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D. Alex Lynch

Various works and musings of an aspiring journalist

The wedding scene in ‘The Godfather’ is a masterclass in establishing a film’s narrative. Here’s why.

The mark of a great screenplay is a film’s ability to show, not tell. To describe the motives, personalities and attitudes of a character not through exposition, but their actions. Films feel more organic that way – breathing, believable narratives versus a checklist with tasks that writers laboriously mark off.

Character-building is a huge part of that endeavor, bringing creations to the screen, not cardboard cutouts. There isn’t just one way of doing it, either. Aaron Sorkin brings his characters to life with his patented “walk-and-talk,” fiery and furious conversations between characters that reveal the inner workings of their psyches.

There’s also writers like the Coen brothers, who – in contrast to Sorkin – create characters that are deliberate almost to a fault in their words and actions as they traverse worlds that are typically paranoia-filled.

Then there is Francis Ford Coppola, the maestro behind “The Godfather” saga and “Apocalypse Now” who seems to know the characters he’s writing like he befriended them as a child.

Like Hollywood’s best writers throughout history, Coppola wrote characters in a way that wasn’t just thrilling and engaging, but earnestly – and sometimes devastatingly – honest. The respective journeys of Don Corleone, Michael, Captain Benjamin Willard and Colonel Kurtz were dark and deeply introspective.

And it was because of the way that Coppola wrote them – along with some excellent casting choices – that these characters are timeless and endearing, eternally iconic.

One scene in particular showcases Coppola’s abilities as a writer (as well as a director, but that’s another story) better than perhaps any in his arsenal. It’s a nearly half-hour-long sequence that sets the stage for what many consider to be the greatest trilogy in history.

Connie’s wedding — the opening scene of “The Godfather Part I” — is a masterclass in screenwriting. It’s equal parts comedy, horror and drama. Coppola does no telling about the type of people Don, Michael, Sonny, Kay and company are. He shows us, using exquisite attention to detail and a tone that is so matter-of-fact that, even after a lifetime of watching and rewatching the film, it’s easy to experience the wedding and forget these are people who would do anything for the family, including shed blood.

We get a look at everyone here, and – save for Michael in his Golden Boy state before spiraling down the same path as the rest of his family – they’re all true to form to a particular degree.

The hot-tempered and licentious Sonny breaks an FBI agent’s camera before throwing a couple hundred bucks at his feet, in a way that shows he doesn’t take back his actions.

Tom Hagan is even-headed and cool, the mild-mannered family lawyer who is always at the Don’s side and who speaks with voice so collected it instantly informs us why he fits right in with the Corleones, even if he’s not a biological member.

Kay is timid and curious about Michael’s family, then caught completely off-guard when she – and us as the audience – learns from Michael about the fabled offer that couldn’t be refused.

And, of course, Marlon Brando’s transcendent Don Corleone is grandiose and threatening, yet not without the gentle and homely qualities of our own grandfathers. He pets his cat. He commands loyalty. He slaps around his godson for not standing up for what he wants. He just wants to celebrate on the day his daughter is to be wed, but he knows what that means in Sicilian tradition.

More than anything, he just wants a picture with the whole family.

Who can’t relate to that?

Perhaps the element that makes the wedding scene one of the most critically important when viewed in the context of the trilogy at large is that this is the one afternoon we can spend with these characters that is free of impending bloodshed and death.

Another half-hour on, and we’ve seen a beheaded horse, a man be strangled and a viscerally depicted attempt on the Don’s life.

But for these few, precious moments, these are just the Corleones on a wedding day that is seemingly as normal as any we’ve been to.

The sequence is filled with elements that are simultaneously iconic but also so ordinary. The cat. Johnny Fontane making the young ladies swoon. Pauley with the wine. Coppola is able to incorporate all of that to help paint – in brushstrokes both broad and intimate – an image of a family that is like any other, their criminal underworld business dealings non-withstanding.

Then, before you get too ostensibly comfortable, Coppola slips subtle elements in – like a shot of the intimidating Don Barzini, the matter-of-fact assassination assignments by the Don, or the origin story of the offer that couldn’t be refused – that keeps the pedal at least somewhat to the metal.

The scene is a contract of sorts. An establishing of the stakes. Coppola is setting the table for a dinner from hell. Once we get to the Don dancing with the bride and the scene winds down, we’re strapped in.

“Keep your arms and legs inside at all times,” Coppola is saying. “That’s as pleasant as this ride is going to be.”

Review: ‘Life’ steals playbook from ‘Alien,’ still manages to be forgettable

In space, no one can hear you scream. We’ve known that for nearly 40 years.

But space, perhaps, could also the place where we can send “Life” so it doesn’t have to be endured by us Earthlings.

Daniel Espinosa’s tale of space-station-turned-house-of-horrors is enamored with the 1977 classic “Alien,” so explicitly so that its adoration makes those of us on the outside of this clearly one-sided relationship feel a bit disgusted and uncomfortable by the way it borrows its every influence.

And it’s evident from the very first shot, the camera slowly and eerily drifting through space just like the start of “Alien,” making us feel an isolation that has become almost like a second cinematic home in recent years (See: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” “The Martian,” etc., etc.).

Inside the International Space Station that eventually comes into view is a small crew of astronauts which has just captured the first irrefutable proof of alien life. One of the astronauts – Hugh, a much too optimistic scientist to be poking around in a petri dish of alien life – calls it “Calvin” out of a sense of affection. But (surprise, surprise) Calvin is a stone cold killer.

The movie wants you to think he’s offing the humans one by one out of a natural survival instinct, but let’s be real: Calvin is enjoying being a source of torment and terror once he breaks loose.

“Life,” admittedly, does an adequate job in the early going by steadily building momentum as Calvin squirms his way through the ship like he knows the place. There are one or two fairly memorable sequences as he terrorizes his victims, but for some reason the film feels the need to break that momentum at times by morphing from horror into character-driven drama.

There’s certainly enough backstory – too much, actually – to remind us that these bodies of flesh and blood have lives back on Earth. Well, that goes for everyone but Jake Gyllenhaal’s David, who prefers the lonely quiet of space (he’s been up there for over 400 straight days) to the chaos of life on our blue and green planet.

There’s too many characters for there to really be a leading force. For a film so heavily influenced by “Alien,” “Life” is missing its Ripley – the hero we know little about but has so much charisma that we can’t help but cheer them on.

By comparison, Gyllenhaal and co. are so lifeless that it’s hard not to look forward to Calvin play cat-and-mouse with them.

Speaking of Calvin, his appearance and cadence is an easy target for cheap laughs at first, but make no mistake that it doesn’t take long for him to turn into a human-sized storm of violence and destruction, even if his tentacle-y design is uninspired.

For a film with an R-rating, that destruction doesn’t seem to be as visceral as it should be, though. Take away a few pints of blood and the handful of F-bombs, and “Life” is a PG-13 film with a slightly higher box office intake. What Espinosa was trying to accomplish by dialing back on some of the horror elements, I’m not sure, but it certainly doesn’t work to keep “Life” back from its full potential.

And then there’s the ending, which is sure to polarize. I’m on the side of “that was completely unnecessary”; it feels like little more than a desperate attempt at relevance, a talking point for a movie that surely is aware that it doesn’t have much life of its own.

Ultimately what leads to “Life’s” downfall is its complete failure to make us care for its characters. At times it’s too morose for its own good. One minute we’re following Calvin as he crawls along the outside of the ISS, looking for a way in while the crew is desperately barring all hatches. The next minute, the astronauts are contemplating the meaning of life and questioning their mission, as if they could care less about the extinction of the human race.

“Life” a cheap knockoff of a classic in the genre, without actually being inspired by what made “Alien” so terrifying: a pinch of originality, a type of horror we’ve never seen. “Life,” meanwhile, would be tough to recommend over modern straight-to-DVD offerings that at least offer something new.

 

“Life” is rated R for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada

Directed by Daniel Espinosa

2017

Review: In latest ‘Kong,’ visuals reign over logic, dull characters

The familiar question “Kong: Skull Island” seems to want to pose is: How powerless is man and his weapons when faced with nature’s most threatening forces?

Instead, it feels that those behind the camera were hell-bent on satisfying another curiosity: How much subpar filmmaking can the audience endure to get to the eye candy?

The latest iteration of the influential franchise that is nearing an unexpected 100 years of life is also one of its loudest and dumbest. It amounts to nearly two hours (though, thankfully, it seems much shorter) of brainless hodgepodge that teeters on overindulgence, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Transformer films for the worst reasons.

It’s one thing to make a monster movie and putting its human characters in the backseat. But if director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and screenwriter Dan Gilroy are putting their scaly, furry, deadly creations front and center, their human counterparts aren’t just in the backseat; they’re being dragged through the road behind them at 100 miles an hour.

The dumbfounding thing is that part of “Kong” seems to want to make the humans an integral part of the story, even though it’s impossible to tell which of its handful of leading characters is supposed to be the main protagonist.

Is it Brie Larson’s idealistic photographer? Tom Hiddleston’s unconvincingly rugged tracker? Samuel L. Jackson’s tormented Vietnam War general, John Goodman’s obsessive scientist? They all have a legitimate case, and as underwhelming as their stories are, it’s clear that Gilroy was hoping one of them would hit the mark.

Even John C. Reilly’s Skull Island denizen has an unexpectedly large role, even though all he is destined to elicit are groans from the audience.

John Goodman plays Bill Randa, a scientist determined to prove that monsters exist, and researching them could hold scientific advantages. He manages to secure the support of a senator for a trip to Skull Island while the rest of the country’s leaders are preoccupied with the end of the Vietnam War (“There will never be a more screwed up time in Washington,” Randa says, in what might be the most ironically timely line of the year in a film).

After recruiting Hiddleston and Jackson to his team, and Larson hopping on as a photographer curious to see what Randa is on about, its off to the mythical land of monsters, where they are greeted with flying trees aimed at their helicopters and a grump Kong who doesn’t take too kindly to visitors.

From there, the adventure is on.

At least “Kong” doesn’t waste much time getting to its titular setting, and it doesn’t skimp out on its creatures either. The film boasts numerous creative monsters, snarling, snapping, seething their way on the screen. They provide the most satisfying moments of wonder, and absolutely share as much screentime as Kong, who, oddly enough, seems almost like a sidelined character in his own story at times.

But when he isn’t, the film’s most glorious shots (many of them prominently featured in marketing) unfold, like the ape king blocking out a huge sun in the vein of “Apocalypse Now” as he keeps watch over his territory, or as he lumbers morosely through valleys, the world’s deadliest loner.

“Kong: Skull Island” takes place in 1973, and it very much embraces its time period with hazy, napalm-colored horizons, a Rolling Stones-infused soundtrack, and even the relevant themes of paranoia. It’s all here.

While “Kong’s” aesthetic is consistent, the film’s tone isn’t. At times a full-on B-movie romp, at others an adventure film, and other points still a darkly gritty tale of revenge, “Kong” takes on more than we really ask it to, an unfortunate side effect of its overcrowded human cast (none of which are particularly memorable anyway).

Generally, “Kong: Skull Island” feels fairly unnecessary, the main purpose for its existing being a desire to show the immense scale that modern visual effects can provide. In that sense, I suppose, Kong himself is an appropriate case study, a suitable prop for the effects studio responsible for the film’s spectacle.

It’s tough not to compare “Kong: Skull Island” to its immediate predecessor from 2005: Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” which feels like an uber-intimate and more dramatic character study of the monster by comparison to “Skull Island.”

In truth, the two couldn’t be more different. Even their apes look strikingly different. Jackson’s ate bamboo; Vogt-Roberts’ eats the tentacles of a squid that just tried to subdue him.

Whereas Jackson’s film offers a layered portrayal of Kong and his relationship to actress-turned-hostage Ann Darrow, Vogt-Roberts’ take is a much more dumbed-down affair that seeks to amaze through thrills rather than making us feel actual feelings for a 150-foot monkey.

Which is completely fine. In many ways, he accomplishes what he set out to do with “Kong: Skull Island,” though I wish it actually added something to the mythos of the legendary creature. Its high-flying action set pieces are entertaining enough, but its generally non-inventive plot and complete confusion of how to handle its characters almost makes it not worth the trip at all.

 

 

“Kong: Skull Island” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

2017

Review: ‘Logan’ is a bloodily introspective affair that ends an iconic journey with more of a whimper than a shout of triumph

“X-Men” movies have always been about strength in numbers, finding family where others might just see freaks.

That formula has stayed consistent even with the “stand-alone” Wolverine flicks (which really just mean our favorite mutant teaming up with new allies), and even with the franchise’s first decidedly adult foray in 2016 with Deadpool, as the Merc with a Mouth seeks the help of Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead.

But with “Logan,” the majority of the spotlight shines on Hugh Jackman’s alter ego, providing X-Men fans with an examination of the character 17 years in the making that is as complex as anything we’ve seen so far from the franchise, and perhaps the superhero genre as a whole.

Oh, and yes, there’s blood. Buckets and buckets of it to make up for what seems like 10 movies’ worth of carnage that was still trying to appeal to 10-year-old fans.

Director James Mangold takes care to make sure that the movie’s (much) more mature aesthetic manifests itself in more than just claws ripping endless waves of cronies to shreds. “Logan” also deals with some of the darkest themes of the series, making the so-called isolated and lonely experience of being a mutant at Professor Xavier’s school come off as a paradise.

There, teenage mutants are learning to control their powers by grown-ups who have come to terms with their constant struggle of being different from humanity. In “Logan,” children even younger than those at Xavier’s are making ends meet on their own, trying to survive while being hunted down by humans an age when mutants aren’t born so much as they are manufactured.

That’s the case of the young Laura when she eventually crosses paths with an old and grumpier than usual Logan, hiding out in the borderlands of southern Texas where he doesn’t have to worry about anyone that he doesn’t seem to care about anyway.

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That even extends to his care of an old Charles Xavier, who is in a much more vulnerable state than we’ve ever seen him, and who seems to have given up on trying to convince Logan that he is meant to be more than the monster he was bred to be.

The duo reside with another mutant caretaker, passing the days with seemingly no end goal save to wait for their own bodies and mutant genes to wear out on them, until Laura gives them one more mission to embark on.

Jackman has stated that this turn as Wolverine is his last, and if that turns out to be the case, he delivers a powerfully nuanced and emotional performance that allows for insight into his character in ways we’ve never seen before. It’s easy to forget about Logan’s internal plight in other X-Men flicks when he’s fighting for something much grander than getting over his own existential crisis, but “Logan” forces you to contemplate the type of person someone becomes when they’ve become used to enduring through violence and rage.

Patrick Stewart also shines as the debilitated Xavier that has some of the best lines of the movie (whoever knew the professor could be this profane?), and Laura is quietly affecting in a largely dialogue-less role.

“Logan” certainly feels much more like a drama than a traditional superhero flick, one which successfully proves that deeper explorations of the genre’s characters and their motives can make for entertaining films, despite this one’s pacing issues. There aren’t any flashy effects, the villains aren’t of a supernatural nature and the world, or what’s left of it, doesn’t necessarily need saving.

However, the fact that Mangold makes character exploration the focus of “Logan” doesn’t mean it’s truly groundbreaking in any way; it simply takes a different narrative route than other superhero movies, albeit one that transcends the genre’s tropes. “Logan” is bold and brutal, but in many ways we only feel like we’re seeing something totally fresh because it’s the first such intimate foray in, or out of, the genre.

The most interesting thing that Mangold’s script delves into is Logan’s strained relationship with his rage and his efforts to control it. Jackman effectively portrays the struggles that Logan must live with in balancing that rage and using it in small doses, before taking the leap and releasing for the good of someone other than himself.

You never got the sense that that was a problem with previous “X-Men” films, but here it represents his internal journey.

Despite focusing more on the character and how he sees the world rather than how the world sees mutants (of which there are only a handful left in the not-so-distant future of the film), “Logan” by many accounts is very standard fare. The script does right by Jackman’s devotion the character, but very little else is there to intrigue us for the film’s 2 hours and 15-minute runtime.

There’s certainly brutal and bloody violence, but that gets to be heavy-handed at some points. The road-trip-across-America is bogged down by some questionable character choices, and with most of the movie’s most interesting backstory — the “how the hell did we get to where we are?” — Mangold wrongfully chooses to tease instead of explain fully.

As far as diverging from the straight-and-narrow path that today’s endless stream of superhero films are released from, “Logan” is a welcome step in the right direction at showing the storytelling possibilities of heroes we’ve come to know and love, but it’s just a start.

Deep introspection of one of those heroes that moviegoers have grown attacked to means showing sides of that character we never really thought about exploring, but by “Logan’s” end, we haven’t really  learned anything new about him. We just see him in his darkest and most dreary state. For some reason, that’s enough for Mangold,  when it isn’t for the audience.

 

“Logan” is rated R for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook

Directed by James Mangold

2017

Review: ‘Get Out’ a creepy, comical examination of race

“Get Out” is a film for everyone.

No, that doesn’t mean you should take your kids to see it. Rather, first-time director Jordan Peele brings us a film that is as fresh and smart as it is purely entertaining.

The genius of it all is that you can take it both ways, or just one – take your pick. Do you a want to turn your brain off to a thoroughly satisfying thriller, or engage with a movie on levels that are incessantly thought-provoking?

At a time when the pickings continue to be slim for quality horror and directors are looking for new ways to keep the audience awake at night, Peele pulls a 180 with the genre, blending scares, comedy and social commentary with a dash of searing realism. Bloody and hilarious, “Get Out” paints themes of racial tension and privilege in shades of neon when many other films might settle for a more subtle palette.

Daniel Kaluuya is Chris, the boyfriend to Allison Williams’ Rose Armitage, an interracial couple who shouldn’t seem out of place in 2017. At least Rose thinks so, as she tries to appease Chris’ nerves about going to visit Mr. and Mrs. Armitage, and the way they might react to seeing their white daughter with an African American man.

But Chris’ apprehensions begin to manifest themselves in ways that are so blatant it’s hard to believe Peele isn’t being too imaginative in the early going; he’s putting a microphone on a portion of American society that holds universal prejudices as unacknowledged as they are offensive.

Leave it to Peele – who, in a way, has been preparing this movie for years through his work on “Key and Peele” – to take the filter off that engrained prejudice, before taking the film to unexpected and crowd-pleasing extremes.

Peele isn’t tongue-in-cheek about the subject matter; he goes all in, beginning with an expertly-directed single-take prologue sequence that bluntly foreshadows the territory “Get Out” will eventually veer into. If subtle social statements in film are winks, “Get Out” is 90 minutes of cattle-prodding to the gut.

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The film is strongest when it goes all out on its horror and comedic elements. In one early sequence, Rose introduces Chris to multiple very privileged white men who don’t hold back on their impressions of him. “Black is in fashion,” one proclaims to Chris, before he tries to find solace in the only other Black people in sight. He soon comes to realize there is something off about that demeanor as well, making him stick out in ways that are uber-uncomfortable.

“Get Out” is suspenseful in ways we’ve seen countless times before, but Peele has such a talent for interweaving searing, smart satire wherever he can that there are several moments that invite both feelings of tension and laughter.

It’s a bit hard, early on, to discern the right moments to do either, but the audience will know soon enough when to fully play into the joke.

The film also works for those who don’t watch their movies experiences with an intellectual perspective. “Get Out” stands out as a tight and taut thriller in its own right, with creepily menacing performances that almost get to be too much to bear before LilRel Howery – playing Chris’ best friend, Rod Williams – provides bellylaughs of comic relief.

It’s a testament to Peele’s craft that the film’s satire on assimilation and ostensibly universally-understood cultural divides comes across not as a call to action, but an emphatic wake-up call to the social situations of those that we might not even not we are marginalizing.

And it makes those statements in a way that is so universally entertaining, that the real horror might just lie in those messages not being recognized at all, until we place it in the context of our own lives and, potentially, our own prejudice

 

“Get Out” is rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references. 

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener

Directed by Jordan Peele

2017

Review: “Lego Batman” is endlessly funny, sweetly sincere

 

Perhaps Hollywood really is at the point where Lego-ified franchises understand their characters better than their grounded, live-action counterparts. “The Lego Batman Movie” certainly makes that case.

And if we are at that point, moviegoers had best get comfortable with seeing more and more of their favorite cinematic icons get the brick treatment, if these films continue to be as smart as they are hilarious. If the success of last year’s “Deadpool” relied on taking jabs at itself, “Lego Batman” is a total onslaught of self-deprecating humor.

The concept would have been ridiculed a few years ago, yet here we are. Nine years after receiving the best big-screen version of the Bat in “The Dark Knight,” and less than a year removed from washing the sour taste of “Batman v. Superman” out of our mouths, we have the delightful and delightfully self-aware “Lego Batman Movie.”

A spinoff of a breakout character from the breakout animated hit from 2014, “Lego Batman” is hyper, overattentive little brother to “The Lego Movie,” a whirlwind of everything that universe has to offer (and indeed, beyond the realm of DC Comics) that dares to step out from its big brother’s shadow.

A year after being confused and frustrated by “Batman v. Superman,” “Lego Batman” comes along and shows that some in Hollywood still understand the brooding superhero.

As much for adults as it is for children in both humor (a surprising amount of which is very mature) and substance, “Lego Batman” dwells on the lonely aspect of the hero’s life – the quiet contrast to the colorful high of fighting Gotham crime. With his own theme song to boot, of course (though it’s nowhere near as euphoric as “Everything Is Awesome”).

The film boasts an incredible array of actors lending their voices, including Will Arnett as Batman, Michael Cera as the innocent and untested Robin, Zach Galifianakis as a creepily sentimental Joker, and, in a particularly entertaining “cameo,” Siri as the Batcave’s computer.

They all perform to charming effect, even when there seems to be so much happening that it’s hard to catch some of the most memorable one-liners. This movie is chock-full of them, but so much of its success relies on the endless stream of Easter eggs and references that it never feels like its overbloated with them.

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You don’t have to be world’s biggest Batman fan to catch them, either. There are jokes for fans who are only familiar with the most recent films, the entire universe, and everything in between The film doesn’t discriminate, and it demands multiple viewings to catch all the gags.

You’d probably want to watch a second time anyway, that’s how charming the movie is. Though perhaps not as contemplative as “The Lego Movie,” “Lego Batman” is just as fun, and even more bombastic. The less you know about the plot – especially the constantly surprising third act – the better the experience will be.

Arnett’s Batman is 100 percent aware of how awesome and fun he can be; in other words, he’s completely in on the joke. The movie embraces the character’s history in that way.

Even before we see anything on the screen, as Batman proclaims in a darkened theater that “All important movies start with a black screen,” we know we’re in on it too. And it’s a wonderful joke to be a part of – sincere, thrilling and oh so awesome.

 

“The Lego Batman Movie” is rated PG for rude humor and some action 

Starring: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes

Directed by Chris McKay

2017

 

Why ‘Moonlight’ deserves Best Picture over ‘La La Land’

To say it hasn’t already won the hearts of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences – and the movie scene in general – with its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations would feel like a false statement.

But if history has anything to say about it, a victory for “La La Land” in the Best Picture race isn’t a total lock. Cinephiles will remember last year, when it seemed the Leonardo DiCaprio-Alejandro Iñárritu vehicle “The Revenant” had all the momentum, before the journalism drama “Spotlight” stole Oscar gold in the biggest category.

“La La Land” is critically revered and audience-adored, and viewing it through the scope as a tribute to classic Hollywood, it would be a risky gamble to bet against it as the film the Academy names the best of the year on Feb. 26.

But here’s a case for the movie that very well surprise everyone on Oscar Night; at least, those who haven’t experienced it yet. Whether the Academy recognizes it as such or not, “Moonlight” – the $1.5 million indie project by Barry Jenkins that explores masculinity and identity in crack-riddled Miami – is the best picture of the year. And it deserves to be named the Best Picture of the year.

It isn’t that seemingly every element in “Moonlight” works so perfectly and cohesively that it feels like living, breathing poetry.

It isn’t that the film – somewhat miraculously, seemingly effortlessly – makes three very different, very unknown actors portraying one character legitimately feel like one person at three different stages of his life, a la Boyhood without the gimmick.

It isn’t that (well, ok, it’s a tiny bit this) honoring “Moonlight” as the year’s best film would serve as a stamp of recognition of its masterful nature, on a night when it will be very difficult for the drama to pick up Oscar gold in anything outside of the Best Supporting Actor race for Mahershala Ali.

It’s the fact that, while it’s so easy to watch “La La Land” and imagine it taking place in the ‘50s if you remove the iPhones, “Moonlight” is so completely in tune with its time and place and setting. Even as it takes place more around the turn of the century, its subject matter couldn’t be more simultaneously relevant and timeless.

In an age when historical dramas and Hollywood-worshipping throwbacks have become synonymous with Oscar bait, “Moonlight” instead represents something so different, so inherently human in its intimacy and relative small-scale nature that it’s almost a wonder it was recognized by the Academy at all.

The story of Chiron over three distinct phases of his life isn’t an easy watch, but a substantial part of that is because it’s made in a way that we haven’t seen very much before in film, if at all. It’s a hauntingly beautiful portrait of urban America, one that it seems we’ve been waiting on for a long time, like a distant stretch of land that we can see for years from the ocean before we final reach its lush shores.

There’s extremely little dialogue in “Moonlight,” probably as much over its entire running time as the first 30 minutes of “La La Land.” When characters do speak, Jenkins’ screenplay makes every word count, but it’s the long looks between them that speak volumes more the subject matter than any movie not from the silent film era.

Whereas “La La Land” tells a story of big dreams and the sacrifices we take to reach them in the brightest of lights, “Moonlight” contemplates much more basic urges, ones that are almost primal in their longing to answer a simple question: Who am I? And it does so without wasting nary a single frame, each beautiful shot as engrossing as anything conjured up by Damien Chazelle.

At a time when, on a political and social level, so much is being made about identity, sexuality, masculinity, and the interweaving of the three, “Moonlight” simply screams 2017, in its art and in its spirit. And it does so much in the same way “Pulp Fiction” is associated by so many with 1994, “The Social Network” earnestly captured the early 2000s, and “E.T.” the paranoid, childlike wonder of the ‘70s.

None of those won Best Picture, either.

Review: In “Lion,” an adopted Indian man searches for his family

If “Lion” was a work of complete fiction, there’s no doubt it would invite skepticism over its unbelievable plot.

The fact that this – a story about an Indian boy, Saroo, losing his family and finding them again decades later as a grown man – is a true story is astounding enough in its own right. But Garth Davis doesn’t simply rely on immense emotional appeal for his feature directorial debut. He works to make the climax as satisfying as possible, via two hours of compelling and superbly-written narrative that certainly earns its place in the Best Picture race.

Chief among the things that elevate “Lion” from good to great is the decision to make the story linear, when it could have been told through flashbacks that would have detracted from its magnitude.

And one of the reasons that works so well is the casting of Sunny Pawar, the result of auditioning reportedly 4,000 boys for the role of young Saroo who finds himself hundreds of miles from home after falling asleep on a train. Pawar is unexpectedly incredible in the role, the cries for his family as heart-wrenching as the hopeless face he adopts after wandering around Calcutta for weeks.

Simply put, his performance is more evidence that it’s perhaps time to seriously think about including a Best Child Performance in the Academy Awards.

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There’s little dialogue in this portion of “Lion,” a decision that Davis said was influenced by the poetic first act of Pixar’s “Wall•E.”

Instead, Luke Davies’ work behind the camera paints an intensely morose picture of young Saroo’s plight. The audience gets a sense of India’s vast spaces and even more vast oceans of people, as well as just how much bigger Calcutta would have seemed to a young, lost Saroo.

Eventually Saroo is placed in an orphanage, through which he would eventually be adopted by Sue and John Brierley, an Australian family looking to make a better life for one of India’s tens of thousands of children that go missing every year.

Saroo grows into a motivated young man played by Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame, having taken on the accent of his adoptive family. When a particular detail of his childhood finds its way into Saroo’s life – despite the presumed cultural and geographic barriers – he begins to obsess over finding his family, though it’s a slow internal mission that he initially rejects.

It’s at this point in “Lion” that it becomes thematically compelling, with Davis exploring Saroo’s mindset of someone torn by the guilt of separating himself from his family and struggling to justify calling Australia home when he increasingly sees his Indian brother everywhere he goes.

The film’s cohesiveness also falters a bit in this middle act. While we feel like we are with Saroo at every pivotal point of his life as a lost boy not knowing which way to go to return home, there isn’t as much of that connective tissue with Patel’s Saroo.

In one scene he is satisfied with his decision to not try and find his family, and seemingly not much time later he has quit his job, a man struggling with his identity while falling asleep on Google Earth trying to find whatever landmarks he can to create a virtual route home.

It doesn’t detract too much from the film, though. Patel and Rooney Mara (playing the part of Saroo’s girlfriend who pushes him to find his family) turn in great performances. Nicole Kidman is particularly powerful as Saroo’s adoptive mother, no doubt channeling a certain part of herself in the role – Kidman herself is an adoptive mother, which allowed her to bond with the real-life Sue Brierley.

Kidman’s might be the most praiseworthy performance of “Lion,” although the aforementioned Pawar gives her a legitimate run for her money as he carries the film’s first 50 minutes or so

The profound impact of watching “Lion” lies in Davis choosing to tell a very raw, emotional and – in some ways – straightforward story. He doesn’t invent the wheel in regards to how to tell a story, but he knows the story he wants to tell. Most importantly, he knows its an intimate one, already powerful in its conclusion.

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It lends to the majesty of “Lion” that it isn’t exactly dripping with optimism, the story also dealing with the complex relationships that come with adoption.

But what the story lacks as a bursting fountain of positivity in its middle act, its final 20 or so minutes make up for in total, unabashed catharsis, like safely letting out the deepest of breaths in an unfamiliar atmosphere. It’s a spectacular final act, the accentuation on the audience’s initial investment.

One of the most interesting aspects of “Lion” is its juxtaposition of a pixelated India on Google Earth versus the very real, endless landscapes we witness early on. But even more than simply a parable about the power of technology, “Lion” is a believable testimony to the resolve of Saroo, a rare happy ending to a very real hell for millions of Indian children.

It forces us to rethink what we may think of as being culturally isolated, and does so with a roaring sense of timelessness.

 

“Lion” is rated PG-13 for some thematic material and some sensuality. 

Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Sunny Pawar

Directed by Garth Davis

2016

Review: Final installment of ‘Resident Evil’ as brainless as its zombies

It’s a bit of a miracle that we got to six “Resident Evil” movies.

The brainless, faithless adaptation of the hugely popular videogames set the bar low with its first entry in 2002, but it would only be downhill from there.

With “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter,” it’s more of the same that we’ve been getting for 15 years – messy narratives, recycled action, and an almost complete lack of fun. The film’s title alone suggests a long-overdue sense of finality, the last gasps of a forgettable series just waiting to be put down once and for all.

In a movie where seemingly every element is a letdown, the script is the most frustrating weakness. Despite the series being at a point where the only filled seats in the theater are the same people who have been there since the start, “The Final Chapter” begins with an excruciating amount of exposition recapping the series thus far. It’s little more than a montage that’s not far from Prezi-level quality.

From there on, there is little logic to be found for an hour and 40 minutes. That’s especially true when it comes to the film’s big baddies; they aren’t the film’s undead (though there’s plenty of that as well), but they might as well be just as brainless with how many easy passes they seem to give Alice and company. It’s like they’re begging for their plan to be halted.

Which might work in a different context, but not here. An incredible forced revelation in the final act doesn’t help the proceedings. It’s a horribly executed attempt to get any semblance of empathy out of the audience. Instead it borders on self-parody.

In many ways, it seems like the overarching problem with this “Resident Evil” entry, and the series as a whole, is that it takes itself much too seriously. But it’s hard to justify even that excuse when there is no semblance of cohesive story.

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In retrospect, most fans probably aren’t making it out to a “Resident Evil” film in 2017 for the story anyway, rather looking for mindless action and bombastic set pieces connected by the thinnest threads that logic can provide.

But “The Final Chapter” underwhelms in that vein too. The action sequences – which range from fighting zombies to zombie dogs to zombie-bat-pterodactyl creations – are so poorly directed that they feel like leftovers, a cache of deleted scenes from prior “Resident Evil” movies.

The camerawork is headache-inducing, the CGI downright cheap, and the sound editing…I refuse to believe there was any sound “editing” involved. From a technical standpoint, the movie is nails-on-a-chalkboard bad.

One would have thought that Paul W.S. Anderson – who has written the previous five films, and directed three of those, as well as “The Final Chapter” – would have decided enough is enough with the mediocrity.

Right up to its truly insufferable ending, the series never figured out what its identity was – should he have focused on compelling stories or an innovative visual aesthetic? Because “Resident Evil” was never going to be both.

The fact that the series almost never truly lies in the realm of horror was perhaps the strongest sign early on of prolonged disappointment. But refusing to ever truly be movies made for the fans is the lasting legacy of “Resident Evil,” if history ever grants it that distinction of being remembered beyond February.

 

“Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” is rated R for sequences of violence throughout

Starring: Milla Jovovich, Iain Glen, Ali Larter, Shawn Roberts

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

2016

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