‘Roma’: a study of compassion

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Roma” (2018) observes the smallest, and largest acts of compassion and care that can hold a family together, no matter the bleak circumstances that may confront it.

Director Alfonso Cuarón’s crisp black-and-white imagery captures the beauty of the most seemingly mundane activities; activities that mean the world to a family, whether or not they choose to acknowledge it. 

The film centers around a family in Mexico City in the 1970s — and their maid, Cleo, in particular — as it endures both internal and external hardships. 

Much of “Roma” is a fly-on-the-wall observation of these simple activities. Washing a dish, cooking an egg, watching the television with loved ones at your side, singing with a child before they fall into slumber, the sound of lights clicking off at night — Cuarón makes these small moments a fixture of his film, incorporating some of the most immersive sound design of anything released this year. 

The cinematography — impressively handled by Cuarón — elegantly captures the busy streets of Mexico City, the rolling hills of the countryside, the sun-soaked beach and the busy and the crowded home kitchen as the family prepares for the day.

Though much of the film is a record of these small, beautiful moments, sad realities begin to burrow their way in, as Cleo — the linchpin holding this family together — begins to endure some changes, as does the family itself. Much of what unfolds is hard to watch, though the film never looses its appreciation for the little things. 

Yalitza Aparicio delivers one of the most stunning performances of the year as Cleo. It is quiet and understated, with windows of joy and moments of devastating sadness throughout. Her emotions are rarely displayed on the outside, but much of it in conveyed in the eyes. And when it is displayed on the outside, and is impossible to turn away from. 

“Roma” is currently available on Netflix.

Status: Strongly Recommend

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘The Favourite’: Lanthimos takes on the throne

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“The Favourite” is twisted, satirical and crass — and damn, is it delightful. 

Featuring knockout performances from its three leads, “The Favourite” is a biting satirical comedy/drama that benefits greatly from the eerie flourishes of its director, Yorgos Lanthimos.

The film might be Lanthimos’ most straight-forward yet, but his fish-eye lens shots and sarcastic tendencies give the film the injection of eccentricity that it needs. 

The film centers around a frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her ambitious and at times domineering assistant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), as a new employee Abigail (Emma Stone) begins to climb the ranks of the queen’s favor, engaging a competition with Lady Sarah for power and security. 

The main shooting location, The Hatfield House, is regal and stunning. The gorgeous high ceilings are captured with the lower camera angles, as the height and extravagance of the place towers above the characters’ heads. 

The tit-for-tat battle between the Abigail and Sarah is made hilarious by the vicious and cunning performances of Stone and Weisz. As the two lock into a showdown that takes some dark turns, Colman delivers one of the year’s best performances in her comical but tortured portrayal of Queen Anne.

True colors are revealed and permanent paths are forged in a manner only Lanthimos could execute. This film is an absolute blast. 

Status: Strongly Recommend

Drawing by William C Hensley

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’: wild, weird and wonderful

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

If five years ago, someone would have approached me and said “you know, in 2018 there will be an animated Spider-Man film — released at the same time as a successful live-action franchise featuring the hero — that will include multiple Spider men, girls and a ham,” I would have called that person insane. 

But, yet, here we are. And we’re quite lucky for it. 

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a chaotic, colorful foray into a world of multiple Spider-beings, displaying some of the most impressive animation in recent memory. The technology at play is, at times, truly jaw-dropping, offering a dimension and texture to Spidey’s web slinging that has not been seen before (there is a reason Sony is currently seeking patents for the tech). 

The film sets its sights on Miles Morales, a high-schooler living in Brooklyn with his family and attending a specialized prep school. He is — you guessed it — bitten by a radioactive spider, giving him the ability to awkwardly walk on walls with sticky hands and gnarly senses. But soon, he realizes that because of an inter-dimensional portal, he is not the only Spider-Man in his orbit, not by a long shot.

A blend of hand-drawn comic-book images and computer animation gives the action a unique sort of electricity, like its jumping off the screen. According to Wikipedia (only the best sources for this journalist): around 140 animators were used for this project, the largest of any Sony Pictures Animation film.

Aside from the incredible animation at work, this film is hilarious, drawing the best from the powers of Lord and Miller, and an exciting cast of voice performers. The film navigates the inter-dimensional madness with elements of slapstick humor, meta-commentary and heartfelt drama. While sometimes the humorous and dramatic notes are sporadically mingled, the film’s inherent weirdness seems to give it a pass to do so. Or perhaps it was just so funny, I didn’t care. 

Shameik Moore delivers a terrific performance as Miles, while Jake Johnson plays perhaps the most compelling Peter Parker ever. Spider-Ham (voiced by John Mulaney) is a straight-up loony toon running amok and Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir  is a dark, black-and-white figure who brags about beating up Nazis.

The film is an absolute oddity, and a refreshing step in the world of comic-book adaptations. One can only hope it will be successful, and will cause studios to lean a little less formulaic and a little more risky. The gamble paid off with this film. 

Status: Strongly Recommend

Drawing by William C Hensley

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘Minding the Gap’: the doc of the year

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap” is a standout in an already impressive year for documentaries, weaving together the stories of three young men passionate about skateboarding in Rockford, Illinois, over a period of several years.

Liu — both the filmmaker and an active player in the story — unfolds the different paths the three friends take, but focuses on the similarities that brought them together and magnetized them to the challenging, painful activity they love. 

“Minding the Gap” includes some of the best skateboarding sequences ever put on film. The camera glides smoothly with its characters down empty streets, through parking lots and up and down half-pipes, giving the viewer just a slice of the soaring ecstasy that keeps these skaters getting back up, no matter how intense the fall.

Though the skating sequences are executed brilliantly, the film is far more focused on the broken homes and shared traumatic experiences that led these men (children at the time) to seek solace at the skate park.

Liu fabulously bridges the gap (or, perhaps, minds it) between filmmaker and subject by establishing himself as both early on, even including some interactions where he clarifies from behind the camera that the person being filmed can address him as a person. 

Some of Liu’s moments as a participant are the most powerful. During a scene in which an important confrontation is taking place, Liu seems to almost hide behind the camera and lighting equipment, as if he wishes he could be a third-person observer instead of enduring the difficult emotional situation he finds himself in.

The film also manages to serve as a lens through which men view masculinity, responsibility and family as time goes by and the burdens in life become heavier. New paths are forged and then retreated, pivotal decisions are made for better and worse and independence is sought. It’s young adulthood in a nutshell, and for these characters who have not had the smoothest path in life, it’s tough (as it is for all of us).

One does not have to be a skater, or part of the skateboarding community, to enjoy this film. It is currently streaming on Hulu.

Status: Strongly Recommend

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’: spurs, saddles and death

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (2018) offers six explorations of mortality in the format of separate vignettes, allowing directors Joel and Ethan Coen to explore many sides of the same die (no pun intended). 

During these stories set in the Old West (post-Civil War),  a very characteristic through-line of dark humor, dire circumstances and general melancholy is executed with the film-making mastery that the Coen name now implies.

Beginning with a story featuring the jovial, singing, mass-murdering cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), the film carries on to an incompetent bankrobber (James Franco) and his struggles with the law, a bleak arrangement between a physically disabled performer (Harry Melling) and a traveling showman (Liam Neeson), a prospector (Tom Waits) and his search for a pocket of gold, a young woman  (Zoe Kazan) and man (Bill Heck) searching for a new life in Oregon, and a small group of citizens on a carriage ride to the unknown. 

The Coens navigate the sweeping landscapes of the Old West stunningly in their second collaboration with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. From capturing the vastness of the open prairie to the sun-glazed beauty of a small clearing in a forest, the stories unfold over the many terrains of the place and time. 

While nihilism seems to be at the heart of the film, much of it is executed with a twinkle in the eye. Like many of the past Coens’ works, the film sometimes chuckles at the meaninglessness of it all, while sometimes just letting it crawl up your skin and live with you.  But in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” instead of marinating over it while the credits roll, you’re on to the next short. 

And when the credits do roll, the distractions end, you’re left contemplating all six stories at once.

The film wades into romance territory — not a common Coen trait — with “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” In the short, a romance blossoms with a foundation of practicality and mutual benefit, doomed to the whirlwind of needless tragedy that life on earth so frequently throws at us (as do the Coens). 

The performances throughout are powerful. Tim Blake Nelson’s cartoonish portrayal in the opening “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” provides a mostly comical introduction to a film that travels to very dark places. 

Melling delivers the most heartbreaking performance in “Meal Ticket,” conveying a confident and poetic voice during his performances, but displaying the most meaning offstage with just his expressive, longing eyes.

Tom Waits is gold (again, no pun) in “All Gold Canyon,” which is the most pleasant of the vignettes.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is currently streaming on Netflix.  Give it a go.

Status: Recommend

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

Drawing by William C. Hensley


‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’: buying the characters, not the brands

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Ralph Breaks the Internet” (2018) continues the journey of its lovable duo, catapulting them into the physically embodied world of the internet (brand names included) that seemed a lot more clever in concept than on the screen. 

The film has no shortage of clever moments, but it the world of meta commentary and self-awareness that we find ourselves in, it felt less meaningful than it would have five years ago. 

From IMDB: six years after the events of “Wreck-It Ralph,” Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), now friends, discover a wi-fi router in their arcade, leading them into a new adventure.

The relationship between Ralph and Vanellope save the film. After their initial connection in the first “Ralph” installment, the ebbs and flows of their now six-years-older relationship feels authentic in a film that seems to be attempting cleverness at every turn. The performances from Reilly and Silverman are highlights of both films. 

There’s no way to get around it: the blatant branding is cringe-inducing at times. The visual of labels like Amazon and Google majestically lettered on the tops of large buildings just feel like looking at billboards that I paid to see. The meta-Disney material is handled surprisingly well — though that cynic in the back of my head just keeps screaming “this is all an advertisement.” 

Ad or not, it’s an entertaining watch. 

Status: Recommend for Fans (Disney films, “Wreck-It Ralph” fans, etc.)

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

Drawing by William C. Hensley

The Harry Potter films: ranked

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of re-watching a series that has impacted my generation like no other pop culture relic. Not only do these films hold up magnificently well, but one could argue that their lessons become more and more relevant the older we get. 

The “Fantastic Beasts” sequel inspired the re-watch, and I was reminded of better times in the world of wizards and witches. I was also reminded of how impressive these films truly were; how many other series maintained such a level of quality (an improved quality in many instances for me) through seven sequels? The list is, indeed, VERY short.

Below, I’ve ranked the films from my least favorite to my favorite, though I should note that I am ultimately a fan of all of them. Watching these films was a blast; ranking them is another story. It’s like choosing between children. 

8. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2005)

The last place choice was one of the easiest for me. “Goblet of Fire” is a very busy movie from start to finish, with some truly chaotic action sequences. The Yule Ball is a wonderful sequence, but there could have been more of it. It’s a film with too much to do in too little time. Status: Recommend 

7. “Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part  2” (2011) 

I know, I know, hear me out. “Deathly Hallows Part 2” flies through what was so delicately set up in “Part 1,” and sprints its way to the final climactic battle, which is an epic feat. I’m not suggesting that this film should have been four hours (maybe), but many important plot points are handled with ease and convenience. Status: Recommend

6.  “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (2007)

David Yates’ first outing is an impressive one, as we get an introduction to what the series will be for the next three films. The final battle in the Ministry of Magic — namely Dumbledore and Voldemort literally fighting the elements — is spectacular. Status: Recommend 

5. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban” (2004) 

This film is the favorite of many and its easy to see why. It’s directed by auteur Alfonso Cuarón, features a wonderful performance from Gary Oldman and introduces some of the darker elements to the series in a digestible way. While the tone, for me, is sometimes inconsistent, its a terrific film. Status: Strongly Recommend

4.  “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001)

This film is where the magic it is. If John Williams’ whimsical score and Chris Columbus’ colorful fantasy frames don’t send tingles up your spine, what will? The world building for everything falls on this film, and boy does it deliver. Status: Strongly Recommend

3. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002) 

“Chamber” does more of the what the first one did, while weaving in a fascinating mystery, and seemingly higher stakes for everyone. Status: Strongly Recommend

2. “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” (2009)

As the series and the stakes build, Yates manages to descend the it further into the darkness, while holding on to a quirky sense of humor. The film captures the beauty and sadness of growing up, even in the most unique and grim of situations. The film moves quickly, and the ending proves to be one of the most powerful in the series.

1. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” (2010) 

If “Half Blood Prince” captures the beauty and sadness of growing up, “Deathly Hallows: Part 1” totally lives in it. The film at times flows like a stage show, bringing the viewer uncomfortably close to its three protagonists. The film also captures the insecurities, emotions and fears of its characters in a way that few blockbusters do. This is a best case scenario of the classic studio “split-one-into-two” premise. We end up with a film that is entirely unique in pace, tone and format. 

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘Creed II’ pairs familiar with fresh

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Creed 2” (2018) might feel formulaic to fans of the “Rocky”/”Creed” universe, but the formula is effective, and the film’s focus on its powerhouse characters makes it a dynamic entry in the series. 

The follow-up to Ryan Coogler’s 2015 film, “Creed 2” picks back up with Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), a light heavyweight fighter, as he grapples with the challenge of a fight from Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed his father in the ring. 

Directed by newcomer Steven Caple Jr., with a screenplay by Sylvester Stallone, the film probably has more in common with “Rocky II” than any of the other sequels, despite the obvious connection to “Rocky IV” (that being Ivan Drago). Though many of the through lines are familiar, the story of Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson) established in “Creed” continues, and these characters give the new series an entire life of its own. 

Caple does a good job of balancing the elements, and making the film derivative but also giving it new life. The past films are primarily stories about families and relationships that just happen to involve boxers. Caple carries that torch in “Creed II.”

The grounding performance of Thompson cannot be understated in this film.  While “Creed 2” certainly turns up the volume and heightens the reality more than the first, Thompson’s portrayal of Bianca keeps the series surprisingly down to earth, balancing out some of the added antics.  Her and Jordan’s chemistry is what gives these films their own identity and purpose. 

Jordan is brilliant as Adonis, but that should hardly be surprising at this point. He’s become one of the most talented superstars currently working.

Appearing in his eighth film in the “Rocky” universe, Stallone once again makes it known that Rocky Balboa is one of the most compelling characters on the screen in the last 50 years. Rocky’s simple wisdom — attained from the baggage we’ve seen unfold right before our eyes since 1976 — makes his relationship with Adonis one of the most rewarding elements of these new films. 

The fight scenes are a step down from Coogler’s 2015 film, but still inspire a stand-up-in-your-seat energy, and the sound design in these fights is once again top-notch. This film features some interesting coaching moments from Rocky and Drago (advising from opposite corners) that unfold during the climax. Though the larger plot points are largely predictable, the ending of the film throws in a rather poetic character moment that I was not expecting. 

If you like the “Rocky” series and “Creed,” you will probably enjoy “Creed 2.”

Status: Recommend for Fans (the “Rocky” series, “Creed,” Sports Movies).

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

Drawing by William C. Hensley

‘Widows’: a thriller with levels

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Widows” (2018) is a fast-paced heist thriller that subverts nearly every aspect of the genre, and also manages to offer a multi-level look at the racial, social, political, financial and gender power struggles and imbalances that shape our world — and the freedom that self-earned power can bring to the human spirit. 

Don’t get me wrong — Steve McQueen’s film does not go out of its way to be heady or grandstanding. These themes are needled in clearly, but subtly. What unfolds on the screen is a thrilling popcorn blockbuster filled with twists and turns and all-star performances from a major league cast. 

The screenplay was penned by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (author/screenwriter of “Gone Girl”). Set in Chicago, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities take fate into their own hands and plan to carry out a job (paraphrased from IMDB).

The film presents a web of stories that are dramatically entangled, floating from one to another and slowly painting a larger portrait of the dangerous world these characters live in.

McQueen uses the camera as a curious observer throughout. From an opening car chase sequence (shot from the perspective of those in the getaway van), to a shot following a vehicle of Tom Mulligan (Colin Farrell), McQueen makes the city a character in this film, one that often tells more than words ever could.

Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are perhaps the three most compelling characters on screen this year. The three all carry unique pain with them through out the film, though that pain was all a product of the same system, a system that ultimately led them all together. 

The Veronica character careens from scared, vulnerable and in-too-deep to a front of baddassery when around others (which becomes less and less of a front as the film progresses). Davis is an unstoppable presence throughout.

The emotional and confidence growth of the character Alice is conveyed brilliantly by Debicki; we’ll be seeing more of her on the big screen. These three actresses carry the emotional bulk of the film, but the supporting cast rounds it out with a depth that is rarely seen in 2018 blockbusters.   

What’s impressive about “Widows” is its ability to encompass so much thematic material while keeping its foot so steadily on the gas. Every scene holds an individual, isolated importance, as the sequences often mean more to individual characters than to the film’s plotting.

This film is one of my favorites of the year. I tried to hold back on even the mildest of spoilers, because this is a film that should be experienced.

Status: Strongly Recommend 

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

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