This is what the Oscars playing Russian roulette looks like

As it turns out, even at 91 years old you can still experience growing pains.

That’s the scenario the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finds itself in Tuesday, following its unveiling of nominations for this year’s Oscars, the culmination of which was a field of eight wildly varied Best Picture nominees which collectively confirm one thing: The Academy is as clueless as the rest of us about its identity in 2019.

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Review: In ‘The Favourite,’ Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz battle for adoration

In Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest work, politicians squawk and squabble, insult and chastise, demean and decry. It’s a time of war, but personal status and desire are much bigger priorities than frontline strategy, and a royal palace that increasingly feels populated by childish personalities rarely puts country first.

Lanthimos and Co. probably weren’t expecting or intending for “The Favourite” to have so much in common with the American political hellscape of 2018, but this delightfully deranged retelling of power struggles in 18th-century England makes for eerie and enticing comparison. During an age when it’s become increasingly difficult for satirists to make hyperbolic sense of our world, “The Favourite” –  a period piece “Mean Girls” with layers of complexity – smashes us over the head with (mostly) historically accurate allegory. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts: Crime of Grindelwald’ doesn’t conjure up enough charm to make up for confounding story

They linger, skitter and roar; excite and intimidate. Their presence can be curious, and at times the absences of others are a relief. They have their own hierarchies, although at times clashes can break out for the worst.

When a film’s moniker bears the words “fantastic beasts,” it’s not an advantage when those above words describe its multitudes of plot threads as accurately as the extraordinary creatures conjured up for J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world.

Much like this universe’s beloved nifflers, powerful dragons or sassy bowtruckles, the various tidbits of story and exposition in the second installment of this “Harry Potter” prologue series are disparate, with their own ambitions and unpredictable tendencies rooted in a hunger for attention. Ultimately, it’s to the film’s detriment, though fans of the series would be hard-pressed to leave the theater not feeling a little enchanted simply on the merits of returning home to this universe. Increasingly, it feels like reuniting with an old, robed friend. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Widows’ is an increasingly rare caliber of thriller, and bold new territory for Steve McQueen

There’s a scene early in “Widows” – Steve McQueen’s latest and most unorthodoxly mainstream movie – in which Robert Duvall’s aging, racist local statesman tells his son and heir that his new $50,000 painting comes across as mere wallpaper.

Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan responds with a nondescript rebuke, as if on a deeper level he doesn’t fully disagree: “It’s art.”

The brief exchange can garner a universal chuckle for those watching in a moviehouse, but one gets the sense that isn’t McQueen’s intention. How we react to the scene, after all, is also a product of our experiences.

Would $50,000 turn our lives around? Is it pocket change? Do we ever dream of being at a place where that sum of money could be spent on a single, needless piece of wall decor? Could we dream of it? Continue reading →

The Surgence of the Spring Movie Season

11 years ago, amid what society at large (including The Hollywood Sphere™) had for years deemed the “movie calendar’s graveyard shift,” a comic book movie burst onto the screen.

There were no superheroes in it. Six-packs, absolutely, but no genetically altered physiques housing superior, moral objectivity or superhuman wit. In other words, it would be another year before the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The character of Iron Man was about as familiar to the mainstream moviegoer as a contemporary Oscar contender released before March — aka, not very familiar. But, more on that later.

The movie I’m referring to is the uberviolent, uberlubricated “300.” The only still-relevant aspect a decade later is its (over)reliance on CGI as an innovated form of box office-busting, audience-driving weaponry.

(And no, I won’t hear your argument that Gerard “Sure I’ll Sign Up For Your Generic B-Movie Action Flick That Won’t Make More Than $30+ Mil Opening Weekend” Butler has remained relevant.)

(Lena Headey makes a strong case, though.)

Virtually transplanted for the screen from its comic book roots in a way that somehow didn’t constitute plagiarism, “300” transported audiences in a way few films had up to that point. More importantly, it transported them at a time when virtually any film of its kind didn’t dare to.

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Fish-men, dressmaking and peaches: The top 10 movies of 2017

With a few weeks left before what has quite loudly morphed into the most unpredictable Oscars in years, it’s finally time to take stock of what we had in 2017 at the cinema.

In brevi: It was an astounding dichotomy of auteurs operating – or continuing to operate – at the height of their powers (Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Thomas Anderson, Denis Villeneuve) and first-time directors yielding surprise gems and excitement for the future of film (Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele).

In a year that ended with Hollywood beginning to form a new identity – the result of which may not be evident on the big screen until at least 2019 – it also gave us much to cry, scream and ponder about in the theater.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in the months following an incredibly epic and incredibly awkward Best Picture win by “Moonlight” – itself a eulogy to identity and the winding road it can personify itself as – some of 2017’s best movies featured heroes, villains and everyday characters grappling with theirs.

Sometimes it involved busting out a move at an impromptu dance party in Italy, other times it was shedding your identity for the entertainment of others.

And, at other times still, it involved fish sex. 2017 truly had it all.

Adding to the sea of similar pieces that represent closing a chapter and opening a new one more than anything of actual substance, here is this film critic’s top 10 films of the year. Continue reading →

Review: ‘The Disaster Artist’ brings humanity to one of cinema’s biggest running gags

“You can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself. But please don’t hurt each other.”

Tommy Wiseau has become known to say that when appearing at screenings of his 2003 disasterpiece, “The Room.”

Now, after 14 years, it’s near impossible to get through “The Disaster Artist” – Wiseau’s biopic and the story behind the greatest worst movie ever made – without laughing, crying, smiling, recoiling or having any other kind of visceral reaction.

For a film that radiates irony through the very fact that it was made, and made very well, that experience must bring it all full circle for Wiseau and his cult hit to rule all cult hits. For years he was the butt of a joke, sometimes even in on it. But thanks to James Franco, his story is now an unexpectedly inspiring one, a seemingly hyberbolic but very real ode to reaching for the stars – even if we can barely lift our arms above our head. Continue reading →

Review: For “mother!” Aronofsky trades subtlety for potentially meaningful mayhem

“It affects everyone in a different way,” says a narcissistic Javier Bardem in Darren Aronofsky’s hieroglyphics-filled-cavern of a movie, “mother!”

Yeah. I’ll say.

This is a film that has been nothing if not a bastion for discussion as the Cinematic Year transitions to awards season. “IT” has horrified mainstream audiences for two weeks (as well as satisfied New Line Cinema to the tune of the biggest horror opening ever) and I’d like to think that Paramount picked the week after to release “mother!” in order to provide a different – a VERY different – sort of disturbing experience in the theater. Continue reading →

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