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)

~~~

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sully

This morning I saw Sully, starring Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart.

Anyone who was around in January of 2009 will remember the "miracle on the Hudson." The day that a US Airways pilot safely landed a plane on the Hudson River after both engines failed following a bird strike. The pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Hanks), quickly became a national hero, as there was no loss of life in the incident.

What the public never knew was the extensive investigation after the landing, which came close to implying Sullenberger put lives at risk with his quick reaction to the emergency.

The film examines what it was like for both Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Eckhart), to navigate the post traumatic stress disorder from the accident as they were fighting to convince the NTSB they did the best thing possible for everyone on board.

Tom Hanks channels Sully in his portrayal; from the way he furrows his brows to the walk we all got used to seeing as the press fell in love with the real-life captain. He is thoughtful, soft-spoken, concerned and–yes, heroic. As usual, it's hard not to marvel at just how much Hanks can disappear into his characters, being one of the most familiar actors in the world. But he does, and although we know how the flight ends, the scenes where we see what it was like both for the flight crew and the passengers are harrowing.

This suspense is a credit to Director Clint Eastwood, who has a knack for building great tension (see: American Sniper, Play Misty for Me, etc.). Though much of the flight of which the film is focused is shown to us in flashbacks, it's no less frightening.

For over 90 minutes of watching something so forensic in exploration, it's a satisfying, thrilling ride, which will surely serve as a reminder of one of New York's best days for years to come.

~~~

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Southside With You

On Sunday I saw Southside with You, starring Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers.

The film tells the story of how Barack Obama (Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Sumpter) first fell in love ... long before they would become the President and First Lady of the United States.

We see their different lifestyles right off the bat: Barack is a chain smoker, has a habit of being late to things and drives a beat-up car with a hole in the floor. Michelle is the very definition of poised—treats her parents with great respect, dresses elegantly and carries herself in the classiest of ways.

Michelle and Barack met while working together, and Michelle was his superior. Therefore, she felt it would be inappropriate for them to be anything more than friendly colleagues. Barack saw no issues with the two of them dating and pursued her relentlessly. We all know that he prevailed in the end.

The charming thing about this movie is that both of the actors not only sound like their real-life characters, but capture the essence of their greatness that's made a country of citizens fall in love with them. There's a twinkle in Barack's eye and a spirit to Michelle that doesn't go unnoticed (and also reminds us why they make such a lovely couple).

This film is a pleasant walk through their beginnings (yes, most literally a walk) that is reminiscent of the great Before Sunrise.

I'm just so pleased that they got a happy ending, both in the film and in life.


~~~

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Light Between Oceans

Last night I saw The Light Between Oceans, starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander.

The year is 1923. Tom (Fassbender) and Isabel (Vikander) are a young couple in love, living a peaceful, isolated life in a lighthouse, where Tom is the sole caretaker. Devastated by recent losses, they're snapped out of their own grief when a dinghy washes up on the shore near their home. It contains a dead man and a very alive baby girl.

Though Tom's instinct is to log the discovery and immediately alert the authorities, Isabel thinks the "right" thing to do is to care for the baby as if she were their own and give the man a proper burial. So, that's what they do.

And they become the best parents the baby could ask for—doting on her endlessly; showering her with attention and love at every turn.

Life is undeniably good until they return to town to visit family and Tom discovers the woman who may be their new daughter's biological mother. He's immediately torn on what to do. Should he stay silent and continue his idyllic life, knowing this stranger is in unimaginable pain? Or should he do the "right thing" and confess to their crime, giving the child back to her rightful family, destroying every ounce of happiness that he and his family possess.

What should be a simple decision becomes a dreadful one, not only for the characters in this story, but for the audience having to choose sides. I fully admit: I was 100% on the fence.

Life's decisions aren't easy. And what the handbooks say (whether based on religion, ethics or society's moral code) may seem completely true on paper but totally backwards when coupled with the human experience.

Sometimes there aren't easy answers and sometimes unfavorable actions are truly motivated by purity or grief or love. It is possible.

Here, the pursuit of happiness wasn't even selfish; everyone involved cared most about the young girl. There were no bad people or villains in sight.

I can't share the decision that Tom made, for that would spoil the movie, but I can say that this film was so well-acted and real that everyone was left sobbing in their seats at the end.

All of us, crying together, about love.

~~~

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Older Than Ireland

Tonight I saw the documentary Older Than Ireland, featuring a group of lively centenarians telling tales of life in the old country.

Some of them still smoke, one credits her longevity to the lack of vegetables in her diet—another claims he died when his wife passed. A colorful cast of characters indeed, and the one thing they all have in common? They were around before Ireland as we know it existed. One of them personally met Michael Collins; another watched the fires of Easter 1916 from a nearby tower; a different man (just a boy at the time) was an eye witness to Bloody Sunday in Croke Park.

They came from all walks of life with a range of careers and economic backgrounds, but all have lived to be at least 100 years old (the eldest of the bunch, who emigrated to America in the '20s, is 113).

The stories range from sweet to heartbreaking, but all are undoubtedly charming. They speak of religion, politics, family life and culture—some wistful for the days gone by; others proud of the social progress their country has made. The main takeaway: they're all continuing to live their lives, whether it be by playing cards, baking cakes or taking a bus to the market to buy their own groceries.

I think about the (much younger) lazy people I know and shake my head. If these folks, who lived through some of the most tumultuous times in modern history, can face the day with a smile and a purpose, what the hell is wrong with the rest of the world?

My only criticism of the film is that I don't feel they spent enough time on the "big" political topics, but perhaps additional footage will show up on a DVD version.

I can only hope so—I'd be glad to spend more time with this lovely bunch.

~~~


Friday, July 15, 2016

Ghostbusters

Today I saw Ghostbusters, starring Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig.

Years ago Erin (Wiig) and Abby (McCarthy) wrote a book together about the paranormal. Abby has continued her passion, working as a scientist alongside the eccentric Jillian (Kate McKinnon) while Erin shifted gears and pursued a career in education.

They're reunited when Erin gets a visit from a fan of the book, claiming a nearby mansion is haunted. She tracks Abby down, angry that she put their book on Amazon without asking, and they end up checking out the site with Jillian. Of course, it's legit haunted.

From there, we're taken on a predictable-yet-delightful ride through New York as the ladies form a real ghostbusting firm and set out to capture some spirits. Along the way they pick up Patty (Leslie Jones, who stole the show), a transit worker recently stirred by a ghost she witnessed on the subway tracks.

I'll admit: it was hard for me to watch this through anything but a defensive lens. Since the new cast was announced, certain types of men have been screaming about the travesty that is women remaking this beloved film. They didn't care that it was a re-make (though that would have been a valid concern because most re-makes suck). They only cared that the main roles were to be played by humans who possessed vaginas.

Well, chauvinistic pigs, you lose. Though it's of course not as magical as the original (how could it be?), this movie succeeds on many levels.

The special effects are far better thanks to technological advances that didn't exist in the '80s when the original was made. Though the story is recycled, it's told in a fresh new way that incorporates the essence of the old film beautifully (even the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man's cameo is clever); it's also really scary in certain sequences. And above all else: the women are hilarious.

I personally loved Leslie Jones the most. Her physical comedy is spot on and some of her expressions alone had me laughing out loud. That's not to say the others weren't great, because they were, but we've seen all of them enough to know their rhythms and strengths.

Also fun was the addition of Chris Hemsworth, who was objectified for his looks much like every woman who's ever played a secretary or assistant or flight attendant or waitress or librarian. I could go on, but I think you know where I'm going with that.

I also liked the winks to feminism via reverse psychology lines (jokes about girls being late, etc.)—it was just enough to stick it to the haters.

Overall, you'll have a good time at this film. Don't let a few vaginas—or dicks—get in the way of that.

~~~


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Finding Dory

On July 4, I saw Finding Dory, starring Ellen DeGeneres and Ed O'Neill.

Dory (Degeneres) is a blue tang with a short term memory impairment. As a baby, her parents tried to train her to come home, but when she was young she got separated from them. She made friends along the way, but never got over the loss of her Mom and Dad.

As an adult, she sets out to find them using techniques she's learned and taking some friends with her—like Hank the Octopus (O'Neill)—to keep her focused.

Her voice, Ellen DeGeneres, hits all the right notes to trigger empathy and sympathy. You can't help but root for her as she navigates the wild waters she first explored with her friend Nemo (Hayden Rolence), who makes an appearance here as well. In fact, all of the voices are great from legend Diane Keaton (Dory's mom) to the 7-year-old Sloane Murray, who gives a precious performance as the young version of Dory.

It's frankly hard to find fault with anything that Pixar does and Finding Dory is no exception. Excellent animation? Check. Brilliant casting? Check. Screenplay that ignites tearful waterworks? Check. Charming jokes to keep us laughing as we cry? Check.

The film is thoroughly engaging and enjoyable—my only complaint would be that as a sequel, it took too long to come out after the original.

Let's hope we don't have to wait as long for the third.

~~~

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Lobster

On Tuesday I saw The Lobster, starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz.

The world represented in the film looks much like ours except for one main thing: every adult who lives in the city is part of a couple. There are no exceptions to this rule and those seen wandering alone may be asked to show their "papers" to prove they have a spouse.

David (Farrell) is recently divorced and devastated by the breakup. He is immediately transported to an inn where he is expected to find a partner in 45 days. If he does not complete this task, he will be turned into the animal of his choice. He has decided on a lobster.

As he earnestly attempts to find a new mate, he witnesses the horrors of those who try to game the system. Punishments are delivered. People become animals. It's not pretty.

I can't go any further than that without spoiling the ending in major ways, so I'll start by saying Colin Farrell is fantastic. It's a very odd role for an Irish heartthrob to play, but one he owns beautifully. His tension (both social and sexual) is palpable and the longing you see in his eyes once he zeroes in on a possible object of affection is painful.

Rachel Weisz, who has significantly less screen time but just as important of a role is also solid as a "loner," who has left the inn and rebelled against the establishment. Her energy mixed with her restraint produces an impressive result that not every actor could achieve.

The movie is weird, and there are a lot of winks in the dialog that could be cheesy to some, but I actually enjoyed them.

If you've ever felt persecuted for being alone (or just simply being different), you may take great comfort in the satire of The Lobster. I know I did.

~~~

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Conjuring 2

Tonight I saw The Conjuring 2, starring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson.

After experiencing the evil energy of the famous Amityville haunted house, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren needed a break—the demonic presence that Lorraine sensed was just too disturbing. So they took one, until another high-profile case demanded their attention.

Reprising their roles from 2013's The Conjuring, Wilson and Farmiga feel so familiar as the real-life Warrens it's easy to buy the story they're selling.

From their cozy home in Connecticut, they travel to London to investigate the haunting of a house on Green Street in Enfield, occupied by a single mother and her four children. The second-oldest daughter, on the cusp of puberty, is the target of most of the paranormal activity.

After the police visit and watch a chair levitate and move across the room on its own, determining they can do nothing to help the family, the home becomes the focus of a media circus. Tabloid journalists descend upon the street to try to capture the happenings on film. Some they do; some they don't. And the debate rages on (to this day) as to whether or not this was a hoax.

In the midst of the chaos, the Warrens stopped by and spent time at the house, witnessing and documenting the alleged possession of young Janet (Madison Wolfe). Wolfe does a tremendous job of appearing both terrified and terrifying depending on who her body was representing, making this less a "gotcha" horror film and more of the psychologically troubling kind.

Speaking of psychologically troubling: the demon that Lorraine sees in her visions throughout the film looks like Marilyn Manson dressed as a nun for Halloween. More disturbing than cheesy, I still have to mention the reference, as I can't be alone in seeing this.

If you're looking for a movie that will scare you, this sequel will not disappoint you. I sat in the very back of the theater and watched folks (both male and female) jump out of their seats throughout. There's something much creepier about a story that could actually be true vs. something admittedly fictional.

So if you go—and I recommend strongly that you do—stay through the credits for a "real" surprise.

~~~




Saturday, June 11, 2016

I Am Belfast

Tonight I saw I Am Belfast, a documentary about the Irish city.

Conceptually, I was on board. An elderly woman narrates a historical travelogue about Belfast, personifying herself as the city as we see the visual representation of what she's referencing.

Cool, huh?

Well, yes and no.

Visually, I have zero complaints. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle of In the Mood fame does a marvelous job capturing the beauty and the horrors of this famous location. Whether it's a bombed-out street corner or a landscape of breathtaking proportions, Doyle puts us there, not as viewers, but as visitors.

The issues come with the scripting. Though I love the idea of the star of the film—Belfast itself—having a voice in human form, the commentary had a few too many winks to avoid being cheesy. The pace in the beginning was brutal too. With landscapes that calming, I was nearly tempted to doze off.

Because the film was more like poetry than prose, I expected more of a definite rhythm but instead got lengthy flashbacks and abbreviated stories. All of the humor sat near the end, when really the beginning needed it most.

I applaud the inventive approach, but feel the sentiment suffered as a result.

~~~

Big Sonia

Last week I saw Big Sonia, a work-in-progress documentary about a spirited Holocaust survivor.

Since it's not an officially "complete" cut of the film, my review will be preliminary bullet points:


  • Sonia is definitely a worthy subject of her own documentary.
  • The pieces about the Holocaust, though strong, feel discombobulated in places.
  • It feels as though many sections of Sonia's life are under-represented, while too much time is devoted to her career.
  • It would have been great to see her interacting more with her kids/grandkids instead of the majority of the interviews being separate.
  • The brief animations are great.
  • I want a sequel to see what happens next in Ms. Sonia's colorful life.
~~~

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Beware the Slenderman

Today I saw Beware the Slenderman, a documentary about the stabbing of Petyon "Bella" Leutner.

Two years ago this week, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier had a sleepover at Morgan's house with the victim. They woke up in the morning, had doughnuts and strawberries for breakfast, and asked Morgan's mother if they could go to the park. Without hesitation, she told them they could. Once there, they initiated a fake game of hide-and-seek (though Bella didn't want to play) and brutally stabbed her 19 times, missing a major artery by just a millimeter. They left her for dead, but she crawled her way to an area where a bicyclist discovered her and called for help. When questioned about why they did it, they both blamed a fictional boogie man named Slenderman.

Bella is alive today—physically recovered from her injuries, but continuing to battle the emotional scars left by the event. Morgan and Anissa are being held in separate locations (Morgan in a state hospital; Anissa in a juvenile jail) as they await word on a decision about their case.

This film explores what led each of the accused to commit such a heinous act, with frank, tragic conversations by both sets of parents. In Anissa's case, it's the classic problem of being bullied; not having a lot of friends; feeling an outcast. She wasn't inherently evil; just a 'follower' prone to frightening easily. In Morgan's case, she is mentally ill and the parents saw signs at a young age. Additionally, mental illness runs in their family, so they knew she had a genetic predisposition for it.

The story is both fascinating and disturbing—how seemingly normal kids with loving families can go so horribly wrong in the blink of an eye. Extensive footage is shown of each girl's interrogation with detectives and there's a shocking lack of remorse in both instances. Anissa asks how far she walked out of the woods because she was "never very athletic" and Morgan questions Bella's condition without so much as a tear. Not what you'd expect from two humans who committed a vicious act of brutality just hours earlier.

My main issue with the film is the lack of information and attention for the victim. Sure, we're all interested in understanding why such a crime happened, but I inadvertently found myself sympathizing with the parents and friends of the accused rather than thinking of Bella. Perhaps her family didn't choose to participate in the documentary (that would be perfectly understandable), but there were still ways the filmmakers could have represent her more prominently, even in the absence of interviews.

I also could have done less with the dramatic music in certain sequences. Really, the true story is awful enough to invoke horror.

~~~

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Summertime

Today I saw Summertime, starring Izïa Higelin and Cécile de France.

Delphine (Higelin) is a farmer's daughter in rural France who decides to move to Paris for financial and social independence. Once there, she embraces the spirit of the city, joining a feminist group and falling in love with Carole (de France), a straight girl who is transfixed by her new friend.

Everything is blissful until Carole leaves her boyfriend to pursue Delphine just as Delphine has tragedy strike back home. Will family duty get in the way of true love or will the couple find happiness?

This film gets a lot right: the chemistry between the two leads; the authenticity of the era; the sensual nature of erotic attraction—and of course—hate for the unknown.

Unfortunately, the pace of the story is very uneven. It speeds up and slows down almost as the rhythms of their relationship ebb and flow, and that makes the film feel a lot longer than it actually is. Plus, the scenes come dangerously close to being formulaic.

It gets points for its timely women's issues (despite the fact the film is set in the '70s) and superb acting. I just wish it could have condensed it's slower sequences to keep its viewers minds from wandering.

~~~

Friday, May 06, 2016

Purple Rain

On Tuesday I saw Purple Rain, starring Prince and Appolonia Kotero.

This was my second theater viewing of this film. The first took place when I was 9 years old—it was my first "R" rated film and the only film my older sister ever snuck me into. I'm still grateful.

With Prince's passing, the 'celebration' of seeing it has dimmed, but my friend and I still made quite a night of it, complete with cans (yes, cans) of wine, tears and enthusiastic singing. I can also not confirm or deny that I shouted "Fuck you, Tipper Gore!" during "Darling Nikki." But I digress.

In this 1984 classic, Prince plays The Kid, a young man obsessed with making it big in the music industry. His rival, Morris Day (playing himself), and his band The Time give The Kid a lot of grief, but here it's done in such a comical way that the banter is fun to watch.

There's also a girl, of course. She is supernaturally beautiful as well as talented. Her name is Appolonia (Kotero) and she also has her sights set on performing.

There are motorcycle rides and steamy sex scenes and domestic violence and above all else, epic music performances. Sure, the dialogue is cheesy, but the story—based loosely on Prince's real life—is solid.

In fact, it's hard to find fault with anyone as engaging and magical as Prince was. It's even harder to refer to him in past tense.

~~~

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Midnight Special

On Monday I saw Midnight Special, starring Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher.

Alton (Lieberher) isn't your everyday kid. He doesn't go to school. He lives on a cult ranch and provides accurate prophecies to his pastor. He also has an aversion to daylight.

When we meet him, he's on the run with his father (Shannon) and his father's childhood friend (Joel Edgerton) because the federal government is trying to take him into custody. At one stop he disables a satellite using just his eyes, causing the destruction of a gas station. This is apparently par for the course, as Dad doesn't seem so much surprised as angry. I couldn't help but think of Drew Barrymore's young Firestarter character when it all unfolded. Emotion = consequences. Just like normal life, but to a crazy degree.

As Alton searches for what the other dimension wants for him, the government remains in pursuit. Kirsten Dunst appears along the way to prove her worth as a nurturing mother. Adam Driver shows up as a borderline annoying cocky agent, way in over his head. He somewhat redeems himself eventually, but I could have done with less screen time from him.

In fact, I could have done with less screen time in general.

The main thing wrong with the film is it's pace: It doesn't really have one. There are moments of intense action and then moments of complete boredom. The fugitives encounter some people who have purpose and a few that don't. One incident that happens early in the film could make some dislike the dad. It was unnecessary—we get that he's loyal to the kid.

Also, Alton's eyes light up many times throughout the film, which had me cycling back in my brain to this '80s video by Bonnie Tyler. I couldn't help it. And if I'm that distracted during a movie in an otherwise peaceful theater, something's wrong.

Conceptually, I loved the idea of the film. A child with a gift that cannot be defined—even by those closest to him—is an interesting problem. The supernatural element only intensifies that challenge, which I enjoyed.

Unfortunately, the gratuitously lengthy journey getting there and the anti-climactic ending, which answered few questions, fell short.

~~~


Thursday, March 31, 2016

Hello, My Name is Doris

On Sunday I saw Hello My Name is Doris, starring Sally Field and Max Greenfield.

Having a workplace crush is fantastic—you plan your outfits carefully, worry about your makeup and get excited when circumstance forces you into their presence. And you flirt. Shamelessly.

That's the predicament Doris (Field) finds herself in when new hire John (Greenfield) arrives in her office. Though they're both unmarried, there's a slight problem: they're about 30 years apart (Doris is older).

John accepts Doris's awkward advances with grace, as he's somewhat oblivious to her intentions and they soon become genuine friends. No matter how absurd her methods, Doris does succeed in getting close to him and his contemporaries. And it gives her a new lease on life, having just lost her mother and currently battling a serious case of hoarding.

Field is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking as the star character—and "character" is a good term for her. Doris makes unintentional fashion statements with her individuality. Doris does her job and she does it well; but at this point it's just habit. Doris doesn't mind riding the ferry to work every day. It takes her back to the house she grew up in, which is where she still resides. She's someone I could see myself being friends with (or turning into) later in life.

Greenfield is undeniably charming as the aloof object of affection. His kindness and gentle nature make it easy to see why any woman would be smitten. The fact he doesn't realize it makes him all that more appealing.

So, when all of these factors come into play, however unconventional it may seem, you can't help but root for a Doris & John happy ending. Maybe it could work? They could probably have a few good years? There's nothing wrong with an age difference as long as the chemistry is there, right?

I won't spoil the ending for you, but I will say it was both difficult to watch and ultimately satisfying. The attachment you'll have to Doris by the end will make you hurt when she hurts and rejoice when things go her way.

Only a good movie could do that.

~~~

Saturday, March 12, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

This morning I saw 10 Cloverfield Lane, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman.

Michelle (Winstead) has decided to move on and sets out on the road with a bag of stuff that doesn't include her engagement ring. It's not clear where she's headed (except that she most likely won't be going back).

After a heart-stopping surprise event, she ends up in an underground bunker with Howard (Goodman), a doomsday conspiracy theorist who claims to be saving her from chemical warfare outside. But is he telling the truth? Or is he telling her what he believes to be true, but has little basis in reality?

Michelle soon learns she's not the only captive of Howard's, as Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) emerges from the next room. He's a decent guy, if not a bit simple, and soon becomes a strong ally for her.

What's great about this film is that just when you think it's going to get formulaic, the screenwriter turns everything upside down and changes your mind. Over and over again.

Michelle's quest to learn the truth gets her in trouble, but that doesn't slow her pursuit. She's always one step ahead of her captor, though he's bigger and stronger and perhaps psychotic. Not to get too feminist-y, but I found it incredibly refreshing that the girl was the smartest in the room. And she was the youngest of the bunch, too.

I can't tell you what transpires or who survives, but I can tell you that if you go to this movie, you'll be on the edge of your seat for the full 105 minutes. Enjoying the clever, well-acted, well-scripted thrill ride.

~~~

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Oscar Picks and Predictions: 2016

Here are my final picks for tonight's ceremony:

WRITING: ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Who Will Win: Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy for SPOTLIGHT
My Pick: Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy for SPOTLIGHT

WRITING: ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Who Will Win: Charles Randolph and Adam McCay for THE BIG SHORT
My Pick: Emma Donoghue for ROOM

VISUAL EFFECTS
Who Will Win: Andrew Jackson, Tom Wood, Dan Oliver and Andy Williams for MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
My Pick: Rich McBride, Matthew Shumway, Jason Smith and Cameron Waldbauer for THE REVENANT

SOUND MIXING
Who Will Win: Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff and Ben Osmo for MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
My Pick: Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Drew Kunin for BRIDGE OF SPIES

SOUND EDITING
Who Will Win: Alan Robert Murray for SICARIO
My Pick: Oliver Tarney for THE MARTIAN

SHORT FILM: LIVE ACTION
Who Will Win: DAY ONE
My Pick: EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY

SHORT FILM: ANIMATED
Who Will Win: WE CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT COSMOS
My Pick: WORLD OF TOMORROW

PRODUCTION DESIGN
Who Will Win: Eve Stewart & Michael Standish for THE DANISH GIRL
My Pick: Eve Stewart & Michael Standish for THE DANISH GIRL

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)
Who Will Win: "Till it Happens to You" from THE HUNTING GROUND
My Pick: "Till it Happens to You" from THE HUNTING GROUND

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)
Who Will Win: Ennio Morricone for THE HATEFUL EIGHT
My Pick: Ennio Morricone for THE HATEFUL EIGHT

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Who Will Win: Lesley Vanderwalt, Elka Wardega and Damian Martin for MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
My Pick: Siân Grigg, Duncan Jarman and Robert Pandini for THE REVENANT

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Who Will Win: MUSTANG
My Pick: A WAR

FILM EDITING
Who Will Win: Tom McArdle for SPOTLIGHT
My Pick: Tom McArdle for SPOTLIGHT

DOCUMENTARY (SHORT SUBJECT)
Who Will Win: A GIRL IN THE RIVER: THE PRICE OF FORGIVENESS
My Pick: A GIRL IN THE RIVER: THE PRICE OF FORGIVENESS

DOCUMENTARY (FEATURE)
Who Will Win: AMY
My Pick: AMY

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)
Who Will Win: Ennio Morricone for THE HATEFUL EIGHT
My Pick: Ennio Morricone for THE HATEFUL EIGHT

DIRECTING
Who Will Win: Alejandro G. Iñarritu
My Pick: Lenny Abrahamson for ROOM

COSTUME DESIGN
Who Will Win: Sandy Powell for CAROL
My Pick: Paco Delgado for THE DANISH GIRL

CINEMATOGRAPHY
Who Will Win: Emmanuel Lubezki for THE REVENANT
My Pick: Emmanuel Lubezki for THE REVENANT

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Who Will Win: INSIDE OUT
My Pick: INSIDE OUT

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Who Will Win: Kate Winslet for STEVE JOBS
My Pick: Kate Winslet for STEVE JOBS

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Who Will Win: Sylvester Stallone for CREED
My Pick: Mark Ruffalo for SPOTLIGHT

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Who Will Win: Brie Larson for ROOM
My Pick: Brie Larson for ROOM

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Who Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio for THE REVENANT
My Pick: Leonardo DiCaprio for THE REVENANT

BEST PICTURE
Who Will Win: SPOTLIGHT
My Pick: ROOM

~~~

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Witch

This morning I saw The Witch, starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Kate Dickie.

It's the early 1600s in New England and Thomasin (Taylor-Joy) is watching her baby brother while her mother tends to other household chores. As she's playing peek-a-boo with him, he disappears in what seems to be thin air (but what really is the creepy dark woods they live next to). An evil witch has snatched him up for her own purposes.

Predictably, Mom (Dickie) goes into hysterics and the family unit is altered considerably. Dad (Ralph Ineson) tries to keep things as normal as possible, but the baby's absence casts quite a shadow. The young twins are constantly babbling about speaking with "Black Phillip," who tells them their older sister is a witch. To get them to shut up already, Thomasin plays along and pretends she is one. She will later regret this action.

To tell you more would be to spoil... so I'll just say that I was underwhelmed by this film as a whole. It had great potential; a great setting with great actors and rich folklore. But for me, it missed the mark.

Though the abstract shadowy images are indeed a bit spooky, I never really felt scared throughout. We know what happened to the baby (and the others as the story progresses), but with the exception of a few gratuitous bloody scenes, there's nothing very 'horrifying' about the story.

Sure, it's clever that the main character's last name ends in "sin" and the mother longs for happier times in the past, in the place that really felt like home.

But crafty moments don't make for an overall good film. I actually shivered more at the trailer for The Conjuring 2. I'm hoping this spring after I see that one I'll be compelled to write a better review.

~~~

Sunday, February 14, 2016

45 Years

This morning I saw 45 Years, starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.

Kate (Rampling) has loved Geoff (Courtenay) all of her adult life. The pair have been married for nearly 45 years and are in the midst of planning a party to commemorate that. What's normal for many is customary for them too—each have their rituals like reading the paper and walking the dog, though they're often done apart.

When the body of Geoff's first love, Katya, is found on the mountain he long left her on after she fell during a hike, their long-dormant marital tension comes to a head. You see, Geoff didn't tell Kate about Katya. Didn't mention that they were on the verge of marriage before he met her; or that her death had traumatized him ever since.

When Katya's perfectly preserved 27-year-old body surfaces (she's been frozen in the snow until now), Geoff's pent-up sorrow for his lost love does as well. This, of course, raises questions about what else he's been keeping from his wife all of these years. If he can hold a secret that serious for that long, upon what has their entire relationship been based?

This is a film that shows, not tells. This is a film that communicates pain through the faces of its actors; not through dialog. This is a film that moves along at a quiet pace, as life does when something tragic lingers in the air.

It's not an enjoyable movie to endure, but Rampling's performance is certainly worth its Oscar nomination, and watching her work will leave you speechless.

It will also leave you questioning every relationship you've ever had.

~~~

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Live Action Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2016)

Last night 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.

AVE MARIA (Palestine, France and Germany)

Of all the things Orthodox Jewish settlers could crash into in the West Bank, a convent of Catholic nuns is unlikely. But that's what happens here when a family trip takes a turn (literally) into one. Problem is: the nuns have taken a vow of silence and due to the Sabbath, the family is unable to use the telephone to call for help. Through a series of comedic events, the two groups together find a surprising solution. The one is light and the story is cute; I just don't think I'd consider this Oscar caliber material.

SHOK (Kosovo and UK)

Amidst the Yugoslav wars two young boys form a deep friendship that is tested repeatedly by the pressures of the time. Instead of making choices about what games to play each night, they're faced with much more grim decisions—some even a matter of life and death. The film is about war, but above all else, about love. Though hard to watch because of the subject matter (these horrors took place not long ago, after all), it's expertly done with two lead actors that deliver on every note.

EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY (Germany and Austria)

A divorced couple shares custody of their young daughter. The father comes to pick the girl up for a routine weekend and the tension between the parents is evident. The father quickly takes his daughter shopping to spoil her with new toys, then makes a trip to the nearby bumper cars for additional fun. Things only go sideways when he tricks her into taking passport pictures at a nearby photo booth. The girl soon realizes they're not having a normal weekend and calls him out on it. Just how far (and how fast) this weekend goes off the rails is what makes this my pick for the Oscar. I don't think I breathed for the last 10 minutes. It was that good.

STUTTERER (UK and Ireland)

There have been six months of flirtatious Facebook bliss for a couple and now there's a chance for them to meet. The man has reservations because he suffers from a severe stuttering problem—so much that he's learned sign language to imply to strangers that he's simply deaf. As the day approaches, he at first hides, then practices his speech, hoping not to disappoint this love of his life. It's a sweet, sometimes funny story with a lot of heart.

DAY ONE (USA)


An Afghan-American interpreter is assigned to an Afghanistan tour of duty with the U.S. military, and on her first day the team is sent to investigate a report of bombs in a nearby residence. As the weapons are found and the man of the house is being arrested, his wife goes into labor—with complications. As the only woman present, the interpreter has to begin acting as a doctor to save the mother and baby. 

This was the only of the five films where people actually got up and left the theater. It was incredibly intense and touched on several sensitive subject matters (religion, birth, war, death, etc.). But I stuck it out and was glad I did, if not only for the life-affirming ending, but the photo of the real interpreter, for which the film was based, that appears at the end.

~~~