Saturday, December 31, 2016

La La Land: A Mesmerizing And Impressive Feat

I remember two years ago when I foolishly put the film Whiplash on the backburner of my list of must-see movies. I even made my list of the best films of that year completely acknowledging the fact that I knew it wouldn't grace the list. Then, I saw it and it was probably my favorite film of the entire year. I say that to say this-- La La Land, from what I could discern on from the trailer, and the type of movie it is honoring, isn't exactly my cup-o-earl-grey. Yes, it's gotten a lot of positive buzz and attention, and I dig both of the leads, but I'm just not that into musicals. I appreciate the movies of yore-- films like Singin' in the Rain-- but their just not what I actively seek out. So, had I not learned my lesson from Whiplash (whose Writer/Director also wrote and directed La La Land), I probably would've repeated my mistake once more. Thankfully, and wonderfully, I did not.

La La Land isn't just a movie, it's a cinematic experience-- a sight to behold. It's not just the singing and the acting and the story and the dancing-- it's everything. It's what I imagine 1977 was like when people watched Star Wars for the first time and became fully immersed in something visually spectacular and new. Director Damien Chazelle has crafted not just a wonderful homage to the golden age of Hollywood, but something that has already earned its place at the top shelf with the rest of them. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are wonderful together (as per usual). Their engaging and adorable chemistry in Crazy, Stupid, Love has become a rock solid foundation in this film. Stone plays Mia, a bright-eyed eager actress only trying to land an audition to achieve her dream. Gosling is Sebastian a jazz musician in the modern age whose only dream is to bring back the jazz fever that once was. And while the story of the two meeting, falling in love, falling out of love, etc. goes as you might expect-- it doesn't go at all as you might expect. Chazelle has been able to take a story we know so well and give us something fresh.

Unlike a lot of films both of these A-listers have been in, the movie doesn't hinge on their acting chops alone. The music is catchy as hell, the dancing sequences are mesmerizing, and the cinematography is sensational. What Chazelle does with a camera lens turns a contemporary setting into a character of its own. Hell, the film begins with a huge musical number performed on the middle of the freeway during gridlock a la The Player. He doesn't just post up and let the actors do their things (which, I mean, still would've made a helluva movie), but the background moves with them, ever-changing, always visually dazzling.

The other aspect that I very much respected (and loved) about the film is that it doesn't just play for nostalgia. It's not here to honor a time gone by. Just like Sebastian in the film-- it's not about getting people to love jazz again-- it's about upping the stakes of a long-loved art form and updating it for a contemporary eye and ear and revitalizing it in such a way that it feels (and actually is) brand new, but gives you the same feeling of what you once loved. Other than Ryan Gosling's singing abilities (which were either seriously underplayed... or he was just a bit out of his league here) there wasn't a single aspect of the movie that I can criticize. The two of them together feel as though this was a love letter to their own spectacular relationship.  And, I guarantee, you'll find yourself smiling a lot more than you normally do while watching a film. It's excellent.


Friday, December 30, 2016

Moonlight: A Beautiful Rare Gem

Moonlight kind of snuck up on me. I'm not sure how many actual TV spots this movie ran, but since I've broken the bonds of the greedy cable company's stronghold of my wallet, I didn't see anything about this movie. The trailer was also not attached to a single film I'd seen all year.  I just kind of... heard about it through questions. "Have you seen Moonlight yet?" Normally I'm all over a movie I haven't heard of.  I'm online, I'm watching trailers, I'm reading about actors, etc. But, for some reason, I was just kind of apathetic towards the film-- and not because of its content (I still had no idea what it even was).  Then, it built internet acclaim, critical acclaim, and a solid 98% on rottentomatoes. So, when something like that happens, I now want to know nothing about it because it's rare for me to enter a movie completely blind. And after having seen the movie, it's so beautiful and laid out so perfectly that even if I'd seen a hundred trailers for the film, it still would've been an unexpected, exquisite treat.

I feel like I've said this a lot lately, but I'm not going to give much away for the movie. Suffice it to say that it revolves around a young black man, Chiron, through three very defining stages of his life. The first is when he's a child, known as 'Little' who befriends a drug dealer named Juan in order to escape his crack addicted mother, Paula. The scene toward the end of this segment at the dinner table is one that I will always remember as a new benchmark of cinema and writing. The second stage is Chiron as a teenager. He's quiet (just as he was as a kid), he's lanky, he's constantly bullied in high school and life with his mother hasn't changed-- in fact, it's worse. Finally, the third segement, Chiron, known as 'Black', is an adult now working the street just like Juan. Except he's not skinny and soft... he's muscular and hard and almost unrecognizable. And just as you're beginning to lose all hope for him, a chance phone call emerges that has the potential to change everything.

To call this movie beautiful is a severe understatement. It's three stories involving the same characters all around one central protagonist. It's unlike any story you've seen before. Our lead, Chiron, is uncomfortable to watch, but you care about him deeply. He doesn't speak often, but says more with his eyes than he ever says with his mouth (save for the aforementioned dinner table scene). The movie tackles issues like race, identity, isolation, loneliness, sexual orientation in a culture that's generally unaccepting. It's everything all of us need to watch right now. Because especially in times like now, staying true to yourself is more important than ever.

Everything works in this movie, not just the story. The acting is unprecedented. There's usually the odd man out, but all three versions of Chiron are wonderful and heartbreaking. The oldest Chiron, to me, is the most impressive as he's still the same person we've been following, but he's become an product of his environment and pushed aside all evidence of his former self, his true self, deep down that it almost became extinct. Ruffling emotion through the tough exterior ever so subtly is a feat in itself that actor Trevante Rhodes handles with precision. There's also the writing. I love that this movie keeps you uncomfortable without long fits of explanatory dialogue to let the audience know exactly what's on everyone's minds. Every time you wish for Chiron to give the right answer or explanation or say anything at all, there's an added second or two of uncomfortable silence that never breaks character. Nothing is spelled out for us. We're along for the ride, whether we like it or not.

The movie is refreshing because we don't get to see a lot of LGBTQ films this widely released and unanimously loved, especially ones featuring people of color. Moonlight touched me to my very core and has the ability, even through its [mostly] foreign story to us, it's concepts are universal and message is extremely personal. No matter who you are, I highly recommend this film as the next thing you feast your eyes on.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Fences: CotDAMN, Viola Davis!

For all intents and purposes, Denzel Washington has had one of the best acting careers of nearly any actor.  The dude literally does whatever he wants because he's one of the best actors ever, and definitely the most watchable. When he's feeling like he wants to do something loud and stupid he'll do a 2 Guns or a Taking of Pelham 123.  When he's feeling like doing something action-related, but smart, he'll do an Equalizer or American Gangster.  But just when you start to forget that Denzel is one of the best actors ever... he'll remind you. He gave us hints in Flight, but he went full fury in Fences.  Now, here's the other thing about Denzel-- not many actors can go toe-to-toe with him.  He will nearly outshine everyone he's in a scene with. But, somehow, he found the person that not only could hold her own in the ring... but she outshines one of the greatest actors ever.  To call Denzel's performance Oscar-worthy is definitely an understatement.  But to call Viola Davis's performance Oscar-worthy completely demolishes the idea of what an Oscar even is.  She's magnificent and lifts Fences to a whole other level of greatness.

Based on August Wilson's play of the same name, Fences tells the story of Troy and Rose, a married couple in 1954 Pittsburgh.  The play/movie is about their life together and how Troy (Denzel) slowly, but almost deliberately brings his entire family down over a couple of years. He's a hard-nosed father and husband whose daily routine and past defines him. He used to be a great baseball player in the negro leagues.  Now, he's a garbageman who only looks forward to Friday-- payday and a bottle of gin.  His son, Cory, is in his last year of high school, hellbent on playing football for a college. Troy balks at this idea vehemently because he knows that colored kids don't get to play over white kids. And while it's difficult to watch Troy slowly ruin a family dynamic that could be a joyful one, his ego and unwillingness to listen to others remain steadfast. Then, there's Rose (Davis), Troy's wife. On the surface, she appears to be the standard 50s housewife-- no job, most of the time preparing meals, baking for the Church potluck. But, we realize that Rose is no stereotypical 50s housewife.  She's a strong woman who has chosen to give up a handful of her hopes and dreams in order to maintain a healthy and loving family. You won't see it right away-- but when shit gets goin-- Rose holds her own.

The movie has a much different feel than most moviegoers are used to.  A lot of the time when plays are adapted into cinema, they are given that cinematic feel to it.  They aren't confined to the walls of a stage and expand into the vast world in which they are portrayed.  Fences, on the other hand, still very much feels like the play.  And, from what I've read, looks like Denzel didn't actually change much. A good majority of the film is located in the backyard of Troy and Rose's home. Then, there's the dialogue.  There's always something a little bit different about the dialogue in a stageplay than in a film... there's a certain tempo to the language and manner of speaking in a play that feels a little bit different. Denzel maintains this tempo and essentially takes the stage to a real backyard, but making it feel like we could be in a theater watching this live in front of us, rather than on a screen.

Obviously, I don't even have to say it-- but the performances are fantastic. Considering both Denzel and Davis did 114 performances of the actual play on Broadway, this was nothing new to them. Their chemistry is flawless and undeniaably heartbreaking. The movie is very emotionally draining, but not in a manipulating way. The film is ultimately about choices.  Troy lives so viciously through his past he refuses to learn from it-- other than the fact that he doesn't want his son to repeat his own mistakes-- mistakes that don't actually exist in sports from when he played due to progress. He's so arrogant about what he already knows, he refuses to learn. Through the entire movie, his main goal is to build a fence that Rose has repeatedly asked him to build. Clearly, the fence is a literary symbol for keeping the demons in and never letting any get out... but it's so much more than that. Fences isn't exactly the feel-good movie of the end of the year, but it is a masterful showcase of two great acting talents telling a very affecting tale of love, loss, and choices.  If anything, go watch Viola Davis out-act one of the greatest actors of our time and completely break your heart and shatter your tear ducts... because this lady can act!


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Nocturnal Animals: Arthouse Vs. Grindhouse

Once again, 2016, you mean bitch, we have been given another misleading trailer to a film that didn't need it. However, for all the trailers that misled moviegoers this year, this one was actually the least responsible for ruining a movie or taking away from what the movie was actually intended to be.  The trailers make the movie look like some sort of dark thriller a la No Country For Old Men. And while it's not exactly not that... it's not that. The trailer, however, did convince me that I wanted to see the movie. And while what you get is far from what the trailer suggests... what I got was a very unique and beautiful film about loss that toes the line of arthouse and grindhouse.

I honestly don't want to give too much away about the plot because, while it did surprise me, and it did have me constantly thinking that this isn't the movie I was expecting... I did enjoy getting something unexpected and unpredictable. Amy Adams is Susan, a miserable "artist" working at a failing art boutique.  She's married to an attractive, but hollow businessman (Armie Hammer) and their marriage is nothing but on the surface and empty.  She receives a package in the mail-- a novel entitled 'Nocturnal Animals', written by her long time ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Throughout the film what we get is the novel acted out, Susan's current life, and the story of how he marriage to Edward began, deteriorated, and ultimately failed.

So, all of the "thrilling" and "chilling" moments and reviews in the trailer are reserved for the re-enactment of the novel (which is essentially a movie within a movie). Nothing that is happening in the book, is actually happening in the plot of the storyline with Susan.  You'd think this would take away all of the feelings of threat and suspense from the actual movie itself because you know that what you're seeing isn't real. However, this is far from the truth.  Not only does the movie work perfectly with the real and the imaginary, but once the film is over and all "secrets" have been revealed, the story is a beautiful and heartbreaking allegory of Susan and Edward's once blossoming relationship. This leads up to an ending that, for most, will appear unsatisfying. But, let it it sink in... think back to everything you just watched, let it marinate for a day or two, and you'll realize that the ending is less of cop-out and more satisfying than you once believed.

Obviously, the narrative going on within the film is a lot more intense, and though I hate the word, interesting than the sad life that Susan leads. She imagines her ex-husband as the protagonist of the story and Gyllenhaal gets to play a new kind of tragic character. He's a weak man who makes most of his [wrong] decisions purely out of fear. He pairs up with a Detective played by Michael Shannon, who really is the scene stealer of the entire film. The man exudes such ferocious intensity, I would be intimidated by watching the dude make a quesadilla in a "Kiss the Chef" apron. The story within a story is so heart-wrenching, almost to a painful degree, that often you forget that you're watching a novel play out on screen. And while Susan's story lines often feels a bit benign, they mirror almost perfectly to the story once everything is revealed and played out. Her visually clean and lush world contrasts perfectly with the dirty and seedy grindhouse-esque novel that we watch in between.

The film is so beautifully crafted that it feels like reading actual literature. It's seeping with extended metaphors that one may have to go back and do their own detective work to justify why the film is structured the way that it is. Fashion designer turned writer/director Tom Ford has an obvious eye for the visual, but what he's also got is a story that is hard to watch, but hard to look away from. It's a beautiful car accident that may be somewhat of an acquired taste, but is something I thoroughly enjoyed and can't wait to watch again.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Why Him?: A Lazy Meet The Parents Reversal

Writer/Director John Hamburg has made a very good living off perfecting the story of the straight-laced character having to come to terms with and adapt to the obnoxious wild card character. Sometimes it works very well (like Meet the Parents and I Love You, Man) and sometimes it comes off as remarkably lazy and generic (like Meet the Fockers and Along Came Polly). These are the movies where Ben Stiller tends to shine. He plays the awkward straight guy with such unease that we're literally squirming in our seats and laughing hysterically at the same time. Hamburg might've actually hit his ceiling in I Love You, Man with the unrelenting discomfort felt for Paul Rudd's character. It gave me semi-high hopes for his next feat, Why Him? However, it's another story much like the aforementioned movies, but instead of coming off as fresh and funny and hilariously awkward... it's the same story recognizably apathetic.

In a very obvious Meet the Parents reversal, instead of a blundering straight-man meeting his fiancé's outlandish parents, it's the vanilla family meeting the rude, obnoxious, and filter-less boyfriend. And while the reversal could've worked with a stronger script, it still feels very formulaic. Ned (Bryan Cranston) and his wife (Megan Mullally) and son are flown to California to meet Laird (James Franco), the eccentric and raunchy boyfriend of their daughter. Laird literally has zero filter, spewing F-bombs the second they arrive. He's extremely well-intentioned, and is physically unable to lie (even when it comes to picking up social cues). Obviously, this doesn't sit well with tightly wound and old-fashioned Ned.  The rest of the movie involves Laird trying to impress the family and Ned trying to figure out a way to expose Laird as a bad person in order to get his daughter away from him.

You know how there's several ways of conveying laughter via text? When something is generally funny in concept, but it doesn't make you shoot milk out of your nose it's generally an 'lol' or a 'haha'? And when something gives you a chuckle there's the 'lolol', the 'lulz', or the 'hahaha'? But, when something is actually downright hilarious, it generally involves caps lock... like "LOLOLOLOL" or "HAHAHAHAHA"? Think of Why Him as the first choice. It's a decently funny concept with very well-liked characters and actors, but hardly anything that happens elicits that much of a genuine laugh beyond a chuckle. There are a few scenes that deserve the caps lock, but overall the movie is more funny in concept (and, again, a concept we've seen better from its writer/director several times).

It's very exciting to see Bryan Cranston back in comedy. We've seen him display is serious acting chops for the better part of a decade now, but my favorite Cranston is still probably Hal from Malcolm in the Middle because he's not afraid to get weird... and he's able to manipulate his facial expressions almost, but not entirely, like Jim Carrey. Had this been another Meet the Parents scenario, watching Cranston be the outlandish and foul-mouthed father would've, in my opinion, been a funnier film... but then again, it would've REALLY been unoriginal. Then there's James Franco who is good at comedy, but only really shines when he's with the Rogen clan. Without Seth Rogen and co. there to feed off one another's add-libbing skills, he's just kind of a funny-in-theory type of actor (at least in this movie). It was nice to see Megan Mullally not reverted to the role of generic mother there to play devil's advocate with husband and boyfriend.  In fact, one of the funniest scenes in the movie is with her on drugs. Finally, Keegan Michael-Key is in this movie as Laird's BFF, confidante, and fighting trainer (he leaps out of the bushes to keep Laird's attack senses strong ala Pink Panther).  Nearly every scene he is in is hilarious, but he's the side character that doesn't need a back story, he's just there to make the scene that much funnier.

I really wanted to like the movie more than what it was and what I was getting back from it.  I like the concept (because I've seen it work several times before), I like the actors, and the characters were all very well-written.  Really the only thing missing from the movie were the laughs. They're sporadic and not all that long-lasting, but the story isn't original or interesting enough to make the movie that worthwhile. Plus, there were numerous set-ups in the movie (like an actual mentioning of The Pink Panther or a stolen Christmas tree or even a bowling alley) that seemed like they should've been integral to the plot or at least a joke down the line... that never actually pay off.

You know when you see the preview for a movie and you have this feeling you know EXACTLY what that movie is going to be, but you WANT it to be better? Why Him is exactly that movie. If you have it in your head that it's probably not going to be all that great, but you'll get a few laughs out of it and won't sit there for two hours hating your life-- that's exactly what you're going to get.  Just don't expect the movie to really surprise you in any real way. Let's just hope this gets Bryan Cranston to mix in a little more comedy into his filmography down the road.


Saturday, December 24, 2016

An Underrated Movie You Should Be Watching This Christmas: The Long Kiss Goodnight

Back in 1996, a very underrated action movie came out-- The Long Kiss Goodnight.  This movie was written by now writing/directing phenom Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3, The Nice Guys).  It's only been seen by people I know because I have been annoyingly thrusting it onto their TV's, but it's really a movie that everyone should watch.  And what a more perfect time than now, considering it's a Christmas movie (in the same vein that Die Hard is a Christmas movie). The movie FEELS like a 90s action movie, but what it did with the genre seems like it was far too ahead of its time.  Sure, it's cheesy, and messy, and at times cringe-worthy with the action, but it's one of the best action movies I've ever seen.

The movie is essentially a Bourne movie, but six years ahead of that franchise. We are introduced to Samantha Cain (Geena Davis) who, for the last eight years, has suffered from amnesia.  She was found on a beach, two months pregnant, with no memory of her entire past.  Now, she's a small town teacher with a fiancé and an 8-year-old daughter. After she hires detective, and all around crook, Mitch Hennessy (Samuel L. Jackson), they get a lead on her past -- as an assassin working for the US government, named Charly Baltimore. Once Sam winds up getting her memory back, Charly, the badass, takes over. They must work together to stop old targets from completing a brand new terrorist mission and guns and shooting and action and yes.

It is a lot like Bourne, but that's not the real reason you should be watching this movie.  If you're like me and every year on your Christmas watch list besides Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, and let's be honest Jingle All The Way... are some other great action movies like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon... The Long Kiss Goodnight fits snugly in between them.  We watch Die Hard because it's not just a great action movie, but the movie is damn near flawless. John McClane (before the sequels) was a mild-mannered cop from NY, out of sync with a new city, just trying to get his wife back. Then he has to turn into the ultimate badass because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time-- and, come on, the fact that he's a sarcastic asshole is 95% of the reason the movie has staying power.  That, and the fact that Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber is such a great villain. Why do we watch Lethal Weapon? Because we love the chemistry of Riggs and Murtaugh. It's a buddy movie paired with an action movie. The Long Kiss Goodnight has all of this!

Let's break it down this way-- Shane Black is my favorite writer. And action (especially 90s action movies) has always been one of my favorite genres. I decided (unfortunately) that for me Master's Thesis in Screenwriting that I would write an action script with a 90s feel (the end result turned out almost the complete opposite of what I had envisioned in my brain-- but that's beside the point). While trying to craft the perfect action movie I read Black's script for The Long Kiss Goodnight at least twenty times because it is genuinely one of the best scripts I've ever read. He's so quick-witted and sharp, not just in his dialogue, but even in his descriptions of the action happening on the screen. It transcends perfectly into film, especially with an actor as comedically snarky as Sam J. The dialogue (like most of Black's movies) is so fast and sarcastic, it actually takes several viewings to catch them all. The script is also very smart -- for an action movie so dumb. Everything that is set up in the first half of the movie is expertly paid off in the end. Each scene the characters get themselves into an even bigger pickle and you're left trying to guess how they will escape it this time.  Finally, when the escape plan emerges, you're sitting there going "duh! How did I forget that?!"

And people! It's got a female lead! Most 90s action movies were led by men (in fact, most 90s action movies were led by Nicolas Cage). Can you think of any other 90s action movie led by a badass woman? There aren't many. It was such ahead of its time that even when Black sold the script (for an unprecedented 3 mill at the time) the studio was begging for him to change the lead to a man. But Samantha Cain/Charly Baltimore is the perfect 90s action hero.  She's not a sissy damsel in distress, and she's also not trying to be a sex symbol.  She holds her own in not just the role of ruthless killer who is an expert with any sort of gun, but she's also very quick-witted herself and forces the MAN (Sam J) to keep up with her constant sardonic quips. This, in turn, leads to another perfect buddy movie.

Keep in mind that this movie was made in the 90s. It's so full of cheese you could melt it in a tortilla and call it lunch. There's impossible moments of action, there's Charly chasing bad guys on ice skates while they're in the car, and the main villain is kind of a boner. But, there's yet to be an action movie since (not written by Shane Black) that is this action-packed, this witty, and this fun. The movie takes place entirely around Christmas (as most of Black's movies do), so instead of watching the same old bullshit Christmas films (except Die Hard, you should always be watching Die Hard), throw something different in the ole' Blu Ray player and have an awesome time. When it becomes a new household favorite... I don't want much. Just a simple thank you.

You're welcome.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Manchester By The Sea: A Dismal, Heartbreaking, And Wonderful Film

Awards season movies are already sneaking up upon us. Over the next couple of weeks we will basically be getting the majority of the movies that will dominate the Oscars. There will be outstanding performances by lead actors and actresses as well as supporting ones. And while there are a few movies yet to be released that are sure to garner an award or two for the obvious choices (aka Denzel Washington in Fences), quietly Manchester By The Sea is gaining on the movie world with the very obvious choice for a Best Actor nomination for Casey Affleck. Not only is his performance (shit, along with everyone else's) exceptional, but the movie is nothing short of dismal, heartbreaking, and wonderful.

I'm not going to reveal much about the plot. The trailer doesn't reveal much and I think going into the film fresh will allow you to have the best experience possible (I know it did for me). Essentially the logline is Casey Affleck plays Lee. Lee's brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away leaving his son, Patrick, in the custody of Lee.  And that's all you get.  What's brilliant about this film is it takes the whole fish-out-of-water "I don't know how to be a dad" high concept and completely re-writes it into something real and affecting. These are not movie characters. These are real people struggling with real demons in the midst of a real tragedy. And while the story itself, even the movie itself, may seem simplistic on the surface, there is something much more intricate and poignant at work.

One of the biggest reasons I loved this movie (aside from Affleck's praiseworthy performance) is the writing. This is a film that should be taught in all writing classes from now on. Not just for the reason of being able to take a simple story and turn it into something wonderful, but doing so with what feels like some of the most authentic characters in film in awhile. These aren't caricatures of people with Bah-stun accents. There are no big Good Will Hunting life-altering revelations to anyone. The sorrow and pain that each character has to deal with is honest and unforced. Lucas Hedges, who plays Patrick, tackles his grief like a teenager quite genuinely. He doesn't have these big crying/freak-out moments or beg to be left alone... he wants to be with his friends. He wants to play hockey, and mess around with girls, and play in a band, and not have to deal with real feelings. It's honest and real.

Affleck's Lee, on the other hand, has a closet so riddled with personal demons Dante would shit himself. But, there's never once where the pain of this loss affects him uncharacteristically.  He's lived a thousand years in only forty years, and it's left him stoic and damn near empty. There's nothing that changes that. He still loves his nephew and he's there to do what's needed, but those hoping for him to break down the wall and fall to his knees crying 'why, God, why' are going to be left disappointed. Because he feels like a real person and not just a character in a movie.

Manchester By The Sea sounds like it's going to be a real downer, a film that you see because of the great reviews or the award noms, but nothing to be watched a second time. This isn't true. And while the movie is fairly melancholic, it's sprinkled with moments of heart and laughter. The tone of the movie resembles life to an almost uncomfortable level. There will always be tragedy and misfortune in our lives, but there will also be comfort and laughter and joy. And while the film may make you feel quite empty when leaving the theater... give it time. Because soon after you will not feel more full of life.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Passengers: The Most Expensive Romance Movie Ever

2016 has been pretty terrible for film.  There have definitely been a few diamonds in the rough, but overall it's been bad sequels or spinoffs, under-performing movies that should've done better, and misleading trailers. Other than I'd say Rogue One, no trailer this year has been this misleading than Passengers.  The trailer sets up the movie the right way-- two people on a space ship heading toward a new planet have been "accidentally" woken up 90 years early. That's just the preface of the movie in the trailer.  The rest looks like a frantic sci-fi mission for the two to figure out how to get back to sleep amid a series of escalating problems they have to solve all on their own.  The trailer then ends on a "mystery" when Chris Pratt's character says, "there's a reason we were woken up early". All of this is fine except for the fact that it's not exactly that truthful about the content of the movie. But, we'll get to that.

I was initially excited about the film because it's a genuine original entity.  In a time when Hollywood balks at originality, this spec script was listed on Hollywood's "Blacklist" of the best unproduced screenplays. It was purchased for a lot of money and paid a ton of it to its stars.  Then, you have the casting of two of the hottest actors in Hollywood right now... it must be a great script! It's not a bad script... if you understand what you're going to be watching before you watch it. But, if you're trying to make the case that Hollywood should settle down on the sequels and superhero movies and prequels and spinoffs... Passengers isn't really the movie to do that.

Here's the story... and this is without spoilers unless you're truly trying to become invested in the movie the trailers want you to believe it to be. Chris Pratt is Jim.  He's in hyper-sleep aboard a ship heading toward a new planet that will arrive 120 years. Unfortunately, for ole' Jimbo, the ship... in the very opening sequence of the film... hits a meteor shower and is pelted by meteors that penetrate the ship's shield and knock something loose... waking him up. So, immediately it is made known that there is no big secret as to why he is awoken from his slumber. This completely forfeits half of what the trailer is trying to sell the masses. Anyway, Jim is alone for over a year, hitting the brink of suicide when he decides to do something unimaginable-- wake someone else up and completely ruin their life to make his better.  Granted, he does struggle with the situation for a few minutes, but eventually wakes up Aurora (which is also the name of the Princess in Sleeping Beauty-- this movie is pretty on the nose) played by Jennifer Lawrence.

Jim doesn't tell Aurora that he's woken her up and plays it off like it was another malfunction.  After he convinces her that he's tried literally everything there is to try to get them back to sleep, they start to accept their situation and wind up falling in love. This is a good chunk of the film.  OBVIOUSLY, she finds out what happens and is genuinely pissed off about it.  That's when they start to figure out about the rest of the ship deteriorating slowly because of the meteor and what they have to do to fix it and mend their broken relationship because what Jim did was essentially murder Aurora as well as her plans, hopes, and dreams. And that whole "there's a reason..." line that Pratt delivers... not in the movie. Made entirely to fuck with you in the trailers.

The film is just a big budget romance movie. It's like You've Got Mail in space, except way more expensive and a lot more creepy.  There aren't really any cool sci-fi moments, there are hardly any scenes outside of the ship itself, and all of the sci-fi action teased in the trailer happens near the very end of the movie and don't last nearly as long as they should've. It's a gorgeous movie to look at and the two leads are very affable. It wouldn't nearly be as decent as it is without the chemistry and amiability of the stars. But, there's just not a lot to the movie. Most of the movie could've been set in New York with her as a workaholic and him as a freeloading slacker with big dreams and not a whole lot is different.  The movie is big, the effects are awe-inspiring, the atmosphere is so expensive looking... but the story is actually pretty simple.  There isn't a ton of conflict beyond their relationship and any conflict that arises is solved pretty simply. There's really no true moment of dread among the entire movie.

The other part of the movie that is surely going to turn people away is the fact that if you examine the movie closely and the motivations of Jim's character... it's actually a little terrifying.  It's something that the writer and director could've decided to use to examine the topic of consent and how the line is actually a lot thicker than it appears to be, especially now in today's time when those who cross that line of consent and head into rape territory seem to not only get minimal punishment, but the discussion is still very polarizing... and it shouldn't be. There is no rational excuse for Jim's behavior waking her up and ruining everything about her life just because he was lonely and suicidal.  It's still not his decision to make. Sure, in movie world, it's supposed to play as cute that he sees her in her pod, looks her up, reads her story, and falls in love with her all due to pretty superficial reasons... but in the real world that's some serious not-okay shit. But, the discussion is never had. It's used as a plot device to create a "love story" that's 92% fucked up and 8% cute. They don't end up together because true love conquers all... they end up together because Stockholm Syndrome is real... even in space.

Passengers is currently at a 30% on rottentomatoes and I genuinely thing that it's an unfair score. The movie isn't Adam Sandler bad (though it's been a while since he's hit a score as high as 30%), but I'm guessing the low score stems from most of what I've discussed. Those who enjoy Ridley Scott sci-fi epic action movies with two very popular and likable stars are probably going to be sorely disappointed. This movie is more in the realm of Romance than anything else. There are very enjoyable moments in the film. The first twenty minutes or so of Pratt alone is fun to watch until it turns quite bleak.  There are moments between Pratt and JLaw that are very touching and heartfelt and even real.  Even Michael Sheen's portrayal of an android bartender (used as a device so that Pratt has someone to talk to-- like Wilson in Castaway) is all good.  But the movie leads up to almost nothing and the end, though it tries to create a bit of excitement, does feel a little anti-climactic. The movie wasn't a failure, but it certainly isn't going to turn any heads back the way I was hoping with producers in Hollywood giving original material more of a chance.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: A Tour De FORCE

I really hope that we're not starting a new trend of not just bringing back sequels to old movies and then spinoffs of sequels to old movies and then prequels and spinoffs of the prequels and just going flat out Marvel on content we've seen a hundred times before over original material. This seems to be the way of the theater now due to the fact that a studio would rather bank on the name of a franchise rather than the quality of an original script. However, if this is the way of the world, yes it will be tiring, but if the quality of the films are as high as Rogue One, then it's not entirely a bad thing.

I was put off by Rogue One pretty early on when the trailer was released. And, let's be honest, the first few trailers were shit. When Felicity Jones stares into the camera and says, "I rebel", it was head-scratchingly dreadful. The more trailers that came out gave me hope, but really nothing was answering the question of WHY this movie needed to exist other than to capitalize on the Star Wars name and line Disney's pockets with a shit-ton more $$$. And while the movie doesn't necessarily answer this question, it holds its own well enough that the question, I supposed, doesn't really need an answer.

I'm not going to reveal too much as far as plot goes.  Chances are you've already seen the movie, but if you haven't it might be better to go in knowing as little as possible. Felicity Jones is Jyn Erso, daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who, when she was a young girl, was kidnapped by the Empire to help build the Death Star. Jyn was raised tough by Galen's bestie, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) to be a badass. Jyn, now an adult, is recruited by the rebel alliance to help find her father and steal the plans to the Death Star and figure out how it can be destroyed. Along the way is rebel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), and a cheeky droid, K-2S0, voiced by Alan Tudyk. This, of course, is the movie that leads into A New Hope and the information gathered from these rogues is what inevitably leads to the destruction of the Death Star... and screw you guys, that's not a spoiler, if you haven't seen A New Hope, you're never going to.

The one bit of information that I would say lends itself to the argument of the film's existence is it does now justify why it was so easy to blow up the Death Star. It's always been somewhat of a running joke of why they built a planet-destroying death machine that has a tiny little hole in it that when shot... blows the whole thing up.  It has now been justified. Other than that... no, it probably doesn't need to exist. The movie is a lot of fun, though. Even though you already know what's going to happen (the problem with all prequels), this one puts a lot of effort into showing the struggle it took to get everything to where it needed to be for the rebels to succeed.  And, we get a scene of Darth Vader FINALLY going apeshit on some soldiers. It was very gratifying-- even from someone like me who isn't the biggest Star Wars nerd.

It also feels like a new story.  While I really did like The Force Awakens, it's hard to deny that it was just a carbon copy of A New Hope with a few details changed. Rogue One feels like a brand new story, which is nice. And while it's not perfect, it does build up to an extremely exciting second and third acts (especially the last five minutes). I wasn't expecting much out of director Gareth Edwards, considering he helmed the recent disaster Godzilla that was a complete mess (and a huge waste of Bryan Cranston). But, he's redeemed himself now and then some. He's stayed pretty true to the feel of Star Wars, and he even designed the movie to LOOK like the 70s Star Wars. The technology used in the movie (including some actors from the original movie who aren't even alive are face-swapped into the movie to near perfection). Though there isn't the scrolling text in the beginning, the huge STAR WARS logo with the theme music played over it, or the classic George Lucas scene-swipes... it still very much feels like the movie belongs in the SW universe.

I guess my biggest complaint with the film is with Jyn's character. She's a strong female lead, something the Star Wars universe is doing to perfection lately, and we really do want her to succeed.  She's likable (unlike the perceived trailer version of her character) and obviously a badass.  But we don't get hardly any backstory from her or motivation.  We get that her dad was taken, we get that she was raised by some weird half-Vader, half-Bane type of guy... but that's about it as far as motivation from her goes.  And Diego Luna's Cassian, to me, just didn't have that UMPH that a leading Star Wars character is supposed to have. They had almost no chemistry together (and I'm not even talking romantic chemistry... thank GOD there's no love story in this one) and their scenes felt very flat.

But, the movie is very dark. It's not the most violent of the series, but it definitely is one of the most bleak. It has more of an Empire Strikes Back feel to it more than any other film. I actually have a theory about the movie.  When I heard that they had to do reshoots earlier this year because complaints had come out of test screenings that there was hardly any humor in the movie, it was a red flag to me. My theory is-- the droid, K-2S0 was added into the movie after the fact.  He's definitely the comic relief to add some much-needed levity to the seriousness of the film, but he's not exactly that integral to the plot. I'm guessing he was inserted to be the funny... which usually doesn't work... and it worked perfectly. The other character, that is sure to become a fan favorite, is Chirrut (Donnie Yen), a blind man who might just be the coolest character in the entire movie, and he adds a little humor himself. He's like a blind, Asian Han Solo... you know... without all the cynicism.  Trust me, when you're looking back at the movie in your head, it's him you will be quoting incessantly.

The movie is far from perfect and definitely has its flaws, but it's much better than I had anticipated. The look of the movie feels like you're watching this movie back in the 70s, but with the technology of today. If all of the Star Wars spinoff movies are even close to the quality of this movie, then I'm actually going to be looking forward to them.  And, for the love of God, stop putting this shit in 3D.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Office Christmas Party: More Like An Actual Office Christmas Party Than Something Crazier and Funnier

Josh Gordon and Will Speck made their directorial debut with what might be the most underrated Will Ferrell film, Blades of Glory. Everyone remembers and regularly quotes Anchorman or Talladega Nights, but rarely is the gem of Blades of Glory mentioned among the giants in Will Ferrell's career.  Seriously, go back and watch it and try not to laugh at nearly everything that comes out of Ferrell's mouth. Now, the movie could've been great because they had a comic genius like Will Ferrell to drastically change a mediocre script into a genuinely hilarious film... OR... it was already great to begin with.  Flash forward four years and the next movie the duo made was the little-remembered movie The Switch with Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston.  It's not an awful movie by any means, but who actually remembers seeing this movie? I've seen it and I don't remember a damn thing about it. Flash forward another six years and their third film to come out is Office Christmas Party.  This looked more like a raunchy Blades of Glory type film where the two were able to showcase their comedy writing/directing skills to go along with some well-cast comedic actors.  The end result feels more like a tale told at an actual office Christmas party rather than one we all need to go out and watch for ourselves.

There's a lot going on in the film, but the over-arching story is that involving Clay (TJ Miller), the head of a tech company who is under his quarterly numbers and is being threatened to be shut down by his CEO (and raging bitch) of a sister (Jennifer Aniston). His best employee Josh (Jason Bateman) and computer genius Tracey (Olivia Munn) ask for one extra night in order to secure a top client and win his business so the branch doesn't have to be shut down.  Their idea-- throw a raging office christmas party and win him over by allowing him to see what a fun company they are. Along for this ride is a stuffy HR manager (Kate McKinnon), an assistant looking for love (Vanessa Bayer), a dude with a weird baby fetish (Randall Park), the office asshole (Rob Corddry), and a pimp (Jillian Bell).  The antics of each of these employees come to a head and crash and burn the office party into something that I'm sure sounded a lot crazier on paper than it is to watch.

The good of the film are a lot of the characters. I particularly liked the character of Clay.  He's such an easy target for selfish asshole boss trust fund kid who doesn't know what the hell he is doing, but the role has been reversed and he's a very altruistic boss trust fund kid who doesn't know what the hell he is doing.  He's not trying to save the company in order to save his own ass. He's genuinely trying to stop people from losing their jobs. Jason Bateman, as always, is very droll and fun to watch, but even he felt like it was below the level of comedy we've come to expect from him.  Then, there are little moments here and there that kick you in the funny bone, but unfortunately, they are few and far between.

There's nothing really bad about the movie other than the fact that it's just not that funny.  The script seems like it was centered around the idea of an insane Christmas party set inside the parameters of an office. Yet, nothing that insane happens. We expect windows to be broken and copiers to be smashed, and clothes to fly, and drinks to be had... but what new does this movie offer that makes us just HAVE to go see this movie? I can't really find a reason. And while everyone is pretty likable, I just kept waiting for the comedy to arrive. It was all funny in idea and theory, but not necessarily in execution. Each character has a moment that elicits a chuckle or two, but there's really not that one big memorable moment from comedies that truly are successful in making an audience laugh and becoming a classic (especially a Christmas classic... we haven't had a new one of those in quite some time).

While the movie really wants to be a Christmas movie mixed with The Hangover and Horrible Bosses, it really does fall flat most of the time when it shouldn't.  I wish I'd seen something more in the movie that was both shocking and hilarious, rather than something I could've written for the first draft of a movie with the same title.  2016 has been a pretty bad year for comedies in general with really only The Nice Guys standing out as something exceptional.  Office Christmas Party certainly isn't the worst of the year, and it's definitely entertaining to a point, but it's one movie that should've been much better than it ended up being.


Moana: Disney Strikes Again With The Help Of Hamilton

Upon sitting down in the theater and watching the upcoming trailers for future kids movies, I couldn't help but think how incredibly superior Disney is to other companies.  I hadn't even seen Moana yet and after watching a preview for a rock n' roll dog and a fifth(?) Smurfs movie, it was apparent that Disney is really the only company continuously rolling out animated family films with any substance whatsoever. The rest of these companies go for silly, colorful, insulting, and downright dumb movies. I've been a longtime advocate that there is absolutely no reason to treat children like they are idiots. If you respect kids and tell a genuinely great story, there's no need to resort to falling down and scatological humor to get kids to enjoy it. Moana is no different than the string of highly successful and wildly exceptional films Disney and it's sister company Pixar have been putting out the last decade or so (Cars excluded).

Moana is the daughter of a Polynesian Cheftain who yearns for life beyond the reef of her island.  Her people have been thriving for centuries until an ancient curse beset by the Demigod Maui (The Rock) catches up with them, killing all food resources and sustainable living situations. Going against her father's wishes, Moana sets out beyond the reef to find Maui and save her people. To her surprise, Maui isn't the respectable Demigod everything expects, but acts more like a selfish, petulant child who cares about no one other than himself.  He's especially disinterested to help a Moana's people. However, this, like all Disney fashion, is all a facade. There's a very touching backstory behind it. And while their relationship isn't as entirely solid as some of the other Disney pairings, they're a joy to watch.

What makes the movie successful beyond the script that both encapsulates that classic Disney-princess-movie feel and not talking down to the small children that make up a significant percentage of the audience watching-- are the visuals and the music. Moana is gorgeous to watch. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker have only ever directed hand-drawn films such as Aladdin and Princess and the Frog. However, as much as I do miss that style of animated film, the decision to go with CGI was more than the right choice. The colors of the islands and the oceans and the underworld of monsters (real scene... absolutely gorgeous) is awe-inspiring (cliché, but apt). And the music... well, all I have to say is that Lin-Manuel Miranda had a hand in writing all of the songs, and they're not only perfect, they're damn catchy as well.  My favorite song was a very David Bowie-esque song sung by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords.

Moana, the character, really is the winner of the movie.  Children will love her because she's steadfast and brave.  She's got more heart and soul than most male Disney characters who really only act that way to win the heart of the lovely maiden.  Guess what else? There's not a single love interest in the entire movie. I know. Crazy right? There's a female protagonist who exercises bravery throughout an entire movie without needing the motivation of a dude or even true love to guide her. The movie is about doing what's right, finding the direction your heart is leading you toward, and ultimately friendship and trust. It's a very solid film that's not just for kids, but like most Disney movies, can be enjoyed by adults as well. 


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Edge Of Seventeen: Watching An Angsty Teen In A Movie Is Almost As Uncomfortable/Hilarious As It Is In Real Life

We don't get a lot of smart teen movies these days. In fact, we don't really seem to get very many teen movies. In the last two years, other than The Edge of Seventeen, the only two teen movies that deal with high school angst and emotions were The Duff and Paper Towns (shudder). From John Hughes' brat pack to Clueless to Mean Girls, high school movies that center around the inner-conflict of acceptance and pain in teens has been a movie staple over the last thirty years. However, due to the influx in big budget epics and a fear of creativity, these movies have been put on the backburner. The Edge of Seventeen is a delightfully uncomfortable movie that passes off as realistic, funny, charming, and heartbreaking all at the same time-- you know-- everything a teen feels at all moments of their miserable lives.

True Grit star Hailee Steinfeld is Nadine, an awkward 17-year-old who is just trying to survive being an awkward 17-year-old. She's only really got two friends in her entire life, Krista, and a sarcastic tenured History teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson). She has to constantly battle her overly good looking (and hollow) older brother and spastic mother. But, when her best friend in her entire life decides to hook up with her brother, Nadine's entire life is thrust into a whirlwind of emotion and loneliness. What's great about the movie is that almost none of the problems and conflicts on screen have carry that much weight in the real world, however, for a teenager it's completely the opposite. In the opening scene of the movie, Nadine confides in Mr. Bruner that she's going to kill herself because everything happening around her is too much to handle. He replies in a snarky asshole way knowing that it's teenage problems/hormones and not that serious. And that's the way everything is. We watch the problems unfold and know that it's just angsty teen shit... but watch as Nadine reacts like she's in a Saw movie.

The movie is very funny. It's funny in a very real and truthful way.  But, it's also very funny in a super uncomfortable way.  The situations that Nadine puts herself in and then attempts to act like a "normal" person is cringe-worthy and hilarious. Nearly every move she makes is the wrong one that winds up in a moment that's so agonizing to watch, you'll find yourself squirming in your seat. The great thing is, however, that Nadine is far from dumb. She's a very smart student, or "old soul" as she calls herself, and definitely stands out in her high school.  But, she's still a teenager and there's no escaping the "problems" of everyday teenage life.

Writer/Director Kelly Fremon Craig has written a very impressive female lead. She's not the idiot girl that has to change herself to learn a lesson about what it's like to be accepted in high school. She also doesn't have to change the people around her to accept her. She just accepts herself and allows everyone else to fuck right off.  She's a very well-written character and fun to watch get in and out of very realistic and very uncomfortable situations. It's funny, though, because a lot of male writers get criticized because they don't know how to write female characters more than just a pretty face. Craig writes all of her female characters to perfection, but it's the male characters she struggles with (and this actually could've been intentional as a sort-of commentary on male-centric teen-driven movies). It's also the actors cast. Nadine's brother is a tree trunk of a dude who has literally only one look on his face the entire movie. He's flat-out annoying to look at.  Then there's Nadine's ultimate crush, a guy she fixates on from afar.  When we finally get to meet him, he's not even human. He's a caricature of what adults believe all good-looking high school students are that don't play football. But, there's also Mr. Bruner who is expertly written and Erwin, a Korean-American student who crushes on Nadine.  It's nice to see a male character get flustered and have awkward, uncooridanted teenage conversations with an actual girl. But, of course, thank you Hollywood, when his shirt comes off he's still ripped and good looking.

What I'm saying is that the movie is very good. There's not a lot of plot going on here, but this is one of the few instances that there doesn't need to be.  The plot is Nadine making it through another day with one wall after one wall crumbling down in front of her. The movie is heartfelt and poignant and funny and genuinely one of the best movies I've seen this year. It's a little movie that didn't get a whole lot of attention when it came out, but I have a feeling it's going to develop a bit of a cult following once people have redbox'd the shit out of it.


Monday, December 5, 2016

We Have To Talk About The Mummy Trailer

If you haven't seen it yet, there is a new trailer circling the webisphere.  No, I'm not talking about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (which should be good IF Baby Groot isn't as annoying as I assume it's going to be).  I'm talking about Universal's unnecessary remake of The Mummy.  If you haven't seen it yet, please allow me to enlighten you before our discussion:

I've watched it three times now and I'm still not sure what that taste is in my mouth.  It's mostly anger and rage and probably a little tarter... but it might just boil down to confusion. I understand that Hollywood is completely against any sort of new idea (like, hey, maybe creating a new movie monster or creature that's as fun as The Mummy), and I also understand that they're starting their new expanded monster universe (like The Avengers but with old horror monsters).  What I'm upset at is the fact that they felt like the needed to remake an already great movie (unheard of, I know!) The Brendan Fraser movie, while imperfect, is a ton of fun. It's a cheesy and poorly acted and absolutely magnificent.  Sure, it was followed up by a pretty terrible sequel and an ABYSMAL third movie I refuse to acknowledge, but there are few movies like the first Mummy

Now we have Tom Cruise.  I have no problem with Tom Cruise.  He's a fucking ball of nuts, but most of his movies are good.  He's a very entertaining Hollywood figure who tends to choose very fun roles from mostly good scripts. Yet, this version of The Mummy doesn't look like fun.  It looks like Mission: Impossible meets The Mummy without any of the fun horror schlock that makes the 1999 version great. It's big CGI plane crashes and explosions and bus crashes and Russell Crowe and it doesn't look like anyone is having any fun.  It's cool to look at, sure, but there's a reason Brendan Fraser became mildly popular and famous after The Mummy is because it was such a FUN movie and he is such a FUN character.  Only after that movie did we learn that he's a terrible actor, but fun nonetheless.

Obviously this could be due to a poor edit of the trailer. An entire action sequence with a crashing plane has already been essentially spoiled (another annoying thing Hollywood is doing now), but I just didn't care.  To be fair, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for 1999's The Mummy and no matter how good (or bad) this one is, that one will always be my favorite.  I'm just upset that this new monster movie universe couldn't have just included the Brendan Fraser version.  It's a perfect enough movie and could've been the anchor for a new set of horror movies.  It's not like you couldn't still get Brendan Fraser...