Friday, December 30, 2016

Black Wives Matter: Like Its Characters, “Fences” Feels Boxed In

Transition from stage to screen can be a tricky thing. “Fences,” a story about an African American patriarch struggling to provide for his family in 1950s Pittsburgh, is based on a Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning play, but doesn't quite feel right as a film. Though I have no familiarity with the source material, the story, which features a family struggling to keep together in racially charged America, feels sort of constrained. “Fences,” directed by Denzel Washington, is filled with dramatic performances and long-winded monologues. That usually works for a live audience but can feel tedious to moviegoers, especially when the filmmaking doesn't feel very modern or innovative. While it's always good to see diversity make it to American theaters, “Fences” relies too heavily on an unlikable main character and a stagey production that lacks cinematic prowess.

Denzel Washington, who won a Tony award for the role of Troy Maxon revives the role onscreen to good results. He gives a full-bodied committed performance. He works as a garbageman who has two sons, with different women. Viola Davis plays his devoted wife Rose. Troy isn't a horrible person; flawed for sure, but he certainly isn't very likable. He knows his life hasn't gone the way he wanted. He speaks in baseball metaphors since he's a failed major leaguer. He didn't make it, not because of his skills, but because of the color of his skin. It has understandably left him a bitter man. He has a contentious relationship with his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo – every bit as good as his parental costars) who wants to play football much to his dad's disapproval. Troy's disabled brother (Myketti Williamson) is an added burden in Troy's life, as is his eldest, estranged musician son Lyons (Russell Hornsby) who's always asking for money. It's easy to see how disappointed Troy is in his life, who spends a good portion of the film building a wooden fence around his backyard. His drinking is a problem as is his vocally abusive tone. He's unlikable and almost all too realistic.

Washington absolutely knows how to direct actors. He is a double Oscar winner after all. His visual eye is less impressive which makes the film feel as boxed in as its characters. It makes sense. There's no real reason to explore the world outside Troy's household. The film is confined which reflects the weathered characters. Davis is outstanding as usual and is in full Oscar mode. It amazes that the actress has spent so many film roles as wives and maids. She's always revelatory; one day she'll get a juicy role that more appropriately fits her true talent. The entire ensemble is engaging. But perhaps the screenplay by the late August Wilson, who adapted his own play, doesn't quite make the electrically charged story the play allegedly was.

“Fences” is an important piece of art and it's essential that it exists. However, I couldn't quite connect to the story or characters. That isn't to say you must be African American to connect to a story about African Americans, but this film just didn't work for me. It's stagey trappings were too obvious and the film focuses on long winded dialogue that just doesn't feel right in a modern film production ("Moonlight," "Doubt," and "August Osage County" are terrific adaptations of intimate character-driven plays). It's not a coincidence that the screenplay was finished by Wilson before his death in 2005. “Fences” will work for some and won't for others, but no one will deny the great performances or how important films like these are being made.  GRADE: B-  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Space Sham: “Passengers” Is Barely Worth the Trip

If any two actors today could make a movie watchable it's Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. They're pretty decent in “Passengers” but the script doesn't really do them any favors. Both play passengers aboard a luxury spaceship who wake up nearly 90 years early from hibernation meaning they'll be dead before they get to their destination if they don't figure out how to get back to sleep. Director Morten Tyldum hot off his Oscar nominated Hollywood debut “The Imitation Game” directs his actors well but the script makes odd choices along the way leading to an underwhelming final act that is filled with eye-rolling sci-fi cliches. The saving grace are the lead actors, the glossy production design, and Thomas Newman's beautiful score.

“Passengers” is actually pretty different from what the trailers would make you believe. One plot point is actually pretty well hidden which is a good thing; however, the plot point that ends up driving the film's story doesn't quite work which sort of sours the rest of the movie. It's commendable that the filmmakers would choose to go with the controversial plot element considering it's such a big-budget movie. And while it threatens to make a character wholly unlikable, it's interesting nonetheless, but I'm not quite sure it works for the movie. Then the film doesn't really know which direction to go in so Jon Spaiht's script goes the “something is wrong with the ship so we need to fix it” route.

The story is quite simple. Pratt and Lawrence are two of thousands of passengers on a spaceship bound for a life on a new planet. Everyone is in hibernation and set to wake up in 90 years. Something has gone wrong with the ship and they're woken up early and can't figure out how to get back to sleep. The only other one around to talk to is a bartending android played by Michael Sheen. Pratt and Lawrence are some of Hollywood's most charismatic actors. They're not very well challenged by the material here and they don't really get to show much range but they’ve got good chemistry. And they're almost as good looking as the film's stunning production design. Even if the script doesn't quite work the movie at least looks good. It sounds good too: Thomas Newman adds another impressive score to his already amazing resume.

“Passengers” isn't a terrible film, but it has some serious flaws. If it's one you've been looking forward to all year I’d say check it out but going in with low expectations is highly recommended. It's far from the intense space opera depicted in the film's trailer but the leads work well together and the film looks and sounds good. Label this one a minor disappointment.  GRADE: C+  

Sunday, December 18, 2016

L.A., Awe: “La La Land” is a Spectacular Ode to Classic Movie Musicals

If you look up the word ‘delightful’ in the dictionary you’ll probably see the poster for the new movie “La La Land.” The romantic movie musical is every bit as fun and enjoyable as you’ve probably heard. You know how Quentin Tarantino is really good at taking a particular genre and reworking it for modern audiences? That is exactly what Damien Chazelle has done to the old school movie musical. The director, hot off his feature film debut “Whiplash,” returns to what he seems to know best, the word of jazz. He gives us a story about hopes and dreams in modern day Los Angeles. And it’s all set to impressively staged musical numbers including a brilliant long take opening sequence set in a traffic jam on an LA highway overpass. It’s literal movie magic and there’s not a single magic wand in sight.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have proven that they have incredible chemistry since this is their third film together (following “Crazy Stupid Love” and “Gangster Squad” for those keeping track). Stone is Mia a studio backlot coffee shop barista who aspires to be an actress and Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who dreams of hitting it big and opening his own jazz club. One thing leads to another and they fall in love, yada yada yada. There’s nothing particularly innovate about the story however, it’s how well its executed that really makes it something special.

The film is filled with jazzy original songs from composer Justin Hurwitz who really set the tone of this irresistible movie. There’s a catchy opening number set on a highway and intimate moments in which the actors pretty much just sing straight to the camera. The music is wonderful; especially when the characters randomly start dancing in various LA spots like the Hollywood hills or the Griffith Observatory. Other people show up here in there including Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons, Rosemarie DeWitt and even John Legend. But this is really a two person show and Stone and Gosling are exquisite. It’s nothing too out of their range, but with all the singing and dancing their talent is obvious in every single frame.

“La La Land” is sometimes an altogether different thing from “Whiplash” and yet it has many similarities. You get the sense of how important and influential music is to Chazelle. Both films are about dreams and aspirations. It’s obvious that “La La Land” is a nostalgia trip down old Hollywood memory lane with references to “Rebel without a Cause” and the fact that it’s been presented in Cinemascope. But it doesn’t get bogged down in nostalgia; even if it has an old school feel it’s extremely contemporary as well. It’s really quite something special.

Fans of musicals should dance their way to “La La Land.” It’s an incredibly fun – and funny – film that’s impressively acted and has unique and well-directed musical numbers. It could have used at least one more music number somewhere in the third act, but it’s a minor quip in a terrifically entertaining and classy film that will restore your faith in the original movie musical.  I’m impressed how much Damien Chazelle has gotten me to respect jazz music with just two films.  GRADE: A


Friday, December 16, 2016

A New Hype: Felicity Jones is a Rebel With a Cause in “Rogue One”

What can be said about the most hyped film of the year except omg you guys it's finally here!! So is it any good? Yes it's very good. Though your enjoyment of the film will be based entirely on how much of a hardcore Star Wars nerd you are. I'm a mild level Star Wars nerd, meaning I have no real allegiance to the films which is evidenced by the fact that “Revenge of the Sith” was my favorite Star Wars film until “The Force Awakens” came around. Having said that, some may find “Rogue One” to actually be better than “The Force Awakens” since it aligns more with the original trilogy and because it sort of does it's own thing (instead of being nostalgically parallel to “A New Hope” which many complained about). This new film stands on it's own by telling the story of how the rebels got a hold of the Death Star's plans which became the McGuffin in “A New Hope,” but the film's first half isn't all that interesting to someone who knows very little about the Star Wars universe and therefore feels a bit uneven. Having said that, “Rogue One” eventually becomes a thrilling heist film in its final act and is extremely fun in its execution. Star Wars nerds rejoice!

This is the first live action stand alone Star Wars film and Disney, who now owns Lucasfilm, is in great shape of giving audiences well-crafted space operas in the style of the films everyone fell in love with a long time ago. Director Gareth Edwards, who put his stamp on the “Godzilla” franchise in 2014, makes an admirable helmer this time around and has given his film such a great, old school look and feel. Gone is the digital cleanliness of the much maligned and, let's be honest, ultimately underrated George Lucas prequels in favor of a grittier 70s look. Sure there is plenty of CGI some of which is incredibly well used which includes bringing a dead actor back to life.

“Rogue One” tells the story of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who becomes part of the rebel alliance against the evil imperial empire. Her father had worked for the empire in creating what eventually became known as the Death Star, a planet sized space station capable of destroying entire planets. She joins a ragtag team which includes Diego Luna doing his best as a Hispanic version of Han Solo, Alan Tudyk's voice doing his best C-3P0, and others including Donnie Yen as a blind warrior who believes in the force. The film's first half, spends a lot of time jumping around from planet to planet with characters talking about stuff I couldn't really care much about until they made references to the other films. Finally some familiar faces show up which I won't spoil here but it all works really well.

“Rogue One” is a fun movie. It's actually quite grim and dark since it's essentially a war film with an entertaining heist element in the final act. Since it's a prequel we sort of know how it's all going to play out and we know most of these characters don't live long enough to be the stars of “A New Hope” but it's certainly a fun adventure especially for those who really care about this stuff. I still prefer the large-scale fun of “The Force Awakens” but “Rogue One” is certainly a fun one-off adventure that will satisfy those salivating for a galaxy far, far away.  GRADE: B

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Stranger Than Fiction: “Nocturnal Animals” is a Truly Bizarre Movie-Going Experience

If you were to describe fashion designer Tom Ford's two films “A Single Man” and “Nocturnal Animals” as two hour long fragrance commercials you wouldn't really be far off. “A Single Man” was an artsy story about loss and grief headlined by a great performance from Colin Firth. “Nocturnal Animals” is a completely different beast altogether. While it is, in a way, about loss and grief, “Nocturnal Animals” is a fascinating movie with two stories for the price of one. One is about a man dealing with the loss of his wife and daughter, and the other is about a woman dealing with the dissolution of her marriage. There is a fun back and forth between theses parallel stories and Tom Ford makes everything look beautiful along the way. The movie is thrilling and darkly twisted with some truly bizarre moments but fascinating characterizations and performances from its completely game cast. “Nocturnal Animals” is a difficult film to recommend but also a difficult film to stop thinking about. In the end, it feels a little more style over substance but it's certainly an interesting ride.

If “Nocturnal Animals” were to deserve any superlative it would certainly be “Most Bizarre Opening Title Sequence.” I can't even spoil it for you except to say that is completely takes you by surprise and certainly informs what kind of movie you're about to start watching. The opening also is a great gauge of the maturity level of the audience as snickering and sounds of shock permeated the theater. Just because a movie has A-list stars like Amy Adams and Jake Gyllennhaal doesn't mean it's for mainstream tastes. The film basically follows art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Adams), disillusioned with her failing marriage, as she reads a manuscript written by her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal). Although it isn't necessarily made quite clear, we're shown the events of the book as they cut back and forth between “reality” and “fiction.”

The story that Susan reads is about a reserved family man named Tony (also Gyllenhaal) who is accosted by three creepy young men on a dark stretch of highway in West Texas. He's traveling with his wife, played by Isla Fisher and teen daughter, played by Ellie Bamber, and these three guys basically run them off the road and end up kidnapping the women. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays the lunatic Ray in an over-the-top performance but he's certainly convincing as a wacko. The scene stealing Michael Shannon then shows up as detective who helps Tony get revenge. Susan becomes extremely enthralled in her ex-husband's book and we soon get to see flashbacks of their blossoming and eventually disintegrating relationship.

The film's script, also written by Ford, and based on a novel by Austin Wright, is certainly twisty and fun and Adams is great in an against-type role and Gyllenhaal is having a blast in a dual role. And it's fun to see where these two storylines are going to end up. Let's be honest though, there is a lot of fun camerawork, wacky costume design, and weird symbolism so this isn't a film for everyone. I feel like it would have been one of my favorites if I was still taking film classes. It's not weird enough like a David Lynch movie but you can see it as an inspiration; the film definitely has a Mulholland Drive feel to it.

In the end, the movie is certainly a bizarre experience and overall it was enjoyable for it's weirdness. It's certainly not for all tastes and Tom Ford's musk is certainly stamped all over it. Adams and Gyllenhaal are particularly good and as long as you know what you're getting into I'd say go for it. Don't say I didn't warn you.  GRADE: B+  

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Cold Man & the Sea: "Manchester by the Sea" is a Showcase of Brilliant Acting, Writing, & Direction

The brilliantly made “Manchester by the Sea” is one of those movies that seem to operate on a completely different plane of existence. It’s a film that seems so simple but is deceptively complex and emotionally rewarding. When you watch it you’re seeing truly great artists at work. The movie is an almost disturbing reflection of real life as we follow the main character through the process of losing a loved one and becoming close to someone he hardly knows. The film works so well because of its deliberately paced script and direction from the maestro Kenneth Lonergan. He’s set a new standard for impeccably executed domestic drama storytelling. And no amount of adjectives could do the film and the performances justice.

Casey Affleck is a revelation in the lead role as a sullen handyman forced to confront the tragedy and grief that has overcome him when he’s unexpectedly forced to be the legal guardian of his teenage nephew. We’re introduced to Lee Chandler (Affleck) as he goes about his boring and lonely life as a handyman and janitor. He shovels the snow from his apartment’s sidewalk and he unclogs tenants’ toilets almost in a Groundhog Day-like loop of mundanity. Then he gets the call. His bother Joe (played in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital but he dies before Lee can make the long drive there. Lonergan deliberately shows all the steps people are forced to deal with after this happens: the paperwork, the meetings with doctors, seeing the deceased, telling family, making arrangements. It’s almost all too real. This however, isn’t the worst part of Lee’s life; as the script slowly reveals, in flashback form, other events that have happened to Lee before his brother’s untimely death.

Lonergan maintains as realistic approach as humanely possible. The stark realities of life and death are contrasted by the stark and cold New England landscape surrounding Lee and those around him. But the film as heavy as it is as times, isn’t nearly as depressing as some of these moments may suggest. Lee is flummoxed to find out that he’s been left in charge of his brother’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). What follows is a beautifully budding relationship between uncle and nephew as they traverse the road of grief and loss. Affleck and Hedges play wonderfully off each other; it makes sense considering Hedges is like a teenaged clone of real life friend (and Manchester producer) Matt Damon. The film has enough lighthearted moments and comic relief to help us deal with the film’s tougher themes which is certainly welcomed.

“Manchester by the Sea” is simply terrific. A stand out among the end of the year Oscar rush that is definitely a must see, filled to the brim with standout performances and has a sharply written screenplay. It tells the type of story that shows just how difficult life can be and watching those dealing with the harsh realities. Expect an emotional cleansing of the best kind; it’s one of the best films of the year.  GRADE: A

Trailer for Manchester by the Sea on TrailerAddict.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Hailee’s Comic: “The Edge of Seventeen” Expertly Straddles the Edge of Comedy and Drama

“The Edge of Seventeen,” a new teen comedy-drama from writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig is easily the best teen film since 2007’s “Juno” (nothing against the wonderful films “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “The Spectacular Now”). And even those who weren’t convinced by “Juno”s overly-hip treacle will be happy to know that the pregnant-less “Edge of Seventeen” is a much more realistic look at high school and the nightmare that is coming of age. Hailee Steinfeld, previously Oscar-nominated at age 15, is simply superb as Nadine, who has to not only deal with the death of her father at an early age but traverse the complicated world of high school and all the stupid drama that comes with it. “The Edge of Seventeen” is a moving drama that can be hilariously funny and gut-wrenchingly sad, sometimes in the same scene, and stands out because of its realism, honesty, assured voice from its female helmer, and a simply wonderful cast. It’s easily one of the best teen films of recent memory.

Don’t let the fact that “The Edge of Seventeen” is a “teen film” deter you from seeing it. Every adult alive right now has been the age of seventeen before and will relate to the film in some way. Nadine is one of the more interesting teenage film characters in quite some time. She’s not really that popular; she doesn’t think she’s very attractive. She’s sort of “plain.” Her older brother Darian (Everybody Wants Some’s Blake Jenner) is pretty much the Golden Child and seems to have it all. Which is why Nadine practically goes insane when her best – and only – friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) begins to date her brother. Krista might as well be dating Hitler in Nadine’s eyes. She’s a traitor; a Benedict Arnold. She can hardly turn to her own mother (Kyra Sedgwick) who doesn’t seem to “get” her own daughter. At this point Nadine can really only turn to her history teacher Mr. Bruner (a terrific Woody Harrelson); they seem to have one of those special teacher-student relationships that only seem to exist in movies. But then things look hopefully for Nadine when she befriends the nerdy, awkward kid who sits next to her in class.

This isn’t just any other “teen movie” and that’s because writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig – an exciting new female voice – doesn’t really hold anything back. She presents delightfully edgy material here, like the surprise death of a parent, which gives the film an authenticity that most movies about teenagers can barely muster. All of her characters feel distinctive. They don’t all sound the same – a somewhat fatal flaw for Juno’s dissenters (not me, I’m a fan of that film), and each character has their own life problems and situations to deal with. The film centers around Nadine as she comments about her “terrible” life which feels superficial until you realize that many felt that way as a teenager. Craig is also not afraid to actually make her lead character have – gasp – flaws! Sometimes she makes bone-headed decisions but we stick with her anyways because we care about her and want her to eventually correct her course.

“The Edge of Seventeen” is simply a delight from start to finish. It has an almost joyous sense of humor and it rides just along the edge of dark humor without going overboard. It’s sometimes brutally honest and features wonderfully engaging performances from the entire cast. Steinfeld is simply stunning here – definitely award worthy material for what it’s worth. Craig has such a keen eye for telling interesting stories in bold, new ways, I’m excited to see what else she has in store for us.  GRADE: A

Trailer for The Edge of Seventeen on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Hooked on a Feeling: The Polynesian-Infused “Moana” is Another Disney Winner

Disney may own the world, but at least they know how to make astoundingly entertaining films. After the fantastic success of the non-musical “Zootopia” earlier this year, Disney released its second film as part of their official animation canon (the first time since 2002’s double release of Treasure Planet and Lilo & Stitch). Yes “Moana” is a fantastic animated musical in the vein of the early 90s classics. It’s just as good as “Frozen,” if not better, and features terrifically catchy songs from Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. “Moana” is pretty much everything you expect and want from an animated Disney musical and more. It features terrific voice acting, strong memorable characters, ear-worm inducing songs, breath-taking animation, and a heart-tugging storyline with laughs and tears aplenty, 2D animation be damned.

Moana is voiced by newcomer Auli'i Cravalho and she's one of the strongest female Disney characters in quite some time. She's got the prowess and spirit of Mulan and Pocahontas and thankfully for once there's not a love interest in sight. This is certainly not about a Disney princess who goes all googly-eyed for a handsome prince. Her father is the chief of her Polynesian village and she's set to eventually become the new leader but her island home seems to be dying as the legendary demigod Maui has essentially cursed the island after trying to steal a powerful stone that gives “life” to all the islands. She sets off to find Maui and force him to return to the stone, though he must first find his magical hook which gives him the power to change form. Maui is voiced by Dwayne Johnson and, like the Genie from “Aladdin,” instantly becomes one of the great, fun Disney animated characters. The film essentially becomes a boat-based road trip buddy comedy with lots of adventure and songs thrown in for good measure.

If the film feels like it belongs with the string of successful 90s Disney movies its because it's directed by the guys who made “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” John Musker and Ron Clements. They've tweaked the formula here and there but it essentially works as modern take on the classic Disney formula. There are cute critters like Heihei the moronic but hilarious chicken, a dramatic family death, and creepy villains like Tamatoa a giant treasure-hoarding crab voiced by Flight of the Concord's Jemaine Clements who even gets his own David Bowie influenced musical number. And then there's the “Fury Road”-esque sequence featuring floating barges of evil coconut pygmy pirates hell bent on stealing the stone. And there's the exciting climax involving a fascinatingly designed gigantic lava demon.

After the death of Disney lyricist Howard Ashman in the early 90s it seemed like no Disney movie would be the same without the power duo of Ashman and Alan Menken but there have been lots of great songs since. “Moana” has terrific songs. At first none seem to stick out the way “Let It Go” did during “Frozen” but each one is truly special and catchy. Lin-Manual has teamed up with Polynesian musician Opetaia Foa'i for some truly great collaborations you'll be singing for days.

“Moana” is simply a joy to witness. The computer generated animation is truly breathtaking. The water is so well rendered to the point that it literally becomes a character itself. James Cameron's “The Abyss” had to have been an influence here. And the Polynesian lore storyline feels so refreshing; Jared Bush's script is witty and fun. This is a wonderfully entertaining and moving film that will be liked by kids and adults alike. Disney has yet another hit on its hands; they definitely got me hook, line, and sinker.  GRADE: A  

Trailer for Moana on TrailerAddict.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Paranoid Activity: “Allied” is a Grand WWII Romantic Espionage Thriller

This is the easiest way to describe the essence of Robert Zemeckis’ new romantic WWII thriller “Allied:” it’s what “Casablanca” would have been like if Alfred Hitchcock had directed it. I’m more than thrilled that Zemeckis is back directing live action films after a decade long foray into creepy and unsatisfying motion capture animated films. But even his last two efforts “Flight” and “The Walk,” while good, felt like he was still trying to get his cinematic sea legs back. One thing I love so much about Zemeckis’ live action films (besides not disliking ANY of them, a rarity considering there are even Spielberg movies I don’t like) is that he refuses to stay in one genre. How many directors have gone from pulpy action adventure, to time travel fantasy, to animation caper, to western time travel sci-fi, to fantasy black comedy, to epic drama, to space sci-fi, to Hitchcockian supernatural thriller, to survival drama? Zemeckis now puts his spin on the romantic war thrillers of the 1940s in “Allied” with glorious results. Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are radiant playing against each other in a film brimming with romance and suspense.

The film follows a pretty standard three act structure. First we’re introduced to intelligence officer Max Vatan (Pitt) who’s going undercover in 1942 Morocco. His mission is to team up with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard) - who he’s never met or even seen before - in Casablanca, pose as husband and wife, and assassinate the German ambassador. So these two actually fall in love, to the surprise of no one and get married living the happy life (or as happy as one can be while attempting to survive the Blitz and, you know, a world war). But then Max gets word from above that Marianne may actually be a German spy which throws a slight wrench into their happy ever after.

For some reason I’ve been on a World War II kick and most of the recent films I’ve been enjoying, like 2014’s “Unbroken” have not been all that well received. The slightly old fashioned “Allied” does sort of have that “I’ve sort of seen this thing before” feel to it, but it’s obvious Zemeckis, having never worked in this genre before, was obviously trying to recreate these types of films that were popular in the 40s. The director has always been interested in technology advancements and pushing the medium forward and uses modern filmmaking techniques to tell a somewhat old-fashioned story. It’s easy to see the influences in Steven Knight’s script. But at the same time it’s also refreshing to see a big budget Hollywood movie that’s not based on any previous material or a true story. Zemeckis is truly at his best when he’s working from a script that shows equal parts originality and tribute.

A huge chunk of the success of “Allied” besides its assured direction, interesting story, lush production value, and great Alan Silvestri score is the pair of performances at the film’s center. In a way the movie feels like a strange mix of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “Inglorious Basterds.” Pitt and Cotillard have amazing chemistry. And Cotillard especially gives a nuanced performance. The audience only knows as much as Pitt’s character, who becomes understandably paranoid, so we’re constantly wondering whether she’s actually a spy. The film’s eventual developments aren’t too particularly surprising but suspense is milked for all its worth. The relationship at the core takes its time to develop to the point where you really care about where these people will end up. Not to mention that either could be killed at any moment. And those looking for a period piece romance will certainly enjoy the film’s steamier moments including an automobile tryst complete with a special cameo by the sand storm from “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

“Allied” is a standout big budget Hollywood war drama. It’s fun to see Robert Zemeckis’ take on the genre. His direction is really solid here. He knows how to make a film his own and make it wildly entertaining. Those who are a big fan of 1940s romantic war thrillers will no doubt enjoy this latest entry to the genre. I know I’m certainly happy to see Zemeckis’ return to the live action film world worth the wait.  GRADE: A-

Trailer for Allied on TrailerAddict.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Half-Bored Prince: “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” Isn't All That Fantastic

It took me years to like and appreciate the Harry Potter films. By my estimation I'll probably like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” sometime around the year 2023. There's nothing particularly “wrong” or “bad” about “Fantastic Beasts,” it's just that you either like this sort of thing or you don't. Harry Potter fans will most likely be on cloud 9 while those not prone to flying and magic will likely be bored. Even if the Harry Potter films filled a certain genre niche of fantasy it told a universal story suitable for all ages and audiences. “Fantastic Beasts” is probably as good a film as you could make about a guy who ends up writing a text book. It comes from the mind of J.K. Rowling and director David Yates who must have signed a deal with the devil to direct Wizarding World movies for all eternity. The pair resurrect the magical world of wizards and muggles for another fantasy franchise or at least until the fans grow out of their magical phase. But that ain't happening anytime soon.

We finally get a movie set in the wizarding world that isn't about children or teenagers. It immediately gives the film some added weight. Or at least doesn't make you feel stupid for not bring a kid along with you to the theater. This is the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) author of the textbook “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” as seen at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. Scamander arrives in 1920s New York which means the film isn't filled with wall to wall British accents. We're not quite sure why Scamander is here but he carries a briefcase that seems to be harboring… you guessed it… fantastic beasts. But his bag accidentally gets mixed up with the bag of a local muggle (ie non magical person or what American wizards refer to as a “No-Maj”) named Jacob (Dan Fogler) who just wants to open up a damn bakery but gets caught up in the world of magical wands and creatures and dark entities.

You're probably wondering who exactly is the bad guy since Voldemort isn't around yet. That seems to be a more complicated question. Coincidentally, magical forces seem to be destroying parts of the city and Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is investigating it and also looking for the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald who has been missing according to the CGI newspapers seen in the film's opening sequence. Then there's the creepy Mary Lou Barebone played by Samantha Morton (and her creepier adopted children one of whom is played by Ezra Miller) who's one of those crazy New York people who gathers people on the street and denounces anything that possible goes against their personal beliefs or religions. Wait a minute is “Fantastic Beasts” actually an allegory for marginalized people in today's society?

There are magical creatures, there is magic, there are wand battles. You know the drill. It's all familiar yet wondrous. Like I previously stated, there's nothing really bad going on here. The performances are good and the special effects work. What you get out of it will be directly proportional to how much you can tolerate the fantasy genre. Is it as good as the Harry Potter films? I can objectively say no. That doesn't mean you muggles won't eat up every last bit; I personally didn't get much out of it but it's harmless Hollywood sorcery.  GRADE: C+  

Feature Trailer for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them on TrailerAddict.

Boyhood: “Moonlight” Shows Human Connection is More Than Skin Deep

“Moonlight” is altogether a challenging yet simple film; it's beautiful, lyrical, and ultimately moving. It will certainly mean different things to different people, which makes it a simply stunning cinematic achievement. The film forces us to look past the skin color of its characters; it's a universal story about humanity, growing up, the need for connection, and finding one's own identity. Comparisons to Richard Linklater's brilliant “Boyhood” are not unfounded. They are similar in conception but worlds apart in execution and characterizations. “Moonlight” tells the story of a poor African American named Chiron told in three acts: as a shy child, an introverted teenager, and as a toughened man. An important film for this day and age, it's absorbing and sobering filmmaking of the highest order; fascinating direction, stunning performances, and is so captivating that no two film-goers are likely to have the same experience watching it.

“Moonlight” is the story of Chiron, a black boy growing up in a poor neighborhood in Miami, Florida. He's first played by child actor Alex R. Hibbert as an introverted young kid who doesn't always fit in. It certainly doesn't help that he's significantly smaller than his peers and is non-so-lovingly called “Little.” His poor, drug addicted mother Paula (a wonderful Naomie Harris) pays less attention to him than the school bullies. She's too busy trying to find her next score. Sanctuary takes the form of a local drug dealer with a heart of gold named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who with his girlfriend takes the boy in, feeds him, and gives him more care than his neglectful mother ever could.

As a teenager Chiron is played by Ashton Sanders who gives arguably one of the finest performances in the film. Sanders nails the characteristics established by Hibbert; his Chiron is still introverted, small, tepid, and struggling to figure out who he really is. Bullying has not remotely gone away and has reached a threshold. His sanctuary remains at the home of Juan and his girlfriend who by now are like surrogate parents. Chiron also finds an unexpected closeness to his buddy Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) which will continue to shape the course of his life.

As a grown man – but still not fully satisfied with who he is – Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) is still the same introverted personality even if he's become “hardened” by an unexpected life path. He will then make an unexpected connection with someone from his past though the viewer isn't privileged to see it all. And hence the brilliance of writer/director Barry Jenkins. Like, “Boyhood” we get several glimpses into the life of a young man as he grows up. Chiron's story will certainly not reflect everyone's own life – and that's not necessarily the point. We get to see the story of a person so rarely portrayed onscreen and yet his ultimate struggle to fit into his world feels empathetic and relateable. Jenkins fills the frame with beautiful imagery; his camera whips around and in some moments is appropriately still. Jenkins' script is fascinating based on what he decides to show us – and not show us. He gets impressive performances from his ensemble and while the film is based on a play (“In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”), the movie feels cinematic and play-like all at once.

“Moonlight” is a really beautiful cinematic achievement. It's extremely compelling story brought to life by three extraordinary actors. The film celebrates diversity by giving the viewer a look into a character rarely seen in mainstream film and still tells a universal, non-politicized story – the human need for connection. In this day and age where society feels so divided and segregated it feels good that a film can reflect the progressive change and unity most of us so desperately crave. “Moonlight” should be required viewers for film fans of all races and generations.  GRADE: A  

Trailer for Moonlight on TrailerAddict.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

War of the Words: Amy Adams is Lost in Translation in the Brilliant “Arrival”

I wonder, if Roger Ebert were still alive would he have liked “Arrival?” And it's mostly because I remember him hating the fact that the alien tripods in “War of the Worlds” had three legs; he referred to them as being “clunky.” The aliens in “Arrival” have seven legs. It is sort of an odd, random number of legs. He certainly would of thought the film itself was a masterpiece. It's an alien invasion movie unlike any you've seen before – and yet it feels someone familiar in the best ways possible. Those expecting to see monuments blown up or other alien invasion cliches will certainly be disappointed; it's certainly more “Contact” than “War of the Worlds.” There may even be those who find the film “slow.” I found “Arrival” to be just short of perfect; a brilliantly conceived and executed piece of science fiction that easily ranks as a new genre classic – another wildly entertaining piece of art from Denis (“Prisoners”) Villeneuve.

Like in “Independence Day” alien spaceships appear all over the planet. Unlike “Independence Day” nothing much happens. They just sort of hover several feet above the ground, giant black spherical masses just floating as if they've always been there. Scientists are sort of baffled but the beings seem to be benign. These are aliens after all and communicating with them is rather difficult. Enter brilliant linguist professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams in a subtle but flawless performance) recruited by the government to help translate the strange alien language. Louise appears to be a lonely, introverted person. We see glimpses of her past life including the premature death of her teenage daughter which still haunts her and is probably the saddest film opening since “Up.” Louise works around the clock with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) an astrophysicist and Weber (Forest Whitaker) a US Army colonel.

The aliens ascribe to the “tentacle” body type we've seen in a lot of sci-fi films. Inside the ship, we see them in their own foggy atmosphere behind a glass wall as the scientists try to decipher their strange ink blot-like language. Louise communicates with two aliens lovingly referred to as “Abbott” and “Costello.” They appear to be friendly though as time goes on everyone's main concern is why exactly are they here? The film's third act is certainly a surprising punch to the gut in the best kind of way.

The film features brilliant direction from the always reliable Villeneuve who has such an amazing eye and knows how to tell a story the best of them. He has the charm and visual prowess of a Spielberg and the strange narrative know-how of a Nolan. And was it just me or did some the lyrical visual moments remind you of Terrence Malick? More importantly Eric Heisserer's wonderful script (based on a short story by Ted Chiang) is absolutely solid. There doesn't seem to be a wasted moment and every development is more interesting than the last. This movie is just as much about the characters as it is about the alien stuff and the performances are top-notch. And don't even get me started on Johann Johannsson's superbly creepy score. It's initially disappointing that Roger Deakins was not the DP, who previously shot Villeneuve's “Prisoners” and “Sicario” but Bradford Young is certainly up for the challenge of following the master. The film looks gorgeous and moody.

“Arrival” has been described as “thinking person's sci-fi” and that's certainly true to an extent. But there is nothing remotely snobbish about the film. Sure the film lacks the explosive action of a typical summer blockbuster but it's a brilliantly realized, realistic and ultimately moving piece of science fiction full of drama and suspense. It's a fascinating story about grief, loss, and discovery. It's a must see.  GRADE: A  

Trailer for Arrival on TrailerAddict.