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.