Thursday, December 29, 2016


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


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.