Monday, July 17, 2017

The Big Sick

On Saturday I saw The Big Sick, starring Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan.

Kumail (Nanjiani) is a struggling stand up comic doing his best to avoid his mother's attempts at setting him up with a Pakistani wife. One night he gets heckled by Emily (Kazan), a white girl who lives nearby and they have a meet cute and fall in love.

Unfortunately, their path to happily-ever-after wasn't so simple: his parents weren't okay with him falling for a white girl so he broke up with her and Emily became severely ill, going into a coma shortly after their courtship fell apart.

While she's unconscious, Kumail realizes his feelings for her and visits her hospital room often. He gets to know her parents (played here charmingly by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) and grows on them. By the time Emily wakes up, he's ready to resume their relationship, but she hasn't had the same time to process her feelings. So another roadblock emerges.

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

Sad as this all sounds, the film is a comedy. And, remarkably, it's also true—co-written by the real-life couple (Kumail and his wife Emily V. Gordon).

I have to admit, I'm still on the fence about this one.

I wanted desperately to like it because I tend to embrace stories of love overcoming all odds to prevail. I also appreciate when people with deep cultural values can learn to embrace new ideas and ideals for the sake of love. This has all of that ... but it's not perfect.

First, Kumail playing himself takes me out of the story. Maybe it's because I know him from Silicon Valley or because he always seems to have a smirk on deck even if the scene isn't comedic, but him being him made the rest of the cast feel like they were trying too hard (and they're all amazing actors who delivered stellar performances). I believed Emily was very ill. I got that Emily's father had greatly hurt Emily's mother. But that all felt like a play because Kumail was always there, hanging out, reminding us this was his life we were seeing.

I also found the roommate to be too dumb. They dedicated a lot of screen time to emphasizing how much of a loser he was, then made the audience feel guilty for not feeling worse when he didn't get chosen to be part of something the rest of them did. I would have much rather had that time with the other comedians or happy moments with the couple when all was said and done.

Annoying as well were the moments with Kumail's family. They seemed very one-dimensional since we seldom see them away from the dinner table.

I can't imagine what it must be like to see your life rewound on the big screen and I applaud the couple for the courage to tell their story.

i just wish it went lighter on the stereotypes and deeper into the heart of their love.

~~~

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Girls Trip

Tonight I screened Girls Trip, starring Regina Hall and Queen Latifah.

Ryan Pierce (Hall) is a successful self-help author on her way to keynote the Essence Festival in New Orleans with her three best college pals in tow: Sasha (Latifah), Lisa (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and Dina (Tiffany Haddish).

Sasha is a celebrity gossip blogger who gets a tip that Ryan's husband Stewart (Mike Colter) is having an affair. She and the other girls share this with Ryan, who already knows about the infidelity, but is keeping up appearances for the sake of their joint brand.

Determined not to let the looming threat of a leak ruin their weekend, the women press on, partying in VIP circles, drinking, dancing and trying to get (uptight) divorcée Lisa laid. To complicate matters, Ryan's agent has set a meeting during the event with the head of a major retail store that's looking to make a lucrative deal with Ryan and Stewart.

That's all I can say without giving it all away, so I'll just say this: although there is one gross scene I desperately wish I could un-see, this isn't your average we-drank-too-much-and-will-pay-for-it party movies. It's a fun, feasible movie about four women with a host of issues just trying to get through life with a little help from their friends.

Because the screenwriters didn't just focus on Ryan's story, the audience develops empathy for all the players, giving each more dimension than a traditional "supporting" cast.

This film had a lot of laughs—but more importantly—a lot of heart.

~~~

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Maudie

Today I saw Maudie, starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke.

The film tells the story of real-life Canadian folk artist, Maud Lewis (Hawkins).

Born Maud Dowley, the artist was severely arthritic, which limited her dexterity but didn't stop her from loving to paint. After a comfortable upbringing, Dowley was forced to find work when her brother took all of their inheritance and left her with nothing. She became a housekeeper for Everett Lewis (Hawke), though she wasn't able to perform most chores.

Lewis was a grumpy fish peddler who lived a modest life in a tiny home on the outskirts of Marshalltown. Though it annoyed him she couldn't be a totally effective housemaid, he did allow her to paint the house, greeting cards and anything else she could get her hands on. The two later married and shared a simple, but arguably content life together.

Just a few years before her death, her paintings got international attention and she and her husband sold them out of their house. Most were $2 or $5. Really special ones went for $10.

Aside from being heartbreaking at many turns, it's delightful to watch such a sweet spirit make so much of what anyone else would consider a meager life. Hawkins is Oscar-worthy as the title star—everything from her physical posture to her delicate voice so closely mimics that of the real person, when they show footage of Lewis at the end of the film, you have to do a double take to be sure it's not still her.

Hawke is also strong as an unlikable, yet somehow redeeming mean husband who clearly loves his wife but wants no part of admitting to that.

You'll laugh, you'll sob, you'll scour the internet to see where you can find prints of her work (hint: The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)—you'll be absorbed into this most emotional, tender look at an artist not to be forgotten.

~~~

Friday, July 07, 2017

Snatched

Last night I saw Snatched, starring Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn.

Emily (Schumer) endures a break up with her latest flame right before they're due to take a non-refundable vacation to Honduras. Since none of her friends are readily available to go in his place, she decides to invite her mother, Linda (Hawn), who reluctantly accepts.

Though the dynamic of the trip has changed, Emily is still intent on having a good time, so while her mother rests in their resort room, she hits the bar, striking up a conversation with a local hottie. After a night of fun, it's decided the two will re-convene in the morning and bring mom along for a day trip. All goes well until the host decides to go off the beaten path and the women are abducted by (presumably) a drug lord.

The remainder of the film is the adventure of the two attempting to escape and make it to Bogota, Colombia where the U.S. State department can send for help. Aiding in their retrieval are a nerdy brother/son, a random American they meet at a jungle bar and a pair of eccentric fellow travelers (these two were my favorite, as they're portrayed by Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack).

There is swearing and exposed body parts and murder and drinking and dancing. There is chemistry between the two leads, excellent comedic timing and way too much screen time allotted to the "angry" state department worker.

I both laughed out loud and shook my head lamenting just how much better it could have been.

If you're looking for a stereotypical, predictable comedy, you could do worse. But lacking in heart, it shouldn't be at the top of anyone's list.

~~~

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Paris Can Wait

Today I saw Paris Can Wait, starring Diane Lane and Arnaud Viard.

Anne (Lane) is the wife of a successful film producer, Michael (Alec Baldwin). They are headed to Paris via Budapest from the South of France when Anne's ears begin bothering her and the pilot of their private plane advises against her flying. Michael's business associate, Jacques (Viard), offers to drive her straight to Paris since he's headed there anyway. She accepts the offer.

At first, Jacques sightseeing stops along the way feel spontaneous, but Anne soon realizes he has no intention of getting to Paris that evening. At what can only be described as an 'intimate dinner' they share, the wine flows and things are revealed and Anne begins to see her travel companion in a different light.

From there they experience car trouble, money issues, a former girlfriend, cultural pit stops and a staggering amount of delicious French cuisine. Throughout the journey you wonder if the feelings they have for one another are mutual; you wonder if they'll act on them; you wonder if they'll ever make it to the City of Love.

The elegance of Diane Lane helps the tension stay enjoyable and Arnaud Viard is a feasible smitten bachelor, completely unbothered by the fact the woman he courts is married to his friend.

Watching this will make you want to take a road trip through the back roads of France to smell the lavender, drink good wine and fall in love.

~~~

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Baby Driver

Tonight I saw Baby Driver, starring Ansel Elgort and Jon Hamm.

Baby (Elgort) isn't your average getaway car driver. He's young. He's distracted (by music of his own choosing). He's got a seemingly endless supply of sunglasses.

He's not meant for a life of crime.

This story, really mostly about him, is a ride in itself—a genre-bending, hilarious, tragic, sentimental, endearing, tense thriller that doesn't give you much of a chance to breathe between scenes.

Baby's boss, Doc (Kevin Spacey), promises him he can leave the life once he's settled a debt that's unbeknownst to us. He achieves this in a heart-thumping heist scene and calmly returns home, where he cares for Joseph (CJ Jones), an elderly deaf man, in a run-down apartment. He also gets friendly with waitress Debora, who works at a nearby diner.

All along, Baby has a continuous soundtrack playing in his ears. The excuse given is tinnitus, but his knack for making music from his secretly taped conversations leads us to believe there could be more to it.

He gets to know many of the criminals he drives for along the way. Smoldering Buddy (Hamm), evil Bats (Jamie Foxx) and others. They are suspect of his youth and his earbuds and his incredible skill at operating motor vehicles.

There are too many twists and turns to properly take the story any further without spoiling, so I'll leave it there and simply say: Edgar Wright has outdone himself.

I'm a fan of his other work (Shaun of the Dead probably the most recognizable), but this is better. It's smarter. Sharper. Faster.

Above all else, it has rhythm. Since the storytelling is woven through music that our protagonist selects for his various moods and jobs, the film radiates with a series of songs that wouldn't feel out of place in the world of Tarantino. And yes, there's violence. And some language too.

But it remarkably doesn't feel gratuitous, and the Georgia accent on our hero makes him all that more appealing. There's even a love story for the romantics to fall for.

I may have to see it again.

~~~

Sunday, June 04, 2017

SIFF Sighting: WINNIE (documentary; France)


Last night I screened Winnie, a documentary about South African leader Winnie Mandela.

Though I'd seen countless documentaries and films about her former husband Nelson, I'd never seen a film dedicated to Winnie's story alone, so it's good I began with this one.

Things I learned:

  • She was much angrier than her husband, even at the time of his imprisonment.
  • She was treated horribly, with repeated arrests and harassment throughout the saga.
  • She makes no apologies for her actions, but admits the years of bloodshed should never have happened.
  • She is blamed to this day for a murder by activists loyal to her (some claim she ordered it).
  • She has no desire to slow her activism, though she is now over 80 years of age.
It was a solid film, though difficult to watch in many places because of the archival footage. I especially appreciated the candid insight from Mandela herself and her daughter.

~~~

Winnie screened at the 43rd annual Seattle International Film Festival.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Wonder Woman

Today I saw Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.

Diana Prince (Gadot) lives on the all-female island of Themyscira with her fellow Amazons, but she's the youngest. Youngest of them all when her aunt (Robin Wright) begins secretly training her for combat.

You see, these ladies are no fragile flowers—they're fully capable of defending themselves (plus anyone they deem worthy of defending) and Diana is special. They know they need to prepare her for greater obstacles someday.

The film gets us to "someday" rather quickly. Blue-eyed spy Steve Trevor (Pine) crashes his plane into the ocean that surrounds their land and Diana pulls him to safety. He is soon followed by angry Germans (this is WWI, after all) and it's on.

Diana accompanies him back to England, and from there on out, they're a team. He is working to stop the development of chemical warfare that will alter the rules of engagement; she is out to stop war(s) altogether. They make quite a pair.

Of course, there's romance. And I won't go as far to say that the two have a "crackling chemistry" or make you believe they are two halves of a full heart, but they do complement each other nicely (note: the one snarky line about marriage got a huge round of applause in my theater). I was fine when the two were together and I was fine when they were apart. I was grateful they didn't make the whole plot center around their attraction. In fact, the fight scenes rival that of any great action flick and that's more what I came away remembering.

But let's talk about Gal Gadot. Set aside for a moment that she's naturally gorgeous and flies around the screen with acrobatic grace, kicking the ass of anyone who gets in her way.

What do I love most about her performance? The warmth and intelligence she brings to our legendary superhero. This is no flake who bats her eyelashes, or waits for a man to protect her. This is a sweet, kind soul who just happens to fuel her intensity and power with love. Gadot comes to the role with just the right amount of innocence to be believable, yet she's strong enough to earn her superhero title. They really couldn't have cast a better actress to play her.

In fact, everyone here is well cast. The only character who really bothered me was Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya). She was a little over-the-top for my taste. So much, that I wouldn't have been surprised if she threw her head back and cackled or started petting a cat.

That said, the flaws are minor and the film is fantastic. It's hard to believe that this is the first major superhero movie to ever be directed by a woman, but Patty Jenkins was the right choice, hands down. The genius of it is that the focus really isn't on gender. It's just on this powerful being from a faraway place who happens to be female.

At heart, Wonder Woman just proves what we already know to be true: that love is the greatest force of all.

~~~




Sunday, May 28, 2017

SIFF Sighting: A DATE FOR MAD MARY (Comedy, Ireland)


Tonight I screened A Date for Mad Mary, starring Seana Kerslake and Tara Lee.

Mary (Kerslake) has just been sprung from prison—she's been there for six months on an assault charge. When she gets out, her community doesn't exactly welcome her with open arms, but she does her best to acclimate.

Her friend Charlene (Charleigh Bailey) is getting married and Mary is the maid of honor. Though Mary has this prestigious job in the ceremony, Charlene has elected not to give her a plus one. Mary wants to prove that she needs the invite, so she invents a boyfriend and quickly begins looking for a man who will go as her date.

As they say, hilarity ensues.

When she thinks she may have found a good fit, things go awry and a new friend vows to help her find someone else.

At this point, we see there's more to Mary than the cursing, angry-at-the-world girl that's been on display for the first half of the film, and we begin to sympathize with her.

The story goes from a comedy that's rough around the edges to a sweet romance, to a heartfelt drama.

I enjoyed the emotional roller coaster and very much hope to see the film's lead in more things—she's definitely a rising star.

~~~

A Date for Mad Mary screened at the 43rd Annual Seattle International Film Festival.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

SIFF Sighting: ORIGINAL BLISS (Drama; Germany)


Tonight I screened Original Bliss, starring Martina Gedeck and Ulrich Tukur.

Helene (Gedeck) is suffering a crisis of faith. She's lost God, and as a result, she battles insomnia, which takes a toll on the rest of her life. She goes through the motions like a robot, every day watching her marriage fall apart even more.

When she hears the calming voice of a famous psychologist on the radio, she fakes a visit with her sister and embarks on a trip to Hamburg to meet him. There, they develop an unconventional friendship that could be the best thing that ever happened to her or her worst nightmare. You have to stay to the end to find out which.

In the meantime, there's graphic sex, domestic violence, death, humor and even a bit of twisted romance in this film. I can safely say I wasn't bored (though at times I questioned what the hell I was watching).

Fans of the phenomenal film The Lives of Others will remember the leads from that, and marvel at how great they're acting is, since they're playing such wildly different characters here.

Go see it. You won't be able to look away.

~~~

Original Bliss screened at the 43rd Annual Seattle International Film Festival.


SIFF Sighting: THE ODYSSEY (Drama; France)



Last night I screened The Odyssey, starring Lambert Wilson and Pierre Niney.

Anyone who grew up in the 70s or 80s undoubtedly remembers the magical underwater expeditions of famed French explorer Jacques Cousteau. He was the first to take television cameras deep into the ocean and share a world only a fraction of the population would ever get to fully experience.

This film shows what the real man was like, how he treated his family and his crew.

Jacques (Wilson) did truly love his craft. He lived for the adventure and the thrill, and thrived on the fame his films and programs brought him. Unfortunately, much of that was at the expense of his wife, Simone (Audrey Tatou) who stayed by his side despite his serial infidelities, and his sons—one who shared his adrenaline-fueled passions and one who did not. At some point it became more about the money than anything else, and money sometimes brings out the worst in people.

The story here (as you may have guessed from the title) focuses mostly on the fractured relationship between him and his son Philippe (Niney), who became a key part of his productions yet resented his father for all of his faults along the way. Philippe operated with a code of integrity that his father didn't appreciate until much later in life.

The actors here portray their subjects in an intimate, authentic way and the screenplay—based on a book written by Cousteau's surviving son—helps guide their performance.

Aside from some pacing issues, this is worth a look; if not just for the family story, but for the gorgeous underwater scenery that is laced throughout.

~~~

The Odyssey screened at the 43rd annual Seattle International Film Festival.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

SIFF Sighting: HELLO DESTROYER (Drama, Canada)


Tonight I screened Hello Destroyer, starring Jared Abrahamson.

When an introverted hockey player, Tyson (Abrahamson), is pressured into playing the game violently, the consequences he suffers last long after the game is over.

In this quiet, dark film from Kevan Funk, it's evident that he went to art school instead of film school. The scenes following the violent event the movie centers around are intentionally devoid of color and claustrophobic; the time the camera spends meditating on angles is a bit much.

That said, the story is solid and the acting is good. Tyson is so emotionally scarred from what he's endured that he serves as a stain on the community, which quickly casts him aside and assumes no responsibility for his actions.

We're silent observers to his crescendo of pain, which builds like a disease for which there is no cure. Unfortunately, though the story is fictional, it's completely believable and similar situations probably happen more often than we realize.

The filmmaker mentioned in the Q&A following the screening that he wanted to emphasize institutionalized violence (choosing hockey as the metaphor because of his mostly Canadian audience). 

I'd say he accomplished his mission.

~~~

Hello Destroyer screened at the 43rd annual Seattle International Film Festival.

SIFF Sighting: THE UNKNOWN GIRL (Thriller, Belgium)

The Dardenne brothers are incapable of making a boring film and this one is no exception.

When a woman becomes obsessed with a young girl's death, her preoccupation with the event gets her into trouble.

Their gift for capturing life as it is—getting interrupted while cooking, answering someone too quickly—is unparalleled and it shines here.

Don't let the slow pace discourage you from seeing it. The end is worth the wait.

~~

The Unknown Girl screened at the 43rd Annual Seattle International Film Festival.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Boss Baby

On April 15, I saw Boss Baby, starring the voice of Alec Baldwin.

In the factory where babies are made, certain souls are set aside for a greater purpose. This is the case for the Boss Baby (Baldwin) who arrives at his new brother Tim's (Tobey Maguire) house in a taxi, briefcase in hand, ready for business.

You see, he's a spy and he's tasked with stopping an evil plot (to tell you more would be to spoil, so I'll leave it at that). Of course, his big brother is ready to "out" his true identity and blow his cover, but the Boss Baby soon wins him over and they work together to stop the bad guys.

There are a lot of cute moments in this animated film (I laughed especially hard when a nude shot occurred and they fuzzed out BB's teeny penis), and really no one is better suited for the voice of a spy baby than Baldwin.

So if you're taking the kids and want to know if adults will get bored, the answer is no. If you're not taking kids, but are just going as a filmgoer, this is not terribly high caliber entertainment. But it's enjoyable for what it is.

~~~




Thursday, March 30, 2017

Personal Shopper

Tonight I saw Personal Shopper starring Kristen Stewart.

Maureen (Stewart) is a personal shopper for a difficult, high-profile star in Paris. Though Maureen is American, she remains in France because her twin brother died there months ago, and they had a pact for whomever went first to send the other a message from beyond the grave. Did I mention they're both mediums?

She is growing impatient because odd things are happening (ghouls chase her when she's alone in the dark, faucets turn on, etc.) but she doesn't think any of them are her brother. Couple this with the fact that she's getting mysterious text messages from an unknown source (and for some reason, faithfully answering them) and we're left with a lot of unanswered questions.

Though I wanted to know what was driving the mysterious text message-sender, and I desperately wished for Maureen to hear from her suddenly gone brother, I didn't have patience for the pace or the meandering extra storyline and characters that may or may not have had anything to do with those elements.

If a script is going to be as provocative as this one, if the ends aren't going to be tied up, at least a few solid theories should be presented.

Instead of wanting more, I was really wanting it to end. Thankfully it did.

~~~

Going in Style

Last night I screened Going in Style, starring Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine.

Willie (Freeman) and Al (Alan Arkin) are roommates. Joe (Caine) is their best friend. They are all former colleagues who spent years in blue collar work only to learn that their pension was being taken away from them.

Desperate to save his home, which is going into foreclosure, Joe suggests the three of them rob a bank. He was recently witness to one, and admired the efficiency and skill of the criminals. At first the other two scoff at the thought, but when things get really tight financially and they consider how many years they may or may not have left, they decide to go for it.

From consulting with someone from the other side of the tracks to choosing clever masks for the heist that align to their generation, there is a lot of silly in the film. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. If you go see this and don't expect it to be light, you're not getting the point.

Of course the men are fabulous actors. Of course the situation they find themselves in has you rooting for them (even if what they're doing is morally wrong). Of course things won't go precisely according to plan.

Where the film could be better: the broad strokes it draws of its various supporting cast. Everyone is a caricature from the surly waitress to the deadbeat son-in-law to the '80s-sitcom-style seductress. If those characters hadn't been so blatantly written, it would have been more believable.

But if you just want a fun romp with more cameos than you can keep track of, you could do worse.

~~~

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

On Thursday I saw Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson and Luke Evans.

"There must be more than this provincial life," sings Belle (Watson) as she begins another day in her tired little French town. She, like so many, is dissatisfied with her surroundings. The books in which she escapes give her glimpses of places far more more interesting. She longs to be a part of them.

Her dad, Maurice (played by a perfectly cast Kevin Kline) is the town eccentric, and has doted on his daughter since she was born. Now, as an adult, Belle has become a feminist before her time, fending off the advances of the narcissist, Gaston (Evans) and dreaming of new possibilities.

When Maurice is taken prisoner by a ferocious beast (Dan Stevens) in a faraway castle, Belle attempts to rescue him and trades herself in his place. This is where the story truly begins.

What Belle doesn't know is that underneath the fur is a prince—one who behaved so badly a spell was cast upon him. The only way to break it is for him to fall in love and be loved in return. Conspiring to make a match between Belle and the Beast are various household fixtures like Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), who is now a teapot, but once was a normal woman.

It's a "tale as old as time" and one of the most beloved to say the least. As a huge fan of the animated classic, I cringed when I heard they were making this into a live action picture, but once I saw the cast I breathed a little and got over it.

I very much enjoyed this version; there is something in emotion that can't be captured in animation, so the love and romance is more effective here. Where I prefer the original is in the music.

As an actress, Emma Watson is brilliant. She's sincere, she's likable—her intelligence permeates every role she's in and Belle is no exception. But the shortcuts that were taken in her song arrangements left me wanting more. I found myself humming the ending bits that were cut off—in most cases the climactic notes of the songs.

I also felt a bit of the art direction could have been more spectacular. The sequence for "Be Our Guest" was a little too disco and starved for classy grandeur; the library that has Belle gasping at its magnificence we only see a few underwhelming frames of before the two are nose-down in books.

I will always make time for Beauty and the Beast no matter what its format. If you see this one, be sure to take in all of its strengths—Kevin Kline, Luke Evans, the chemistry between Watson and Stevens, and the clever winks amongst the household fixtures.

~~~


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Sense of An Ending

Tonight I saw The Sense of An Ending, starring Jim Broadbent and Harriet Walter.

Years ago when a friend recommended the book of the same name, by Julian Barnes, I was taken by it immediately. Tonight, when I saw the film, I found it hard to stay interested.

Tony (Broadbent) is divorced from Margaret (Walter). They remain friendly and share a grown daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery) whom they dote upon in equal measure.

When Tony receives a random inheritance from his college girlfriend's mother, a lifetime of memories come to the surface as he seeks closure he never properly confronted.

Yep, that's it.

And it's drawn out so slowly and with such dramatic exception that the "big reveal" (which I, as a reader, had admittedly forgotten) was quite anti-climactic. In a way you feel bad for the main character, but in a way you can see why everyone in his life seems to be frustrated with him.

All of the acting is fine, the flashbacks are believable, the story at its core is tragic—it was just missing the heart and the complexity of the original story here, which was quite disappointing.

~~~


Thursday, March 09, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Tonight I saw Kong: Skull Island, starring Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson.

Self-proclaimed "crackpot" scholars convince the U.S. military to escort them to an uninhabited island in the South Pacific. They use topography as their excuse, but really at least one of them knows what may be out there.

After a harrowing helicopter ride—which we all feel we participated in—we meet Kong. Gigantic, ferocious, angry as hell, Kong. Perhaps the best beast of all time, and he's going strong.

Of course, you never want to poke the bear, which is what this group has unintentionally done, so they're in big trouble very early on.

The British officer, played by Hiddleston, isn't just all good looks—he's the brains when the team needs to develop a plan ASAP to survive. And he soon befriends an (equally gorgeous) anti-war photographer played by Brie Larson, to back him up.

Silly as it sounds, I enjoyed the heck out of this film.

Though the basic premise is obvious (do no harm; things aren't always as they seem), there are surprises along the way, both human and otherwise, that keep the story moving at a pleasingly fast pace. And the special effects are amazing.

The romance never quite develops between the two pairs that we start to suspect will unite, but my guess is that they're saving that for the sequel(s). Though, this kind of is one?

Regardless, if you want to lose yourself in something mindful, but not dumb, go ahead and make the leap with Kong. His sheer magnificence will impress you.

~~~

Friday, March 03, 2017

Get Out

Tonight I saw Get Out, starring Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams.

Rose (Williams) is excited to take her new boyfriend Chris (Kaluuya) home to meet her parents. They live on a lake a few hours from the city. Chris is nervous for their reaction because he's black and Rose is white, but she tells him not to worry—her parents aren't racist; just annoying.

The couple hits a deer on their way to the homestead and a cop comes to their aid. He asks to see Chris's identification, though Rose was driving when the accident happened. She defends Chris and the cop sends them on their way.

When they arrive at Rose's home, her parents are warm and welcoming, if not a little awkward. Chris is trying to stop smoking, so Rose's father (Bradley Whitford) suggests that his wife Missy (Catherine Keener), hypnotize the habit out of him. She's a gifted psychiatrist and has been successful with that in the past. Chris politely declines.

The first night there, Chris has trouble sleeping so he goes outside to get some air. There he has an odd encounter with "the help" (also black) and hurries back inside. Missy invites him to share a cup of tea with her and things get weird.

That's all I can say without spoiling the many twists and turns that follow. And boy, do they follow!

You may think you have the main "gotcha" revelation figured out, but you don't. Trust me, I thought I did too.

All I can say is, I was gripping my seat, my fellow theater-goers were gasping and screaming and I can't wait to go back for a repeat viewing to catch all the clues I missed about the reveal.

A satisfying, fun ride.

~~~

Sunday, February 26, 2017

My 2017 Oscar Picks and Predictions

Here are my final picks for tonight's ceremony:

WRITING: ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Who Will Win: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
My Pick: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

WRITING: ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Who Will Win: LION
My Pick: LION

VISUAL EFFECTS
Who Will Win: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
My Pick: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

SOUND MIXING
Who Will Win: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
My Pick: HACKSAW RIDGE

SOUND EDITING
Who Will Win: LA LA LAND
My Pick: SULLY

SHORT FILM: LIVE ACTION
Who Will Win: SILENT NIGHTS
My Pick: LA FEMME ET LE TGV

SHORT FILM: ANIMATED
Who Will Win: BORROWED TIME
My Pick: PIPER

PRODUCTION DESIGN
Who Will Win: LA LA LAND
My Pick: FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)
Who Will Win: "How Far I'll Go" from MOANA
My Pick: "How Far I'll Go" from MOANA

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)
Who Will Win: LA LA LAND
My Pick: LION

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Who Will Win: SUICIDE SQUAD
My Pick: SUICIDE SQUAD

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Who Will Win: THE SALESMAN
My Pick: THE SALESMAN

FILM EDITING
Who Will Win: HACKSAW RIDGE
My Pick: HACKSAW RIDGE

DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT)
Who Will Win: JOE'S VIOLIN
My Pick: WATANI: MY HOMELAND

DOCUMENTARY (FEATURE)
Who Will Win: O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
My Pick: 13th

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)
Who Will Win: LA LA LAND
My Pick: LION

DIRECTING
Who Will Win: Damien Chazelle for LA LA LAND
My Pick: Mel Gibson for HACKSAW RIDGE

COSTUME DESIGN
Who Will Win: JACKIE
My Pick: FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

CINEMATOGRAPHY
Who Will Win: LA LA LAND
My Pick: LION

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Who Will Win: Zootopia
My Pick: THE RED TURTLE

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Who Will Win: Viola Davis for FENCES
My Pick: Nicole Kidman for LION

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Who Will Win: Mahershala Ali for MOONLIGHT
My Pick: Michael Shannon for NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Who Will Win: Emma Stone for LA LA LAND
My Pick: Ruth Negga for LOVING

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Who Will Win: Denzel Washington for FENCES
My Pick: Andrew Garfield for HACKSAW RIDGE

BEST PICTURE
Who Will Win: HIDDEN FIGURES
My Pick: LION

~~~

The Red Turtle

On Friday I saw the animated film The Red Turtle, directed by Michael Dudok de Wit.

We don't see how our hero sets out on his oceanic journey; when we meet him, he's in the eye of a terrible storm getting tossed about the sea. He lands on a deserted island and soon adapts to a solitary lifestyle.

He eats coconuts and attempts to craft a raft to freedom as a colony of hermit crabs follow his every move. As he's making his way, a red turtle appears—potentially endangering his plans. What follows would be a major spoiler, so I will just say that the turtle has a spiritual and eventually physical symbolism in the story.

Without dialog, the story has to be told through the music and the emotive elements of the visual animation, which make this movie stunning. The drawings are simple, but powerful; the colors a blend of the most delicious sensory combinations that make up our wildest dreams.

Though the pace is undeniably slow (maybe too slow for small children), if you sit back and take in the vast landscape of the presentation, you'll feel as if you've escaped into a live painting.

I've made no secret of the fact that animation is among my least favorite genres, but if more films were on the same artistic and emotional level as this one, I may have a change of heart.

The Red Turtle is being showered with accolades and awards, and it deserves every one of them.

~~~

Monday, February 20, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

Last night I saw Hacksaw Ridge, starring Andrew Garfield and Vince Vaughn.

Desmond Doss (Garfield) is a simple country boy from Virginia in the mid 1940s. He's fallen in love with a local girl and asked for her hand in marriage. She's agreed to be his bride, anxious to marry him on his first leave home from the service.

He's a dedicated soldier, but a tortured one. His religious beliefs prevent him from taking human life, therefore he is labeled as a Conscientious Objector. He won't operate a rifle, but he will attempt to save lives as a medic in combat.

And that combat becomes very real as Doss, along with his Sargent (Vaughn) and company, are sent to Okinawa, Japan to battle on Hacksaw Ridge. The soldiers before them didn't come out so well in the same location, and they are their replacements.

After his peers resented him for not having to participate in all the drills and training they did, they soon see his dedication to helping them in their most dire moments.

Garfield is inspiring as the humble Doss. The kindness glows from him as he defends his mother from his abusive father, falls head-over-heels for the town nurse and aims to calm his fellow injured soldiers. Any accolades he gets from playing this real-life hero are well-earned.

Director Mel Gibson should also be commended for his painfully real combat scenes and the excellent job he does creating a believable world in 1940s Virginia.

I was surprised by how much I liked this brutal war film.

~~~

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Fifty Shades Darker

Thursday night I saw Fifty Shades Darker, starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson.

Life hasn't been the same for Christian (Dornan) since Anastasia (Johnson) left him. His intense need for sexual domination and tendency to "punish" his partners was too much for her to take. Ever since she gave him up, he's been trying to win her back.

Anastasia's moved on to focus on her career. She's now a personal assistant in the publishing industry, doing her best to learn the business.

When Christian tells Anastasia that he would rather give up his extreme sexual practices than live without her, they begin taking the steps (and showers, and romps) toward reconciliation.

There are aviation accidents, jackass bosses, psychopathic ex-girlfriends, domineering former sexual teachers, fancy boats, birthday parties and pleasure devices sprinkled amongst gorgeous money shots of Seattle.

But above all else, there's sex. If it's not in every scene, it's being talked about or imagined. The dialog is predictably laughable (but still better than the book) and the actors are incredibly appealing to watch, smirking as if they're in on the joke, laughing all the way to the bank.

You may not leave the film thinking you saw anything remotely cinematic, but you are bound to be ... satisfied.

~~

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Live Action Short Nominees (Oscars 2017)

Tonight I saw all five of the nominated films in the Live Action Short category. I'll present my reviews in the order they were shown.

SING

The year is 1991 and a young girl moves to a new school in Hungary. There she joins the award-winning choir, but is told not to sing loudly like her new friend. Soon the students learn there are several children being "silenced" by their instructor, so they have to make a decision: respect the authority of their corrupt leader or resist. The results are delightful.

SILENT NIGHTS (Denmark)

A young Danish woman is a worker in a homeless shelter when she comes upon a black man from Ghana being beaten in the park. She chases off his attackers and nurses him back to health, falling in love with him in the process. It seems like a match made in heaven until his secret is revealed, which changes everything. A selfless story about what true love looks like in a world coated in racism.

TIMECODE (Spain)

Luna and Diego are security guards at a public parking garage in Spain. When the supervisor asks Luna to check the surveillance footage for a possible incident with one of the parked cars, she obeys and discovers something extraordinary. What she does next will bring a smile to the face of anyone who has even the tiniest sense of humor. A refreshing comedy.

ENNEMIS INTERIEURS (France)

When an Algerian man who has lived in France his whole life applies for French citizenship in the 1990s, the interview quickly becomes an interrogation. Asked to give up the names of potential terrorists who have become friends to the man, he is faced with a terrible decision if he wants to continue life as he knows it. A frustrating, tense watch because the topic is so unfortunately timely.

LA FEMME ET LE TGV (Switzerland)

A lonely old baker finds joy each day at waving at the trains that pass by her house, as she's done since her now-grown son was a boy. One day as she's cutting grass, she finds a note in her yard that had been tossed out of one of the trains. It was written by a conductor that wanted her to know how happy it made him to see her wave as he went by on his lonely journeys. She responds and the two become pen pals, sending notes and gifts back and forth. I smiled throughout this entire film and found it especially wonderful that it was based upon true events. My favorite of the nominees this year.

~~~

Fences

This afternoon I saw Fences, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.

Troy (Washington) and Rose (Davis) are a working-class Pittsburgh couple raising their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) one day at a time. Troy was once a brilliant baseball player, but those dreams passed him by so now he's a garbage man, fighting the white man for the right to be a garbage truck driver.

To say that Troy has a chip on his shoulder would be an understatement. His older son from a previous relationship, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), is a gifted musician who he won't make time to see perform; his younger son Cory is a star football player, but he's hell bent on preventing him from playing at the college level. He wants his sons to do better than he did, but resents them when they excel.

Rose is the ideal 1950s housewife—she cooks, she cleans, she loves. Loyal to a fault, she looks past Troy's fondness for gin and stays by his side while he rants his way through life. She's convinced the world is changing and has hope for the future; his glass isn't just half full: it may as well be empty.

The film acts as a soliloquy showcase for both Washington and Davis, and they both deliver perfection and then some. They both deserve their wins if they take home the Oscars later this month. The trouble is, Fences feels more like the play it once was than a film.

And it's long.

Clocking in at 2 hours and 19 minutes, it feels like 3. We're so tired of Troy's menacing, arrogant attitude by act 2 that when 3 and 4 are more of the same we just want Rose to leave him already. We get that the fence he persists in building is a metaphor for his relationship with God. It doesn't need to be spelled out over and over.

I won't deny the story affected me; I cried along with my theater seat mates during Rose's revelation and the final sequence. But it could have accomplished just as much with a few less speeches and a lot less minutes.

~~~

Friday, February 10, 2017

Documentary Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2017)

Tonight I saw all five of the nominated films in the Documentary Short category. I'll present my reviews in the order they were shown.

JOE'S VIOLIN (USA)

Joseph Feingold survived the horrors of the Holocaust (though some of his family didn't). When he came to the United States after the war to begin a new life, he went to a flea market and bought a violin. It cost him only a carton of cigarettes and became his constant companion for over 70 years. When he heard an announcement that there was an instrument drive for local schools, he decided to finally part with it, and it landed at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls. There, 12-year-old Brianna Perez was chosen to borrow it during her time at the school. When she learned of the instrument's history, she invited Feingold to a performance. He went, and it was magical. This film is less than a half an hour long and I cried through at least half of it. Beautiful story, beautiful people, beautiful music.

EXTREMIS (USA)

Highland Hospital in Oakland, California treats patients of all walks of life in their Intensive Care Unit. This film showcases the work of Dr. Jessica Zitter, a palliative care specialist, and her team as they navigate their way through heartbreak after heartbreak, helping families make the toughest decisions of their lives. Their care, stress, compassion, intelligence and warmth are on raw display day after day, week after week. This short glimpse only captures a fraction of it, but reminds us who the real heroes are in this world.

4.1 MILES (USA)

Life as a Greek Coast Guard on the quiet island of Lesbos used to be stress-free for Captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos. That is, until the refugee crises began. Now his days are filled acting as a ferry between Turkey and his town as thousands risk their lives to cross the Aegean for a chance at a better life. He has no CPR or medical training, but continues to rescue and attempt to resuscitate those in need. Sometimes he succeeds; sometimes it's too late by the time the bodies float to his boat. Thinking of the times I splashed in that same Sea as a little girl, carefree and safe with my family in Greece, this film hit me especially hard. To see the terror in the eyes of parents not knowing if their children would live, or the fear in the children who were scarred by the horrors of war was borderline unbearable.

WATANI: MY HOMELAND (UK)

A Syrian couple tried to have children for eight years before conceiving, and then, God blessed them with four. Now their one son and three daughters dodge bullets and hide when shells come flying into their formerly peaceful neighborhood as their father, a Free Syrian Commander, dedicates his life to the revolution. Mom gives them cough syrup to relax, but they insist on staying by their father's side ... until their father is captured by ISIS. Unable to continue living in a constant state of chaos, the family seeks asylum in the small German town of Goslar. There they receive a clean home, a monthly salary and the warm welcome they so rightly deserve. They're grateful to their new hosts, but miss their family and homeland. The most in-depth look I've seen into the lives affected by the conflict, and one that will stay with me indefinitely.

THE WHITE HELMETS (UK)

As bombs fall onto their neighborhoods and explosions light up their Syrian skies, members of The White Helmets run toward the danger to rescue whomever survived or recover the bodies of those who did not. Members are former builders, former blacksmith—good, kind blue collar men that simply want to do the right thing in the midst of the most grim humanitarian conditions they'll ever face. Civilian volunteers with limited (or no) training who have saved over 58,000 lives to date. But those good deeds don't come without sacrifice. Each day they venture into the rubble is a day they may never come home. Many White Helmet lives have been lost "on the job." Despite this, they support each other like brothers (some even learn of their own deceased family members while being filmed for this documentary), crying, hugging and taking well-earned emotional breaks when they just can't keep going. Films like this should be mandatory in schools, in homes, in governments.

~~~

Saturday, February 04, 2017

20th Century Women

Today I saw 20th Century Women, starring Annette Bening and Lucas Jade Zumann.

Though the title leads one to believe this is a story about women, it's more accurately the tale of bringing up one young man—Jamie (Zumann) in the late 1970s. His mother, Dorothea (Bening), had him late in life and his father isn't around, so she fills in the parenting blanks with others. She does this by directly asking for their help in his development.

First on the list is Abbie (Greta Garwig), a cancer-fighting girl who is renting a room in her house. She's out of her teen years, but still young enough to be cool in the eyes of Jamie, and they enjoy a warm, brother-sister dynamic.

Next on the list is Julie (Elle Fanning), a girl Jamie is pining for who stops by almost nightly to sleep with him (but they don't have sex). She doesn't want to sacrifice him as a best friend and therefore refuses to be his girlfriend. Their intimacy is sweet and real and raw.

The consequence of three strong women mobilizing to guide a young man into adulthood? He runs the risk of becoming a rampant feminist, and therefore suffering the consequences of behaving like one.

The film is a humorous, albeit sometimes painful, exploration of that scenario and becomes even more powerful when we realize the story is based on the screenwriter's actual childhood.

Bening's performance is so good, I had to double-check the Oscar nominations when I got home because I was sure she received one (she didn't; total travesty). Dorothea is a loving, confused, misguided, sassy, intelligent, flawed mother ... and you feel everything she feels thanks to Bening.

The supporting players are also strong and well cast. Gerwig is a standout for playing an understated, tragic character.

The backdrop of Santa Barbara provides the tranquil, slow reality of this coastal family's existence.

I'm quite surprised this film isn't making more of a splash.

~~~

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Hidden Figures

Yesterday morning I saw Hidden Figures, starring Tajari P. Henson and Octavia Spencer.

Katherine Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are friends who share something in common: brilliance. All three women helped NASA develop the space program at its most critical time and all three women were black. Did I mention it was the early 60s?

This film tells the story of these amazing ladies (several decades too late, if you ask me) and reaffirms what we already know: we need more women—and diversity—in tech! In every industry, really.

Despite it's overdue nature, it's refreshing to watch a story unfold that features such badass characters and know that they're based on truth. Even more gratifying? One of them (Mrs. Johnson) is still alive, well into her 90s! I can only hope she'll reap some of the glory she's so deserved all these years.

Anyhow, the three leads are charming and passionate and perfect in their roles; supporting actors like Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst are also fabulous. I'd love to find fault with the film so it would sound less like I'm gushing, but really I enjoyed it immensely from start to finish, so I'd be lying if I tried to nitpick.

It's light enough to bring a smile during the ladies' sassiest moments; sad enough to shed tears when one of the characters finally breaks down; inspiring enough to make you want to stop what you're doing and go change the world.

So, go see it. Then go change the world.

~~~




Saturday, January 07, 2017

My Golden Globe Picks

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Should Win: Sterling K. Brown
Will Win: Sterling K. Brown

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Should Win: Chrissy Metz
Will Win: Chrissy Metz

Best Performance by an Actor TV Series—Comedy or Musical

Should Win: Gael Garcia Bernal
Will Win: Jeffrey Tambor

Best Performance by an Actress TV Series—Comedy or Musical

Should Win: Rachel Bloom
Will Win: Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Best Performance by an Actor TV Series—Drama

Should Win: Matthew Rhys
Will Win: Rami Malek

Best Performance by an Actress TV Series—Drama

Should Win: Keri Russell
Will Win: Evan Rachel Wood

Best Performance by an Actor in a Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Should Win: Tom Hiddleston
Will Win: Riz Ahmed

Best Performance by an Actress in a Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Should Win: Sarah Paulson
Will Win: Sarah Paulson

Best Limited TV Series—Motion Picture Made for Television

Should Win: The People Vs. OJ Simpson
Will Win: The People Vs. OJ Simpson

Best TV Series—Comedy or Musical

Should Win: Mozart in the Jungle
Will Win: Transparent

Best TV Series—Drama 

Should Win: Stranger Things
Will Win: Game of Thrones

Best Original Song—Motion Picture 

Should Win: How Far I'll Go
Will Win: How Far I'll Go

Best Original Score—Motion Picture 

Should Win: Dustin O'Halloran, Hauschka
Will Win: Justin Hurwitz

Best Motion Picture—Foreign Language

Should Win: Elle
Will Win: Elle

Best Motion Picture—Animated

Should Win: Moana
Will Win: Moana

Best Screenplay—Motion Picture

Should Win: Kenneth Lonergan
Will Win: Kenneth Longergan

Best Director—Motion Picture

Should Win: Tom Ford
Will Win: Damien Chazelle

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role—Motion Picture Drama

Should Win: Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Will Win: Mahershala Ali

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role—Motion Picture Drama

Should Win: Nicole Kidman
Will Win: Viola Davis

Best Performance by an Actor—Motion Picture Drama

Should Win: Colin Farrell
Will Win: Ryan Gosling

Best Performance by an Actress—Musical or Comedy

Should Win: Meryl Streep
Will Win: Emma Stone

Best Performance by an Actor—Motion Picture Drama

Should Win: Joel Edgerton
Will Win: Casey Affleck

Best Performance by an Actress—Motion Picture Drama

Should Win: Ruth Negga
Will Win: Natalie Portman

Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy

Should Win: 20th Century Women
Will Win: La La Land

Best Motion Picture—Drama

Should Win: Manchester By The Sea
Will Win: Manchester By The Sea

~~~

Lion

This morning I saw Lion, starring Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel.

As a young boy, Saroo (Pawar - young; Patel - present day) helps his mother carry rocks in the tiny village in India where they reside. Their family is living in poverty, but he and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) find work where they can get it. One night, Guddu sets out for a job and Saroo begs to tag along. After at first protesting, Guddu gives in and they set out by train for their journey.

Once they arrive, Guddu goes to look for the job site and the brothers become separated. Saroo falls asleep on a train and wakes up in an unfamiliar place: Calcutta. He's traveled over 1200 miles. There, he forages for food, escapes a gang that's rounding up street kids and finally lands in the care of authorities, who arrange for him to be adopted.

He wants to go home, but they don't understand the pronunciation of his town and he doesn't know his mother's name. His mother doesn't read or write, so she doesn't see the newspapers printing the reports of Saroo being found. Adoption is his best chance at resuming a normal life.

His adoptive parents, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham), are a kind, financially comfortable Australian couple. They love him the instant he arrives and he loves them right back. Soon they adopt another Indian child and Saroo has a new brother, all the while missing his real family.

Sunny Pawar, who plays the young version of Saroo melted my heart instantly. His sweet little face, conveying every ounce of horror and pain he was enduring was almost too much to take, but incredibly well done. Is he too young to qualify for an Oscar nomination? I hope not.

Speaking of nominations, I think this is Kidman's best performance in years. Perhaps her own experience of being an adoptive mother helped her prepare for the role, or she just embraced the story so fully she aced it; whatever the reason, her time on-screen is amazing.

But I digress; this true story unfolds in the most tender of ways and to say that I got a little weepy toward the end would be a gross understatement. As Oprah would say, I went into "the ugly cry." And so did most of the folks around me.

What a beautiful film about a beautiful story.

~~~

Friday, January 06, 2017

Loving

Tonight I saw Loving, starring Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton.

It was the summer of 1958 when Richard Loving (Edgerton) married the love of his life, Mildred (Negga). They had the ceremony in Washington, D.C. because their home state of Virginia had banned interracial marriage, and they were two different races: Richard, white; Mildred, black.

Just five weeks after their happy nuptials, the couple were arrested in their own bedroom for violating the Racial Integrity Act. Their choice from the judge, after pleading guilty, was to either serve a year in prison or flee the state. So, they packed up and moved a few hours away to Washington.

But life wasn't the same in the city as it was in the country. They weren't near their families; their three children had no yard to play in. They lived there for nine years, before their fight made any progress. Mrs. Loving wrote a letter to Bobby Kennedy, who was the Attorney General at the time, and he referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union. Lawyers with the ACLU took the case, and the rest is history.

What's wonderful about this film is the authentic feel it brings to the memory of this true-life couple. They were good, decent, simple people who just fell in love and wanted to do right by their feelings. No matter what hostility they faced from the law or from racists in their town, their decision to stay together was never in question. They were the very definition of the perfect American family: Dad had a respectable blue-collar job, Mom was an excellent homemaker, the kids were smart and well-behaved.

What Jeff Nichols conveys so well in both his screenplay and his direction is the very absurdity of the situation. While real crimes are being committed and a nation is struggling to recover from a beloved president's assassination, small-minded folks are concerned about a squeaky-clean family simply living their lives. He builds tension when they are hunted and displays tenderness in their quiet moments, all the while making you feel like you're surviving along with them in the humid summer heat. It's absolutely superb.

The performances from the leads are brilliant and a nice cameo from Michael Shannon as a Life Magazine photographer is a welcome addition.

Please go see this film. Especially in our country's current political climate—it unfortunately couldn't be more timely.

~~~

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Arrival

Tonight I saw Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.

Louise (Adams) is a language professor whose class is interrupted one day when news breaks that UFOs have landed in 12 locations around the world. There's one in the U.S. and it's hovering over Montana.

Because of her incredible capabilities as a linguist, Louise is soon recruited by the government to help them decipher the language of the aliens that arrived with the spacecraft. There she works with Ian (Renner), a scientist.

Instead of going on the attack, the U.S. and several of its allies decide to try to reason with the beings—to discover their purpose before jumping to conclusions. After what feels like weeks of decoding, some of the enemy countries have other ideas and jeopardize the relationship that's been built. Louise takes risks others aren't willing to take to get real answers.

To tell you anymore would be to spoil the film.

What I can tell you:

1) The pace is slow, even when the narrative is interesting.
2) Linguists have difficult jobs.
3) Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are both wonderful actors, but sadly don't have a lot of chemistry here.
4) The movie falls just shy of getting preachy with its metaphors and messages.

It's entertaining, but not earth-shattering. Adams is always a pleasure to watch, even if it's amidst a haze of octopus-like goo.

And most importantly, we should always think before we act.

~~~


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Jackie

Today I saw Jackie, starring Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard.

Most Americans of Gen X age or older are acutely aware of the details surrounding President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Say "grassy noel" or "Jack Ruby" or "Zapruder" and they'll offer up their theory on who was truly responsible for his murder. What they won't recall is what a living nightmare it must have been for his widow, Jackie, who literally caught his head as he was shot on that fateful day in 1963. This film tells her story.

Natalie Portman plays widow Jackie and the Jackie in flashbacks from that week, as she recounts the horrors of losing her husband to a journalist set to write a profile about her. She reveals the raw, awful details of everything she experienced, telling him he can't print any of it, but clearly wanting someone to know how badly she suffered.

And really, the clever way the story is told gives the public a wake-up call on what it must feel like to have to face an "audience" in the aftermath of a personal tragedy. Worrying about how you'll appear or how your actions will be interpreted is never something anyone who is grieving should endure, but for politicians and celebrities alike, that's their reality. When you're being taught how to screenwrite, a popular lesson is "show, don't tell," but in this case, it's the telling that works.

Portman nails the former First Lady's intonation and unique accent, pursing her lips the same way Mrs. Kennedy often did. I wouldn't say she "disappeared" into her the way that Daniel Day-Lewis disappeared into Abraham Lincoln a few years back, but her performance was stellar and it will be no surprise when she's nominated for another Best Actress Oscar in a few weeks.

Peter Sarsgaard is also a pleasure to watch as the president's brother Bobby, by Jackie's side throughout the whole ordeal, showing his distaste for the incoming administration.

All-in-all a solid, enjoyable film, though the subject matter will remain a sad one for centuries to come.

~~~

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

La La Land

Today I saw La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.

I wish my expectations hadn't been so elevated going into this—I went thinking it would be the second coming of films; that the musical was "back." Instead I viewed a film that couldn't decide what it wanted to be and felt more like a series of scenes than a free-flowing story. I'll get to the music in a bit.

Mia (Stone) is a stereotypical aspiring actress in Hollywood. She works as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot and juggles the hours at the coffee shop with a series of dismal auditions. She meet-cutes Sebastian (Gosling) who is a passionate jazz pianist, stuck in the wrong era, longing for a time when the classics were what everyone wanted to hear.

Though their flirting is more like bickering in the beginning, these two definitely have chemistry working in their favor and they're all-of-a-sudden partners in life. To be clear, my dislike of this film has nothing to do with its leads; Stone and Gosling are very appealing and believable in their roles. It's just the rest that's the problem.

The music: With the exception of the lonely piano tune that first draws Mia to Seb in the first place, none of the songs struck a chord with me. There were no earth-shattering notes hit or incredible infusions of emotion to make me want to run out and buy the album. For a musical, that's not good.

The dancing: Though Stone and Gosling are both fine dancers, the choreography seemed like a mash-up of the most basic sequences from classic movies. Nothing terribly original.

The story: There were moments of sweetness in the romance, and humorous elements in their attempts to follow their individual dreams, but it felt like the big build up led only to a giant letdown.

I hated, hated, hated the ending.

Instead of resulting in the magic that could have redeemed some of the weaker elements, this went completely wrong, leaving me feeling cheated and longing to watch one of the films that served as inspiration for this tale.

~~~

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Monster Calls

Tonight I saw A Monster Calls, starring Lewis MacDougall and Sigourney Weaver.

Time is on our side. Time heals all wounds. Time flies.

There are countless sayings about our only true measure of life; simply choose the circumstance to match the cliché.

In this film, time is in short supply as young, British Conor (MacDougall) has a mum (Felicity Jones) who is terminally ill. As if that isn't enough for a kid to deal with, he's also the target of the school bully and doesn't really get along with his Grandma (Weaver). Did I mention Dad has made a new life with a new family in America too? It's no surprise Conor suffers from terrible reoccurring nightmares.

As he attempts to cope with all of the turmoil in his life, he begins receiving visits—always at 12:07—from a tree monster (voiced by the magnificent Liam Neeson). The monster tells him a series of stories, empowering Conor to wreak havoc along the way, with the expectation Conor will tell him "his" story, or rather the entirety of his nightmares.

The adults do the right thing to try to help Conor: Grandma takes him home with her, Dad comes for a much-needed visit, Mum always tells him the truth (even if it's bad news). But that doesn't make his situation any less tragic.

No matter how old we are, dealing with loss/significant change is rough. Adjustments are painful even if they have a more pleasant existence on the other side. We may never truly learn to navigate the rough roads of life (or perhaps when we do, we die), but in the meantime we find ways to escape, distract and power through.

This film serves as a metaphor for those escapes, delivered through beautiful watercolor-inspired animation that's like no other I've ever seen. The tree monster is a bit scary for little ones (there were some toddlers crying/screaming in the theater when he lashed out with fire), but an appropriate match to the rage felt when one is in so much pain they can barely breathe.

The acting on all fronts is solid in the film and the grief very raw. Though stories of children losing their parents and bullies picking on the weakest of souls is nothing new, this story does find a new way of telling it with a somewhat magical "twist" ending.

Just don't forget your tissues. You'll need them.


~~~

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Manchester By the Sea

This morning I saw Manchester By the Sea, starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams.

Lee (Affleck) is a divorced repairman who lives a quiet life alone until his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies, leaving him guardianship of his only son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Because the two never discussed this arrangement, he must decide whether to relocate himself or his nephew to make it work.

We learn from flashbacks that Lee once had a family of his own, and in fact the first person he thinks to call when he learns of his brother's passing is his ex-wife. We also find out that he left his hometown because of an event that he caused many years prior, so being around the old neighborhood triggers bad memories.

Patrick is basically a good kid, but he's a teenager, so he selfishly doesn't want his school or his friends or his hobbies to change at all. He also wants to hold on to an expensive boat his dad owned.

Lee wrestles with the decisions he will soon have to make for both of them, and the film is basically his journey getting there.

First, let me say that all of the hype about Affleck's performance is justified. For being a character who's meant to appear numb in the majority of the scenes, he does a phenomenal job of convincing us that underneath that layer of numb lies tremendous pain. There is never a moment where we as audience members don't know how he feels, yet the people in his life likely have no clue.

The script is brilliant in that it absolutely nails the stages of grief; not by telling, but by showing.

From the denial in the first moments, when gathering logistical chores actually dulls the reality of the situation, to the rage of overreacting to little things—it's all there. I also like how the screenwriter elegantly planted "triggers" that would set the characters off emotionally, just like loss does in real life.

The pain here was raw, but the sentiment sincere and never overdone. I barely noticed the score (a good sign in a heavy drama) and imagined the characters existing long after the screen went dark on their small Massachusetts town.

I'll be baffled if this movie doesn't score several Oscar nods, and disappointed if it doesn't win at least some of them.

~~~

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Moonlight

Tonight I saw Moonlight, starring Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhode.

Chiron (played by all three actors mentioned above) is a kid living in the Florida projects. His father is absent and his mother is a crack addict. He is gay.

The kids at school mercilessly bully Chiron for his orientation, though he doesn't flaunt his sexuality or have boyfriends. After one particularly awful chase, he seeks refuge in a crack den where a kind older man finds him and takes him to his house in the suburbs. There he finds a sense of home with the man and his wife, though he later learns the man is one of his mother's drug dealers.

We follow Chiron at three stages of his life: youth, high school and adulthood. At each stage he's desperate to know how he's "supposed" to feel, confronted with the horror of simply being himself. At each stage his mother is a nightmare, alternating somewhere between remorseful and monster.

His self-esteem barely exists, but as he grows his rage becomes a powerful tool in combating the society that rejects him on so many levels. He doesn't make the best decisions, but how could he be expected to?

The film does a fantastic job of showing us how, here in America, there are still thousands, if not millions, of children who don't have a fighting chance. How in many communities there are divides of race and class that dictate one's place before they are old enough to speak. How in some places exposing your true self could cost you your life.

For such a heart-wrenching story, there were thankfully moments of relief: Chiron's kinship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the tenderness shown by his 'adoptive' parents, the strength he finds within himself to somehow go on.

But I do think the film could have been shorter and less contrived; the pace was excruciatingly slow in certain scenes and the score a bit overbearing during a few of the most dramatic moments.

Still very much worth a watch, though. And sure to attract Oscar attention.

~~~


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Nocturnal Animals

This morning I saw Nocturnal Animals, starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Susan (Adams) is an affluent member of the art world, living day-by-day in an unfulfilling marriage to her second husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer). One day, she receives a manuscript from Edward (Gyllenhaal), who she left nearly two decades prior. It wasn't a pleasant break-up.

Home alone with Hutton traveling, Susan becomes riveted by the story spun by her ex, as the characters mirror those in her former life—plus, he dedicated the work to her.

As an audience, we enter the mind of Susan and become engulfed in the plot as she does. And it's a brutal one.

The father in the story (mirroring Edward) is driving his wife (mirroring Susan) and daughter to west Texas late one night. When another car drives aggressively on the highway, Edward tries to lose it, but is unsuccessful. What starts as road rage soon becomes far more sinister and the story becomes one nail-biting scene after another.

Tom Ford's direction is seamless. We only catch our breath when Susan does, as she looks up from the pages to digest what her mind's eye just witnessed.

The scenes within the manuscript with Gyllenhaal and later Michael Shannon, who's the detective assigned to investigate the crime, are heartbreaking, exciting and sometimes even morbidly funny.

I found myself holding my breath, gripping the armrests and having to look away throughout. The tension-build was unimaginable and the payoff horrific, if somewhat predictable.

I can't imagine this will be ignored during awards season; it would be a travesty to deny such an extraordinary ensemble.

I'll be rooting for them every step of the way.

~~~

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

On Monday I saw the Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them starring Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston.

Newt (Redmayne) is a magizoologist, who goes to great pains to protect the wondrous beasts of the magical world. Set in the 1920s, the Hogwarts graduate travels to New York City and quickly loses track of many of the creatures he's set out to protect.

Through a comedy of errors, he connects with a muggle baker (Dan Fogel) who accidentally sees too much and must be (at least temporarily) brought along for the ride. The two encounter magical sisters, Tina (Waterston) and Queenie (Alison Sudol), who are fond of the pair, though Tina's intention is to turn Newt in (she's an investigator in the magical congress).

Along the way they are confronted by evil in villains played by Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp, respectively. There's a lot of action, but not a whole lot of substance.

A few specific things bugged me:


  • At one point, Queenie flirts by saying that the baker "slays" her. Pretty sure the slang for that term has only been around for about a decade, if that.
  • The set design for the New York of the 1920s is gorgeous. We barely see it.
  • "Fantastic Beasts" is in the title, but they're only really the star in the very beginning and toward the end. I found the film overall to be creature-deficient.
Aside from that, the pace was way too slow, but that's probably because they're greedily squeezing five books out of one novella. 

The performances are great, and the supernatural elements are well done But overall the film lacks the special... dare I say... magic... of the Potter series.

~~~



Monday, November 14, 2016

Doctor Strange

On Saturday, I saw Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a gifted neurosurgeon with a knack for music trivia. He's sharp, sarcastic and more than a little bit arrogant. He has an on-again, off-again relationship with fellow doctor Christine (Rachel McAdams), who at the very least trusts his professional genius.

When Dr. Strange is in a terrible car accident (caused by distracted driving, of course), he suffers severe nerve damage to his hands—his most precious instruments—and grows desperate for a cure. A discussion with a physical therapist attending to him leads to a conversation with a "miracle" patient who was healed through alternative means. From this patient he learns of a healer in Kathmandu, so he catches the next flight to Nepal.

There, he meets Mordo (Ejiofor) and The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who convince him to stop thinking scientifically about everything and embrace the powers of the mind.

Refusing to discard any chance of physical restoration, Strange dedicates himself to learning the spiritual arts of which they speak and finds himself in the midst of a supernatural fight between good and evil. He's a quick study, but he still doesn't seem to be learning the larger philosophical lessons that The Ancient One practically beats him over the head with each day.

The film does a great job of getting the audience invested in Strange. Even though he's not the nicest guy, it's hard not to admire his intelligence and perseverance in the face of a ruined career. Cumberbatch also expresses the pain, both mental and physical, so vividly that a part of you aches for a remedy right along with him.

Swinton is sufficiently creepy as the wise teacher, but considering the casting drama, it seems she was mostly chosen for her look. She works, don't get me wrong, but others could have pulled off the role too.

Ejiofor is a calming presence as the voice of reason, and every time we see him, a little sigh of relief escapes, and Mads Mikkelsen (has their ever been a better real name for a villain?) as Kaecilius does a sufficient job of bringing the anger.

My only issues with the film were the dizzying bendy scenes where mirrors cave in and cities crumble within themselves Inception-style. I was grateful to be at the back of the theater and to be at a non-3D showing, because I fear I could have gotten sick otherwise. It was too much, too often, once the action got going. Excessive and unnecessary.

Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed the film and the teaser for the sequel, which followed the credits.

~~~

Saturday, October 08, 2016

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years

Tonight I saw The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years, directed by Ron Howard.

Though I've probably seen every Beatles documentary in existence, I'm happy to report there are elements of this one that still feel fresh.

Director Ron Howard uses footage from familiar flashbacks such as the band's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show to illustrate their journey from 1963 to the time they quit touring in 1966, spliced in with talking head interviews (both from the era and present day). He captures the intensity and madness that was Beatlemania, but without dwelling on the drama.

At the heart of the phenomenon were four friends: John, Paul, George and Ringo. As Lennon once said, "We were just a band who made it very, very big—that's all." Big indeed. In the three years covered in the film, the band performed over 250 concerts, each one arguably growing in fan intensity.

Before it became suffocating (and downright dangerous after Lennon's famous "bigger than Jesus" remark), the thrill of touring—and the fame that came with it—was intoxicating for the group. They were young men who got to use their collective creative genius to conquer the world. With that came money, women, adoration and years of fun.

Considering how they all sued each other and fought publicly in their later years, we sometimes forget how close these boys were in the beginning. They were basically brothers, and thankfully by the time two of the four passed, they'd found their way back to one another.

At one point in the film, their musical gifts are compared to Mozart. Some may call that exposition apples to oranges, but a good case is made as to why it's a just parallel. Above all else, the contemplation reminds us that extraordinary talents like John, Paul, George and Ringo, only happen once in a lifetime.

~~~

Friday, October 07, 2016

The Girl on the Train

Tonight I saw The Girl on the Train, starring Emily Blunt and Haley Bennett.

Rachel (Blunt) is a scorned woman, drowning her sorrows in drink following a divorce. Her ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), has moved on and married his mistress. They live together in the house he and Rachel used to share. They have a baby daughter and seem the picture of happiness.

Megan (Bennett) nannies for Tom and his wife, and lives nearby. On the train Rachel takes each day to a job she lost over a year ago, she often watches Megan and her husband Scott on their porch.

One day, Megan goes missing and Rachel is one of the last people to see her. Because of her alcoholism, Rachel suffers blackouts and doesn't remember the events of that night.

Going any further with the plot will spoil many twists, so I'll leave the exploration at that. Though the film does stay true to the book it was based upon, it feels (painfully) slower.

Blunt is convincing as the tragic Rachel, who you alternately sympathize with and want to shake. Her portrait of alcoholism is faithful to sufferers of the disease, and her shock and horror as events unfold is believable. Unfortunately her wonderful acting skills, and the strong performances from the other leads and supporting characters, can't save the movie.

Instead of the page-turning crescendo of activity the book put us through, we're instead watching extended vignettes of Rachel and Megan in their various stages, acting out in whatever ways their characters act out.

Sure, it's powerful to see Rachel flashback to her marriage and let us see what brought her to such self-destruction, and Megan seductively sucking the fingers of one of her sexual partners is about as erotic as it gets for an R-rated movie. But what happened to all the suspense?

I'll just have to return to the pages of the novel to find it.

~~~

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Bridget Jones's Baby

Today I saw Bridget Jones's Baby, starring Renee Zellweger and Colin Firth.

For a movie based on a character based on a book that doesn't exist, this film hit it out of the ballpark.

Bridget Jones's Diary was the ultimate rom com, based on the best-selling book of the same name. Its sequel, Bridget Jones Edge of Reason followed with a not-quite-as-good-but-still-entertaining book and film. The third book we won't even go into, since many devotees found it to be a sacrilege. This film falls somewhere between those last two.

Our heroine, Bridget (Zellweger, who originated the role), is in her early 40s working as a television producer. She's still quirky, and lovable and disheveled. Also: she's still alone.

Her ex, Mark Darcy (Firth) has moved on and married, though that marriage is in trouble. She runs into him at a Christening for a mutual friend's baby and they fall accidentally into bed.

Jack (Patrick Dempsey) is an American motivational speaker that attends the same music festival as Bridget and her buddy. When Bridget gets hammered and ends up in the wrong yurt, he is there. And they accidentally fall into bed.

A few months later, Bridget learns that one of these interludes has made her pregnant, but because the encounters happened in the same span of time, she doesn't know which.

And here's our second act: Who's the daddy?

An entertaining romp ensues and we're not quite sure who she wants the father to be (though they make Dempsey just plastic enough to have us rooting for Darcy). Both men, instead of running away, enter into an almost "competition" to prove who would make the best papa, and the results are hilarious.

This movie is no Citizen Kane, but it is a comedy that stays faithful to beloved characters and provides pure enjoyment along the way.

~~~

Saturday, September 17, 2016

My 2016 Emmy Picks

Tomorrow's the big night—the 68th Annual Primetime Emmys. Here are my picks for who should win...

Best Drama Series

The Americans (about damn time)

Best Comedy Series

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (I also love Transparent, but I see it more as a drama)

Best Actor in a Drama Series

Live Schreiber - Ray Donovan (consistent and complex)

Best Actress in a Drama Series

Keri Russell - The Americans (like Orphan Black's Tatiana, Russell plays multiple characters each week)

Best Actor in a Comedy Series

Jeffrey Tambor - Transparent (sad and sweet at the same time)

Best Actress in a Comedy Series

Amy Schumer - Inside Amy Schumer (playing different characters each week and making people laugh is not easy)

Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

Ben Mendelsohn - Bloodline (his Danny infuriates and draws immense sympathies)

Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series

Maura Tierney - The Affair (her pain becomes ours—even if we root for the other woman)

Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series

Tituss Burgess - Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (he makes me laugh out loud more than any of the other contenders)

Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series

Allison Janney - Mom (I thought I'd never see her as anyone other than CJ... until I saw her in this)

Best Limited Series

The People v. O.J. Simpson (I was glued to every episode, even though I watched the real trial live when it happened)

Best Television Movie

Confirmation (again, I watched the real trial when it was on; this was no less gripping or infuriating)

Best Actor in a Limited Series or TV Movie

Tom Hiddleston - The Night Manager (an underrated show, Hiddleston carried it as the lead)

Best Actress in a Limited Series or a TV Movie

Sarah Paulson - The People V. O.J. Simpson (she basically channeled Marcia Clark)

Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or TV Movie

David Schwimmer - The People v. O.J. Simpson (Kardashian without being a cartoon)

Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie

Kathy Bates - American Horror Story: Hotel (creepy in only a way she knows how to be)

Best Variety Talk Series

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (genius, brilliant, hilarious—EVERY WEEK)

Best Variety Sketch Series

Portlandia (biased because it's my home town)

Best Reality Competition Program

The Voice (constructive criticism and real talent in the spotlight)

Best Writing for a Drama Series

Robert & Michelle King — The Good Wife (I already miss this show so much)

Best Writing for a Comedy Series


Rob Delaney & Sharon Horgan — Catastrophe (everyone should be watching this; so genuine, so real)

~~~