Saturday, December 31, 2016

Review: Fences

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Denzel Washington's filmed adaptation of August Wilson's 1983 play is a tour de force of acting and an overall very good translation of the Pittsburgh playwright's (arguably) most famous work. In the film, Washington plays Troy Maxson, a garbageman who was once a promising baseball player, but never made it, and now lives out his years having backyard conversations with his wife Rose (a very good Viola Davis) and pal Bono (Stephen Henderson), a former fellow convict who now works alongside him as a sanitation worker.

When not engaging in conversations behind his house with Rose and Bono on everything from baseball to death, Troy is haranguing his son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), an aspiring football player whom he does not want to become disappointed after being let down by the world of sports as he once was. In fact, Troy goes a few steps beyond discouraging his son, which leads to conflict as the two increasingly see eye to eye less and less. Also in Troy's orbit are an older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), from a previous wife and a brother (Mykelti Williamson) who has been left shell shocked after World War II.

Washington, who previously directed "Antwone Fisher," shows once again that he has talent both in front of and behind the camera. But if there's anything that holds "Fences" back, albeit just slightly, it's that it is often too obvious that the movie is an adaptation of a play. In other words, most of the action is set within a small, confined space and much of the dialogue is in the form of monologue. At times, the picture feels like a filmed play.

That being said, it's a terrific showcase for its cast, who more than does justice to Wilson's poetic words. Washington, always great, does a terrific job of creating a character who can be both sympathetic and a bit of a cretin within the same scene. And Davis is spellbinding as Rose, especially during a particularly grueling scene in which she finds out one of her husband's secrets and responds accordingly. Troy may have the greater capacity to hurt others, but when Rose tells him he's a "womanless man," he looks absolutely punched in the gut.

Although Troy and Rose are the film's two lead characters, it's ultimately Cory who becomes the most significant character, especially during two final scenes, one a confrontation and the other a return home.

"Fences" is about many things, one of which is how no matter how hard parents try to help their children, they end up hindering them by passing on their bad traits along with the good ones. Cory seems to recognize this during the film's finale when he joins a duet with a younger sibling of a song Troy used to sing. This is a powerful film with a great cast that makes Wilson's beloved play come to life onscreen.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Review: Passengers

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Not quite as bad as you may have heard - but still not very good and ultimately misguided - Morten Tyldum's "Passengers" can't quite sail by on the abilities of its stars. The film takes an intriguing concept - that I'm going to have to spoil, so stop reading at this point if you don't mind knowing a major plot thread in the picture - and rather than explore its complexities, takes a standard route that ends up making it creepier than it needs to be.

Tyldum's previous film was "The Imitation Game," an enjoyable historical thriller and Oscar nominee, but his latest mostly falls flat. The movie's concept could have made for a better movie: a spaceship carries some 5,000 passengers to a faraway planet, where they'll begin a new colony. No, Earth isn't in ruins - although we never see it - as is the case in most futuristic films, but rather the voyage gives its passengers a chance to start anew.

The catch is that the journey takes more than 100 years to reach its destination and, therefore, those aboard are frozen into a deep-sleep hibernation that will preserve them during the century-long trip. However, one passenger - a mechanic named Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) - awakens early by accident and, realizing that he'll live and die alone aboard the ship while all of the others sleep, has to make a very difficult decision. And, here's that spoiler alert again: Rather than choosing to be alone, Jim finds a passenger named Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), whom he cyber stalks and then awakens.

But Aurora is led to believe that she accidentally woke up in the same manner that Jim did and he struggles with whether he should tell her that he effectively ruined her life so that he wouldn't be lonely. Although his behavior is, well, reprehensible - albeit understandable, considering the circumstances - this could have made for an emotionally complex science fiction film.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers decide to go the typical Hollywood route and plunge the two leads into a romance. Of course, the big reveal for Aurora eventually comes and she's none too happy about it. However, further technological deterioration on the ship as well as a convenient early wake-up call for another crew member (Laurence Fishburne) - again, conveniently someone who has a deeper knowledge of the ship - prevents the film from exploring much further the consequences of Jim's actions.

The final 30 minutes or so involve the three passengers attempting to save the ship from bursting into a big ball of flame caused by an asteroid striking one of its mechanical parts. And the way that the film wraps up Jim and Aurora's story - complete with a rescue out in the cosmos - doesn't satisfy the complex situation that the two characters are actually in. To cap things off, there's a particularly strange moment very late in the film in which a name actor literally serves as an extra.

"Passengers" could have been a thoughtful take on Elton John's assertion that it's "lonely out in space" and the material is there - Jim's decision to essentially destroy another person's life in order to fulfill his own needs - for a genre movie that could have been provoking. But the filmmakers ultimately throw peril in the two characters' paths so that they can come to some sort of reconciliation and, frankly, it doesn't feel earned. Lawrence is a bona fide movie star and Pratt is a likable lead, so this film feels like a wasted opportunity.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Top 10 Movies of 2016 (And Runners Up)

Moonlight. Image courtesy of A24.
So that happened - 2016, that is. No, it was not a particularly good year to be a human being during the past 12 months. But great art, although not a remedy, is certainly a balm for troubled times. And there was a lot to praise at the movies this past year.

2016's best films were movies about making a connection - or healing wounded relationships. Some of the year's top films were about finding beauty in the small details or living a life with passion that involves trying new things. A few of my favorite films were overtly political, while others more subversively so.

Two of the films in my top 10 had song and dance in their hearts, while others observed the grieving process, faith, race and sexuality, economic matters and parent-child bonds. Since it's always difficult to narrow down the year's best films to 10 selections, I've included 10 runners up that involve subjects as diverse as the U.S. prison system, a landmark Supreme Court case, fascism, a sci-fi thriller and period pieces.

In fact, there were so many movies that I liked this year that I'd feel remiss not to give a shout-out to the following films that didn't quite make my top 20: Tom Ford's very dark revenge thriller "Nocturnal Animals," Nate Parker's incendiary "The Birth of a Nation," Arnaud Desplechin's relationship dirge "My Golden Days," Pedro Almodovar's return to form "Julieta," James Schamus's excellent Philip Roth adaptation "Indignation," Joachim Trier's powerful family drama "Louder Than Bombs," Lorene Scafaria's lovely "The Meddler," Karyn Kusama's extremely creepy "The Invitation," Jacques Audiard's 2015 Palm d'Or winner "Dheepan," Yorgos Lanthimos's inventive "The Lobster," Noah Baumbach's fascinating documentary "De Palma," Tom Tykwer's adaptation of "A Hologram for the King," Gareth Edwards's fun non-trilogy prequel "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" and Peter Atencio's hilarious "Keanu."

Also, I'm not including Ezra Edelman's highly acclaimed, eight-hour documentary "O.J.: Made In America" because it is technically a TV movie and, naturally, there are a number of films that I either missed (and will catch up with on Netflix in 2017) or have yet to review. These include: Denzel Washington's "Fences" (reviewing on Dec. 31), Asghar Farhadi's "The Salesman," Ben Affleck's "Live By Night," Stephen Gaghan's "Gold," Anna Biller's "The Love Witch," Gan Bi's "Kaili Blues," Mia Hansen-Love's "Things to Come," Ken Loach's "I, Daniel Blake," Pablo Larrain's "Neruda," John Lee Hancock's "The Founder," J.A. Bayona's "A Monster Calls," Theodore Melfi's "Hidden Figures," Kirsten Johnson's "Cameraperson" and Chan-wook Park's "The Handmaiden."

So, without further ado, here's my list of the year's best films, starting with my 10 runners up (numbers 20-11). I'd love to hear from you. Tell me in the comment section which films were your favorites from the past year.

Review: 20th Century Women

Image courtesy of A24.
Warm, witty and insightful, Mike Mills's "20th Century Women" is his second film in a row that pays homage to a parent, the first being 2011's "Beginners," which chronicled the story of a father (Christopher Plummer) who came out of the closet at age 75. In Mills's latest film, which is his best to date, Annette Bening - in one of her finest performances - plays Dorothea, a chain smoking, modern woman who had a son at age 40 and attempts to raise him as he becomes more rebellious and precocious, circa 1979 in Southern California.

Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) constantly refers to his mother as having "come from the Depression" to explain away her idiosyncrasies, although Dorothea is far from being the only eccentric individual in his life. There's also Julie (Elle Fanning, very good), Jamie's lovely, slightly older friend, with whom he is secretly in love. She sneaks in his window most nights and camps out with him, but merely in a platonic way, and - much to his chagrin - bluntly describes her sexual experiences.

Dorothea and Jamie also house two lodgers - Abbie (Greta Gerwig in a career best performance), a wise and wily, red haired photographer who has survived cervical cancer and serves as Jamie's guide to seducing women and learning about punk rock music (the film has a great soundtrack, but also a lovely score by Roger Neill), and William (Billy Crudup in his best performance in a while), a former hippie turned mechanic and carpenter who is unlucky in love and attracted to both Abbie and Dorothea.

Each character is given his or her own complicated history and mini-chapter and Mills is generous in providing at least one great scene for each of them. In a story line that could have turned too precious, Abbie schools Jamie in 1970s feminism, sexuality and psychology, quoting from and getting him to read everything from "Our Bodies, Ourselves" and Judy Blume's "Forever" to M. Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled." Her instruction also extends to music and there are a number of scenes in which she takes Jamie - and, in one instance, Dorothea - to local punk clubs to dance to the likes of the Talking Heads, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Devo.

In one of the film's more charming sequences, Dorothea, completely confused about the merits of punk music, tries to understand how the Talking Heads and Black Flag are technically in the same musical realm. She and William quickly give up on attempting to dance to the latter and settle instead on the Heads' "The Big Country." Generational disconnect is handled deftly in the picture - Dorothea once considered herself a rebel, wanting to be a pilot during World War II, but now considers her son and his cohorts, especially their musical tastes, to exist on another planet.

The movie arrives at its truths through subtlety. There's a fair amount of drama to be found in "20th Century Women," but there aren't many big dramatic scenes or monologues. Among the picture's most effective sequences is one during which Dorothea and a group of adults watch Jimmy Carter's July 1979 "Crisis of Confidence" speech, which makes her ponder the future for her son and his generation. At the film's end, the characters describe their own futures and how they turn out and, while not quite as sad, it reminded me of the powerful coda of "American Graffiti." The film's funniest scene is a dinner discussion that involves everything from Abbie's menstruation to the finale of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

"20th Century Women" is a sweet natured coming of age story about a young man and three strong willed women from different generations who guided him to becoming a better person. The picture, much like "Beginners," feels semi-autobiographical and, from what I understand, is. It features a terrific cast, great writing and period detail that captures its era without banging us over the head. And its characters feel like actual people - good at heart, but flawed, with room to improve and the yearning to do so.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review: Paterson

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.
With "Paterson," Jim Jarmusch has made one of his most meticulous, laid back and visually lovely - as well as best - films. The picture spans the course of a week in the life of a bus driver from Paterson, New Jersey who happens to be named Paterson (Adam Driver in a great understated performance), his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and her adorably grouchy bulldog named Marvin, who happens to be the best on-screen pet since "Inside Llewyn Davis," a film to which this picture bears more than a few similarities.

Paterson lives a rigorously routine existence. Every morning, he awakens on his own by what his wife refers to his "silent alarm watch," heads to the depot where he boards the bus he'll drive all day, takes a lunch break sitting in front of the Paterson Falls where he writes poetry, comes home to have dinner with Laura, walks Marvin and pays a visit to a local bar, where he cavorts with an odd assortment of characters, including a barkeep (Barry Shabaka Henley) obsessed with the town's history of celebrities (Lou Costello and the Vivino brothers, for instance), a young man smitten with a girl who has lost interest and a set of pool-playing twins.

Until the finale when Marvin does something very naughty that throws Paterson into what appears to be some sort of spiritual agony, there is very little in the way of drama. Laura prepares for a bake sale where she can sell her cupcakes, but also designs the home's curtains and sends off for a guitar that she intends to learn to play so that she can become a country singer. Paterson writes his poetry, drives his bus, walks Marvin and visits the bar.

But there's something going on underneath all of this that you don't ultimately realize is taking place until after Paterson's aforementioned moment of grief and a chat with a stranger visiting the town who, much like Paterson, loves poetry and, especially, the hamlet's laureate, William Carlos Williams, who lived in Rutherford, but wrote an epic poem about Paterson. "I breathe poetry," the stranger tells Paterson, who finds the inspiration that he needs at that moment in time. This chance meeting, which rivals only the offbeat encounter between the protagonist of "A Serious Man" and a neighbor in his driveway, is also a mantra for the film itself: if you can "breathe poetry," or, find beauty in the mundane, then your life will be all the richer for it.

But "Paterson" is also concerned with how, for many people, what one does in his or her spare time often best defines them. So, while Paterson is a bus driver dreaming of being a poet (the film's poems written by New York School member Ron Padgett), Laura ponders being a country singer. There's also a barkeeper who wants to be a chess player, a laundromat employee (Method Man) who dreams of being a rapper and Paterson's beleaguered boss, who wishes to have any other life than the one he has.

Although Paterson's existence is routine almost to a fault, we sense there is more going on there. During a scene in which he breaks up a potentially dangerous scene at the bar, the film cuts to a shot of a framed picture of Paterson in military garb. There's a melancholic aspect to his character, but he seems content. He loves Laura, he seems to find amusement eavesdropping on his bus's passengers (two young wannabe anarchists and two young men bragging hilariously about their near-conquests) and his poetry inspires him.

His life, much like our own, is frequently grounded in the mundane, but he recalls that his father used to sing "Swinging on a Star" to him. One of the lyrics of that nugget asks "would you rather be a fish?" Jarmusch's latest film finds beauty in life's smallest details and explores how by observing the miraculous in the commonplace, we can all "breathe poetry" in our daily lives.

Review: Toni Erdmann

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Simultaneously a father-daughter bonding story, critique of soul sucking corporate culture and sexism in the workplace and statement of purpose by an artist who clearly believes that life is made more tolerable by the occasional act of anarchy, Maren Ade's "Toni Erdmann" is a slow burn comedy that is, at once, a generous and moving work of humanism and screamingly, tears-running-down-your-face funny.

Clocking in at a whopping 162 minutes, Ade's film builds and builds on the tension between its characters and results in several scenes of hilarious catharsis towards its finale. The film opens, however, on a scene that should be mundane. Winfried (Peter Simonischek), an aging German school teacher given to folly, receives a package from a mail carrier, but tells the man that the item is for his brother, whom we come to find out is Winfried, wearing a pair of false teeth, revealing shirt and ridiculous wig. The man is a prankster and the audience to which his gags are best suited are, indeed, the children whom he teaches and, at the film's beginning, leads in a school performance that involves wearing makeup that making them look like rejected members of KISS.

On the other hand, Winfried's grown daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller), is not so amused by his antics. We first meet her as she haggles over a business deal on her cell phone, while her father - who rarely sees her - and the rest of the family wait patiently in the kitchen to celebrate her birthday. Ines's grandmother registers a series of hilarious looks of disapproval as Winfried dons yet another absurd costume to pester his daughter. But the parent and child hardly speak to one another and Ines quickly returns to Bucharest, where she works as a consultant attempting to pull off a major contract extension with an oil company in a deal that will result in the loss of numerous jobs.

After his beloved dog dies and he is left mostly alone, Winfried decides that his daughter needs more frivolity in her life, so he makes an unannounced visit to her in Bucharest, first appearing in the lobby of her workplace wearing his wig and fake teeth, which prompts her to pretend as if she doesn't notice him, though she clearly does. Ines, although she loves her father, is clearly annoyed by his arrival and, alternately, a nervous wreck due to the contract she is attempting to secure. While Winfried is clearly a person in need of connection, Ines's idea of such a thing is, rather than having sex, demanding that her lover jerk off on a petit four.

Winfried attempts to instill his sense of gaiety in his daughter and awkwardly attempts to notify her that she needs more joy in her life. This doesn't go over well and the trip ends up being a bust. A particularly painful sight to behold is Ines and Winfried standing silently for an uncomfortable period of time as they wait for the elevator in her building to arrive. But as soon as the doors have closed, Ines sprints to the roof and waves goodbye to him on the street with tears in her eyes.

For a while, we observe Ines taking part in mind numbing negotiations with the representatives from the oil company - including a squirm inducing meet-up with her father in tow at a bar, where Ines references the possibility of the oil company's layoffs against her own good judgment - and being the victim of casual workplace sexism - for example, the oil company president's suggesting that Ines take his wife shopping. To make matters worse, Ines's response during most of these scenes is feigned groveling or choosing her words so that she ends up agreeing with everything that is said to her.

Then, most unexpectedly, Winfried pops back up in disguise as Toni Erdmann, a life coach whom Ines awkwardly explains away to those who bear witness to his entrance as being part of the contract negotiation. But as they are forced by obligation - that is, Ines's inability to shake her father and, once he has ingratiated himself with her colleagues, convince him to leave - to spend time together, Ines begins to appreciate his wily behavior and she, in turn, exhibits a bit of anarchy herself.

Much has been written about two scenes in the film's final third, but suffice it to say that a karaoke rendition of Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All" serves not only as a great comedic centerpiece, but also a moving commentary on all that has gone on before. And a brunch held by Ines that acts as the finale, which features what has to be one of the funniest nude scenes of all time, left the audience with which I saw the film in hysterics. That scene is then followed by a bittersweet coda involving a family reunion, of sorts, and a sort of understanding that has been gained between the film's two leads.

Ade's previous film, "Everyone Else," was a critically acclaimed film about a couple whose relationship was tested while on a beach vacation and while I liked it, I was much more taken with - or, frankly, blown away by - "Toni Erdmann," a film that is moving without being maudlin, clever in the way it juggles its various themes involving family ties and workplace culture and, as I've mentioned, extremely funny. The film is long, especially for a comedy, but it earns its running time by using it to ratchet up the tension between the characters, only to have it explode into hilarious catharsis. This is one of the year's finest films and an indication that Ade is a major filmmaker with a distinctive and wildly imaginative voice.

Review: Julieta

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Bursting with color and the type of melodrama we've come to expect from his films, Pedro Almodovar's "Julieta" - which covers some of the same territory regarding mothers and their children that the filmmaker mined in "All About My Mother" and "Volver" - is a return to form for the director following his amusing, but slight, "I'm So Excited."

As the picture opens, the titular character (Emma Suarez) is planning to move from Madrid to Portugal with her boyfriend, Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti), but something appears to be weighing on her mind. So, when she bumps into an old friend of her daughter on the street and discovers that her estranged child has been sighted, she throws out her plans, moves into an old apartment she once inhabited and begins to write a long letter to her daughter.

The film is told mostly through flashbacks that span from the 1980s to the present. A younger Julieta (Adriana Ugarte), a classics teacher, sets out on a train journey where two significant events occur: she takes on a life-long guilt for not being able to foresee that a lonely passenger who attempts to talk to her will soon commit suicide and then meets her future husband, Xoan (Daniel Grao), with whom she has a one night stand in a train car.

Shortly thereafter, Julieta tracks down Xoan, who has a wife in a long-time coma, and moves to his gorgeous seaside home, where she is met with suspicion by a housekeeper, Marian (Rossy de Palma), who actively attempts to sabotage their relationship. Also, Xoan has a friendship with one of his wife's friends, an artist named Ava (Inma Cuesta), that is questionable at best. But Julieta and Xoan have a daughter, Antia (played at various ages by Priscilla Delgado and Blanca Pares), whom they adore and life moves along smoothly for a while, although Julieta can't get over the fact that her mother is ailing, while her father has taken a younger housemaid as a lover.

But tragedy strikes and Julieta and Antia move to Madrid, where her daughter can be closer to a good friend named Beatriz (played by both Sara Jimenez and Michelle Jenner), who is the friend whom Julieta ran into on the street at the film's beginning and set the course of the story into motion. The mother and daughter eventually heal, but Julieta begins to have an emotional attachment to Antia that could be considered unhealthy for both of them.

Now a teenager, Antia goes on a spiritual retreat to the Pyrenees and, to her mother's shock, completely falls off the map, leaving Julieta to search for her for, well, let's say a long time. I won't give away the specifics of the story, but suffice it to say that the groundwork for the break between the mother and daughter is laid early in the film.

Although "Julieta" plays out almost as a mystery - Almodovar has long flirted with Hitchcockian storylines in films such as "Bad Education" and "Volver" - his latest is, at heart, a drama about bonds, whether familial, romantic or friendship. Suarez gives a terrific performance as the lead character, with whom we sympathize even as we question her decisions. The film, not surprisingly, looks gorgeous and has the stylistic touches - a red car driving along a green mountainous road, multi-colored towels covering a character stepping out of a bath, etc. - you'd expect from Almodovar.

And while the film may not rank among the director's best films - namely, "All About My Mother," "Talk to Her," "Volver" and "Bad Education" - it's a picture with more depth and feeling than his previous movie, "I'm So Excited," which was often funny, but lightweight and a minor entry in his oeuvre. Almodovar is a singular talent and his latest film is a visually and thematically rich feast for the senses.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Review: Silence

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
With the exception of an occasional work by Terrence Malick, there are very few films by American directors that take a serious approach to tackling the subject of faith - and, no, I don't count faith-based films such as "God's Not Dead" and so forth.

Martin Scorsese's powerful and frequently punishing "Silence" is that rare film, delivering a picture that you'd more expect to see from the likes of Ingmar Bergman or Carl Theodor Dreyer than a film produced in the U.S. This is the director's third movie that revolves around faith, the first two being the controversial "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "Kundun," and it's highly successful because it's the type of film on the subject that poses challenging questions and doesn't presume to answer them.

This is the second film of the same name based on the novel by Shusaku Endo (there's also a 1972 filmed version of the story) and it's a harrowing experience. As the film opens, two Jesuit priests from Portugal named Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) put in a request to travel to Japan in the 1640s to try to find their spiritual mentor (Liam Neeson) after a letter has arrived proclaiming that he has denounced his faith and his fellow Jesuits and Japanese Christians have been brutally tortured. So, you get a pretty good idea of how you'll spend the next two hours and 40 minutes.

Upon arriving in Japan, the two Jesuits are forced to sneak around the countryside and avoid a man known as the Inquisitor, but goes by the name Inoue (Issei Ogata), who seems to take a certain amount of glee in discovering Christians and making them suffer. Along the way, Rodrigues and Garrpe are helped by a band of Japanese Christians, whose devoutness impresses them, and Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a proclaimed Christian who certainly tests the bounds of friendship with Rodrigues due to his constant betrayals.

After finally - and inevitably - being discovered, Rodrigues undergoes all manner of torture, although a majority of it is watching others suffer. Inoue wants him to denounce his own faith and, as a means to get him to comply, tortures his own people who practice Christianity in order to guilt Rodrigues into giving in. As a final measure, Rodrigues is allowed to learn the truth about Father Ferreira (Neeson), which leads to a fascinating and slightly ambiguous conclusion.

If anything, "Silence" is a powerful testimony to the mantra that actions speak louder than words. The film's title is also apropos as it presents a method of devotion and rebellion for Rodrigues even after he is forced to comply with actions that he clearly regrets. The film's final shot sort of spells this out, but there's an interesting question posed earlier to Rodrigues by his former mentor on how one can help others in theory by holding onto one's beliefs versus taking the harder road and actually helping by breaking one's own vows.

Although filled with cruelty, the picture is visually gorgeous and Scorsese and company make great use of the country's backdrop, most notably during a scene in which three men are crucified in the sea and another in which Rodrigues and Garrpe hold a meeting in a field.

I won't pretend to know exactly what Scorsese feels about faith, although he apparently studied to be a priest and religion has clearly been a theme in his films - obviously, more overtly in "Last Temptation" or "Silence," but often present in his other pictures as well. The director reportedly has been attempting to make this movie for decades and it's easy to tell that it's an intense, personal passion project. This is a powerful, thoughtful, often devastating and beautifully realized work from a master as well as one of the year's best.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Worst Movies of 2016

Image courtesy of Invincible Pictures.
It's going to be about a week-and-a-half before I have my best movies of the year list put together as there are at least five major films I need to see between now and December 28. However, it's never too early to part ways with the worst movies of the year, so below you'll find my list of the 10 worst pictures of 2016.

Are the films I've listed really as bad as all that, you might ask. Perhaps you've run across a review somewhere on the world wide web that has positive things to say about any of them. In the famed words of Robert Christgau, "I dare you to spend money to find out who's right."

10. The Brothers Grimsby- The gags mostly fell flat in this Sacha Baron Cohen comedy, so the filmmakers attempted to make up for that by including grotesqueries so outlandish that they'd make John Waters run for the exit. Reviewed here.

9. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies- With a title so ridiculous as that (yes, I'm aware it's based on a novel), it can't be that bad, right? There's a clever satire hidden somewhere in there, correct? Answer: no. Reviewed here.

8. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie- Although I never watched it religiously, the popular British TV show starring Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley was clever and funny. Sadly, this obvious cash-grab way past its prime is neither.

7. Warcraft- Duncan Jones, the talented director of "Moon," took a catastrophic detour with this mostly miserable adaptation of the popular video game. The picture was overflowing with special effects and bad dialogue, but was noticeably short on purpose.

6. Suicide Squad- It was a pretty mediocre summer for blockbusters and David Ayers' overstuffed comic book adaptation was a clunkily assembled hodgepodge that never settled on a dominating tone and featured more groan inducing sequences than any other film of its type during the season. Reviewed here.

5. Careful What You Wish For- One of the year's most appropriately titled movies, this corny romantic thriller featured Nick Jonas as a young man getting caught up in a "Double Indemnity" situation with an older woman. When not being completely ludicrous, the picture was busy dropping absurd plot twists.

4. The Forest- Gus Van Sant's "The Sea of Trees" was panned by critics and, although certainly not one of his better films, it couldn't hold a candle to "The Forest," which was also set in Japan's notorious Aokigahara forest, which is reportedly one of the world's top suicide spots. The movie may prompt a similar response. Reviewed here.

3. The Greasy Strangler- Boasting two funny scenes (one involving a free drink and the other the pronunciation of a word), "The Greasy Strangler" is of the type that somebody somewhere thought would be a midnight movie sensation of the "Pink Flamingos" variety. That person was, most likely, the filmmaker. The film aims to be visually disgusting and it mostly is. It's also monotonous, repetitive and, although only just north of 90 minutes, punishingly long.

2. Dirty Grandpa- It pains me to put any movie starring the great Robert De Niro this high on a worst-of list, but seriously: it's that bad. "Dirty Grandpa" is another in a long line of films where elderly people with perverted, foul mouths are supposed to instantaneously lead to nonstop hilarity. With its unrelenting un-P.C.-ness, it's the perfect movie to encapsulate the rise of Donald Trump. That's not a compliment. Reviewed here.

1. Yoga Hosers- Kevin Smith, once a great writer of low budget comedies ("Clerks" and "Chasing Amy") is now officially in the club of directors in need of a career intervention, although his three prior movies were no great shakes either. Past filmmakers to join the club include Eli Roth, whose "Knock Knock" was my worst movie last year, and M. Night Shyamalan, whose "The Last Airbender" ranked last in 2010. But Smith's latest is a major bomb. It's unfunny, juvenile, pointless and features little to no actual conflict. "Yoga Hosers" is apparently the second in a trilogy of horror movies set in Canada and that feels something like a threat. My suggestion is that he abandon it immediately.

But that's not all. Some of other films that I could have done without in 2016 include: Peter Greenaway's "Eisenstein in Guanajuato," the silly thriller "Mojave," the even sillier horror movie "The Darkness," Michael Bay's ridiculous Benghazi drama "13 Hours," Ben Stiller's unnecessary sequel "Zoolander 2," the typically reliable Nicolas Winding Refn's disappointing "The Neon Demon," cynical cash-ins "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" and "The Huntsman: Winter's War," the overrated "Hardcore Henry" and "Independence Day: Resurgence."

Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
"Rogue One," which is indeed "A Star Wars Story," albeit not part of the new trilogy that launched last year or any other, for that matter, is a fun adventure movie set in the universe created by George Lucas that helps to set up the original 1977 film and answers the question possibly long pondered by fans of the series: how exactly did the Rebel Alliance take out the massive Death Star with one single shot?

The picture, directed by Gareth Edwards ("Monsters" and the uneven "Godzilla" remake from a years ago), is not only a space opera, as these films tend to get labeled, but also an impossible mission movie of the type that were popular in the 1960s - "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Guns of Navarone," for instance - in which a rag-tag group of heroes band together to pull off, well, you know.

As this film opens, a man hiding out on a distant planet named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is discovered by representatives of the nefarious Empire, most notably one Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who want him to help build the Death Star, for which he originally created plans before gaining a conscience. His wife is killed after trying to intervene and he is taken hostage. His young daughter flees and is raised (offscreen) by a soldier known as Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

Once she has grown, the girl, named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is a two-bit criminal who finds herself sucked into the battle between the Rebels and the Empire due to the fact that she's Galen's daughter. Plus, the Rebel leaders believe she might be able to find out from her father how to dismantle the Death Star and, as it turns out, Galen has purposefully created a glitch in the massive weapon system that the Rebels can exploit.

But when her pleas to sneak beyond enemy territory to steal the Death Star plans fall on the deaf ears of Rebel leaders, she enlists the help of a robot (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a blind Jedi (Donnie Yen), that Jedi's pal (Jiang Wen), a former Empire pilot (Riz Ahmed) who fled to join the resistance and a captain (Diego Luna) who performs assassin's work for the rebellion. The group steal a ship, fly to the planet where the plans - which fans of the original "Star Wars" picture know will end up in the hands of Princess Leia, who passes them along to Obi Wan Kenobi - are being kept with the aim of stealing them.

"Rogue One" does a pretty decent job of setting up all of these characters in its first half, but a bang-up job of the mission itself, which takes up the film's second half and includes a few terrific space battles and an exciting heist attempt on the ground. And while previous "Star Wars" movies were mostly reluctant to kill off leading characters - other than one instance in the first film and a now very famous second instance in last year's "The Force Awakens" - "Rogue One" bumps them off left and right - which makes sense, considering this is, after all, a film about a near-impossible feat.

So, yeah, the film is pretty fun and certainly of higher caliber than most of this year's other blockbuster extravaganzas. There's also a cameo or two by iconic characters from the franchise. The series remains the gold standard of big budget adventure movies and this entry will likely tide over "Star Wars" fans until the second entry in the new trilogy drops next year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Review: Raving Iran

Susanne Regina Meures's "Raving Iran" is a documentary that recently played at the DOC NYC Festival. Here's my review for Subrewind of the film, which is a mostly compelling story of two Iranian DJs who attempt to make names for themselves in their home country where their profession is considered illegal.

The folks at Subrewind have been gracious to post some of my reviews these past few months and if you're not familiar with the site - which is British and writes about everything from music and movies to fashion and politics - then by all means acquaint yourself with it. Lots of great stuff to read there.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: Office Christmas Party

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
All "Office Christmas Party" needs is a few musical numbers to make it complete. Although set in the world of cell phone technology, the picture takes that time honored - well, at least, during Hollywood's golden age in the 1930s and 1940s - story about a group of people banding together to save something. In the old days, they'd put on a variety show to save the neighborhood theater, whereas in this picture it's a tech company that is in danger of being closed.

Starring a whole bunch of likable people clearly looking for a paycheck - including Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, T.J. Miller, Kate McKinnon, Courtney B. Vance and Olivia Munn - the film is the type that mistakes drunken debauched behavior and a whole lot of stuff getting smashed and broken for humor. There's an occasional chuckle to be had, mostly thanks to McKinnon as an uptight office manager, but "Office Christmas Party" is mostly a by-the-numbers comedy.

As the film opens, Bateman's Josh has just finalized his divorce - a detail that only exists to make an office romance convenient and for virtually no other reason - and is planning the titular celebration with his boss, Clay (Miller), the prodigal son who runs the flagship branch of his father's company. However, his no-nonsense sister (Aniston) shows up to rain on the parade, telling the group to cancel the Christmas party and threatening layoffs.

So, to keep the company afloat, the duo - along with a Munn's Tracey, the tech genius at the company with whom Bateman is secretly smitten - plan to make the party one to remember and invite the representative (Vance) from a tech giant to the party in the hopes of warming him up to becoming a business partner.

Naturally, things go wrong - as in, the party gets completely out of control. Drugs are taken. Clothes are shed. Someone tries - and fails - to swing across a room via a cord filled with Christmas lights. Expensive looking objects are tossed out of office windows. And the leads all get entangled with a female pimp and the Russian criminals she employs in a plotline too exhausting to describe that turns a bad situation into chaos.

As I mentioned before, the picture's cast is made up of likable and talented people who can be a lot of fun to watch. Only, it doesn't seem as if most of them, McKinnon excluded, are having such a great time. "Office Christmas Party" follows in the footsteps of too many randy Hollywood comedies that did it much better, only this time with a seasonal theme. There are a few laughs to be found in the film, but not nearly enough.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Review: La La Land

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Damien Chazelle's visually sumptuous, snappy, funny and romantic "La La Land" is a love letter to Los Angeles, musicals, Hollywood, those who dream big and love itself. Aiming to recapture the magic of classic American musicals, but grounded in a modern day L.A., the film may have a time honored story, but the strength of its performances, liveliness of musical numbers, colorful visuals that pop and an infectious love of music and film make it one of the year's best.

The picture opens with a bang - its finest musical number, in my opinion - during which pissed off denizens of Los Angeles suffer through a massive traffic jam (as a former resident of the city many years ago, trust me, I feel their pain), but suddenly decide to get out of their cars and take part in an impromptu number titled "Another Day of Sun." Participants slide across hoods, stand on dividers and leap through the air. The sequence finishes with an astounding long shot of the traffic jam and the singers and dancers standing on their vehicles.

One of the film's funniest jokes - the first of several title cards - follows shortly thereafter. Also stuck in the traffic jam are the film's two leads - Mia (Emma Stone), a struggling actress who wants to be a movie star, but would secretly prefer to make it as a playwright, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a difficult jazz piano player who dreams of opening a nightclub that would act as the last bastion in town for the art form, but is stuck playing Christmas tunes during gigs at restaurants.

Their introduction is hardly a meet cute - as such things are often called in these types of movies - and their second meeting is hardly any better. But the pair finally bump into each other at a party in the Hollywood Hills - you know, the type with low level lighting and a pool in the background - and Sebastian walks Mia to her car, a gesture that we later learn is more gentlemanly that it might first appear. But before that happens, they take part in the picture's second best song and dance number, "A Lovely Night," which features a great backdrop of the city at night and some startlingly good moves by Gosling and Stone.

As for story, "La La Land" follows a familiar trajectory - both characters see minor successes, but struggle with fulfilling their dreams and keeping a relationship going. Sebastian eventually gets hired as a piano player for a pop jazz band fronted by John Legend, which involves a fair amount of time on the road, and Mia mostly just struggles, writing a one-woman play and attempting to land acting jobs. Her audition sequences are among the best - and include some of the film's funniest moments - since Naomi Watts blew us away in "Mulholland Drive."

Chazelle's is a romantic film, although it's ultimately a bittersweet one. The scene most likely to make you swoon is one during which Mia and Sebastian dance among the stars at the city's iconic Griffith Observatory, which naturally takes place after they attend a screening of "Rebel Without a Cause," which featured scenes at the L.A. landmark.

All three of Chazelle's films - the low budget "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," the intense Oscar winner "Whiplash" and, now, this one - revolve around the world of music and it's clear that the director knows how to film stories about music.

But he's also good with setting - while "Whiplash" made some decent use of New York City, "La La Land" could ultimately become one of the quintessential films about L.A. and the choreography makes great use of the landscape - people dancing on cars, lovers twirling and tapping with gorgeous views of the skyline as vistas and people diving into pools during a scene that calls to attention another great L.A. movie ("Boogie Nights," which mined that scene from the classic Russian film, "I Am Cuba") as well as captures the almost melancholy vibe of low lit bars on lonely roads in tucked away corners of the metropolis (again, as a once-upon-a-time Angelino, you're bound to end up at one of these at least once).

"La La Land" is a visual and sonic feast, but it also features two terrific lead performances. Gosling, who's known for his intense performances, makes a convincing and funny romantic lead, while Stone gives what could be her finest performance to date. Both can also convincingly sing and dance. This is a lovely movie that tells a timeworn story in the most inventive ways.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Review: The Eyes Of My Mother

Image courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
Nicolas Pesce's "The Eyes of My Mother" simultaneously convinced me that the 26-year-old debut filmmaker has talent to spare, but also that his abilities could be put to better use. The brief (77 minute) horror picture, which is shot in gorgeous black and white, is visually sumptuous, well acted and unsettling, but also aimless and quick to fall back on overly familiar horror tropes, rather than digging for something deeper.

The film's opening scenes show the most promise. A truck driver barreling down a lonesome road spots a woman from afar hobbling alone. We then cut to a desolate farmhouse in the countryside where a young girl named Francisca (played as a girl by Olivia Bond) is being raised by her immigrant mother, a former surgeon in Portugal whose specialty is the eye, and quiet father.

In the film's most effectively disturbing sequence, a strange man on the road asks if he can use the house's bathroom and Francisca's mother, against her own good judgment, lets him in, leading to grave consequences. This scene alone should give viewers nightmares and it's with some disappointment that the rest of the picture fails to live up to it. Francisca's father returns home and the drifter ends up chained in the family's barn.

Time passes and Francisca (now played by Kika Magalhaes) appears to be living with the corpse of her father, whom she bathes and snuggles with on the sofa. The drifter, now eyeless and with vocal chords cut, is still chained up in the barn. Persons unfortunate enough to cross Francisca's path end up finding themselves in the same situation or worse. One of the victims is a woman and her infant child, whom Francisca steals and tries to raise as her own, that is, until the boy discovers his real mother (unbeknownst to him) in the barn.

There's a decent amount that could have been done with this story, but Francisca (often viewed in overhead, omniscient observer shots that distance you from her) is mostly a cypher. She's merely the traumatized kid who grows up to be a sociopath and, well, keeps people chained up in her barn.

Visually, the film is lush, thanks to the haunting black and white cinematography that also, mercifully, mutes some of the visuals that would have been more grotesque in color. The picture is also purposefully slow in nature and the mostly static compositions and long shots are aimed to give the impression of a Norman Rockwell painting with a serial killer as its subject.

But the story dutifully follows the cliches of a movie of this type, rather than trying to explore Francisca's character with any sense of depth. Magalhaes gives an almost otherworldly performance as the villain/protagonist, but her character is underwritten. When she questions the drifter who killed her mother as to why he did so, he tells her essentially that it gives him a rush. And when she asks why he picked their house, his answer is similar to that of a question posed in "The Strangers," another horror movie for which I didn't feel the love that others did.

Ultimately, "The Eyes of My Mother" looks good, but has less filling. Pesce has obvious talent as a filmmaker, but I hope that next time his impressive visual style will be wedded to material that is more deserving.

Review: Jackie

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
"When it comes to printing the truth or the legend, print the legend," so the saying goes and this maxim applies to Pablo Larrain's myth-busting "Jackie," a fascinating snapshot of time following the days after JFK's death as his wife (Natalie Portman) plans funeral arrangements and attempts to come to grips with her husband's assassination.

These flashbacks are centered around a framing device during which Jackie is interviewed by a reporter (Billy Crudup) who wants to get at the truth of what occurred on Nov. 22, 1963 from the perspective of the first lady. But Portman portrays Jackie as a woman who has seen too much to suffer fools gladly and most of the scenes of her speaking to the reporter give the feeling of a game of chess and we get the sense that she has more control over the discussion than she originally lets on.

Along with the sequences - powerfully rendered - during which Jackie and the Secret Service rush her husband to the hospital and the aftermath, which includes the swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson and the funeral procession in Washington D.C., Larrain includes another flashback during which Jackie takes part in the famous TV special several years earlier when she gave a tour of the White House. Similar to the scene in which she speaks to the reporter, the facade Jackie puts on during the White House tour calls into question whether the viewer is actually getting to know her or is watching a performance.

There are a number of ideas floating around in the film, which is a relatively brief 99 minutes, including the aforementioned concept of whether people can handle a fictional story better than the truth about people whom they know or, in the case of Jackie Kennedy, persons so famous that they believe they know them.

But there's also another very interesting subplot (for such a short film, there are a number of threads running at the same time and they are all handled deftly) during which Jackie speaks to a priest (John Hurt) about whether she can move forward with her life. This is taking place as she relocates the remains of two of her children who died (one was a miscarriage, the other only lived a brief time after he was born) next to the gravesite of her husband. Hurt's commentary on man's search for the meaning of life and how they carry on in the face of there possibly not being one adds another dimension to the picture that makes it more philosophical than your average picture about a famous person.

Larrain is Chile's most celebrated filmmaker and he has tackled both political films (the very good "No") and movies about well-known people (the upcoming "Neruda") before. But "Jackie," although it technically fits into both of those categories, is not so easily categorized.

It's a movie that argues that sometimes the myth surrounding a person is more easily understandable and relatable than the actual person, who is more complicated, flawed or uncertain than you might be led to believe. And what makes the film even more fascinating is how it implies that this can apply not only to someone as recognized as Jackie Kennedy, but to you or me. "Jackie" features one of the year's best performances and is a film that takes a unique perspective on how to view a landmark historical event. I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Review: Rules Don't Apply

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
It's been 15 years since Warren Beatty either stepped behind or in front of a camera, so it's a great pleasure to see him doing both with his new film "Rules Don't Apply," although the picture itself is, perhaps, not the comeback for which fans were likely hoping.

It's not a bad film by any means. There are some solid performances, especially Beatty himself as the eccentric Howard Hughes, and a decent enough script, but it's a fairly lightweight entry into Beatty's directorial filmography, which includes his terrific "Reds," the vastly entertaining "Dick Tracy" and the hilarious and woefully underrated "Bulworth."

His latest is a light and breezy romantic comedy set against the backdrop of the late 1950s and early 1960s in Hollywood, where Hughes's name still carried enough prestige to nab him headlines, but he had - at this point - already become known as being a recluse with peculiar habits.

In the film, a young actress named Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) has been invited to become one of the many young actresses bankrolled by Hughes who hope to score a screen test and, thereafter, a career in the pictures. She befriends a young driver named Frank (Alden Ehrenreich, who was hilarious in "Hail, Caesar!" earlier this year and here does a good job of portraying the straight man to Beatty's nutty Hughes), who is tasked with driving her to her various appointments. Neither Marla nor Frank have met Hughes during the film's first third and, for that matter, most of his other employees have not come face to face with him either.

Naturally, a friendship - and, since this is a movie, more than that - eventually blossoms between the pair, but is complicated after both Marla and Frank eventually meet Hughes, who takes a shine to them both. Further complications ensue, both of the romantic (love triangle) and business-related (Hughes refuses to meet in person a government contract with whom he is supposed to take a multi-million dollar loan) sort.

Although Ehrenreich is a solid leading man and Collins breathes life into Marla, whose character embodies more than a few cliches of the young, innocent starlet in Hollywood (highly religious? anti-drinking? chaste? check, check and check), Beatty is the scene stealer as Hughes, who is so full of antic energy that his character almost feels as if it belongs in a different movie that would center completely on him. Other great actors - Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Annette Bening - show up, but are mostly overshadowed by Beatty.

So, while "Rules Don't Apply" has its charms and an admittedly deserved denouement for two of its characters, it's ultimately a fairly minor movie for a major filmmaker, who happens to have not made a movie in some years. But I'm very glad to see Beatty back at work and sincerely hoping this is not a one-off.

Review: Allied

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Aiming to be an old fashioned World War II drama in the vein of "Casablanca," Robert Zemeckis's "Allied" is a handsomely made spy thriller that sputters during its first half before picking up steam during its second. Despite its flaws, it's an entertaining picture with some gorgeous locales, two big name stars who initially struggle to find chemistry and a few exciting scenes of the type you'd expect from an espionage thriller.

As the film opens, Brad Pitt's intelligence officer Max Vatan has been assigned to Casablanca at the height of World War II where he will be teamed up with Marion Cotillard's Marianne Beausejour, a French officer who will pretend to be his wife.

While the photography during the duo's stint in Morocco is visually lush and the filmmakers do a solid job of recreating a 1940s era souk - but also, unfortunately, a silly sex scene during a sandstorm - the picture's first half feels too movie-ish. In other words, the dialogue, performances and narrative give off the impression that the filmmakers are trying too hard to recapture Hollywood moviemaking of a bygone era. As a result, some of the early scenes feel creaky.

It's around the time that Max and Marianne are given an assignment to assassinate a Nazi ambassador that the proceedings begin to pick up. After that thrilling mission, the pair finds that they are in love and Max, who is stationed in England, asks Marianne to become his wife and return home with him.

But after arriving in England, Max is put to an even greater test when his superiors tell him that they believe that Marianne is a German spy and that he must investigate his wife and, if necessary, execute her. Max's investigation leads to a cat and mouse game between the couple and a few exciting - if slightly preposterous - situations for Max, including a flight into enemy territory where Max must attempt to extract information from a drunk French prisoner in a holding cell while Germans roam around outside.

Pitt and Cotillard are both good actors and big movie stars, so it's a bit of a surprise that their early scenes are somewhat lacking in chemistry. It would appear that this is not so much due to the actors themselves, whose performances are otherwise commendable, but the way their characters are written.

And the juxtaposition of the film's two halves - the first being a glossy attempt at capturing an outdated moviemaking style, while the second is darker and more dour - is jarring. Overall, "Allied" is a decent enough spy thriller and romance. It's not one of Zemeckis's better films, but for a big budget period piece with big name actors, it'll do.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review: Evolution

Image courtesy of IFC Midnight.
Lucile Hadzihalilovic's "Evolution" is often visually sumptuous, but the film is too aloof and abstract to make much of an impression, other than my being impressed by its gorgeous photography. The picture, which is a horror film but only due to process of elimination, is the second film from the French director, whose 2004 picture "Innocence" suffered from some of the same problems.

The picture is set on a small secluded French island that is populated solely by a group of thirtysomething women and prepubescent boys, all of whom are led to believe that they are in poor health and that the women are their caretakers.

As the picture opens, one of the boys - Nicholas (Max Brebant) - is swimming in the sea and thinks he spots a young boy's corpse under the water that has a starfish attached to it. His mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier) or, at least, the woman who calls herself so tries to convince Nicholas that he imagined the whole thing but he, unlike the other boys on the island, isn't so quick to believe everything the women tell him.

This is, we come to find out, a smart move on his part. As the boys grow older, they are kept in the hospital, where they undergo a strange type of surgery that involves removing their belly buttons. Although the film's narrative keeps much at bay, it would appear that, once in the hospital, the boys are impregnated. During a sequence in which Nicholas is kept there, he awakens to find himself tied up in some sort of gigantic test tube where he is surrounded by water and accompanied by an odd-looking infant.

So, as I'd mentioned, if you feel the need to define it, you'd probably have to call "Evolution" a horror movie since it seems to revolve around a group of adults performing bizarre experiments on children on a creepy, mostly deserted island. That being said, it's more ominous than it is outright frightening and although the locale's scenery goes a long way, the picture mostly fumbles narratively.

"Evolution" is, however, often visually stunning. The picture opens with gorgeous shots of the ocean's floor and the picture features an abundance of lovely underwater photography as well as striking visuals of the island by night.

But the movie was too opaque to register for me. It's willfully holding back. But rather than making the proceedings more mysterious, they eventually become tedious. Many of my favorite films are ones that do not provide discernible answers and I have a particular interest in abstract, surreal and open ended films. But this one is too vague for its own good and its atmosphere doesn't quite make up for its seeming lack of purpose.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review: The Edge of Seventeen

Image courtesy of STX Entertainment.
The spirit of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe runs through the veins of "The Edge of Seventeen," a winsome and enjoyable youth comedy that doesn't quite live up to its predecessors, but features a compelling lead character, a fair amount of laughs and some solid supporting performances.

Hailee Steinfeld was a terrific find in the Coen Brothers's "True Grit," but her abilities have only been modestly utilized ever since. But as Nadine, the protagonist of Kelly Fremon Craig's film, she proves that she is a capable leading lady and comedienne.

Nadine is a loner who, at an early age, suffered through her share of disappointments and tragedies, such as being ostracized at school and the early death of her father. Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is slightly overbearing and doesn't know how to deal with her daughter, while her brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), is a popular jock, while she is - to put it bluntly - a dork.

But she befriends another girl named Krista (played in the teen years by Haley Lu Richardson), who is a kindred soul, that is, until she discovers her pal in bed one day with her brother, leaving Nadine feeling completely alone. In her quest to make a connection, she makes a poor decision in choosing a bad boy, whom she accidentally sends a dirty text in one of the film's funniest scenes, and a good one by becoming sorta-pals and sorta-more with an Asian American student and budding filmmaker named Erwin (Hayden Szeto).

The scenes between Nadine and Erwin are among the film's most charming and would seem to exist as some sort of corrective to "Sixteen Candles," a John Hughes film that very likely inspired "The Edge of Seventeen" (both use Spandau Ballet on the soundtracks), but one that also featured the character of Long Duck Dong, which was, let's face it, a pretty awful stereotype.

My favorite among the film's supporting cast is Woody Harrelson as Mr. Bruner, Nadine's sardonic teacher and begrudging confidante. If the scenes between Nadine and Erwin are the picture's sweetest, then the ones between Harrelson and Steinfeld are the wittiest and best written. There's also a nice scene late in the film when Nadine visits her teacher at his home and discovers that some of the ideas which she had about him are unfounded.

So, while "The Edge of Seventeen" doesn't quite rise to the level of "Say Anything," "The Breakfast Club" or some of the other 1980s teen movie hallmarks to which it appears to pay tribute - for example, did we really need yet another scene of an awkward lead character going to a party and behaving awkwardly? Probably not. - it's a likable, well acted and funny movie all the same. And I'd imagine that the age group for which it's likely aimed - although it is, in fact, rated R - will lap it up. It's a nice addition to the youth movie canon.

Review: Nocturnal Animals

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford takes a step up as a director with his extremely dark and icy thriller "Nocturnal Animals," which tells two bleak tales simultaneously that focus on revenge, albeit different types.

Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, an emotionally reserved art gallery owner in Los Angeles, whose husband (Armie Hammer) is a businessman who pays her little attention. As the picture opens, Hammer's character is going on a trip to New York and we get the hint that he is, perhaps, not being faithful to his wife.

At the same time, a package arrives that Susan discovers contains a novel from her estranged ex-husband, Edward (Jeff Gyllenhaal), whom she spurned years before. The novel's title is "Nocturnal Animals" and the book has been dedicated to Susan, which ends up being a disturbing homage once we get into the content of the tome.

As Susan begins reading the novel, its story takes center stage as a man named Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) travels through the night in a desolate Texas locale with his wife (Isla Fischer) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). While attempting to pass a slow moving car on the highway, the driver of the other vehicle forces Tony off the road and the man driving, a sleaze ball (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and his two equally scuzzy pals torment the family. The scene is among the most intense and disturbing I've seen this year and it culminates with Taylor-Johnson and his friends kidnapping Tony's wife and daughter, leaving him alone in the desert.

Tony enlists the help of a local lawman (an excellent Michael Shannon) who has terminal cancer and has nothing to lose. When the investigation and ensuing case hit a snag, Shannon's Bobby Andes suggests to Tony that the duo engage in other methods of finding justice.

"Nocturnal Animals" tells two stories that vary in tone - the one with Adams as the gallery owner is purposefully stylish and icy, while the Texas-based thriller being told in the novel is something straight out of pulp fiction - but are equally dark and unsettling. After the story in the novel finally reaches its climax, we are left to watch the final scenes with Susan unfold and we realize that both stories are - to an extent - about characters seeking revenge. The final scene is open ended and may lead to disagreements as to what it means, but it seems pretty obvious that it ties fairly closely to Edward's intention in sending the novel to his ex-wife.

The film is visually gorgeous - from the dusty Texas scenery to the stunning overhead shots of traffic on Los Angeles highways - and the performances are all strong, especially Shannon, who also brings some much-needed humor to the proceedings. I enjoyed Ford's debut, "A Single Man," but his sophomore film is a stronger, more confident picture. It works as a tense thriller, but also as a dark commentary on human relationships. I'd highly recommend it.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Review: Manchester by the Sea

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
Kenneth Lonergan's devastating "Manchester by the Sea" is the rare movie about the grieving process that doesn't end with its characters overcoming a tragedy and being happy again, but rather learning how to cope with their situation. While we see the film's characters change during the course of the picture, their story is by no means solved at the conclusion.

With only three feature films under his belt, Lonergan has proven himself a master at capturing the way ordinary people speak, live existences that are recognizable to us and deal with difficult situations. His "You Can Count On Me" was an assured debut, while his post-9/11 drama "Margaret" was a bold directorial statement.

His latest, "Manchester by the Sea," is intimate in nature and tells the very sad story of Lee Chandler (a career best for Casey Affleck), although the film is often funny and uses deadpan humor to alleviate the tension and sadness. During one scene, Lee and his nephew, Patrick (a very good Lucas Hedges), sit at the dinner table. Lee has a bandage on his hand after having punched out a window and Patrick inquires about the injury. "It's cut," replies Lee. "Oh, for a minute there I didn't know what happened," Patrick shoots back.

It's incredible that the film's characters remember how to crack jokes at all. In flashbacks, we learn how a tragedy that I won't reveal here broke apart Lee's marriage to his wife, Randi (Michelle Williams, stellar). Lee, who lives alone and works as a maintenance man for a building, purposefully avoids most human contact, that is, other than the occasional fights he picks at the local bar where he hangs out in Boston.

As the picture opens, Lee's older brother (Kyle Chandler, also excellent) has just died and Lee is surprised to find that he has been left as the guardian for Patrick. This leads to a conundrum because Patrick goes to school in the film's small, titular town and - as he likes to mention, he plays hockey for the school team, all of his friends are there and he has two girlfriends. Therefore, Lee would have to move to where Patrick lives (he's not enthused with the idea) or Patrick would have to move in with Lee in Boston.

The film effortlessly switches back and forth between Lee going about the practical matters of arranging for his brother's funeral and taking over father figure duties with Patrick and flashbacks that show us gradually how Lee became so isolated and reveal how close he was to his brother. Although every performance in the film is great, "Manchester by the Sea" is not a showy film. It'll likely get nominated for a slew of awards, but it doesn't beg for them.

As I'd mentioned before, one of the elements that makes the film so powerful and raw is that it doesn't wrap everything up in a bow and there aren't exactly happy endings for many of the characters. Rather, Lee and those in his orbit come to accept that their lives will never likely be the same again and they learn to cope with their grief.

Towards the picture's end, a particularly cathartic - albeit profoundly sad - conversation takes place between Lee and his ex-wife on a street corner that is just as moving as the final conversation in Barry Jenkins's marvelous "Moonlight." Both scenes are among the year's best in terms of writing and acting.

"Manchester by the Sea" is an astute, haunting and powerful film about loss and the way people punish themselves for their mistakes, but it's also about forgiveness - learning to forgive others and ourselves and to ask for forgiveness from those whom we've cause pain. The picture is emotionally rewarding, but does not peddle cheap sentiment, and while it could be described as melodrama, it's never maudlin. This is one of the year's best movies.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Ang Lee's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" is a noble misfire, a film that tries to do something different and has its heart in the right place, but never overcomes its flaws. Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Ben Fountain, Lee decided to shoot the film in 3D at a frame rate of 120 per second, which is five times the normal rate, at 4K resolution. This gives the images a far greater clarity and detail than your average movie.

So, yes, "Billy Lynn" looks pretty amazing and its visual details are so precise that you often get the feeling as if you could be in the scene with the characters. The problem is, however, that the characters mostly speak in platitudes and there are multiple plot strands and subplots being woven throughout the picture and a number of them ring false.

As the film opens, Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) and his unit (which is led by a steely Garrett Hedlund) are taking part in a halftime show along with Destiny's Child (this is 2004, mind you) at a Dallas Cowboys football game, where they'll be honored for a heroic effort under fire in Iraq. Their sergeant (Vin Diesel) was killed during the battle, but Lynn's captured image of running into the line of fire to attempt to save the man has become an iconic one that is being used to rally the nation.

As Lynn and his fellow soldiers stand by and wait for the point when they'll march out onto the football team's field, Billy flashes back to the moment for which he is being honored, but which he also calls the "worst day of his life." We also see Lynn's return home, where his family is supportive, but his sister (Kristen Stewart, a scene stealer) wants him to leave the military in order to save his life.

There are a number of other stories taking place throughout the course of the film and their success varies. Chris Tucker plays an agent who is trying to secure a movie deal for the platoon's story, while Steve Martin shows up as a slimy businessman who might finance the film. Two of the picture's least successful plot threads include Billy's flirtation with a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader that never feels particularly realistic or properly developed and a series of skirmishes between the soldiers and people at the game - at one point, an offensive spectator and, least realistically, a group of stage hands who continually attack the soldiers during the course of the evening. Every time these fights break out, the film nearly comes to a dead halt.

There are some powerful moments to be found in the picture, including some nice chemistry between Lynn and Diesel's quasi-mystical Sergeant Shroom as well as some heartfelt scenes between Alwyn and Stewart's concerned sister, who has a few demons of her own. And the key scene that involves Lynn's attempt to save Shroom and, in the process, fight off an Iraqi insurgent is effectively powerful.

But there's too much going on during the course of "Billy Lynn" and too much of it is either unnecessary, far fetched or relying too heavily on cliche. Many of the film's characters come off as composites of various types you've already seen in movies of this type, rather than living, breathing characters with their own personalities. Lee has always been a great visual director, but his films - especially "The Ice Storm" and "Brokeback Mountain" - often feature great writing, whereas the screenplay is among this picture's weakest elements.

So, while "Billy Lynn" is often incredible to look at, due to its groundbreaking visual format, the film's other elements don't quite hold together. I've been told by a few people that Fountain's novel is a great one - and I believe them - but this is a case of an acclaimed work of fiction not translating as well as it could have onto the big screen.

Review: Arrival

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
The science fiction film has seen a creative surge in recent years, thanks to a series of thoughtful takes on the genre by a number of big-name filmmakers, such as Alfonso Cuaron ("Gravity"), Christopher Nolan ("Interstellar"), Ridley Scott ("The Martian") and, now, Denis Villeneuve, whose "Arrival" is so vastly different from his recent pictures - the woefully underrated thriller "Prisoners" and the tense drug war drama "Sicario" - that it displays an impressive range for the up-and-coming filmmaker.

Although the picture doesn't quite stack up to Villeneuve's previous successes, it's a unique take on a close encounter and features a story that doesn't involve an invasion so much as a visit that nearly leads to a crisis. It's closer in nature, in other words, to "The Day the Earth Stood Still" than "Independence Day" or films of that ilk.

As the movie opens, we meet Louise, a language specialist who is called in to attempt to translate after the Earth is visited by a series of shell-like spaceships. She is teamed up with a scientist named Ian (Jeremy Renner) and the two of them are tasked with finding out the purpose of the extraterrestrials' visit. Although we mostly see the aliens through a see-through wall shrouded in mist, we can glimpse gigantic octopus hands that squirt ink, which is the beings' form of writing.

It's difficult to discuss the plot of "Arrival" too closely because there is a significant twist that will color your interpretation of the entirety of the film once it actually arrives. Suffice it to say that it's a clever twist and one that is used to give you a different view of everything you have seen, rather than just pull the rug out from under your feet.

Adams gives a tightly controlled performance as Louise, whose life outside her work involves a series of sequences that are interwoven in which she interacts with a young girl that we assume to be her daughter. Renner's Ian tells Louise that he too is alone, which helps to form a bond between the two specialists. The cast is rounded out by Forest Whitaker as a military man overseeing the operation to communicate with the aliens and Michael Stuhlbarg as a hasty government agent.

The film occasionally lags, especially in the early scenes when events that are fairly seismic are portrayed as low-key and the repetitiveness of Louise and Ian's visits with the extraterrestrials also halts the picture's momentum from time to time.

But all in all, "Arrival" bounces around some fascinating ideas, includes some impressive but modest special effects and a strong lead performance and, ultimately, arrives at a concept that reminded me of - of all things - "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." To say anymore would be to give away the film's secrets, but Villeneuve's film poses an interesting question to its audience as to how we would choose our actions if we already knew the result. "Arrival" is occasionally a little too toned down for its own good, but is - at its best - thoughtful and insightful.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review: Hacksaw Ridge

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Only Mel Gibson would make a film about one of history's most famous conscientious objectors and fill it to the brim with gore, exploding bodies and rats eating away at faces. This, however, should come as no surprise as Gibson's work behind the camera includes such bloodbaths as "Braveheart," "The Passion of the Christ" and "Apocalypto."

On the whole, "Hacksaw Ridge" is a well-made war movie with a unique figure as its central character. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) was one of the first three conscientious objectors to receive the Medal of Honor. During World War II, he acted as a medic in the army and was credited for valiantly saving a number of men during the horrific Battle of Okinawa.

We first meet Doss as a boy when, during a fight, he nearly kills his brother after hitting him in the head with a brick. He later gets into a confrontation with his abusive father (Hugo Weaving) in order to protect his mother, but thereafter decides that he will never again engage in violence or touch a gun.

The early scenes with Doss as a grown man occasionally lean a little too heavily on the Virginia man's folksiness. Some of the scenes with his paramour, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), are sweet, while others are maudlin. When World War II breaks out, Doss wants to serve his country, but is conflicted about the violence involved, so he joins with the intent to be a medic. However, his commanding officers (Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington) aren't having any of it.

At basic training, Doss is tormented by his fellow officers, who ridicule his beliefs and even physically attack him. But once in battle, he proves his worth during the Battle of Okinawa, where he stays behind after his fellow soldiers have retreated back down a cliff, so that he can drag wounded men left behind to safety. Despite a slightly over-the-top moment during the sequence in which he awaits word from God, the extended Okinawa sequence is powerful, intense and well-shot.

The scene is also extremely gory. Bullets pierce helmets, bodies and faces, while legs are blown off and torsos split in two lay along the ground. On several occasions, Doss witnesses rats crawling out of the torn apart bodies of soldiers and whenever bombs go off, blood and body parts fly through the air. Is the film a little gratuitous? Perhaps. But the depiction of the battle, which takes up the final third of the picture, is unflinching and effective.

As a director, Gibson's obsessions often conflict each other on screen. His deeply held religious beliefs and use of Christ-like protagonists are often surrounded by brutal carnage and cruelty. That being said, he is a talent behind the camera. "Hacksaw Ridge" has its flaws and it's not on par with, say, "Braveheart," but it's a rousing, well-made, engrossing and grim war movie that tells a unique combat zone story.

Review: Loving

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Jeff Nichols's "Loving" is a film that is likely to make audience members angry or emotional, but it goes about it in a quiet way. It's a film about a landmark Supreme Court case that brought some justice to the discriminated, but you don't see any rousing speeches before a jury in the picture.

Nichols has long been a filmmaker on the rise, from his low-key debut "Shotgun Stories" to his remarkable "Take Shelter," the Southern coming of age crime story "Mud" and moody sci-fi thriller "Midnight Special," which was released earlier this year. "Loving" is a powerful, but restrained, love story that features two solid performances by its leads and a measured pace that rewards viewers with patience.

As the film opens, we meet Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), an interracial couple who keep their romance mostly on the down low in Virginia circa 1958. But when Mildred finds out she is pregnant, the couple travels to Washington D.C., where they are married, but are arrested shortly after returning to their home state after the local authorities find out that they are living together.

After several run-ins with the law, the Lovings are given a choice by the court: serve jail time or leave the state. They choose the latter and, for a number of years, raise their children in D.C. until Mildred, watching Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington on TV, one day determines that she's had enough. The couple moves back to Virginia and - with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and a lawyer, Bernard Cohen - they take their case to the highest court.

As I mentioned before, in the hands of a different filmmaker this material could lead to an abundance of emotional scenes, courtroom battles and high drama. Instead, Nichols's film observes the daily lives of the Lovings - Richard's construction work, Mildred watching over her children and the couple's parents who appear resigned to Richard and Mildred's difficult lives. In fact, the film's most pivotal moment is conveyed through a quiet phone conversation in which we can only hear one of the two people talking.

Edgerton gives a solid, restrained performance as Richard Loving, a quiet man who is obviously uncomfortable with the attention lavished on him due to his high profile court case and Ruth Negga gives a powerful breakthrough performance as Mildred, who sees the case as not only affecting her family, but one that could relieve the pain of many others. And Nichols regular Michael Shannon pops up in a nice scene during which he - playing Time Magazine photographer GreyVillet - takes the iconic photo of the Lovings sitting on their couch, watching TV and laughing.

"Loving" is a well-told story of a significant moment in U.S. history that focuses less on the politics or the atmosphere of the era, but rather zooms in on the lives of the two characters at its center. It's a quietly absorbing film about two people who made an indelible mark on our nation by simply daring to love.