Tuesday, January 31, 2017

[Review] Jackie

Natalie Portman gives a masterfully tumultuous performance as Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie, an impressionistic portrait of grief, trauma, and legacy.

The film begins about a week after the JFK assassination, with the iconic First Lady reeling from the tragic loss of her husband. After agreeing to an interview with a journalist (played by Billy Crudup), the film sees Jackie trudge through the funeral prep, the media's expectations, and yes--politics. Along the way, she constantly relives the moments of that awful day through non-linear flashbacks. There's a particularly devastating scene where she attempts to explain it to her children.

Jackie feels less like a typical biopic, and more like a psychological drama. A drab chamber piece of sadness. The film essentially rests on Jackie's emotions and Portman's embodiment of them. She's heartbroken, empty, distressed, vulnerable, pointed, and strong all at once. The frames are composed with a lot of centered, head-on views, creating a sort of "all eyes on me" effect. A face-to-face confrontation with the harsh reality and the weight of the aftermath. Mica Levi's score is intensely discomforting and surreal, like the narrative is floating on a moody storm cloud of gloom.

This is a difficult watch. It's cold and slow-moving. Glacial, even. But purposefully so. Between director Pablo Larrain's focused eye on craft and Natalie Portman's Oscar-nominated turn, Jackie appears to be a film that has accomplished exactly what it set out to do. It's just up to you if you want to put yourself through it. All that said, the ending's sky does elicit an ever-so slight peek of sunshine.

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, January 30, 2017

[Review] A Man Called Ove

I dare you not to be moved by A Man Called Ove, a sweet and poignant Swedish comedy-drama (with a touch of dark) that works as compassionate character study about a cantankerous old man whose life is changed by an Iranian immigrant.

Ove (Rolf Lassgard) is a lonely curmudgeon, spending his days visiting his wife's grave and scolding people on his block. After being ousted from his longtime job, he attempts to commit suicide multiple times, but is repeatedly interrupted by his boisterous new neighbor Parvaneh (Bahar Pars) and her two young kids. A bond incrementally develops, and well, you can see where this is going.

It's a familiar setup--the grump who has a change of heart due to an unlikely friendship--but it's still a delight to see Ove come around and regain his purpose. Based on Fredrik Backman's novel of the same name, the well-written script presents a series of extended flashbacks, detailing Ove's lifetime of significant encounters, love, tragedy, and his impact on others. Forrest Gump actually came to mind. There's even personal voiceover narration, spouting some catchy lines of ironic wisdom.

The film does move at a slower pace, and there are a couple of narrative lulls, but the emotional payoffs are winsome, and the sentiment is earned, especially as Ove's character bits are revealed, and as his past shines a light on his present, all while he begins to take on a fatherly role with Parvaneh, who's played with a bubbly vibrancy by actress Bahar Pars.

A Man Called Ove definitely has heart. A big one. A welcoming one.

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

[Review] xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Extreme stunts, insane setpieces, athletes-turned-actors, Vin Diesel's shoulder muscles... The third installment of the xXx series is a load of big ridiculous fun.

CIA Agent (played by Toni Collette with a stern, cold stare) tracks down the legendary Xander Cage (Diesel), who has been hiding out in the Dominican Republic after faking his own death (kind of like Tupac), and recruits him to retrieve a dangerous weapon called "Pandora's Box" from the hands of combat master Xiang (Donnie Yen aka Ip Man aka "I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me."). But Xander can't do it alone. He eventually teams with Bollywood superstar crossover Deepika Padukone, The Hound from "Game of Thrones", and Ruby Rose from "Orange Is the New Black".

First of all, this extravaganza of action never takes itself too seriously, and it's damned proud of it. It gleefully flaunts sequences of motorcycles (?) cruising through tubular waves, Vin Diesel scaling a jungle slope on a pair of skis, and Donnie Yen engaging in an acrobatic shootout while making sure to keep his cool leather jacket in pristine condition. I couldn't hate it if I tried. Even though none of it makes sense, and I wasn't sure what was going on at times, I have to appreciate the film's blistering pace. It takes off, never lets up, and jumps out of the jet before it overstays its welcome. It really feels like a goofy warmup for the highly anticipated The Fate of the Furious.

A lot of the dialogue is embarrassingly bad and poorly executed. The script basically sounds like your little cousin playing with action figures. But obviously I'm not expecting an Oscar-nominated screenplay here. It's not all terrible, though. Samuel L. Jackson shows up to deliver a couple of stellar lines like "It could be a wonderful world if we stop doing bad stuff to it," or more pertinent: "Kick some ass, get the girl, and try to look dope while you're doing it."

( 7/10 )

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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

[Review] Split

In a way, M. Night Shyamalan is the Weezer of the film world. People keep hoping that he can recapture the greatness of those first two projects, but it just doesn't happen. Since then, there's been some decent stuff, some disappointing stuff, some awful stuff (I'm picturing a perplexed Marky Mark staring into the abyss), and even some self-parody. While 2015's The Visit wasn't a return to form, it was Shyamalan's best work in years. The wildly mixed bag Split is an on-par follow-up.

A trio of art school students Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are abducted by a mysterious man named Dennis (James McAvoy). Or is it Kevin? Or Barry? I say that because he embodies 23 different personalities, including a naive 9-year-old named Hedwig and an elderly British woman named Patricia. The girls must attempt to escape from his grungy dungeon lair before the 24th personality called "The Beast" is unleashed.

This thing wastes no time getting crazy, and Shyamalan ramps up the suspense with a discomforting sense of claustrophobia and unpredictability. It becomes pretty clear that the film has no interest in staying grounded in reality or rooted in psychology, as it eventually takes a ludicrous yet terrifyingly gruesome turn. And without spoiling anything, there is a surprise at the end, but it isn't the usual "mind-blowing" twist that you might come to expect from Shyamalan. Of course I also have to mention James McAvoy's impressively versatile and unhinged performance, as he essentially plays multiple parts. At one point, he abruptly switches between several distinctive personalities in front of our eyes with eerie agility. It's definitely committed, and even chameleon-like.

Split is undeniably icky and exploitative, but it's an engrossing genre experience for the majority of the stretch, especially when it acts like the off-kilter younger cousin of films such as 10 Cloverfield Lane and Don't Breathe.

( 7/10 )

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Monday, January 23, 2017

Top 20 Films of 2016

Does anyone ever read the intros?

#20. 10 Cloverfield Lane
A tense and claustrophobic horror/sci-fi/apocalyptic film with a premise that immediately sparks a gulping amount of suspense and manages to sustain it for an impressive length of time. With a scary-good performance from John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane puts you on high alert.

#19. Captain America: Civil War
Come for Captain America vs Iron Man beef. Stay for the Black Panther, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man appearances.

#18. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
The mirthfully titled Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping hilariously riffs on those sugary and motivational "popumentaries". The sense of humor is keen and observational--satirizing celebrity excess, tabloid blunders, social media antics, Behind the Music drama... But the film doesn't shy away from being straight up silly either. I mean, this is the same group that put out a song called "Dick in a Box".

#17. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
A thrilling and crowd-pleasing blast of a blockbuster, 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.

#16. Moana
This dazzling South Pacific adventure splashes and beams with jubilance, while enthusiastically exploring a vibrant Polynesian culture and mythology that's not often seen like this on the big screen. A genuinely uplifting and applause-worthy tale of courage and forming your own path, Moana will warm your body, your spirit, and your heart. Oh yeah, and The Rock is in it.

#15. Under the Shadow
Iranian director Babak Anvari delivers a truly nerve-wracking experience that skillfully blends real-world horrors with supernatural terror. It's also very human, and it's a great mother and daughter story amidst hostile circumstances. Thriving on anxiety and dread, Under the Shadow casts darkness on an ill-omened intrusion. A potent and lingering fear. A devastating hole that tape won't fix.

#14. The Nice Guys
Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe starring in a retro detective romp? Check. Smoggy LA setting? Check. Tangled neo-noir story? Check. Gosling and Crowe accidentally heaving a dead body onto a fancy outdoor dinner party? Check. One of the funniest movies of 2016? Yep.

#13. Don't Think Twice
What happens when your collaborator moves onto bigger and better things and you're left in the dust? What happens when your understudy surpasses you and gets what you've been trying to achieve your entire life? What happens when you've faced rejection so many times that you're forced to confront the idea of your passion coming to an end? What happens when you run out of material?

#12. Hell or High Water
Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, and Ben Foster star in this modern frontier crime drama that sneaks up on you and lights your expectations on fire. Revving up as sweaty and rusted eulogy for the working-class, Hell or High Water isn't a film where all the ends are neatly tied up. And given the bullet-holes-in-the-windshield nature of the story, it's all the better for it.

#11. Everybody Wants Some!!
At the surface, it may seem like a usual frat party film, but it manages to wax philosophical on pride, identity and competition. And of course, it carries a heavily nostalgic vibe (and I'm not just talking about the jorts and tanktops). Everybody Wants Some!! doesn't embrace living in the moment--it suggests that that's the only thing you can do. One can cherish and hold onto the good times and glory days, but no matter the stage--there are stretches where fun stuff happens, proceeded by stretches where not-so-fun stuff happens, and so on. Life is full of stuff, man.

#10. The Witch
An utterly ominous, harrowing, and absolutely terrifying film if you fully submit yourself to its brooding madness. It's a stressful exercise in evil or innocence, supernatural or paranoia. Many people were disappointed by the film's slow-burning story and lack of *jump* scares. But you have to ask yourself this: What haunts you more in real life: A temporary jolt, or a sinister sickness that infiltrates and haunts every single aspect of all the things you hold dear?

#9. Green Room
A group of scrawny punk rock kids fighting their way out of a club full of neo-Nazis? Sir Patrick Stewart playing the villain? Quite frankly the cinematic epitome of Well, that escalated quicklyGreen Room might just be the most intricate, over-the-top warning about hitting the road as an amateur band.... Or simply that white supremacists are the worst. That seems more accurate.

#8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Straight Outta New Zealand. Weaved with pleasantly dry humor and spiked with a twist of hip-hop adoration, Tai Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a sweet coming-of-age adventure about finding a sense of belonging in unlikely places. Go on the hunt for this rare film, because it's a real gem.

#7. The Edge of Seventeen
The Edge of Seventeen deserves to be praised for its sheer sense of genuineness. Wonderfully written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, this teen dramedy is up there with some of the best contemporary high schooler films in recent memory. It's refreshingly frank, funny, heartfelt, and yes--relatable. It'll make you cringe. It'll make you nostalgic. It'll make you wish you could go back to when you were a Junior and change things... or completely block that time out of your memory.

#6. Kubo and the Two Strings
The latest hero journey from the stop-motion masters at LAIKA boasts some gorgeous animation and stunningly unique imagery. Kubo and the Two Strings is a magically told tale about the importance of magically told tales. It's creepy, humorous, exquisitely dreamy, and highly emotional. It's my favorite animated film of 2016.

#5. Sing Street
Not to be confused with the recent animated flick Sing, John Carney's Sing Street is a triumphant ode to the irresistible power of music, a celebration of wide-eyed youthful rebellion, and a life-affirming ballad about taking risks and following your passion. The story elicits scenes that will put a huge smile on your face and make your heart weep--just like the best melodies always do.

#4. Moonlight
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. 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.

#3. Arrival
Where did they come from? Why are they here? What do they want? Arrival director Denis Villeneuve expounds on these questions in this brainy, urgent, and deeply emotional UFO visit drama that instills hope in the good of humanity. The narrative comes with a revelation that rattles your mind, pierces your heart, and makes you rethink the entire story while begging for a second viewing (and possibly crying). Arrival is out of this world. Literally.

#2. Manchester By the Sea
Manchester By the Sea 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 its set in. 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.

#1. La La Land
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. 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. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling's chemistry is irresistible. But it's not all sunshine and smiles. In La La Land, the best endings aren't always happy--they're bittersweet.

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Sunday, January 22, 2017

[Review] 20th Century Women

Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, and Billy Crudup are the terrific cast in the Mike Mills-directed 20th Century Women. If it wasn't for Green Room, I'd say this is the punkest movie of the year.

Set in the "everybody smokes" 70s, the film revolves around single mother Dorothea (Bening) as she raises and tries to *understand* her angsty teenage son Jamie (who she had when she was 40), played impressively by newcomer Zumann. Dorothea decides to enlist boarding roommate Abbie (Gerwig, in hip punk-rocker mode), and Jamie's friend and crush Julie (Fanning) to help teach Jamie "how to be a good man" ...whatever that means.

Leaning on the musical influences of Black Flag and Buzzcocks rather than Zeppelin or The Stones, the sharp script here is full of brash yet substantial dialogue, exploring the complicated world, sociopolitical shifts, identity, and most of all--womanhood. The richly developed characters are all greatly performed. Annette Bening shines at the center, feeling so human and organic--her facial expressions do wonders. Greta Gerwig often sneaks in to steal the show (any movie with a scene of her dancing is a winner in my book). Her character leads a hilarious dinner table scene where she attempts to break the 'hush hush' stigma of periods by getting everyone at the table to confidently say "MENSTRUATION."

The film's drifting pace makes it feel a bit longer than it actually is, but it's sort of fitting with the spirit and mood and deeply-detailed zeitgeist. 20th Century Women is a funny and melancholy slice of life at a significant time. It's about the things people do and the places they end up. I know that seems so broad, but it's also so specific. Oh, and it's about freedom ...whatever that means.

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

[Review] Silence

The masterful Martin Scorsese's longtime passion project Silence is a reverberating shout to God.

Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play Sebastiao and Francisco, two 17th-century Jesuit priests from Portugal in search of their estranged mentor (played by Liam Neeson). With the help of an interesting character named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), the two are secretly smuggled into Japan where Christianity has been pushed underground, and any known practitioners are persecuted.

It's definitely a change of pace for Scorsese, especially after the freight train of debauchery that was The Wolf of Wall Street. So there's no mafia, no raucous comedy, no Leonardo DiCaprio snorting coke off of a stripper's ass here. This is a slow, difficult, challenging, brutal, meditative, and nuanced viewing. A strenuous exercise in faith and doubt, will and betrayal. It poses the tough questions about religion and spirituality, and it raises crucial dilemmas for the characters involved.

Since Adam Driver sort of disappears for a while, it's Andrew Garfield that emerges as the film's central lead. His performance is stunning, capturing a deep pain and excruciation as well as a relentless devotion to his faith. Between 99 Homes, Hacksaw Ridge, and now Silence, Garfield is on a really impressive streak as of late. Also great is the ensemble of Japanese actors. Yosuke Kubozuka portrays a man caught between confession and survival. Issey Ogata is a menacing yet magnetic inquisitor, with Tadanobu Asano solidly playing his interpreter and enforcer.

A major "downfall" of Silence is that it isn't a film I'd sit through again any time soon. But its power is undeniable. Haunting, even. And beautifully shot. And the final image - absolutely perfect.

( 8/10 )

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Monday, January 16, 2017

[Review] A Monster Calls

I'm just gonna go ahead and say that I made the mistake of forgetting to bring tissues to A Monster Calls. And things got wet.

Based on a novel of the same name, J.A. Bayona (director of The Orphanage, one of my favorite horror films of all time) brings the emotional fable to the big screen, and the result is a dark blend of fantasy and tragedy seen through the eyes of a young boy.

That young boy is Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a doodler and daydreamer who resides in a rainy gray village in England with his mother (Felicity Jones), whose health is deteriorating due to an unnamed type of cancer. One night, a seemingly imaginary Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) that looks like a cross between Treebeard and The Iron Giant, comes to visit Conor and informs him that he's going to tell three stories. The final catch is that Conor has to tell a fourth one.

Like the Monster's deep roots, all the narratives here are intertwined. The three stories essentially unfold as parables for the whirlwind Conor is experiencing in his personal life. These fairytales are rendered in a strikingly layered animation style with emanating flows of melancholy watercolors. And the conception of the Monster itself is largely impressive. Created with a combination of physical construction, motion-capture, and CGI, the fully-realized creature occupies the "real world" with impressive vigor. It's also greatly enhanced by Liam Neeson's perfect voicework. And while the Monster thematically functions as a coping mechanism and a form of release for Conor, the film never sugarcoats his heartache and the pains his mother is going through. It's okay to dwell in sadness, and it's okay to unleash anger. "If you need to break things, by God, you break them" his mother says.

A Monster Calls is about the importance of truth. The hurdles of acceptance and letting go. The impact of strong visuals and the power of movies--especially when they reflect reality.

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, January 9, 2017

[Review] Hidden Figures

"We all get there together, or we don't get there at all."

Based on an unheralded true story, Hidden Figures is a crowd-pleasing biopic that aims for the stars.

It's set in 1961 Virginia amidst segregation, the Cold War freeze, and the so-called "Space Race" between the US and the Soviet Union. The plot revolves around three African American women--Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)--who played significant roles as brilliant mathematicians and engineers in NASA's innovative operations for achieving liftoff, all while facing obstacles of racism and sexism.

It comes as no surprise that the cast fantastic here. Taraji P. Henson greatly occupies the central story and carries a lot of the emotional heft, while Octavia Spencer is consistently graceful and nuanced. But my personal favorite is Janelle Monáe's character with her infinite swagger, bold line deliveries, and spunky sense of humor. As far as the supporting cast goes, Kevin Costner solidly clocks in to administer instructions and deliver a couple motivational speeches, like he does best. And if you've ever wanted to slap Sheldon from "The Big Bang Theory", just wait 'til you see his role in this as an annoyingly spiteful and prejudiced (but well-played) co-worker.

The presentation of the narrative and tone is a bit *ahem* by-the-numbers in that glossy Disney-ish sort of way (but it works), and the film can be slightly repetitive at times (there's a lot of writing on chalkboards and discussions about equations that are lightyears beyond my math skills). However, it's still a pleasant, admirable, and inspiring viewing that's full of heartwarming moments on large and small scales. And the social themes very much still resonate today.

Hidden Figures is a film of breaking down barriers, celebrating monumental Firsts, and living the "impossible". It honors under-appreciated work and little-known stories that deserve to be told--all in the name of progress.

* 8.5/10 *

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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

[Review] Lion

In Garth Davis' Lion, India's train system relentlessly roars across the country, giving and taking away. Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire fame (I still love that movie, by the way), plays the central focus in this sweeping but uneven film about being lost and found in the most poignant and fateful ways.

The film is very much a tale of two halves, beginning with 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar, what a fitting name) as he gets separated from his family, navigates homelessness, bounces through foster homes, and is eventually adopted by an Australian family (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). After a 20 years later flashforward, Saroo (now played by Patel) is a grown college student struggling with his identity, and painstakingly searching for his biological mother.

I found the first half to be significantly more compelling. Led by a remarkably sympathetic performance from youngster Sunny Pawar, it's a devastating, intense, and heartfelt story that's powerfully told with impactful visuals and minimal dialogue. It's both intimately and epically shot, capturing India's sprawling scenery. Unfortunately, the second half falls a bit flat. It's so dour and humorless that it essentially becomes one-dimensional melodrama. The repetitive narrative mostly consists of Patel's Saroo staring at Google Earth and getting into disagreements with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara, who doesn't have much to do here). This section would feel like a complete slog if Dev Patel's gloriously wavy mane of hair wasn't so impressive to look at.

With that said, the ending does deliver its emotional payoffs, as it goes into effective tearjerker mode, driving the amazingness of its real-life story all the way home.

( 7.5/10 )

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