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D. Alex Lynch

Various works and musings of an aspiring journalist

Review: McAvoy a force in “Split,” Shyamalan continues to underwhelm

An edited version of this review appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here

While “Split” isn’t the Shyamalanaissance that many were perhaps hoping it would be, the film does feature a bit of a revelatory turn by James McAvoy, embracing range that we’ve only seen glimpses of in his earlier works.

As with his films, director M. Night Shyamalan’s career has been a bit of an enigma. After venturing onto the scene with a handful of films that were fresh and innovative, he hasn’t been able to regain that sense of wonder in the nearly two decades since.

“Split” is an admirable attempt. While it has its tense moments, and sets things up rather nicely for the finish, it doesn’t ever really get there. Or if it does, it crawls across the finish line. It’s an underwhelming effort to highlight the long-lasting effects of abuse, disguised as an over-the-top exploration of Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Which is where James McAvoy comes in. Roaring in, actually, with a performance that is so magnetic it’s hard to pull your eyes away. Consequently, “Split” by default takes several steps back when he isn’t on the screen.

Though the marketing campaign for “Split” touts 23 different personalities that McAvoy’s character has, there’s really only four or five that have significant screentime. They’re varied enough, but it’s a testament to McAvoy’s performance that they truly feel like different characters, with separate bodies as well as motives.

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The film’s first two acts are full of sequences where McAvoy shows off his talents, but it’s clear from the very first moments of “Split” that Shyamalan’s script he focuses on the wrong character – Anya Taylor-Joy’s standoffish Casey.

We get some flashbacks into moments of Casey’s life as a young girl that are meant to serve as explanations for who she eventually became, but there’s a problem – it’s just hard for us to care. It doesn’t seem like Shyamalan does either, as McAvoy’s scenes are much better-directed, and simply more compelling.

This being a Shyamalan film, we’re expecting a final-act revelation that turns everything on its head, an expectation that twist-obsessed director is at fault for implementing over the years. Unfortunately in “Split,” guessing the conclusion is more satisfying than the final itself. It’s a revelation of the intellectual kind, rather than an in-your-face moment of catharsis.

At best, it can be at appreciated what Shyamalan was trying to strive for with the setup and eventual payoff. At worst, you’ll be very confused once the credits roll. It legitimately feels like there’s something we missed, some clue to make sense of it all, when in reality this is, disappointingly, one of the more straightforward Shyamalan efforts.

Which, because of McAvoy’s performance, is fine. He is a force, making an early case for one of the most memorable performances of 2017. He not only carries the movie – he singlehandedly elevates it from being stuck in Shyamalan movie purgatory, to a sign that the director might be on the road back to relevance.

Here’s hoping he sees it as a benchmark, and not the peak.

 

“Split” is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some langauge

Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

2016

 

Review: With ‘Silence,’ Scorsese’s passion project finally comes to life

An edited version of this review appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here

Martin Scorsese has proven to be a consistent a filmmaking force over the years, having succeeded in multiple eras of cinema where other directors may have lost touch with their audience. But while consistency in his filmography reigns, the accessibility of his projects in recent years vary wildly.

It’s hard to think of a Scorsese movie that exemplifies this better that “Silence.” It represents a long-gestating passion project for the director, about Christian priests searching for their missing mentor in 1600s Japan, where the religion is not only outlawed, but met with swift brutality.

It’s easy to say that “Silence” has a straightforward premise; it certainly isn’t tough to follow, even when the seemingly intimate story occasionally lends itself to broad, epic strokes of storytelling.

Rather, it’s the underlying tale of conflicting religious and cultural ideologies that makes “Silence” one of Scorsese’s most profound works to date.

That the movie, clocking in at a little over two and a half hours, tells a story that simultaneously self-contained and transcendent of its setting is a testimony to Scorsese’s script, which he worked on alongside Jay Cocks.

Scorsese’s seemingly lifelong interest in the project is absolutely on display here. Consequently, some in the audience will find it hard to engage on an emotional level with what they see on screen, whether it’s because they were expecting something more in the veins of the frenetic “The Wolf of Wall Street” or they can’t relate with the characters in terms of belief in a higher power.

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But the ones who can engage on an emotional, even spiritual, level might find themselves deep in thought at various points in the film, particularly at moments of discussion between Andrew Garfield’s priest Rodrigues and the anti-Christian Inquisitor. These intellectual clashes serve to show that there’s not really a traditional good guy and bad guy in “Silence”; just a difference in perspective.

Speaking of perspective, Rodrigo Preto conjures up imagery behind the camera that is nothing short of majestic, a visual contrast to the figurative nothingness suggested by the film’s title. In a year with many superbly-shot films, “Silence” demands a seat at the table.

Fog is a pervading element in the movie, acting as nature’s answer to the wisps of doubt that slowly creep into Rodrigues’ mind. And the use of Christian imagery at the most unexpected of moments is chilling, if not meant to make us feel a similar weight that is on Rodrigues’ shoulders.

Garfield is fine here, enduring through initial impressions of having been miscast with a performance that becomes more physically demanding the more he looks like Jesus himself. Adam Driver, as the priest Garupe, is acceptable with the unexpectedly limited screentime he has, and Liam Neeson is expectedly satisfying as the vulnerable missing priest Ferreira.

Meanwhile, it’s silence itself that feels like it has the most noteworthy performance, a character in its own right that almost acts as a mediator in the proceedings. There’s the figurative silence that Rodrigues must grapple with in his journey, but the virtual lack of any score in the film gives a certain amount of levity to the narrative.

At times the technique makes “Silence” feel like a historical documentary (which, to an extent, it is, having basis in fact). Other times it’s authority is so  pertinent that we hope for just a pin drop to break the tension. On that end, Scorsese delivers with the occasional, but extremely vivid, display of brutality.

The modern cinema is a place where most movies are rife with spectacle that is as easy to absorb as it perhaps is to forget. “Silence” instead is formidable in its resolve to remind us that the physical lack of cinematic bombast can be even louder, and certainly more thought-provoking.

Scorsese is offering us an invitation to the table where identity and culture collide in constant conflict; whether that’s under the authority of a hanging crucifix or not is up to us.

 

“Silence” is rated R for some disturbing violent content

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano

Directed by Martin Scorsese

2016

 

Review: In ‘A Monster Calls,’ grief and metaphor take center stage

The subjects of coping with grief and coming to terms with inevitable loss are some of life’s most complex. Director J.A. Bayona understands this with his vision of “A Monster Calls,” an adaptation of the Patrick Ness novel of the same name.

The film is simultaneously straightforward and allegorical, with so much of its brains relying on the audience to keep up with its multitude of metaphors. It still holds a certain amount of weight if you fall a bit behind, but reveling in its intricacies, now matter how forced they may seem, ultimately leads to a powerful message of accepting the direst situations life may throw at us.

Newcomer Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, whose mom, portrayed powerfully by Felicity Jones, is sick and not getting much better, despite trying seemingly every treatment available.

Conor is aware of her debilitating situation, but continually shuts himself off to it. What young child wants to think about having to live life without their mom? Instead he draws away his frustrations late at night, a distraction that proves to be a bit too effective.

That is, until the titular monster – a wooden CGI beast sporting Liam Neeson’s devilishly sly voice – pays Conor a visit, and begins to preach his parables.

These moments, although they are what make “A Monster Calls” unique and provide its billing, are hit-or-miss. Rest assured, there is a vital importance the monster’s origin and appearance other than being a cultural knockoff of Marvel’s Groot character, as there is in the stories he tells Conor.

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They are meant to instill some wisdom, although the messages seem a bit forced. Thankfully, some wonderful, unexpectedly macabre animation makes it more bearable. The sharp and analytical minds that pick up on the monster’s motives for telling these particular stories are the ones who will get the most out of “A Monster Calls.”

Instead, the film is at its strongest and most accessible in Conor’s interactions with other humans, including his father who now lives in America, and his grandmother that he has trouble connecting with. Not only is MacDougall stronger in these scenes, but the interactions may lead us to think back to moments in our lives where we may not have gotten along with a family member in a time when it was so important to be emotionally in sync with one another.

A highlight of the film comes during the monsters’ third, and most unexpected, visit. If we haven’t up to this point, it finally becomes clear what the beast represents, as well as his timeliness of visiting Conor. It is an impactful scene, and a rare one for Bayona when all aspects of his film come together perfectly as Conor finally begins to let out what he’s been keeping pent up inside.

And that’s only the prologue to his complete transformation in the film’s final act, one which makes us ponder the monster inside us all, and the power of releasing it when life swings its biggest punches. It’s difficult to tell who “A Monster Calls” is best suited for; its protagonist relates more to our youthful, innocent selves while the film is certainly more dark and mature than some may expect.

But the discussion that it is sure to spark between moviegoers of any age after leaving the multiplex is an important one, affirming the impact of a film that might make you question your perspective of life, even with its tough-to-absorb allegories.

 

“A Monster Calls” is rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images 

Starring: Lewis McDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell

Directed by J.A. Bayona

2016

Most Anticipated Movies of 2017

Picking out which films we are most excited for at this point in the year is an interesting task.

It’s an opportunity to guesstimate how a movie will turn out based on the footage and information we have up to this point, but by no means do I expect (at least right now) any of these movies to in the running for Best Picture at the 2018 Oscars.

The best films in any given year usually spring out of nowhere. At this point in 2016, most audiences and critics knew little – or nothing at all – about “Moonlight,” “Manchester By The Sea” or “La La Land.” At this point those are the frontrunners for the top prize at the Academy Awards. Some of this year’s critical darlings might not even have a distributor yet, though the season’s first big film festival, Sundance, begins in just a few weeks.

So there’s some optimism to be had knowing that the best films of 2017 won’t be listed here (although you could potentially make the case for one or two by year’s end). Instead, most of these are movies that we know have been in the works for a while, have built up some hype, and mostly fall into the category of “popcorn flick.”

This list provides a chance at sucking up to particular franchises and filmmakers as excitement levels are fairly high, before they hit the theaters and we get to see if they meet our expectations.

Check out the trailers, mark your calendars, and revel in the fact that this will easily be the most gushing I do about franchise sequels this year.


10. “The Emoji Movie” – August 4

Ha. Just kidding.


10. “The Belko Experiment” – March 17

Heavily influenced by the gleefully violent foreign flick “Battle Royale,” “The Belko Experiment” explores what would happen if a regular office full of 9-to-5 workers was suddenly forced to participate in a game of kill or be killed against their colleagues.

The film – written by James Gunn, who is always full of surprises – looks like sheer bloody, self-aware fun, in a way that we expected 2014’s “The Green Inferno” to be. If you’re going to hire a babysitter for any film on this list, “The Belko Experiment” would be the one.


9. “Coco” – November 22

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Though Pixar has yet to release any footage for its upcoming Día de los Muertos-themed flick, “Coco” will seemingly be the last original offering by the animation giant before a wave of anticipated sequels are released in the next few years. Following in the footsteps of “Moana,” “Coco” looks to explore another culture that is underrepresented on the big screen, that of Mexico.

Though there are little plot details at this point, early artwork for the film suggests a vibrant, engrossing, and totally Pixarian exploration at a holiday that is vastly misunderstood outside of Mexico.


8. “Dunkirk” – July 21

Christopher Nolan has spent the better part of the last 15 years reinventing the Batman story, taking us farther into the cosmos than we might have thought imaginable (“Interstellar”), and creating a legitimate sci-fi masterpiece in “Inception.”

Now he’s turning to history for inspiration, bringing to the big screen the untold story of nearly half a million Allied forces who were staring death in the eye during World War II on the beaches of France.

Harry Styles of One Direction fame joins Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy in what is sure to be another Nolan offering that can only be truly appreciated in IMAX. “Dunkirk” also looks to continue the theme of emotional, ominous scores pervading the directors’ recent works.


7. “Logan” – March 3

Judging from its beautifully made trailer, “Logan” is trying  to single-handedly save the annual period of despair between Oscar season and the summer from being another cinematic landfill of Hollywood excrement.

Hugh Jackman returns in what is presumably (maybe? Maybe not?) the final turn of his iconic incarnation of “Wolverine,” while director James Mangold seems to be fully embracing the newfound potential of R-rated comic book movies in a post-“Deadpool” world. Expect Jackman to unleash a fury like we have yet to experience, balanced with the most vulnerable state we have ever seen Wolverine in.

But if you’re trying to figure out where this fits in the timeline of X-Men flicks, that’s a futile effort. Here’s hoping “Logan” doesn’t concern itself too much with saving it.


6. “Okja” – TBA

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If there is one foreign filmmaker that American audiences should turn to as providing the most accessible of unique and wholly original films, it’s South Korean director Joon-ho Bong.

After bringing us the criminally underrated “Snowpiercer” in 2013, Bong returns with what is sure to be another standout vision in “Okja,” in which a young girl tries to prevent a massive creature from being taken by a powerful company, presumably for experimentation. Think “E.T.” with more complex themes, a tonally all-encompassing screenplay, and some Jake Gyllenhaal for good measure.

The best part? “Okja” will be available on Netflix from the onset. So the vast majority of you don’t have an excuse to miss this one.


5. “War for the Planet of the Apes” – July 14

If the franchise reboot “Rise” was “Batman Begins,” 2014’s “Dawn” was its “The Dark Knight, improving on it in nearly every way to provide a thematically complex popcorn movie with memorable action sequences.

The third entry arrives this summer, one in which simian leader Caesar is grasping for whatever semblance of respect he has for the human race. Meanwhile, series newcomer Woody Harrelson’s military commander is hell-bent on annihilating the species in what can only be called a complete encapsulation of the film’s title.

Expect fantastic action, and another motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis that makes an Oscar category for CGI-ified actors all the more necessary.


4. “Alien: Covenant” – May 19

The next entry in the Alien saga, directed by franchise creator Ridley Scott, is the most “high-risk, high-reward” entry on this list. The legendary director has said that this film is going back to the series’ horror roots. It’s also officially a sequel to the polarizing “Prometheus” while taking us closer to the original story of the doomed Nostromo.

The initial trailer promises slimy, bloody mayhem – in other words, the fulfilled promise to the hard-R glory days of one of cinema’s most imaginative (and monstrous) creatures.

But the burden is also on Scott to provide us with answers teased in “Prometheus” so as to more fully flesh out the mythos at large. If all the right notes are hit, this could be the sleeper hit of the year, providing “Rogue One”-esque fan service while also being simply a bloody good time.

The film’s cast is certainly intriguing, as Michael Fassbender returns to join James Franco (?), Billy  Crudup (!), and Katherine Waterston in a role that seems like a throwback to everyone’s favorite Alien asskicker, Ripley.


3. “Blade Runner 2049” – October 6

When a sequel to the 35-year old sci-fi classic “Blade Runner” was first announced, I probably wasn’t the first one to break out in nervous sweating. An extremely long-gestating sequel to a movie that, by many accounts, probably shouldn’t have worked in the first place with its incredibly heavy themes and broody aesthetic? Good luck with that.

Then a director was announced for the job: Dennis Villeneuve, and pessimism turned to heavy-handed excitement.

Villeneuve has established himself as one of the premiere directors in Hollywood, having churned out incredible film after incredible film in recent years, the most recent being critical darling and Oscar contender “Arrival.” He’s shown a propensity for handling complex themes with grace and delicacy, which is precisely what is needed for “Blade Runner 2049,” a film that we can expect won’t connect automatically with a mainstream audience.

The cast of Ryan Gosling, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, and, yes, Harrison Ford’s return is also compelling.

At the very least, this could very well be the most technically proficient blockbuster of the year, especially with masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins lending his talents behind the camera.


2. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” – May 5

The second entry in Marvel’s oddball franchise certainly has high expectations, but this is the film on this list I’m most optimistic about being a critical and commercial hit.

The first “Guardians,” brought to us by James Gunn, was entertaining and endearing to the point of total satisfaction. If Baby Groot isn’t enough to make us want to buy a ticket, there’s also the introduction of Kurt Russell to the MCU that we can look forward to, as well as how Gunn integrates classic rock hits into the spectacle and humor once again.


1. “Star Wars: Episode VIII” – December 15

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How many spots in the all-time top 10 grossing movies will be filled by a “Star Wars” flick when it’s all said and done? Hell, will the franchise ever reach a point that it’s truly “all said and done”?

It’s too soon to worry about that, but for now we can look forward to a probably much more mature second entry in this trilogy of movies.

Rian Johnson of “Looper” and fame takes the reins this time around, and he’s provided the most minimal of details for his vision: It will begin moments after the end of “The Force Awakens,” with Rey having found Luke, isolated and presumably in a dark place.

Knowing Johnson’s style, that may just be the start of how he intends to break away from “Star Wars” precedent. And, of course, fans will want to see the late Carrie Fisher as the iconic Leia one more time on the big screen.


Five movies we really don’t need this year…or any other year

Because Hollywood is Hollywood, and Hollywood wants money.

 

5.  “A Dog’s Purpose” – January 27

Don’t worry, I can hear you say it. “How dare you not be simply ecstatic about a movie about DOGS?!”

Because a movie that encourages you to mistake a ridiculous premise and (judging from the trailer) a screenplay devoid of substance for canine sympathy doesn’t deserve my attention, nor yours.


4. “The Mummy” – June 9

This one could beat my expectations, I’ll admit. But only because my expectations are for this to be nothing more than a cringeworthy, hypermasculine reboot of a franchise that once upon a time commanded respect.

Can’t wait to read about what stunts Tom Cruise insisted he take on this time, though.


3. “Halloween: The Night Evil Died” – June 23

The only thing more disappointing than this franchise’s willingness to continue chipping away at the legacy of the 1978 horror classic is that subtitle.


2 “Transformers: The Last Knight” – June 23

Why, Michael? Truly, why?


1. “Justice League” – November 17

Remember that one Thanksgiving where your uncles got in a politically-charged argument, ending with plates being thrown, people screaming, and you slipping in the vomit your baby cousin just deposited on the carpet?

Yeah, the DC cinematic universe is, right now, a bigger mess than even that. And the fact that Zack Snyder is still in charge of it all doesn’t create any hope for the future.

 

 

Thanks for reading. Here’s to 2017. 

Review: Musical enchantment, visual wonder await in ‘La La Land’

An edited version of this review appears in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here

 

There was a moment as I was taking in Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” at my screening, an ironic occurrence that perhaps perfectly encapsulates why this movie is so necessary nearly two decades into the 21st century.

It was one of the quieter moments of the film, as our characters Mia and Sebastian were contemplating the current state of their ambitions. Out of nowhere, the theater shook, with the boisterous, bass-heavy interruptions of whatever was playing in the next screen over.

It lasted for a few minutes, and returned at some scattered points later. It wasn’t a welcome intrusion, but it certainly wasn’t enough to detract from the experience provided by “La La Land.” Afterwards, I would see that the movie so keen to make its presence known was the fifth entry in the “Underworld” franchise, one that – like many other modern Hollywood offerings –  has found solace in becoming an unremarkable attack on the senses.

“La La Land” couldn’t be more different, through its style nor its effect. It’s comparatively much more intimate than what was playing next door, yet its confident spirit was indomitable in a way movies simply aren’t anymore. Its spirit soared.

Chazelle takes the acute direction he utilized for 2015’s “Whiplash” – one of the most memorable works of that year – and infuses it with even more ambition and charisma. The result is “La La Land,” a film that is van Gogh’s “Starry Night” come to life. It represents a genre-reinvigorating tribute to the musicals of 60 years ago, as well as a timeless story of romance, dreams, and what happens when the two collide.

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The film grabs our attention from the onset, via a musical number that slowly escalates until it becomes one of the most exuberant sequences of anything in film this year. From that point on, it was hard to get rid of the smile on my face and the glee that the film so warmly injects the audience with.

The aspiring actress Mia is played by Emma Stone, in a turn that is remarkable and poignant. She seems so natural here, dancing as though she came straight from the stage and singing the movie’s most memorable tunes.

Ryan Gosling stars opposite her as Sebastian, a pianist concerned with the impending extinction of traditional jazz. He has his moments as well, but his performance feels comparatively subdued by some margin, as if he’s playing a particular version of himself with a charm that feels all too familiar.

When the two cross paths, their story begins, and it’s an enchanting experience to be had.

At one point Sebastian asks a friend, “Why do you say ‘romantic’ like it’s a dirty word?” It certainly isn’t for Chazelle, as he combines the charm of a stage play with a film camera’s potential, which this film somehow shows it still untapped. It swirls and it twirls as its own dancer, without ever becoming too much for our eyes to handle.

The visuals are magical, from the way lone spotlights are utilized to when our lovers seem to take to the cosmos. The sum of all this? The very definition of what makes life romantic.

It goes without saying that, musically, “La La Land” is a marvel. The Oscar-worthy score has a demanding presence that, with the incorporated dance numbers, provide a wealth of memorable moments that we simply don’t see out of contemporary Hollywood anymore. It gives a new meaning to “spectacle” at a time in the cinematic landscape when the word has become too much associated with overindulgence and gratuity.

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It always seems like an effortless endeavor when filmmakers continue to test the technological limits of what a movie can do, but here you can sense that there was real passion involved, resulting in emotionally stirring instances of breaking out into song and dance.

The score’s strongest notes work to convey the moods of particular scenes in a way that is so graceful and organic that you’d forget there is little to no dialogue involved at times. It’s that engrossing, and might entice you to hunt for old jazz records after leaving the theater.

A sharp ear might also notice the subtle returns of the film’s main theme. It almost becomes its own character, surveilling Mia and Sebastian as the sparks between them fly, and even when they begin to doubt the possibility of their original ambitions.

That’s another thing to appreciate about “La La Land.” It has a story to tell, and it doesn’t waver in that regard. This is a cautionary tale by Chazelle, who also wrote the film, balancing joyous optimism with the realities of what happens when we yearn to make our dreams a reality. We remember that in doing so, we will stumble along the way, and sometimes we might not get up on the same path.

In some ways, Chazelle is making a similar commentary on the state of cinema today. One scene in “La La Land” includes a rather explicit critique of the modern moviegoing experience, and the sense of magic that has perhaps been lost along the way.

Chazelle may believe he has performed a duty by demanding our attention with a wholly unique and emotionally satisfying experience. But not in years has the nature of a film’s very existence echoed its themes so profoundly.

In “La La Land,” Los Angeles is full of risks. But it’s also a world with so much wonder and vigor that we just have to get lost in it, despite the stumbles we might take.

 

 

“La La Land” is rated PG-13 for some language 

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons

Directed by Damien Chazelle

2016

Review: The ambitions of ‘Sing’ don’t match those of its characters

Maybe in any other year, Garth Jennings’ “Sing” would rise to the top of the animated crop. But with its holiday release, when many in the audience has experienced “Zootopia,” “Finding Dory” and “Moana,” “Sing” subsequently falters against the heavy expectations we might unconsciously place upon it.

But even when watching “Sing” on its own merits, its notes still fall flat. It’s an entry that, with its overabundance of characters and storylines, doesn’t wrap up in a way that isn’t predictable or particularly memorable, either.

The film’s boasts a pretty impressive cast, with Matthew McConaughey, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johnansson and others lending their voices to animated counterparts. Those include Buster, a naïve and overambitious theater-owning koala, the self-indulgent mouse Mike, and Johnny, the gorilla who participates in his family’s criminal ways when all he wants to do is sing.

None of these narratives are particularly new, and, unfortunately, neither are their conclusions. The bigger problem – and the biggest of the movie’s downfalls – is that these are only three in at least six or seven storylines that are all seemingly at odds with each other for the spotlight. It seems like Buster should be the protagonist, along with his quest for redemption, but if it is, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for him.

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As far as the other characters, they are frustrating in their own motivations that seem consistently forced on the screenplay’s part. Daddy issues, stage fright, having to choose between possible superstardom or current responsibilities – it’s all here. The difference is that the characters feel like they are always choosing the path that obviously leads to trouble down the road.

And that’s without mentioning that a prosthetic body part of probably the most charming scaled creature we see onscreen tips the first domino that sets the overarching plot in motion.

But most people might not go to “Sing” looking for innovative storytelling. They’re banking on the nostalgia of hearing some of their favorite tunes. The good news for those viewers: They’ll get what they came for, and then some.

Especially in the first act, where the movie’s setup amounts to little more than an assault on the senses as we move from character to character setting up their stories; and then eventually from song to song in one particular sequence that is headache-inducing in how much it throws at you.

I’m not saying you won’t be able to tell songs apart – you will, and one of your favorites perhaps even makes it into “Sing’s” over-inflated final act.

But for a movie that seemingly is supposed to be a reflection on the power of individual dreams and the songs that are involved on the way, “Sing” sacrifices charm for cheap attempts at empathy when so many other animated offerings this year have excelled at providing both.

 

“Sing” is rated PG for some rude humor and mild peril 

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane and Scarlett Johansson 

Directed by Garth Jennings 

2016

2016’s 10 Best Films

In 2016, seemingly more than ever before, the movie theater proved necessary as the most accessible of respites from turbulent, unexpected and sometimes harsh realities of the world.

Even for a critic who wasn’t able to catch some of the more enticing titles of the year – and who is still waiting for Oscar hopefuls like “Silence,” “La La Land,” “Fences” and “Paterson” to come to a theater near him – this year’s films provided an incredibly diverse array of places and situations to experience.

History-defining encounters with visitors from other worlds. Hollywood’s most heroic figures fighting each other instead of alongside each other. Animated grocery items engaging in all-out war against humans.

Hollywood showed us in 2016 that internal struggles and immensely personal journeys can be just as thrilling as traversing the farthest reaches of space. It also showed that while popular franchises will continue to spawn seventh, eight, ninth movies, wholly original stories can still be created and told through innovative methods of not only the technological sort, but through appeals to what energizes the most successful films – connections with those watching them.

As previously mentioned, it’s nearly impossible to catch every big movie that comes out every year, and even harder to find time for the treasures that seemingly come out of nowhere to universal praise and acclaim. The year isn’t done, the Oscars still weeks away with many movies still to come out between now and then.

But for now, here are my top 10 films of 2016. Some of them were no-brainers for inclusion; others that you don’t see on this list were tough to leave out. In the end, these films all are connected by one trait: an understanding and embodying of the power of film to be bigger than simply the images we see on the screen.

 

10. Hail, Caesar!

Months before “La La Land” was hailed for bringing back the feeling of Golden Age-era Hollywood, we got a movie that functioned as a love letter to the indomitable spirit of mid-1900s cinema. The Coen Brothers’ latest is also probably their most straightforward, a hilarious and memorable montage of pieces from fictional films inspired by real classics that makes the most of its fantastic ensemble.

From my review: It sounds like a rough gamble, but the Coens make it work. “Hail, Caesar”  may not necessarily be their most thought-provoking work or their most memorable – a testament to their varied catalogue – but one gets the sense that if they know they have left the audience awed by the majesty of 1950s cinema, then they’ve done their job.

 

9. Southside With You

Strong writing and an incredible pair of performances by Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter give life to this story inspired by the first prolonged encounter of America’s First Couple. The more that young Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama learn about each other and the environment they grew up in, the more we feel a new dynamic between ourselves and the figureheads they would eventually become.

From my review: Director Richard Tanne offers a film that is consistently poignant, charming, and also very, very relevant. He struck gold with Tika and Parker Sawyers, who embody everything that has come to be associated with the 21st century Obamas – their vocal and physical mannerisms, their grounded nature – while also reminding us that this version of the future presidential duo still has some things to learn about the world around them.

 

8. Moana

With “Moana,” Disney officially closes the chapter of outdated unwritten rules that dictate what female characters in the studio’s movies can be and stand for. The film’s action is memorable, its music buoyant and fulfilling, its message universal: where we go next is just as important as where we came from and where we are.

From my review“Moana” has a lot to offer, with middle and concluding acts that are equal parts satisfying after a beginning that could have felt much more sluggish in different hands. Its biggest success, however, lies in how Disney is able to poke fun at itself for having been so reliant on one-dimensional stories of the princesses of yestercentury, in a way that signifies a changing of the guard.

 

7. Jackie

The untold story of Jacqueline Kennedy’s quest to define her husband’s legacy in the wake of his assassination is a fascinatingly layered and complex one. Portman is downright tantalizing as the former First Lady, a performance that permits her entrance into the discussion of contemporary cinema’s most consistently surprising performers.

From my review“Jackie” is a heavy, cerebral film. It’s not supposed to be easy to understand; the way in which Portman walks, stares and dresses has as much to say as her dialogue. Multiple viewings are a must, even though this isn’t a film most would be willing to return to immediately.

 

6. Zootopia

In a very strong year for animation, “Zootopia” was arguably the strongest work in the genre. Adults might get more out of it, not just for the hilarious references, but also for its no-holds-barred portrayal of racial tension in contemporary America. It’s brutally honest, making it incredibly relevant – a time capsule future generations might return to in the way we hold “American History X” and “Hotel Rwanda” in such high historical regard.

 

5. The Witch

With “The Witch,” first-time director Robert Eggers bursts onto the scene with sound, fury and one of the most atmospherically haunting films of the decade. A tale that delves into the dangers of isolation and religious fanaticism, there is more paranoia to be had with “The Witch” than many real-world events, especially with Eggers having drawn inspiration and details from historical documents to paint as ominously realistic a snapshot as possible of Puritan New England.

From my reviewFrom the intimate cinematography to the score reminiscent of a creeping, hooded danger following us on a lonely road at night, “The Witch” excels at providing a very different level of fright. The film mimics a slow, energy-draining ride to the top of a roller-coaster with your eyes closed – the audience knows a drop is coming, and a big one, but not quite when.

 

4. Hell or High Water

You’ve seen heist movies before, but not one like this. Set in the vast, unsaturated emptiness of rural Texas, Taylor Sheridan’s script makes you empathize with the outlaws more than the boys in blue on their tail. The movie is thrilling and intelligent while also making us take stock of the things we own that truly belong to us.

As it turns out, it may not be very much.

From my reviewWhile exploring all these motifs and themes, the film remains briskly paced with huge entertainment value, and a climax that is both open-ended and also incredibly satisfying. Whether for the analytical filmgoer or the one just looking for a good time to be had, watching Hell or High Water once certainly isn’t enough. Five or 10 times might not be sufficient, either.

 

3. Arrival

It might be too soon to anoint Denis Villeneuve’s ascent as the second coming of Francis Ford Coppola. But after three big-time swings – “Prisoners,” “Sicario” and now “Arrival” – the director has yet to miss. In fact, he has yet to not hit a home run.

His latest continues a trend of engaging, intelligent and thought-provoking films that are masterfully executed at nearly every level. The music of “Arrival” is on a biblical scale, as are its themes, awe-inspiring cinematography and emotional tugs. Amy Adams pulls off a complicated, multi-faceted turn, and Jeremy Renner excels in the most vulnerable performance of his career.

But it’s Villeneuve’s ability to balance world-shaking events with the most intimate of moments that makes his latest a reminder of what the best science fiction can still do, in a time when the genre very rarely presents situations with little real stakes or edge-of-your-seat drama.

From my review: To be clear, this isn’t particularly an alien invasion movie – our visitors never even set foot on Earth – and the audience shouldn’t expect the normal sort of blockbuster action associated with that moniker. These are thrills of a much more subdued kind.

 

2. Moonlight

There is a certain subdued, cinematic melody to “Moonlight” that helps it ring, like the barely audible hum of society that can be heard when sitting on a lonely beach at 2 in the morning.

Its performances are mighty, its storytelling prowess mightier. This is ostensibly one of the most straightforward narratives you’ll see in a 2016 offering.

But along the way of showing Chiron – a gay, black man growing up in LA – trying to find sympathy and real human connection at three different stages of his life, “Moonlight” places in the spotlight the ability for there to be magnitude in everyday occurrences like a phone call, an encounter, an unleashing of long-held frustration.

It’s a story of life at simultaneously its most simple and its most complex. It’s “Boyhood” without the gimmick, and it’s all the better for it.

 

1. Manchester By The Sea

It’s hard to believe Kenneth Lonergan’s latest – and most monumental – work is only a little over two hours. It’s not like it doesn’t feel like it; it races right along, telling a singular human story that takes on more and more weight with each scene.

But it’s just incredibly comprehensive in its world-building. We feel like we know Casey Affleck’s Lee and his nephew, Patrick. We can sympathize with their numerous clashes, their exchanges, and their personification of life at its most delicate and foreboding.

Lonergan’s is a superbly-written tale of grief and coping, a reminder that going through life means going through uncomfortable situations, ones we are ready for and other still that catch us off guard.

Its ending may feel a bit sudden until we realize that, like our own ongoing stories, there can never be a true ending to this one. It goes on beyond the credits, just as life does when we leave the theater doors.

From my review: Lonergan has crafted a film in which seemingly every scene is brimming with emotional depth. The moments of eruption are not only superbly directed, but immensely memorable for the way they interweave humanity with the kind of merciless humor that seems authentic of the Bostonian culture Affleck personifies.

Review: Portman is a revelation in cerebral ‘Jackie’

Note: An edited version of this review appeared in the ABQ Free Press and can be viewed here

 

“Jackie” is a cement-mixer of a film. Its cinematic workings churn consistently for a little over two hours, virtually devoid of any cinematic energy of the traditional sense that the audience might be expecting.

Rather, a certain amount of intensity is created through a sort of dreamlike style which, like a cement-mixer, seems sluggish in its task but is necessary to the film’s ways of presenting themes that can be examined and appreciated for years.

And if the film is a cement-mixer, Natalie Portman is its driver, the one keeping the film’s metaphorical cement mixing so that it doesn’t solidify into formless rock, but rather something memorable.

That is to say, Portman is revelatory as the titular former First Lady, as demanding with her performance as her character is written to be. Even after a handful of career-topping roles over the years, “Jackie” has her at her most compelling.

She is in virtually every shot of the film, the camera either following her through rooms like an obedient disciple or having her face the audience head-on, her steely gaze cutting right into our souls.

Speaking of souls, director Pablo Larraín provides the film with one that is surreal and kinetic. This cement-mixer may seem slow, but most of the scenes don’t last more than a few minutes. Instead, it ping-pongs between various events that Jacqueline Kennedy engages in in the days before and immediately following her husband’s assassination.

A discussion with a priest. An orchestral concert alongside JFK. Funeral arrangements. Taking the American people on a televised trip through the White House as she describes the changes she has made to the décor.

jackie-pic

By carefully layering certain portions of these scenes on top of one another – as gravel, sand and water form to create concrete – the film pieces together the inner workings of Jackie’s mind. It tells a grim story of a public figure much more vulnerable in privacy as she may have come across as being in public, a widow obsessed with ensuring her husband has an important legacy, or any legacy at all.

At the crux of the interweaving events portrayed onscreen is an interview between Jackie and a journalist (played by a rather stiff Billy Crudup) that we assume occurs after everything else we see in the film. While these scenes reinforce Jackie’s “my way of the highway” attitude, it also serves as a bit of a distraction.

The dynamic of the discussion between Jackie and the unnamed journalist serves as a way of helping us understand her motivations – as well as offering a standout scene as she describes the horrific assassination of JFK in her own words – but it does so in a way that is overly explicit.

“Jackie” is a heavy, cerebral film. It’s not supposed to be easy to understand; the way in which Portman walks, stares and dresses has as much to say as her dialogue. Multiple viewings are a must, even though this isn’t a film most would be willing to return to immediately. But it’s also just 20 to 25 minutes too long, and omitting these – while helpful – expendable scenes with Crudup’s journalist would make it all a bit more satisfying to absorb on an intellectual level.

But that is a small complaint for a movie that is provocative and memorable in its storytelling. Portman is an absolute force, the film’s pessimistic score telling as much. Hopeful music swells up at times, only to plummet into a kind of reverberating and unavoidable despair that characterizes the unique predicament Jackie Kennedy was placed into in the days following Nov. 22, 1963.

The way she reacts in the face of public pressure is not as much one of perseverance as it is a reminder that not even sleeping in the White House can provide all the answers for our troubles.

 

“Jackie” is rated R for brief strong violence and some language 

Starring: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup

Directed by Pablo Larraín

2016

Review: Rogue One, while immensely entertaining, will leave the uninitiated dazed and confused

If last year’s “The Force Awakens” was tasked with introducing “Star Wars,” Jedis, the Force, and its general outer space soap opera aesthetic for a new generation, Gareth Edwards’ mission with “Rogue One” was to bring the focus back to the franchise’s faithful.

Despite scattered references to the mystical Force, and the bare minimum of familiar faces a “Star Wars” film can offer, “Rogue One” still manages to fulfill a vital bit of fan service, essentially acting as a puzzle piece to one of the more critical story points in the entire mythos. In that regard, it’s a generally satisfying experience, and the best entry in the franchise this century.

The catch? It is all those things…for the aforementioned fanbase. For the uninitiated (who truly deserve some level of admiration for not having at least some knowledge of the “Star Wars” franchise up to this point), “Rogue One” – the first in a new branch of the franchise in the form of anthology/puzzle piece films – amounts to little more than an effects-driven, emotional sci-fi romp with a plot so straightforward you’d wonder what all the fuss is about.

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a rebel among rebels who is compelled to assist in the mission against an evil galactic dictatorship that now has the capacity to destroy entire planets.

Whether that premise sounds about as straightforward as can be isn’t really the point. Slap the subtitle of “A Star Wars Story” after the film’s title, and you’ve got packed theater seats, a marketing campaign built on nostalgia, and, admittedly, an advantage in the form of bias from movie critics. That is, admiration for arguably the greatest and most important franchise in movie history.

rogue-one-jyn-ersa-geared-up

Edwards has directed a great film. Truly, he has. And a large part of what makes it so great, aside from containing more Easter eggs than you’ll find in any basket come spring, is that he pulls off creating a “Star Wars” film that is distinctive in an increasingly crowded cinematic universe.

Similar to Edwards’ breakout blockbuster, 2014’s “Godzilla,” “Rogue One” is gritty, with a seductive sense of scale that makes the film’s climactic space battle as intriguing as an earlier sequence that is much more grounded. Immense AT-AT walkers have never seemed so foreboding. The extremist side of the rebel faction is explored. I half expected “Ride of the Valkyries” to play as the Death Star rises ever so slowly over the horizon of Scarif.

This tonal shift, the fact that this – more than any other “Star Wars” flick – was made with adults in mind isn’t a gimmick. It’s pulled off remarkably. There’s real stakes, there’s loss, there’s a pervading sense of “against all odds” storytelling that makes you wonder how Obi-Wan, Luke, Han Solo and company survived so many of their adventures.

The problem is that Edwards’ chosen style can only really be appreciated when you stack “Rogue One” against the other seven entries in the franchise. If this is your first “Star Wars” watch, “A New Hope,” episode IV in the overarching narrative, is almost essential viewing. Because only then can you truly appreciate what Edwards has done.

The film even allows the audience to watch “A New Hope” in a different light, giving us much more respect for the Rebel Alliance’s unsung heroes that are at the forefront of “Rogue One.” It makes a classic film even greater.

Do you see the problem here? “Rogue One” should be appreciated for acting (ironically) as a truly stand-alone experience, telling a singular story from beginning to end with no worries about setting up for future installments. Because we already knows what happens next, and beyond.

But in that endeavor of standing apart, it still is frustratingly, achingly tethered to what comes immediately after. The few narrative points that it does try to make all its own, on the other hand, don’t hold up.

rogue-one-at-ats

The role of Erso’s father teases a twist, when really he only provides functionality – the McGuffin for Jyn to find her path to rebel hero. And it doesn’t even feel that organic; an inspiring speech to her crew seems completely out of left field…er…hyperspace. There’s something lacking in her development, like if Harry Potter had defeated Voldemort two hours after hearing his name for the first time.

Of course, there’s still the spectacle. A handful of memorable sequences sprinkled throughout are fantasies come true for seasoned fans, and wildly entertaining for newbies.

Much of the dialogue is forced, but Alan Tudyk’s  standout turn as the sarcastic, “says whatever comes into his circuits” droid K-2SO makes up for it. When’s the all-droid anthology film coming? Get on it, Disney.

The Force is strong with most of the supporting cast, particularly Riz Ahmed as an Imperial defector and Diego Luna as the rebel willing to pull out all the stops for his cause, but other characters contribute very little.

The music is great, but that’s because it’s influenced by the one of the most familiar scores of all time.

Even from a filmmaking standpoint, “Rogue One” serves to only gain more and more momentum with each act, with only a few moments that slow the pace.

And, of course, the callbacks – or perhaps we should call them call-forwards – to the rest of the franchise provides a treasure chest of references for seasoned fans.

“Rogue One” is as fresh as it is familiar. Of course this “feels like a Star Wars” movie. It’s uniqueness led to its initial ascension in the ‘70s. It’s an entertaining film made great only when viewed as a vital prologue to the Vader/Luke/Leia story.

But while that function as a bridge between trilogies will be appreciated by fanboys, by film’s end – even after Darth Vader has the audience standing and cheering – it’s hard to imagine newcomers doing much more than scratching their heads and saying “So what?”

 

 

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action

Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen

Directed by Gareth Edwards

2016

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