Lee Jones). His father took an expedition all the way to Neptune, to try and send signals into space, to hopefully find intelligent life. Well, that was 16 years ago and Roy’s father is supposedly dead. Well, a shockwave hits the Earth (our opening sequence of the film) and it’s revealed that Roy’s father may have something to do with it, so Roy is sent on a mission to the Moon, then to Mars, to try and send a message to his father and stop these increasingly violent shockwaves. Other significant parts are played by Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga (Loving, Preacher, Agents of SHIELD).

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What works?

This is a quest movie, in structure, as Roy has an end goal in mind but it takes him to the far reaches of spaces. We get foreign locales such as the commercialized airports of the Moon (complete with Yoshinoya) and the deadly landscapes of Mars. Each stop on his way is dangerous in its own way, as he’s confronted with human threats, natural threats, and even some other violent and deadly threats. It’s a simple movie in structure.

Where the movie succeeds is its art direction. These locations are all unique, fleshed out and realistic. There are small cramped spaces and there are wide open expanses of space. The movie is shot beautifully, taking its time with these long shots. It feels like an arthouse film, slow and purposeful but not always well-paced. Director James Gray has a few minor hits under his belt but nothing like this, and it shows. If you go to this movie with the idea that you want a slow and beautiful movie about an astronaut with major daddy issues, you’ll find exactly that.

Ad Astra is anchored by Brad Pitt’s incredible performance. He’s a huge name but people often overlook the fact that he’s earned that status. Ad Astra won’t be at the top of his list of best films but his performance in it is perfect.

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What didn’t work?

The biggest complaint (and justifiably so) is the pacing of this film, sometimes slowing to an absolute crawl. There’s danger and immediacy at times, then other times it’ll just linger on a scene, likely because James Gray saw something beautiful about it. There’s a balance to be found, to not undercut the film’s tension, and I don’t know if they found that balance here.

I also struggle with the climax of the movie, the last stop on his adventure. I won’t go into too much depth but I expected the climax to be something subversive or vague, something that will leave you debating what happened or arguing over its meaning. The two hours leading up to the finale felt mysterious but we ultimately got a very clear and cookie-cutter climax, like something from a mainstream blockbuster. I expected more and was a bit let down by the climax.

So when the movie is slow and the climax isn’t really satisfying, you can understand why this movie drops a few pegs.

Overall…

Brad Pitt holds this movie together, giving a beautiful and thoughtful performance. The movie as a whole, however, struggles to gain much momentum, crawling along at a snail’s pace and delivering an ending that felt like it was from another film. Those of you with an eye for cinematography and art direction will find plenty to like, but most casual audiences won’t have the patience for it.

3

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Review: Hustlers (2019)

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Hustlers.

I don’t think many of you are expecting greatness from Hustlers. It’s been relatively under-marketed and it’s suddenly in theaters this weekend. But maybe low expectations will make this movie really enjoyable for a lot of you.

The gist.

We follow Destiny (Constance Wu) as she struggles to make ends meet, ending up with a dancing job to pay the bills. She’s not very successful, at least until the queen of the club Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) takes her in and shows her the ropes. For awhile, everything is great in the club. We have supporting actresses Lili Reinhart (Riverdale), Keke Palmer, Cardi B, Lizzo, and more. Cardi B and Lizzo have been marketed as major stars of this film, but that is absolutely not the case, FYI.

Things go downhill with the crash of the stock market, so Ramona and her girlfriends start to take advantage of the Wall Street creeps and take their money. It’s not quite legal, so we get foreshadowing that something major goes down.

The story is told in flashbacks, as Destiny recounts this story to a journalist (Julia Stiles).

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What works?

Without a doubt, this is Jennifer Lopez’s best performance. You might say ‘…but what about Selena?’ and I’d still agree that this is top notch. This movie goes beyond what you’d expect and really allows a lot of these women moments to shine and some real emotional depth. The blossoming friendship between Jennifer Lopez’s Ramona and Constance Wu’s Destiny is incredibly authentic, full of great moments and tragic moments and lots of complicated emotions. The setting of a strip club may make you think this is not a serious film, but there’s actually a lot going on here.

In addition to being surprisingly deep, it’s also surprisingly funny. One of my favorites was Riverdale’s Lili Reinhart. I’ve never seen Riverdale but she was hilarious here and I won’t spoil why. The genuine joy in a lot of these scenes is intense, which counters perfectly with the dark and tragic.

So if you’re looking for a character piece with complicated characters and a topic asking what someone would do (or wouldn’t do) for money, this might be right up your alley.

What doesn’t work?

Now, this film isn’t perfect. There’s a lot wrong that keeps it from getting the highest marks from me.

The format of the story isn’t ideal, framed by Julia Stiles interviewing Constance Wu. It rids the story of suspense, as you know from the outset kind of how it turns out. It’s also jarring to jump back and forth. Ultimately, a straightforward narrative excluding Stiles’ character would’ve likely been an improvement. In the end, she didn’t add anything and only helped to muddy the waters a bit.

This movie also makes a few choices that undercut its potential, possibly because it’s based on a true story. There are consequences to them stealing this money, as they rob all sorts of folks, some who may not necessarily deserve it. These are just bumps in the journey, where there could have been some real exploration of the consequences and potentially some hard-hitting emotional moments, which we don’t get here.

Similarly, we have characters that get discarded and never returned to. Lizzo and Cardi B, while touted as headliners, only appear in the first act. There is a significant boyfriend that disappears, there’s a storyline about parents disappearing, and there’s plenty of victims who likely have much more story than we got to see here. The pacing moves quick, so some characters get no resolution or closure.

Hustlers

Overall…

Hustlers is better than you probably imagined it would be, including a career-defining performance from Jennifer Lopez. Constance Wu also delivers, giving us a pairing of women that truly steal every scene they’re in. It’s a fun movie, with some great levity, but also delivers some emotion and heavy moments. Unfortunately, its framing structure undercuts its message and some great sideplots were left unexplored, ultimately keeping it from truly rising to the top. For most of you, this will be a fun and interesting journey.

4

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Review: The Peanut Butter Falcon

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The Peanut Butter Falcon.

You know, I’ve been rooting for Shia LaBeouf. He went through a bit of a tailspin but he seems to have come out the other side with a new drive. Luckily, The Peanut Butter Falcon might just be the movie to redeem him.

The gist.

We follow Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome, who has been placed in an elderly care facility in North Carolina because there’s nowhere else for him to go. He’s taken care of by a woman named Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) who tries to watch out for him, until Zak escapes in the night with nothing but his underwear. Zak then crosses paths with Tyler (LaBeouf), a man who dreams of being a crabber in Florida someday but has gotten into trouble with local hoodlums who are out to beat him. So Zak and Tyler start out on a journey south, by land, by truck, and by boat. Their story is sweet and inspirational, where both men teach each other what they need to survive.

What works?

This is an incredibly refreshing film and one of my favorites so far this year. It’s a simple premise but it is the endearing characters who make this story come to life. A lot of the story is based on Gottsagen’s own experiences having Down syndrome, so it’s got a feeling of authenticity that elevates this film to another level. And this is undoubtedly one of Shia’s best films, allowing him to give a potentially Oscar-caliber performance. There’s a lot of 2019 left, we’ll see how it shakes out.

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This is an incredibly funny movie, too, with an innocence from Gottsagen that makes even life-threatening moments a little lighter. He has a natural charisma with both LaBeouf and Johnson and you can tell there’s a lot of improvised moments between these characters, but it totally works.

I also appreciated Dakota Johnson here, as she’s trying to maybe redeem her career after the Fifty Shades franchise. This is a nuanced and simple performance from her but it works and it contrasts with Shia’s Tyler in interesting ways.

There’s also some surprise talent that show up here, including Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, The Punisher). He had another surprise cameo in Wind River that kind of reminded me of this. He only shows up in flashbacks that inform us about the kind of tragic past that Shia’s Tyler is trying to escape from.

What doesn’t work?

For me, this hit all the right notes. It was tense at times but ultimately you had a feeling that everything would end up alright, which means it didn’t throw you for too many loops. It’s a simple movie but we need that sometimes.

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Overall…

I don’t think there’s a person out there that couldn’t benefit from this film. It’s entertaining and educational, even inspiring at times. The performances from all three of our leads are phenomenal and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Shia LaBeouf get a Best Actor nod. It’s a funny and light-hearted movie, a perfect reprieve from intense summer blockbusters. I wholeheartedly endorse this movie, no questions asked.

5

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Review: Angel Has Fallen

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Angel Has Fallen.

By now, you likely know if you’re a fan of Gerard Butler’s Secret Service series that began with Olympus Has Fallen and then London Has Fallen. If you are a fan of those films, will this third film hit the mark for you?

The gist.

Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Butler) is protecting the President (Morgan Freeman) when a drone attack nearly kills them both. When Banning wakes up, he discovers an elaborate trap has been laid, framing him for the assassination attempt. He must try to clear his name, avoid the authorities, and find out who is after the President before they can finish what they’ve started. Other talent includes Nick Nolte, Jada Pinkett Smith, Piper Perabo, Danny Huston, Lance Riddick, and Tim Blake Nelson.

What works?

If you’re a fan of the first two films, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll enjoy this one too. It’s a relatively safe action film, meaning it’s simple to follow, has plenty of big explosions, and offers a safe and satisfying conclusion. Gerard Butler isn’t a great actor but here, he’s able to deliver everything we need to sympathize with Banning.

The action is fun, including some great chases and an intense climax. If you just want popcorn fun and some edge of your seat action, you’ll find it here.

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What doesn’t work?

While the action is intense, it’s not shot incredibly well. The movie’s director Ric Roman Waugh is relatively untested, his only major theatrical release being Dwayne Johnson’s Snitch. Otherwise, Waugh is a stuntman and writer, so his behind the camera experience is limited. The action scenes suffer from this, with shaky shots and lots of camera tricks to make us think the action is intense. I do applaud Waugh for writing this film, though, as it’s surprisingly simple to follow. Movies in this genre tend to overcomplicate things and can end up making a mess of the plot, which wasn’t the case here.

I also need to point out the visual effects here are… iffy. There are quite a few blatant green-screen moments or low budget visuals that really stand out, such as a helicopter that looks obviously added in post-production or smoke effects that really stand out. It can just take you out of the action.

We also have a problem with some repetition, as there are key moments that happen in every film in this series and it’s starting to feel a little redundant. This movie doesn’t do anything original or unique, which is why it’s getting a straight-down-the-middle score. It’s fine but ultimately contributes very little to the genre as a whole.

Overall…

Have you seen the first two films? Do you want to see a one-man army taking on a lot of bad guys? This movie isn’t anything special but it delivers some fun action, so if you just want some explosions and a fine time, you’ll be good here. It’s exactly what you’d expect it to be.

3

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