Wednesday, December 28, 2016

[Review] Fences

Death. Taxes. Baseball.

Denzel Washington directs and stars in Fences, a big screen adaptation of August Wilson's strikingly powerful stage play of the same name. The results? Pretty damned good, thanks to some excellent lead performances from Washington and Viola Davis.

1950s Pittsburgh. Troy (Washington) is a hardworking garbage collector with a weighty past. He also once was a talented baseball player, and depending on whom you ask, he was rejected by the Major Leagues either because of his age or color. The slow-burning story delves into his relationships with his wife Rose (Davis), estranged grown-up son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his mentally impaired brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), his longtime best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and his high school aged son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who's being scouted for college football.

Now, the film definitely feels like watching a stage play. It's packed with heavy, longwinded rants of dialogue and it all takes place in minimal, contained locations. But August Wilson's words are so strong. So very strong that Fences still compels with its deeply developed characters, its snappy and loaded subtexts, its sharp lean on symbolism and metaphors, and its narrative of rich themes like race, class, family, and duty. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are absolutely stunning (no surprise there). This is an environment made for them to thrive in. The duo engages in a handful of intensely emotional scenes together where you might find yourself thinking, "Yep, Oscar nominations..."

Troy Maxson is a character that leaves such a haunting impression, as he walks a chalk-dusted line between noble hero and problematic villain. He's remarkably flawed, complicated, and he wears his mistakes on his sleeve. He's as funny and playful as he is mean and stubborn. He's both wise and head-scratching. Charismatic and clumsy. And even tragic. As the film progresses, it becomes harder and harder to stick by his side, especially considering the way his actions affect his family. But I was still in awe as I witnessed Denzel's committed, flesh and blood portrayal of such a boldly complex character. And as Troy himself would say, "What law is there saying I got to like you?"

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, December 26, 2016

[Review] La La Land

"Here's to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem..."

My heart aches, but I LOVED this movie.

After the breakout, drum-driven Whiplash, talented director Damien Chazelle goes for a full-on musical with La La Land. It's a passionate love letter to the joys and pains of Tinseltown. An exuberant homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood. A stylish CinemaScope marvel. It's as unabashedly vintage as it is rejuvenating. As escapist and surreal as it is genuine and now.

Setting the stage is a brightly jubilant opening number amidst L.A.'s infamous traffic (the sequence garnered cheers from the audience during my showing). From there, over the span of four seasons, we follow the blossoming romance of Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who, yes--works at a coffee shop, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz musician. While the film takes place in the smart phone present, it recalls the spirit of classic musicals from the '40s, '50s, and '60s like Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin' in the Rain, and The Music Man. It's a glorious fusion of time and panache.

Every frame: Gorgeous. Every song: Wonderful. Between the glowing splash of primary colors, the rich layers of sounds, the starry spotlight illuminations, the waltz-y camerawork, and the gleeful dance choreography, La La Land is the epitome of an elaborate production. It's enchanting. It's magical. And it's incredibly delightful to the eyes and ears. The film's main leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have an undeniable chemistry (it's their third film together!). Gosling is endlessly charming, capturing an old-fashioned eagerness. His vocal delivery is nasally and imperfect, but it's forgivable. It's human. Stone often steals the show with her immense magnetism, big beaming green eyes, wide range of emotions, and impressively good singing voice. It's the stuff made for Oscars.

But La La Land is not all sunshine and smiles. Beneath all the glitz and glamour is a swirling tone of sadness. The nostalgia for bygone eras and dying genres... The closing of landmark theaters... The push-and-pull between holding onto tradition or changing with the times... The relationship strains and harsh ironies that arise from diverging career paths... The conflicts in chasing your fantasies, sacrificing your values, or settling into "the real world"...  The hurt and heartbreak of rejection...

However, there's also the perks of perseverance, the importance of an uplifting nudge (or a "Honk"), and the power of dreams. In La La Land, the best endings aren't always happy--they're bittersweet.

* 10/10 *

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Friday, December 23, 2016

[Review] Things to Come

Isabelle Huppert gives a ravishing performance in Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come, a fresh and adept character study of latter-life changes.

Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) is a passionate philosophy teacher, married with two kids, and doing her best to keep her ailing mother from going off the deep end. One unassuming day, her longtime husband tells her that he's leaving for another woman. What a jerk! From here, Nathalie navigates how to move forward. There's pains, but also newfound freedom. "I'm taking it very well," she says.

The film comes with a talky sense of realism. There's a lot of navel gazing and food for thought--while the characters literally eat food. I'll be honest, this isn't the most cinematic or engrossing stuff to see on the big screen. However, the film deserves appreciation for its portrait of a character that isn't usually explored in this way. Nathalie refuses to wallow in self-pity. No woe is me montages... No tearful breakdowns... She even takes a chance on new opportunities. Isabelle Huppert plays it with a flawless reserve, and by the end of the film, we feel like we've gotten to know an actual person.

Things to Come is a rich snapshot, drifting along--just like life. Oh, and there's an awesome cat.

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

[Review] American Honey

Youth. Rebellion. Crime. Lust. Dreams. In many respects, Andrea Arnold's brash, raw, and vibrant American Honey plays like a modern-day Easy Rider--but with teenagers and a lot more rap music.

Star (Sasha Lane) is an 18-year-old hoping to break free from her troubled home situation. On a whim, she joins a door-to-door magazine sales crew, led by a smooth-talker and possible psychopath named Jake (Shia Labeouf, sporting a ratty ponytail that someone should call Pest Control on). The pack of rowdy, scummy, and impoverished youngsters set out on a road trip of hustling and hardcore partying across the heart of the US. Newcomer Sasha Lane shines with her central performance as the group's conflicted moral compass who's still desperately in search for a new way of life.

American Honey is one of those rare films that manages to feel mesmerizingly surreal and vividly authentic at the same time. Beautifully lit and filmed under sunrise and sunset colors, the picture is presented in a squarish aspect ratio, rather than the usual widescreen views. But instead of conveying narrowness or confinement, the handheld camera captures an epic sense of intimacy, as well as a clear-eyed focus on slyly symbolic views of nature: A bee staying afloat in a swimming pool. A jumping spider zipping across a crayon drawing. A school of tadpoles on the verge of transforming. Then there's the scene of the squad cruising through a very wealthy neighborhood, ogling at MTV Cribs-style homes that don't even fit in the frame. It's depressing. It's hopeful. It's inherently plotless. It's contradictory and problematic--but in an observant it is what it is sort of way, similar to the gaze of 2014's Rich Hill documentary or a Viceland look at under-the-belly countercultures.

The film flaunts a vital diegetic soundtrack that becomes a star in its own right, whether it's enriching the themes, tapping into the zeitgeist, or sounding just plain wonderful. The anthemic splendor of Rihanna singing "We found love in a hopeless place" as Star and Jake first lock eyes in a K-Mart. The early morning motivation of Kevin Gates' "Out the Mud". E-40's boastful "Choices". The change of pace that comes with "Recharge & Revolt" by The Raveonettes as the Star rises out of a sunroof against the backdrop of city lights. The straight-up party jams of Rae Sremmurd and Migos.
There's even a Bruce Springsteen croon for good measure: "C'mon we gotta keep the fire burnin', c'mon dream baby dream."

* 9/10 *

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

[Review] Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

"Rebellions are built on hope."

The extravaganza levels sure do skyrocket whenever a new Star Wars film releases into theaters, don't they? The latest installment is Rogue One, a sweeping side-story that operates as a lead-up to 1977's A New Hope. It's technically the first "standalone" film in the anthology. No iconic opening crawl. No screen wipes. However, the events are very much an integral piece of the whole. And while the film isn't an absolute triumph, it's undoubtedly a thrilling and crowd-pleasing blast of a blockbuster.

Meet Jyn (Felicity Jones, a great lead), a scrappy maverick who's developed a knack for defying orders and doing things her own way, which of course makes her character all the more intriguing. After some chance meetings and jailbreaks, she teams with Rebel officer Andor (Diego Luna), blind warrior Chirrut (Donnie Yen, purveyor of the already famous "I am one with the force, and the force is with me" line--which will probably get mixed up several times in the future.), heavy artillery wielder Baze (Jieng Wen), and cargo pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed). The rugged crew sets out to retrieve the plans in order to blow up the Death Star. And in operatic fashion, Jyn's own father (Mads Mikkelsen) is the keeper of the superweapon's secrets (I promise that's not a spoiler), as he's unwillingly been taken in by director of destruction, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn getting his villainy on).

The beginning involves a lot choppy of planet-hopping. But at least it's some interesting planet-hopping, immersing us into the vivid textures of the landscapes, and the eccentric production design, costumes, and creatures of this universe that we've come to know and love. Once the narrative finds its true path, the film launches into an elaborate heist mission containing loads of heavy exposition followed by grand spectacles of chaotic space combat (I mean, this is a Star Wars movie). And when the picture isn't shrouded in shadows, Rogue One proves to be one of the more visually striking films in the series--from the ethereal skies to the shots of the brooding Lord of the Rings-esque towers (I was almost waiting for Saruman's beard to pop out from somewhere). Speaking of darkness, the tone is mostly on the serious side this time around, even though the spunky K-2SO droid provides a source of comic relief, delivering plenty of chuckle-worthy wisecracks along the way.

Just like J.J. Abrams did with last year's spirited The Force Awakens, director Gareth Edwards (who's responsible for the fairly well-received Godzilla reboot) makes sure to give the fans what they want here, leaving little room for any colossal disappointments--even if there's a bit of a retread factor. Personally, I enjoyed the nostalgic nods and the connective tissue to films of the past (if you pay close attention, you can spot unused footage from original trilogy). I'll also go ahead and say that seeing Donnie Yen take out a squad of Stormtroopers by himself with nothing but a staff is worth the price of admission alone. And as the trailers hinted, there's even some good ol' Darth Vader action. At one point, he utters a polarizing pun (I'm still trying to decide if I like it or not). Dialogue beef aside, the film's biggest flaw is that the ensemble of characters aren't developed very deeply, and we don't totally sense their bonds or camaraderie as much as we'd like to, because they're thrust into action so quickly. That said, it's still cool to see such a diverse and charismatic group on screen together.

Rogue One ultimately ends up being a worthy addition to the Star Wars cannon. It's a tale of sacrifice, trust, and joining forces against seemingly insurmountable evils. That's certainly something to root for.

* 8.5/10 *

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

[Review] Demon

Ah, there's nothing like a demonic possession on your wedding day.

If you're a fan of this year's great, slow-burning horror film The Witch, then the late Marcin Wrona's Demon should be right up your alley. Based on Jewish folklore involving an entity called "The Dybbuk", this Polish film is an artfully shot, sharply written, and straight-up insane tale.

Set in a drab, hazy frown of a town where it definitely seems like some kind of evil could manifest, the film follows Peter (Itay Tiran), a man on the verge of marrying his fiance Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). While surveying land for the house they plan to fix up, Peter stumbles upon a pile of bones, and let's just say he begins to experience some very strange symptoms during the wedding celebration. Either he's possessed by a malevolent spirit or it's the worst case of cold feet ever.

Given the dark and serious setup, it's surprising how funny the tone of this thing actually is--from its wry dialogue to its mirthfully absurdist humor. When the sickness first starts coming on, it plays more like a sweaty bout of the diarrhea runs, or the result of way too much vodka (or both at the same time). The film isn't all that intense or scary, per se. It's more of an exercise in intrusive madness, although the creepy factor does ramp up a bit during second half. Much credit goes to the screechy musical score and Itay Tiran's committed performance as he goes into full lurch mode. It's just really amusing to see how this whole debacle unfolds. Talk about wedding horror stories...

But buried deep beneath the surface of it all is a solemn spell of tragic history and old haunts that continue to linger and linger. Demon, indeed.

( 8/10 )

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

[Review] Nocturnal Animals

Fashion designer and movie director Tom Ford unleashes the strange beast that is Nocturnal Animals for his second feature-length film. It's a flawed but gripping endeavor--as ugly as it is stylish. Part modern noir. Part gritty southern detective story. Part relationship drama. Part lurid WTF.

After a bold and provocative opening credits sequence, we meet Susan (Amy Adams), a discontent art gallery owner who dwells in a cold and drab mansion with her dashing but conniving husband (Armie Hammer). Out of the blue, she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Foreshadowing is abound when she slices her finger opening the package.

As Susan begins reading the novel, the film transitions into a movie-within-a-movie of sorts. Thank God the story is shown and not told--can you imagine going to the theater and having to watch/hear someone scan through a book? Anyway, the novel sees a stand-in for Edward (Gyllenhaal with a beard), his wife (Isla Fisher, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Susan), and their daughter as they get caught up in a highway tussle with a group of greasy scumbags, led by a notoriously nasty Aaron Taylor-Johnson. It's a masterfully tense, stressful, and sweaty scene that unfolds into something that I won't spoil. In fact, there's no sense of catharsis until a hard-nosed detective played Michael Shannon gets involved. From there, the film jumps around between past and present, the novel and the real world--all while reveling in both the power and potency of fiction, art and life.

Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are definitely solid leads, but it's the secondary cast that stuns. Michael Shannon absolutely steals the show in a role that's almost too perfect for him. What a legend, that guy is. Also impressive is Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He plays a maddeningly despicable character, but it actually seems like a real breathing person, as opposed to his aggressively bland leading role in the recent Godzilla reboot. It's a turn that's so committed, dirty, and under-your-skin that it will make you feel the need to take a shower. I also have to mention how amusing it is that well-known look-alikes Amy Adams and Isla Fisher have finally appeared in the same film. And even after this, I'm still not fully convinced that they aren't the same person. (Kidding, of course.)

In contrast to the film's lush cinematography, sublime wardrobes, and pristine frames, the narrative can't help but feel a bit messy. I was disappointed by the lack of payoff and the abrupt ending. On one hand, it's as if Tom Ford crafted a stream of engrossing stories and couldn't figure out how to properly conclude them. But on the other hand, the ending proposes a creepy and spiteful element that's consistent with the film's relentlessly dark tone.

Either way, you'll be thinking about it long afterwards, and well into the night...

( 8/10 )

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

[Review] The Monster

Bryan Bertino's The Monster quietly crashes in as a decent late-season horror entry. It's not a game-changer or anything, but this minimally told tale is one that avid genre fans won't want to miss.

Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is a disheveled and neglectful single mother, basking in empty beer bottles and constantly oversleeping. Her precocious daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) seems to be the more responsible one, making breakfast and packing (for the both of them) in preparation for a road trip to see her estranged father. During the hostile drive, their car breaks down and the two are left stranded on a secluded backroad. But they're not completely alone... There's an elusive beast lurking in the forest, and this broken mother and daughter relationship must come together in order to survive.

The first 12 minutes or so are a bit obnoxious, as our two main characters awkwardly yell a bunch of really forced dialogue at each other. But once the catalyst takes place, and the ominous mood sets in, the film builds some eerie suspense--initially concentrating on what we don't see rather than what's there. Is the threat just their imagination? The wolf they accidentally hit? A creepy criminal dwelling in the woods? Or an actual flesh and bones monster? Things eventually get physical and bloody and gruesome. And in case you're wondering, we do end up getting a clear look at the evil force in all its nasty glory, even amidst the film's murky, rain-drenched setting and deep, dark shadows. While there might be a metaphor to dig for, I perceived the story's antagonist in a very straightforward and literal way, as opposed to recent spooky and symbolic gems like The Babadook or Under the Shadow.

Unfortunately, the narrative gets bogged down with melodramatic flashbacks that come off as filler, and the film doesn't reap the emotion and poignancy that it seems to be aiming for. Basically, The Monster isn't going to shatter your world, but it's at least a good VOD choice for a stormy night.

( 7/10 )

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Monday, December 5, 2016

[Review] Manchester By the Sea

I'm not saying you should bring some tissues to Manchester By the Sea, but you should probably bring some tissues to Manchester By the Sea. This film is a commendably adept character study and stirring rumination on the rippling complications of a family death, as well as a crisp and cinematic postcard of the picturesque New England harbor town.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a lonely janitor and repair man, spending his days un-clogging toilets, trying to fix leaks that won't quit, and shoveling endless piles of snow (cue the baggage metaphors). After the sudden death of his brother (Kyle Chandler), he reluctantly inherits custody of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The narrative follows them as they cope with the haunts, burdens, and messy aftermath of a tragedy, all while they straighten out their lives going forward.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me) pens an excellent script, full of blunt and snappy dialogue, all-too-real human conflicts, and genuinely affecting emotion. The multiple flashbacks enrich the story and give the characters depth, while adding a heart-wrenching undercurrent of unspeakable tragedy. It's sad stuff indeed. But even amidst the somber circumstances, the film doesn't forget its sense of humor. This thing is actually really funny. You'll laugh in between the tears. It's fully dimensional. Just like life. Lee and Patrick's relationship isn't of the blatant warm and fuzzy Hallmark variety. It's awkward, pugnacious, and full of ribbing. But they're cool with each other, and we know they care deep down. They're both in the same boat (pun definitely intended).

Casey Affleck gives a seriously tremendous performance. Lee isn't the most likable character, but we still sympathize with him. It's as if his distressing numbness, self-resentment, and repressed feelings have all transferred to his hunched shoulders and the darkness beneath his eyes. It's quietly devastating and nuanced, and Affleck nails it. Award nominations are certainly on the way. Michelle Williams is also stunning with her supporting role as Lee's estranged ex-wife Randi. She's only in a few scenes, but they're crucial scenes that leave a weighty impact. Newcomer Lucas Hedges is impressive too, seeming like an authentic high schooler dude who's going through some stuff. In fact, the entire cast is top-notch here, as you'd expect from one of this year's Oscar frontrunners.

There is a slight shred of uplift in the end, but it's still the type of story that'll make you want to go off and have a good cry in the movie theater parking lot afterwards. Manchester By the Sea is a film that hits hard no matter what, but it's especially poignant if you've ever lost someone close to you.

It's one of 2016's very best.

* 10/10 *

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

[Review] Moonlight

"Who is you, Chiron?"

Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is a special film. Revolving around a young man's struggle to find himself in the thick atmosphere of a poverty-stricken Miami, this artful portrait is as sprawling as it is intimate, and as raw as it is technically marvelous. It's truly a transformative experience.

The story is divided into three distinct chapters, which all follow the life of Chiron, a quiet and scrawny kid who's constantly picked on by his peers. Unfortunately, he finds no solace at home because his mother (Naomie Harris) is a drug-addict. One day, he meets a supportive father-like figure named Juan (Mahershala Ali), who ironically makes his living as a drug kingpin. A complex and vicious cycle, to be sure. But Juan and his caring girlfriend (Janelle Monáe, terrific) practically begin to raise the boy themselves in their welcoming household. And from here, the film spans across Chiron's adolescence (Alex Hibbert), his high school stint (Ashton Sanders), and matured adulthood (Trevante Rhodes), all while he attempts to form his identity, battle with toxic masculinity, and ruminate on his sexuality.

The film exudes with life and bursts with heartbreak. The rarely-represented characters are fleshed out in a manner that isn't often witnessed like this on the big screen, and the performances are absolutely flawless all around. It'd be a crime to pick a standout in the cast, because they all shine in their own vital way. Everything is so richly detailed and beautifully captured amid the vibrant lighting, crisp editing, and stylized camerawork that frequently boasts 360-degree views, which breathes dimension into the scenes, while also creating a sense of the world spinning. The musical score flaunts piercing strings and somber piano keys, but it's really the deafening silences that have the most impact.

It's a film of defining moments, fateful connections, and memorable faces. A poetic character study. It's blue. It's black. It's glowing. It's Moonlight.

* 9/10 *

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