Passengers

Comment

Passengers

Passengers is a great movie. At least, it’s a great movie if you hate thinking. The makers and marketers were clearly aware of this. Razzle and dazzle ‘em enough, they must have thought, and they’ll look past the fact that it's deeply flawed on a basic, storytelling level. It’s true enough. If you mentally check out, Passengers is a pretty enjoyable experience.

The tale of two interstellar space travelers, who wake up from hibernation 90 years too soon, is packed with gorgeous special effects and tense action sequences. The two leads have a heavy burden, and they pull it off in grand style. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, semi-stranded like Robinson Crusoe, are on a lonely craft adrift in the vast ocean of space instead of on a deserted island. Almost the entire movie rests on their shoulders, and they prove themselves capable of the task. But they do all that in a movie so clunky and half-baked that it’s easy to forget; the film’s rightful destiny.

Read more...

Comment

Fences

Comment

Fences

When adapting a play for the screen, there’s always the risk that the result will feel stage bound. Movies are uniquely visual, whereas plays, more often than not, rely heavily on words to convey ideas. In his adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning August Wilson play Fences, director and star Denzel Washington probably felt the pressure to bring a cinematic style to a stage production that takes place entirely in the yard of a house. Washington moved several of the scenes inside the house, and a few of the 140-minutes of run time take place in other spaces: a bar, the walk home from a hard day’s work. Aside from the real shooting locations, the outcome is reminiscent of a filmed play. But when the words being spoken are as brutal and honest as August Wilson’s, and the performances are as emotionally pulverizing as they are in Fences, the fact that the movie feels stagy is much less important.

Read more...

Comment

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Comment

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The opening crawl is missing. The opening crawl is missing! Those famous paragraphs that follow “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” in every Star Wars movie – one of the most iconic things about the series – are absent in Rogue One. I don’t know if that set off shrieks of rage around the internet. I purposefully avoid that sort of thing, but it’s not hard to imagine the internet outrage machine losing their collective minds about this when the mere mention that the next James Bond might be portrayed by a black man nearly broke the internet forever.

Director Gareth Edwards took the opportunity of ditching this de rigueur element as a way to set his entry in the Star Wars franchise apart, while also including a sly nod to it, if you’re paying attention. The opening action is set on a planet like Saturn, complimented with a series of rings. Edwards’ camera drifts in space, looking at the planet, and tilting up to reveal the majestic rings above. In an ingenious touch, the special effects department gave a funny quality to those rings. In a way, they look just like blurry, upside down, and backwards text. We, and the film, Edwards is intimating, are just underneath the events of the official “Episodes” that make up the main story arc of the Star Wars universe. This movie doesn’t have an Episode number, after all. Its full title is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Read more...

Comment

Top Ten Films of 2016

2 Comments

Top Ten Films of 2016

As December draws to a close, I'm celebrating another year of seeing, studying, and writing about movies. Today marks my second anniversary of deciding to dive a little deeper than the average cinephile, and devote a large portion of my time to analyzing the art form I love so much.

Read more...

2 Comments

Hidden Figures

2 Comments

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is a great example of a fascinating story told in an uninspired way. The title of the film hints at how important the true-life subject matter is. It tells the tale of people who made critical contributions to the success of a defining moment in human history, but who went unrecognized because of their second-class status. They are finally getting the credit they deserve, but it’s a shame that the style doesn’t do the content justice. The movie indulges in every biopic cliché imaginable. The way it handles race issues of the early 1960s is similarly flawed. Missing are the nuanced shades of gray that made a movie like Selma so rich. Instead, Hidden Figures focuses on easy crowd pleasing moments that are cathartic, to be sure, but that lack the subtle nuance that would make them emotionally complex and satisfying. It’s A Beautiful Mind meets The Help, with all the problems of both.

Read more...

2 Comments

Nocturnal Animals

1 Comment

Nocturnal Animals

If there’s any doubt that fashion-designer-cum-film-director Tom Ford loves playing the role of provocateur, the opening to his new film, Nocturnal Animals, should cast it out. A series of naked, morbidly obese women, each with a single stylistic flourish like a drum majorette’s hat or a pair of boots, gyrate on screen in super slow motion.

Absolutely nothing is left to the imagination.

Opinions about the sequence range from calling it body shaming to body positive. There’s no context for what is on the screen until the sequence is over. Your relative comfort with bodies that don’t conform to the Hollywood ideal of beauty will play a role in how you react, as well as how you feel about your own body. It’s one of those cinematic moments that tells you more about yourself than the film you’re watching. Ford probably included it just to get a rise out of people. It’s intentionally confrontational in what is a particularly confrontational movie.

Read more...

1 Comment

It's Not the Optimistic Musical We Deserve, but It's the One We Need: La La Land

2 Comments

It's Not the Optimistic Musical We Deserve, but It's the One We Need: La La Land

It’s been a rough year. We lost Bowie. We lost Prince. We may have lost American democracy as we know it. The jury is still out on that one, 2016. Director Damien Chazelle couldn’t get here soon enough with the follow up to his breakout film Whiplash. It’s called La La Land, and it’s everything we need right now. It’s infectiously upbeat, idealistic, heartwarming, and joyous. Basically, it’s everything the world seems to be lacking right now.  In addition to being uniquely cinematic, La La Land is the breath givingnew life to the big Hollywood musical, a genre that’s best days have been gone for 50 years. What the 2011 surprise hit The Artist did for silent films, La La Land promises to do for musicals. Both films allow Hollywood to indulge in its favorite pastime, looking back to its golden days and reminding itself of its former glory. You’ll notice The Artist didn’t lead to a boom in production of new silent films. Neither is La La Land likely to lead to a major revival of musicals. The most magical thing that both movies do is remind us that the old cliché “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” isn’t exactly true. Sometimes they do, and it’s a rare and special enough occasion, so when it happens, we should count ourselves exceptionally lucky to witness it.

Read more...

2 Comments

Rules Don't Apply

2 Comments

Rules Don't Apply

It’s hard to overstate how big of a disaster Warren Beatty’s film Rules Don’t Apply is. The man who ruled Hollywood for over two decades has delivered the first movie he wrote, directed, and starred in since 1998’s Bulworth, and it’s a complete mess. Beatty became an instant sex symbol in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass, and he won the Best Director Oscar for Reds, his 1981 ode to John Reed, one of only two Americans ever granted burial at the Kremlin in Moscow. Almost none of Beatty’s earlier successful filmmaking skills are visible in his latest project.

Like Reds, Beatty’s focus for Rules Don’t Apply is also a real-life figure, mercurial billionaire Howard Hughes. The legendary stories about Hughes, a man who inherited his father’s oil drill bit company and used his fortune to focus on his twin passions of aviation and filmmaking, are practically the makings of a fantastic movie all on their own. If you need proof, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is a remarkable example. Not only was Hughes an eccentric and mysterious figure of great renown from the 1920s through the 1960s, he was also plagued with mental health issues, most notably a serious case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Beatty’s movie, by contrast, suffers from bipolar disorder. 

Read more...

2 Comments

Arrival

4 Comments

Arrival

Arrival is one of those movies that depends almost completely on a twist surprise that comes in the last half hour or so. That makes writing about it without ruining the experience for anyone who hasn’t seen it particularly difficult. There are plenty of really great movies that are structured this way – Fight Club and The Sixth Sense are two that spring instantly to mind. There are also movies that are weakened by depending too heavily on that one surprise to hold up the entire film – The Village and The Forgotten are good examples. It’s too dismissive to write that Arrival is somewhere in between. If it is, it’s on the high side of that middle area, more intriguing than not. That engagement mostly comes from the beautiful and strange atmosphere director Denis Villeneuve creates for Arrival. His visuals are complemented exquisitely by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s dark, moody score.

Read more...

4 Comments

History is watching: 13th

1 Comment

History is watching: 13th

“You start out in 1954 by saying ‘n---er, n---er, n---er.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n---er’ – that hurts you, backfires. So, you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing’, ‘states’ rights’, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N---er, n---er.” – Lee Atwater

Lee Atwater was a Republican operative who worked in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. He stated the above quote in a 1981 interview with political scientist Alexander Lamis. The idea is that as openly racist attitudes and speech becomes less acceptable with civil rights advances, politicians and institutions wishing to uphold the white hegemony must find new, more acceptably racist ways to achieve that goal. The examination of that tactic is central to director Ava DuVernay’s powerful new documentary 13th, so named for the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. That’s the one officially ending slavery in America. Well, almost.

Read more...

1 Comment

Moonlight

1 Comment

Moonlight

There is an idea in progressive politics and critical theory known as intersectionality. Simply put, intersectional theory supposes that we are all made up of multiple overlapping social identities. In order to understand the complexities of human behavior, and the varying levels of discrimination in our society, each social identity must be understood as being inextricably linked with the others. That’s why an LGBT woman of color can face more oppressive obstacles than an LGBT man who is white. If that feels overly clinical and cold, art holds the key to humanizing such ideas. Moonlight, the story of one man told over 20 years, explores these notions in emotionally exquisite and sublimely human ways.

Read more...

1 Comment

Certain Women

Comment

Certain Women

Certain Women is a breath of fresh air. It’s the perfect antidote to the sensory overload that can become agitated after seeing too many loud blockbusters. While those blockbusters can be a hell of a lot of fun, it’s best to heed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous advice: “Moderation in all things.” The Transcendentalist thinker seems to be a kindred spirit to the movie’s director, Kelly Reichardt, because of his belief that the divine could be understood by having a close relationship to nature. The stillness of Certain Women works like meditation. The stunningly gorgeous backdrop of the movie’s setting, Montana, often occupies the edges of Reichardt’s frame. There’s a connection to the land that her characters feel, even if it’s only subconscious. Told in three interconnected vignettes, the stories of four women, and how they move through a world that can be, if not outright hostile then aggressively dismissive of their very existence, represent the best in modern independent filmmaking.

Read more...

Comment

American Honey

1 Comment

American Honey

As improbable as it sounds, American Honey melds the sensibilities of disparate movies like Easy Rider and Lawrence of Arabia to craft a modern portrait of driftless youth. Director Andrea Arnold’s film is epic, funny, heartbreaking, and challenging. It captures the cynicism and hopelessness that characterizes the way many U.S. citizens view the American Dream. Through all the unfairness and terrible situations life throws at Star, Arnold’s main character, American Honey gives us a glimpse into the life of a survivor. Star refuses to be broken, and this quality allows for a hopeful ending to the movie that is both uplifting and defies easy explanation. In short, American Honey is a stunning achievement. It’s a movie that stirred my emotions and gave me a view into a world so different from my own that it might as well have been from an alien planet.

Read more...

1 Comment

The Girl on the Train

1 Comment

The Girl on the Train

Any discussion about The Girl on the Train should begin and end with the movie’s star, Emily Blunt. The actress delivers the most searing depiction of alcoholism on the big screen since Nicolas Cage’s Oscar-winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas. From her ruddy face, to her slightly slurred speech and wobbly motion, Blunt inhabits wholly the character of Rachel Watson. She’s an incredibly damaged woman, keeping her drinking barely under enough control to believably be a functioning member of society. If she were in a better movie, Blunt would be a shoo-in for her own Oscar nomination next year.

Unfortunately, the rest of The Girl on the Train lets Blunt down.

Read more...

1 Comment

Hell or High Water

Comment

Hell or High Water

There’s a falseness to Hell or High Water that distracts from the quite potent visceral punch the movie delivers in its last act. The disingenuous vibe the movie gives off comes mostly from writer Taylor Sheridan’s heavily clichéd dialog and obnoxious character dynamics. The way Sheridan handles those attributes left me with the impression that Hell or High Water is his version of a Coen brothers movie, essentially a stripped down No Country for Old Men. But where No Country is full of delicate, nuanced character studies punctuated with nerve-shredding tension and bursts of violence, Hell or High Water eschews the rich character turns for a tired machismo that left me feeling bored.

Read more...

Comment

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

1 Comment

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is filled with oddball characters possessing strange and wonderful powers. Among them is Claire, the little girl with an extra mouth full of razor sharp teeth hidden under the golden locks of her hair. Hugh is a boy with a hive of bees living in his stomach. Emma is lighter than air; if she takes off her lead shoes, she risks floating away.

It would seem like Tim Burton, the decidedly peculiar director known for bringing similarly oddball characters like Edward Scissorhands and Betelgeuse to life, would be the perfect fit for this story. That’s not the case, though. The characters in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children never take on the rich inner life that Burton was able to explore in a character like Edward Scissorhands, or even the normal ones like Lydia Deetz and the Maitlands. Instead, the most peculiar thing about Claire, Hugh, Emma, and the rest are their individual powers. Burton is never able to get below the surface of their strange gifts in order to create fully formed people.

Read more...

1 Comment

Snowden

1 Comment

Snowden

Oliver Stone liberally blends fact and fiction to create his portrait of the NSA whistleblower at the center of his film Snowden. The director, who co-wrote the script with Kieran Fitzgerald, admits as much, confessing that the way Edward Snowden secreted highly classified information out of an NSA facility was stylized for the movie. “[W]hen he lifted these materials and helped get them out to the public, it is not done in the realistic way that it was done. It was—we gave it a little juice, because it’s a drama, and because, frankly, it’s probably much more banal than you think, the way he did it.”

Stone is a filmmaker who is famous for using creative license to bring a bold streak of drama to real-life events. With Snowden, his amalgamation of truth and Hollywood spectacle is a magnificent success. Stone humanizes Edward Snowden, making him a guy with whom we can all relate, while portraying his actions and the events surrounding them as the tense, establishment-shaking moments they are.

Read more...

1 Comment

Sully

Comment

Sully

Clint Eastwood is a director who is masterful at orchestrating deeply powerful movie moments. From the dramatic standoffs in Unforgiven to the highly charged combat scenes in the controversial American Sniper, Eastwood is exceptional at delivering thrilling cinema. His tension-building skills are on full display in Sully, the dramatic retelling of the real life 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson.” It’s a story that’s tailor-made for a movie: US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed his airbus A-320 on the Hudson River when a flock of geese flew into the plane, disabling both engines. He and First Officer Jeffery Skiles performed this ‘miracle’ without losing a single passenger or crew member.

Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki revisit the crash multiple times, interweaving it with scenes of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation in the weeks following the unbelievable landing. It’s these scenes of the investigation that threaten to bring the movie down. But Sully stays aloft, delivering a tense, powerful, and ultimately uplifting study of quiet heroism.

Read more...

Comment

Don't Breathe

Comment

Don't Breathe

I live in a one-hundred-year-old house, and there is nothing more frustrating than the hardwood loudly creaking under even the softest steps when you’re trying not to wake someone. When staying completely silent becomes a matter of life and death, like it is in the horror movie Don’t Breathe, every footfall becomes agonizing. Director Fede Alvarez and his writing partner Rodo Sayagues earn both agony and ecstasy with their twisted story. It is nothing short of splendid.

Horror movies have never held my imagination in particular, but I can appreciate finely crafted tales of terror. There is no finer movie-going experience than being reduced to repeating Dr. Ian Malcolm’s survivalist mantra – must go faster, must go faster! – during a horror movie as you watch the characters frantically attempt to escape their fate. The intense panic and dread Alvarez’s movie conjures throughout more than makes up for its generic shortcomings. Don’t Breathe leans too heavily on archetypes in the first act, some basic plot points don’t hold up to close scrutiny, and the climax briefly delves into the realm of torture porn that is out of step with the rest of the picture. Those are small problems, though, considering the psychological punch the movie delivers.

Read more...

Comment

Sausage Party

3 Comments

Sausage Party

Sausage Party is about as shallow and lazy as comedy scripts come. The cleverest thing about the movie is the restricted red band trailer. It’s quite a shock to see that trailer for the first time. In the first twenty seconds, you’re led to believe the movie is another Pixar-like children’s animated movie. This time it’s food that is being anthropomorphized, and the adventure will begin when the heroes are chosen by humans at the grocery store for a life beyond the walls of the supermarket.

The (admittedly hilarious) shock comes when the woman who bought the groceries starts to peel a potato in front of the rest of the food. Like the humans in this sort of Pixar movie, she’s oblivious to the sentient nature of our heroes, and she can’t hear the horrific cries of the potato as he screams, “Jesus! Fuck!” After that initial shock, you realize this is one of the most sexually explicit, most foul-mouthed animated movie ever made, and that there’s not much else to Sausage Party.

Read more...

3 Comments