Monday, January 16, 2017

'Live by Night' review

When it was announced in late 2013 that Ben Affleck would be taking on the role of Batman in the upcoming DC Cinematic Universe, I was seriously disappointed, but not for the same reasons as most. While many comic book fans thought that Affleck was absolutely the wrong choice for the character of Bruce Wayne, I really didn't care either way. I was more personally disappointed by the fact that Affleck had chosen to put his directorial career on the backburner in favor of a role in a big blockbuster franchise. Affleck was just coming off the pinnacle of his career with the Best Picture win for Argo, a spectacular historical thriller that showcased his talents on a brand new level. For his next project, he had lined up an adaptation of Dennis Lehane's Live by Night, an epic crime novel that works exceptionally well. As someone who actually read the book (a true rarity these days), I was excited for Affleck's cinematic take. Originally scheduled for a Christmas 2015 release date, Live by Night was set to be one of the most anticipated films of the next several years.


But as the DC Extended Universe took shape and Affleck became fully invested in his role as Batman, the multi-hyphenate's crime saga ended up being delayed over and over again. With Batman v Superman and Justice League at the forefront, Live by Night was pushed back by Warner Bros. all the way to October 2017. When the studio moved the film to an early January release date, many assumed that Affleck had crafted a surefire Oscar contender. But as Affleck's fourth directorial feature began to screen for critics and industry experts, Hollywood came to the slow realization that Live by Night was something of a disaster. Despite a few possible opportunities in technical categories, the Oscar buzz for this film is pretty much shot. The limited release of the film was a total bomb, and it's now limping into a wide release during a competitive weekend. But is the old-fashioned crime drama as bad as everyone says it is?

Not really, but I still have to chalk it up as a pretty significant disappointment. Live by Night is a watchable film, the kind that you could catch while flipping cable channels late at night. It's beautiful and there are plenty of wonderful performances and scenes, but it feels like a shorter version of a crime epic. It's hard for me to say much that hasn't already been said by the other critics who were hugely let down by Affleck's latest, but most of their criticisms ring true in my own personal opinion as well. It's certainly not a good adaptation of Lehane's novel, which is a sprawling, dynamic, and tragic piece of work. In the movie, the story beats feel cluttered, and the emotion feels unearned. There are simply too many characters and there's just too much plot for a 129 minute film, and I really hope that we end up seeing some kind of director's cut down the line. Because while I still don't know if Affleck would have hit all the marks, Live by Night in its current state feels like a gorgeous, haphazard gangster film that never reaches its full potential.


Joe Coughlin (Affleck) went to World War I hoping to fight for his country, but in the end, all he found was suffering and death. After the Great War, he decided he would never fight someone else's battles again. Coughlin became an outlaw, doing small-time robberies with a merry band of misfits. At the same time, he's also carrying on an affair with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the mistress of a powerful crime boss named Albert White (Robert Glenister). Oh, and Joe is the son of Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson), the police chief of Boston. After being betrayed by someone close to him, Joe ends up beaten to a pulp with a three year stint in prison waiting for him. When he gets out, Joe teams up with Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), a rival mob boss who hopes to destroy White's business in Florida. Maso tells Joe to go to Tampa, strike a deal with the Suarez family, and corner the Floridian rum market.

Along with his former bank robbing partner, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), Joe heads to sunny Florida and establishes himself as a gangster kingpin (despite previous attempts to not associate with that label). Joe quickly makes an agreement with Esteban Suarez (Miguel), and his beautiful sister, Graciela (Zoe Saldana), and the business takes off. White's operation begins to crumble, Joe finds love with Graciela, and Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) stays out of his way. But as the stakes grow higher for Joe, Dion, and their boss, new problems emerge. First, there's the issue of RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher), a Klansman and the brother-in-law of Figgis. Secondly, there's the problem of the Ku Klux Klan as a whole. And finally, there's Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), the young preacher who is making a stir in the area for some spoiler-y reasons. As Pruitt and Figgis threaten to destroy the Coughlin/Pescatore gambling operation, Joe will have to discover if he's cruel enough to be a true mob boss in the brutal world of Prohibition.


Okay, so this movie isn't a total disaster. When I first heard word that Live by Night didn't match up to expectations, most of the buzz was centered around it being one of the worst movies of 2016 and a total fiasco. It really isn't. Does it miss the mark completely? Yep. But is it still an entertaining, compelling, mostly well-directed movie? Certainly. Live by Night is a beautiful film, one brimming with intriguing performances, handsome design elements, and a few gripping setpieces. I love the Florida setting, which was kind of explored in The Godfather Part II, but still feels entirely fresh in this film. I also adore the work done by cinematographer Robert Richardson, costume designer Jacqueline West, and production designer Jess Gonchor, who all give the movie a pristine visual shine. There are stretches that are simply gorgeous, dripping in a classic style that seems to relish in its old-school charm. It's a film that passes by breezily- it doesn't require much effort or thought from the audience. Essentially, it's the kind of film I can easily see myself watching on TNT on a weekend evening.

But with this much talent involved and such great source material, that really shouldn't have been the case. When I read Live by Night, I thought that it really had the potential to be the next great gangster epic when translated to film. The book is sprawling and unruly, telling the story of nearly a decade in the life of an angry, motivated rebel with an energy and gusto that isn't matched by most crime stories. It captures two different crime markets with detail and precision, while even managing to slip in a little bit of history. It's a truly excellent novel. With such pitch-perfect material, Affleck couldn't totally screw it up. Unfortunately, Live by Night still ends up operating in "Worst Case Scenario" territory. Affleck captures the look and the feel, while also fitting in nearly every single story beat from Lehane's book. Yet somehow, he never manages to find the soul of the story.


In paperback form, Live by Night is 402 pages long. And simply put, it earns every single page. There is no fat on Lehane's book- it's a sweeping historical crime epic, one that could have been magnificent on the big screen. While Affleck's film has other shortcomings, I can imagine a longer version of this (think over 3 hours long) or a television miniseries would have successfully brought the characters and the world of 1920s Florida to life. Maybe Affleck didn't fight enough with the studio for a longer cut or maybe his screenplay was just never up to snuff, but Live by Night just feels like a summary. It feels like a Cliffs Notes version of the book, capturing all the major story beats and highlighting critical scenes without featuring Lehane's emphasis on character or the epic nature of the novel. For that reason, characters feel like empty voids, motivation can be totally nonexistent, and the grand arc of the story vanishes.

If I'm being honest, I was always concerned about Affleck playing the character of Joe Coughlin. Affleck is too big, too buff, too composed and collected. Coughlin is a brash young upstart, a rebel who does whatever he pleases with an attitude. Those two descriptions just don't match up, and I'll admit, there were plenty of times during the movie where I was totally distracted by Affleck's performance. Something just feels wrong about him playing a gangster kingpin. He's a towering figure, significantly larger than everyone else in the room, more fit to play a mob enforcer than the man running the show. In fact, I would argue that Affleck's mostly indifferent performance as Coughlin is one of the biggest failures of the movie, one that could have only been fixed with a totally different actor in the role (Joseph Gordon-Levitt was always my choice).


The supporting crew features some performances that would have been good with some more development, but with the material they're given and the current cut of the film, the minor characters still fall short. Elle Fanning continues to shine as a brilliant young actress, but I just wish that there was more time to explore the story of Loretta Figgis. Same goes for Chris Cooper's Chief Figgis, an interesting character bogged down in shaky motivation and a tendency to make strange decisions. Even a character that I liked, such as Chris Messina's Dion Bartolo, feels under-written, which is indicative of a problem in the movie as a whole. The villains are one-note or deprived of any sense of intimidation, with Albert White and RD Pruitt coming off as bizarre, goofy individuals. The love interests are even less interesting, as both Emma Gould and Graciela Suarez come off as bland, uninteresting, empty people. Only Brendan Gleeson manages to escape from the mess, with essentially a one-scene cameo that is captivating and engaging. Sure, his part is still underwritten, but at least Affleck knows not to stretch for more.

Live by Night is a watchable disappointment, the kind of film that entertains in the moment but desperately leaves you wanting more. As a huge fan of the book and as someone who enjoyed all of Affleck's prior directorial efforts, the sense of frustration is slightly more acute. However, it also means that I'm more willing to give a soft pass to something that I was pre-disposed to like. I enjoy crime movies, I'm a big fan of this book, and I was eagerly awaiting Affleck's follow-up to Argo- therefore, I had a decent enough time with Live by Night even while noting multiple problems. Maybe this really is a fiasco and I've been far too kind to it, but for what its worth, I had an okay time. Unfortunately, in a time of year where there are so many spectacular pieces of cinema playing in theaters, a mediocre crime drama just isn't going to cut it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.4/10)


Image Credits: IMDB/Warner Bros. 

'Silence' review

"I pray, but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?"

If you haven't struggled with religion at some point during your life, you probably haven't given it enough thought. That may seem like a hasty generalization and a bizarre way to start this review, but it's the truth. Religion, faith, and the existence of God are three complex issues that have been dissected and debated ever since the beginning of time itself. Whether you consider yourself to be an Atheist or a devout Christian or a member of any other religion, I think there's always a level of doubt and uncertainty over personal views on divinity. I was raised a Catholic- I went to mass on most Sundays as a young kid, spent years in Catechism, and was confirmed as a member of the church in 2013. In recent years, I've slipped away from the church. My own personal struggle with the ideas of God and religion and prayer have incited much discussion in my house, and I still don't have any answers.


The Catholic Church is incredibly complex, and there are things that I can't imagine would make sense to people if they weren't raised in the church. For example, I still struggle with the idea that the Holy Communion is actually the body and blood of Jesus Christ, which is one of the fundamental views of the faith. I don't know if I like the idea of constant confession (parodied brilliantly in Hail, Caesar!) nor do I enjoy the idea of sin being thrust in our faces during every waking moment. And most of all, I don't really know if God is listening. Does he hear any of our prayers? I don't know. He seems to hear some of them, but for every answered prayer, there's another issue that comes up. Faith is an endless series of contradictions and coincidences and unexplained events and in my 18 years on Earth, I still don't know what to make of it. Do I still consider myself to be a Catholic? I guess. I still go to mass occasionally. I'm not arrogant enough to presume that God doesn't exist. But at the same time, is blind faith and religious devotion really the best way to go?

Martin Scorsese is a filmmaker who has delved into the ideas of guilt, faith, and the Catholic religion throughout his entire career. Mean Streets, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas- there seems to be a common religious element in many of the iconic director's films. Silence is his final statement on the idea of religiosity and God (some have stated that it ends a thematic trilogy that includes Last Temptation and 1997's Kundun), a longtime passion project based on the novel by Shusaku Endo. Silence is a disturbing 161 minute film about maintaining faith, while also facing torture, persecution, and misery. Those interested in a film with traditional entertainment value need not apply. This is the total opposite of Scorsese's last two films, 2011's Hugo, a wondrous children's fantasy, and 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street, a raunchy, satirical comedic masterpiece. Silence is meditative, quiet, unflinching, and certainly not something that casual viewers will embrace easily.


But that doesn't mean that it's any less compelling. Silence is an incredible piece of filmmaking, an astonishingly beautiful, painful work of art that will endure, fascinate, and provoke for years to come. If you're looking for a film that gives easy answers or reinforces a specific point of view, you've come to the wrong place. Silence is a film that poses questions that just cannot be answered, questions about the very nature of belief in a higher power. It's a grueling experience punctuated by long stretches of subtle contemplation, and it will swirl in your mind long after the lights go up in the theater. But in addition to its thematic intrigue, Silence is a stunningly brilliant piece of cinema, crafted with care and highlighted by a mesmerizing sense of beauty. Tough, unruly, and simply unforgettable, Silence is a quietly stirring knockout.

Set in Japan in the 17th century, the film begins with a brief prologue involving the famed Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who traveled to the country to spread Christianity. But after a brutal crackdown by the local inquisitors, Ferreira finds himself witnessing the horrific torture and crucifixion of the Christian converts. Ferreira is dejected, terrified, and completely shattered. Back at the Vatican, Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) informs Father Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garrpe, the students of Ferreira, that their mentor has denounced God and given up the faith. Shocked and disheartened by this revelation, Rodrigues and Garrpe insist that they must go to Japan, find Father Ferreira, carry on his work in the country, and bring the lost priest back home.


Unfortunately for the two eager, optimistic priests, the mission will not be as easy as they once thought. Japan has become a country of great danger, especially for those who practice the Christian faith. With some help from Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a drunken Japanese man living in Korea, the two priests are smuggled into the countryside of Japan and discover a society of underground Christians, who practice the faith with love, fervor, and extreme devotion. Rodrigues and Garrpe initially admire the sheer strength of their passion for God, but as the true extent of their suffering is slowly unveiled over time, their faith is tested in new ways. Under the might of Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata), the priests find a world of violence, torture, and sadness inflicted on the helpless Christians of Japan. As they are plunged deeper and deeper into a land of darkness, questions begin to emerge about the nature of their work and their devotion to God.

Great art and great entertainment are not always synonymous. Some of the greatest films ever made do not deliver conventional entertainment value, but they give you a feeling, something that might even be more enduring. I remember first watching 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was 13 years old, and I absolutely hated it. To me, it was some kind of strange endurance test, a movie that was far too esoteric and nonsensical to understand. And then I watched it again. And again. And again. It stuck with me. There was a feeling of mystery, of wonder, of beauty, that I just could not shake. I saw Silence on Friday, and in the subsequent days, I have felt an overwhelming urge to see it again, and I can't exactly explain why. It's a punishing, grisly film, and quite frankly, it will be an endurance test for most audience members. But I like it when I'm unable to entirely crack a film on first viewing, and I definitely don't feel that I have fully grasped Silence. It gives you a feeling that you just can't shake, and it's all the more reason that I consider it to be some kind of mesmerizing masterpiece.


Religious films often get a bad rap (and when a film like God's Not Dead becomes a breakout hit, it's easy to understand why), but when you put the topic in the hands of someone like Scorsese, the possibilities are limitless. Some have lambasted this film for asking questions that it can't answer, but that's really the point. Scorsese is posing timeless questions that cannot be answered by one historical epic. Was anyone really expecting the filmmaker to give us a definitive answer on the silent emptiness of prayer? I certainly didn't. But what's more impressive to me is that Scorsese never seems to take a firm position on either side. He understands the inherent appeal of devotion and faith without end, but he sees the suffering, the doubt, the descent into madness that the silence of God can create. Silence is neither anti-religion or pro-religion. It doesn't take sides. It simply presents its graphic, harsh tale, and lets the audience decide.

And with that in mind, it actually made me rethink some views that I previously held. Silence both reinforces and challenges, which is something that not many films do these days. In a modern society where ideological rigidity is favored, Silence dares you to question. If you're a firm person of faith (or especially if you consider yourself to be an Evangelist), the torture of the Japanese Christians will certainly make you re-examine some ideas. Is spreading the faith necessary? Does Evangelism bring about suffering? Alternatively, if you're an avowed atheist or a person unsure about their relationship with organized religion, Silence will give you some reasons to believe. No, this film did not completely erase all of my problems with Catholicism and religion- but it gave me some possible answers that I hadn't thought of in the past. It would be absolutely fascinating to form a panel of both agnostics and Catholics to discuss this film, simply because it sparks so much discussion and poses so many ambiguous questions. Silence does not deal in absolutes, and that is quite possibly its greatest asset.


But in reality, the examination of the religious themes comes later. The ideas of Silence will be rattling around in your head well after the final credits roll, but I don't necessarily see many audience members dissecting the film's philosophy while it unfolds. That's because Scorsese draws you in with such stunning, meticulous filmmaking, punctuated by dazzling cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto and beautiful locations that contrast the stark brutality of the subject matter. Silence is a film that exhausts you both mentally and physically. Much like the trials of the characters, it tests your strength, your patience, your will. By the end of Silence, you will have either given everything to this movie or you will have fallen asleep. Those are pretty much the only two options. Audience members that commit to the ride will be treated to a film that is as painful and harrowing as it is gorgeous. Unlike some of Scorsese's other masterpieces (Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street, etc.), there is nothing flashy about Silence. It is blunt, it is careful, and it is effective.

Silence also features some of the best performances of the year, even if a bit of the emotional gravity is lost in the phony accents and theological ambiguity. Andrew Garfield played a man of staunch, committed faith in the visceral Hacksaw Ridge, and in Silence, it's interesting to see him play a character who is almost the exact opposite of that. Rodrigues is probably the most compelling individual in the movie, a man who falls into a state of furious madness as he witnesses his fellow Christians murdered around him. It's interesting to watch the film's Apocalypse Now-like progression, all before a kind of third act twist that leaves Rodrigues in a weird state of dejection. Garfield is consistently brilliant, and while he'll probably receive his Oscar nomination for Hacksaw, I'll consider it to be a recognition of his great work here as well.


In addition, Garfield has excellent chemistry with Adam Driver, who delivers an equally impressive turn as Garrpe. Driver is more like Hacksaw's Desmond Doss- loving, unwavering, firmly committed. When a Japanese man asks Rodrigues what to do if asked to step on the picture of Jesus (the sign for rejecting the Church), Sebastiao tells him that he must save his own life. Garrpe stands back, stunned in disbelief. He tells the man the exact opposite, affirming that faith is more important than mortality. It provides an interesting contrast, but the men remain closely bonded throughout their entire relationship. Liam Neeson is the final member of the main trio of stars, and he is terrific. He isn't in the movie as much as you'd expect, but when he does appear, he knocks it out of the park. Finally, many have noted the performance of Issei Ogata, who plays the main villain. I'm not of the belief that Ogata is on the level of Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa (a frequent comparison for the Inquisitor), but I do think that Inoue provides a fascinating ideological foil for Rodrigues, which makes for some dynamite scenes.

Silence needs time to simmer. In all likelihood, when the credits roll, you'll be beyond exhausted and ready for a break from such heavy, dour material. Scorsese knows that. He knows what kind of film he has made. This is more of an art house film than any other Scorsese film I've ever seen (not an expert on the director, but I've seen most of his major works), and audiences expecting a conventional story will likely be disappointed. But if you give Silence time to breathe, time for it to sink into your soul and grip you, the rewards are plentiful. It's a phenomenal, punishing visual experience and a jaw-dropping exercise in theological and narrative precision. It's a hard film to shake, providing so much food for thought in an overwhelming, breathtaking package. Silence doesn't give easy answers to its questions, but there's no doubt in my mind that this is a towering achievement from Scorsese, a film about essential ideas that manages to be powerful, intense, epic, and masterful.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.1/10)


Image Credits: IMDB/Paramount

'Lion' review

Remember the days when Harvey Weinstein could take any movie and turn it into an Oscar sensation? After first appearing on Hollywood's radar during the Miramax days of the 1990s, when Weinstein pulled off major Oscar upsets with The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love, the powerful executive started his own studio (The Weinstein Company) and became an Oscar kingpin. He turned a potential Oscar also-ran like The King's Speech into a Best Picture winner, and he was thanked in more acceptance speeches than you can count. But in recent years, Weinstein has seemed to lose a bit of his awards season mojo. Despite strong performances from films like Silver Linings Playbook and The Imitation Game, studios like Fox Searchlight stole Harvey's thunder, and 2015 emerged as a frankly disastrous year for the company. Sure bets like The Hateful Eight and Carol totally missed with the Academy, and several others flat-out bombed.


Weinstein needed a good 2016, but this year was perhaps more cataclysmic that the last. It began with the botched release of Sing Street, one of my favorite movies of the year and a film that simply vanished upon arrival in April. It seems that Weinstein didn't know he had one of the year's biggest crowd-pleasers, and the film ended up bombing at the box office. The company later ended up continually shifting Michael Keaton's The Founder around the release calendar, ruining any chance that the film could end up in Oscar contention. They also completely abandoned Gold, Matthew McConaughey's bid at another Oscar run. Harvey Weinstein decided to put all of his chips on Lion this year, Garth Davis' story of one man's journey to find his hometown in India. The film made quite a splash at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and despite so-so reviews, it's looking like a very solid Oscar contender.

And essentially, that's how the movie plays out. It's a very well done rendition of the classic Oscar tearjerker, bolstered by several terrific performances and a moving conclusion. While I do have a few problems with the way that the story is told and the basic structure of the film, there's no denying that Lion is visually stunning and emotionally resonant. It moves smoothly, spinning its narrative with a grace that overshadows some of the structural issues. And when you have two lead performances as good as those delivered by Dev Patel and Sunny Pawar, it's easy to get swept up in the story. Lion may not be quite as satisfying as some of the other Oscar favorites from this year, but it is nonetheless an incredibly effective piece of filmmaking.


Lion begins its story in the 1980s, where we find a young boy named Saroo (Pawar) and his brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). They're doing everything that they can to survive in harsh conditions, and they barely have enough food to survive. But along with their mother (Priyanka Bose), they clearly have a strong love for each other and their family as a whole. One day, Guddu goes off to do hard manual labor in the hopes of bringing the family some extra cash. Saroo desperately wants to go with him, but Guddu insists that he's just too young. He tells him to wait at a train station for him while he finds work, but things don't exactly work out well. Saroo wakes up on a bench at the station with Guddu nowhere to be found. After a terrifying voyage, Saroo ends up thousands of miles away from home on the dangerous streets of Calcutta. He dodges a few scary close calls before being adopted by an Australian family, giving him a chance for success in a new world.

John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) are loving, caring parents, and they are able to provide an excellent life for Saroo on the island of Tasmania. A year after Saroo's adoption, the Brierleys adopt Mantosh, another young boy from India with a tortured past. Things don't go quite as well this time around. But that doesn't stop Saroo from reaching his full potential- the film jumps 20 years into the future (2008) and we see Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) as a man, preparing to start his own career in hotel management. During his conference training, Saroo meets a beautiful young woman (Rooney Mara) and strikes up several friendships, putting him in good position for the future. But one day, Saroo is struck with an overwhelming urge to find his home. He devotes himself entirely to the idea of finding his long-lost mother and brother, using Google Earth to search through India. After years of a broken past, Saroo is finally close to discovering the answer to the fundamental question of his life.


Lion is a very good film. Really, it is. I can't imagine many people going to see this and disliking it. The film is straight-forward, powerful, and incredibly emotional. There will be plenty of tears in the audience by the time it's all said and done. So if I seem to be overly critical of Lion over the course of the next few paragraphs, just know that I did enjoy myself quite a bit and that everything will end on a positive note. But as solid as this film is, I'm unable to shake the idea that it could have somehow been done in a better, more fulfilling way. In its current state, Lion plays out exactly as I listed above. It's a two hour film, with the first half chronicling the scary journey that young Saroo suffers through, and the second half tackling adult Saroo's exploration of his past life. Now, there are quite a few benefits to this basic structure. The scenes with young Saroo are explosive and powerful, mostly thanks to the understated direction of Davis and the spectacular turn by Pawar. They have an undeniable impact, and they have been the recipient of much praise from critics.

However, the problem arises in the second half of the film. Dev Patel keeps things afloat just by the sheer force of his screen presence, but we don't quite know enough about Saroo to emotionally connect with his character. Imagine if Moonlight was split into two sections, and the entire middle chunk that deals with Chiron's experiences as a teenager vanished. Imagine if we simply jumped from young Chiron first inquiring about his sexuality to older, world weary Chiron. That would be a huge gap and we really wouldn't know enough to understand the character entirely. I feel like that's the biggest misfire with Lion. There's too much time between Saroo's adoption by the Brierleys and his revelation as a young man. In the movie, Saroo begins his odyssey of discovery when he sees a dessert that he always wanted as a kid in India. We see him for a few scenes as a charismatic young guy, and then the film pulls a 180 on us that feels slightly forced and unrealistic.


Saroo must have struggled throughout his entire life with the ultimate fate of his family back in India. That is a burden that would weigh heavy on anyone's shoulders. I just wish we saw some of that in the film. Instead, we get a quick introduction to his adult personality, a brief trigger moment, and then he descends into the life of a hermit in the pursuit of his old family. I don't think his behaviors are rash or unreasonable, but I wish we got more of his intrinsic motivation as that desire grew throughout his entire life. I'm not necessarily one to promote the use of flashbacks in a film, but in the case of Lion, a complete shakeup of the story structure would probably have been to everyone's benefit. If the audience was allowed to deeper understand the character of adult Saroo, maybe even seeing this discontent with his past formulate over time, then the movie reaches an entirely different level of effectiveness. The stuff with young Saroo is great, but the structure does not serve the story arc of the film at large.

Nonetheless, in the grand scheme of things, I can't imagine too many audience members getting caught up on these issues. Lion is a film brimming with beauty, filled with performances that will bring a tear to your eye. I can't say enough good things about Sunny Pawar, who brings a depth and determination to his character. Young Saroo doesn't say much during the course of his lengthy, traumatic journey, but you can always see the pain and the constant thinking just from looking in his eyes. Pawar is matched (but not surpassed) by Patel, who mixes his movie star charm with a healthy dose of heartache. The older version of Saroo is an underwritten character, but Patel somehow manages to turn him into a fascinating, sympathetic individual. I was also incredibly impressed by Nicole Kidman's supporting turn- she has one "Oscar moment" that works as a total knockout.

While the performances take the spotlight, Garth Davis' direction is still fluid and evocative, capturing the gorgeous vistas and the subtle horrors of Saroo's journey. And in addition, the score, cinematography, and design elements are all pitch-perfect. Ultimately, while there are a few major areas of improvement, Lion is a striking, powerful film. If you're not moved by the conclusion, then I don't know what to tell you. It's not going to be an enduring classic like La La Land or Moonlight, but in the realm of an Oscar season that has been scattershot at best, some cinematic comfort food like Lion hits the spot.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.4/10)


Images courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Friday, January 13, 2017

'La La Land,' 'Moonlight,' and 'Lion' among nominees for 2017 Directors Guild Awards

January 24 is not too far away, which means we're very close to the announcement of the nominees for the 89th annual Academy Awards. The guild nominations have been slowly unveiled over the course of the last month, with the Producers Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and Writers Guild all announcing their picks for the best of 2016. Yesterday, the last of the major guilds, the Directors Guild of America, revealed their choices for the best directors of the year. Going into the day, there were many questions over who would fill out the final two spots, as three nominees were considered to be locks. The choices were somewhat surprising and could indicate a fascinating directorial slate when the Oscar nominees are announced. Here are the 2017 Directors Guild Award nominees!

Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film


Image courtesy of Lionsgate

Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Garth Davis, Lion
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Outstanding Directorial Achievement in First-Time Feature Film


Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Garth Davis, Lion
Kelly Fremon Craig, The Edge of Seventeen
Tim Miller, Deadpool
Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation
Dan Trachtenberg, 10 Cloverfield Lane

Pretty much every Oscar prognosticator knew that Damien Chazelle, Barry Jenkins, and Kenneth Lonergan were on their way to DGA nominations. Those three are widely considered to be the locks for the Best Director category, although stranger things have happened in the past (the Directors branch of the Academy is pretty fickle- Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow, and Ridley Scott have all been snubbed in recent years). Denis Villeneuve was also a popular pick, so it wasn't all that surprising to see him receive a nod for his spectacular work on Arrival. However, the real surprise of the day was Lion's Garth Davis, who wasn't even in the conversation until yesterday. Many suspected that David Mackenzie and Mel Gibson might make the cut, but Davis managed to sneak into both DGA categories.

So does this mean Davis makes it in with the Oscars? Possibly. I'd say this is a bigger boost for Lion itself than the potential of a Davis nomination. The film hasn't done all that spectacular at the box office, so the Weinstein Company really needs the Academy love to turn this into a hit. The DGA nomination is a nice boost for Villeneuve, who seems more and more like a sure thing every day. As for other films in the potential Oscar consideration, Deadpool's Tim Miller managed to make it into the First-Time feature film category, along with Davis, Edge of Seventeen's Kelly Fremon Craig, Birth of a Nation's Nate Parker, and 10 Cloverfield Lane's Dan Trachtenberg, my favorite pick of the day. Does the acknowledgment by the guild mean that Deadpool is in good shape for a Best Picture nomination? Once again, doubtfully. I'm not placing much weight on the First-Time feature category, but as always, I could be proved wrong.

The Directors Guild Awards will be announced on February 3, 2017.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

'La La Land' leads BAFTA Awards with 11 nominations, while 'Arrival' and 'Nocturnal Animals' surprise with 9 each

It's always tough to judge how the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards, known commonly as the BAFTAs, affect the Oscar race. They're known as the "British Oscars," but they can often feature different eligible nominees and a completely different voting body. They haven't been all that consistent in terms of predicting the Best Picture winner on a year-to-year basis, and I can easily see them choosing something like I, Daniel Blake, a topical, distinctly British film, over La La Land, the current Oscar front-runner. That being said, they're another one of the big awards shows, and earlier today, the British Academy announced their nominees for the best of the year. Check them out below!

Best Film


Image courtesy of Lionsgate

Arrival
I, Daniel Blake
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

Outstanding British Film

American Honey
Denial
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
I, Daniel Blake
Notes on Blindness
Under the Shadow

Best Director

Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
Ken Loach, I, Daniel Blake
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals

Best Leading Actress


Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Amy Adams, Arrival
Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Natalie Portman, Jackie

Best Leading Actor

Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nocturnal Animals
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic

Best Supporting Actor

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nocturnal Animals
Dev Patel, Lion
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Best Supporting Actress


Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Hayley Squires, I, Daniel Blake
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Viola Davis, Fences

Best Adapted Screenplay

Arrival
Hacksaw Ridge
Hidden Figures
Lion
Nocturnal Animals

Best Original Screenplay

Hell or High Water
I, Daniel Blake
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

Best Documentary


Image courtesy of Netflix

13th
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week- The Touring Years
The Eagle Huntress
Notes on Blindness
Weiner

Outstanding Debut

The Girl with All the Gifts
The Hard Stop
Notes on Blindness
The Pass
Under the Shadow

Film Not in the English Language

Dheepan
Julieta
Mustang
Son of Saul
Toni Erdmann

Best Animated Film


Image courtesy of Focus Features

Finding Dory
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
Zootropolis

Best Cinematography

Arrival
Hell or High Water
La La Land
Lion
Nocturnal Animals

Best Editing

Arrival
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Nocturnal Animals
Manchester by the Sea

Best Make Up and Hair


Image courtesy of Lionsgate

Florence Foster Jenkins
Doctor Strange
Hacksaw Ridge
Nocturnal Animals
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Best Costume Design

Allied
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
Jackie
La La Land

Best Special Visual Effects

Arrival
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Jungle Book
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Best Production Design


Image courtesy of Focus Features

Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hail, Caesar!
La La Land
Nocturnal Animals

Best Original Music

Arrival
Jackie
La La Land
Lion
Nocturnal Animals

Best Sound

Arrival
Deepwater Horizon
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land

Damien Chazelle's La La Land has excelled with large voting bodies, and the modern movie musical did great with the BAFTAs, snagging an impressive 11 nominations. But after the spectacular showing by the film at the Golden Globes on Sunday, this wasn't necessarily a surprise. However, the strength of Arrival and Nocturnal Animals was quite surprising, as both films earned 9 nominations. Arrival is in prime shape for a Best Picture nomination next week, while Tom Ford's film has shown occasional signs of strength during the course of the awards season. Does that translate to a Best Picture nod? Not necessarily. Nocturnal Animals has played much better overseas than it has in the US, garnering universal acclaim at the Venice Film Festival before drawing mixed reviews at TIFF. Mix in the strong showing with the BAFTAs and the HFPA, and you have a film that seems to be doing best with foreign groups.

I, Daniel Blake is another film that will certainly not come close to an Oscar nomination next week, and the strong performance by Warner Bros.' Fantastic Beasts is mostly an indication of its British origins. Overall, unless Arrival and Nocturnal Animals suddenly become dominant forces when the Oscar nominations are announced, I can't imagine that this year's BAFTAs will have a huge impact on the overall race.

The BAFTA Awards will be held on February 12, 2017.


Poster courtesy of Lionsgate

Nominations revealed for 2017 Producers Guild Awards

There are so many groups that hand out awards before the Oscars that it's easy to get mixed up or for different groups to get lost in the shuffle. But no two groups are perhaps as important as the Producers Guild and the Directors Guild- they're the groups that solidify Oscar front-runners. 8 of the last 10 Best Picture winners have also won at the PGA Awards, and that same statistic applies for the DGA Awards. These are two pretty consistent groups, so everybody places quite a bit of weight on the picks of the two shows. Earlier today, the Producers Guild of America announced their picks for the best films of the year. Here are their nominees for 2016:

Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures


Arrival
Deadpool
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

Outstanding Producer of Animated Theatrical Motion Pictures

Finding Dory
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
The Secret Life of Pets
Zootopia

Outstanding Producer of Documentary Theatrical Motion Pictures

Dancer
The Eagle Huntress
Life, Animated
O.J.: Made in America
Tower

The ten nominees chosen by the PGA fit in almost exactly with expectations, with the sole exception of Deadpool. The R-rated superhero romp surprised last week when it received a nomination from the Writers Guild, and while there were some ways to justify that one, this nod from the producers is completely baffling. The question on everyone's mind is- does this mean that we have to treat Deadpool as a serious Oscar contender? Probably not. If we were still on the system of ten guaranteed nominees, then yeah, I would say that Deadpool has a chance. But on the current system, there are some other films on this list that don't even have good odds of making the cut, much less an ultra-violent superhero flick. As of right now, the only locks at the Oscars are La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Fences, and maybe Hidden Figures. Everything else is a total toss-up. Today's nominations provide a nice boost for a couple of films, but in all honesty, the final group of movies nominated for Best Picture will remain somewhat of a mystery until January 24.


Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Monday, January 9, 2017

Recap: 'La La Land' sweeps the Golden Globes with record 7 wins

It's always tough to say whether the Golden Globes will have an impact on the Oscar race. The voting body of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is so radically different from every other group, comprised of between 60-90 journalists, compared to the nearly 7,000 members of the Academy. In addition to that, with the massive splits between the categories of Drama and Musical/Comedy, it's hard to really get a read on the overall picture of the awards race from the Globes. That being said, the show is important from an optics standpoint, as it's the first recognizable television awards show and the chance for many favorites to take the stage. The Globes are rarely responsible for cementing a front-runner, but last night, they may have done just that. Here are the winners from last night's telecast of the Golden Globes.


Best Motion Picture- Drama- MOONLIGHT

Best Motion Picture- Comedy or Musical- LA LA LAND

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture- Drama- Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture- Drama- Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture- Comedy or Musical- Ryan Gosling, La La Land

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture- Comedy or Musical- Emma Stone, La La Land

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture- Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nocturnal Animals

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture- Viola Davis, Fences

Best Director- Motion Picture- Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Best Screenplay- Motion Picture- Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Best Motion Picture- Animated- ZOOTOPIA

Best Motion Picture- Foreign Language- ELLE

Best Original Score- Motion Picture- Justin Hurwitz, La La Land

Best Original Song- Motion Picture- "City of Stars" from La La Land

When the first award of the night went to Aaron Taylor-Johnson for Nocturnal Animals, I thought we were surely in for an unpredictable show. After all, nobody thought Taylor-Johnson would be nominated, much less win the actual thing. But while there ended up being a few surprises, including the impressive Best Actress win by Isabelle Huppert, this night belonged to one dominant awards season juggernaut.

In my predictions on Friday, I chose La La Land to win 6 out of the 7 awards it was nominated for. I thought that I was going pretty high on Damien Chazelle's modern musical, but I somehow ended up underselling the film's chances at the Globes. Make no mistake about it- last night was all about La La Land. As soon as Jimmy Fallon's opening number, which literally recreated three scenes from the critically acclaimed film, appeared on screen, I had a feeling that this would be a very La La Land-centric night. It ended up with the clean sweep, winning awards for Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay, Song, and Score, setting the all time Golden Globes record with 7 wins. Only one other film last night won more than one award (the black comedy/character study about rape, surprisingly enough), and several other front-runners saw their hopes deflated by the buoyant L.A.-set love story.

Whatever awards season momentum was lost by the SAG snub has now been regained by Chazelle's film. There's a good chance that it receives 14 nominations at the Oscars this month (which would tie Titanic and All About Eve for the most in history), and it's currently the odds-on favorite to win 9 of those possible awards. Moonlight did have a big win last night in the Best Picture- Drama category, there's no denying it. Barry Jenkins' film received a standing ovation and was clearly beloved by the room. But La La Land is the favorite right now, and it's not exactly close. This film has positioned itself as quite possibly one of the all time Oscar juggernauts, and if it keeps up the strong momentum at the Producers and Directors Guild Awards, it should have no problem at the Dolby Theatre. In order to stay competitive and make Oscar night interesting, Moonlight needs a win at the SAG Awards on January 29 and a victory at the Writers Guild as well. If the A24 release gets upstaged by Manchester by the Sea, La La Land will steamroll without a hint of competition.

As for the other races, there were a few contenders who cemented their status and a few who found themselves on shaky ground. Viola Davis and Casey Affleck took home trophies, much to the surprise of nobody, and they're both currently on an unstoppable path to an Oscar win for their deservedly praised performances. As for Natalie Portman, she hit a rough patch last night with her loss to Isabelle Huppert. The star of Jackie gained some ground at the Critics Choice Awards with her win over Emma Stone, but this should be considered a big stumble. Of course, many have mentioned that Huppert obviously did well with the foreign journalists, and that there shouldn't be much concern for Portman's Oscar chances. But if there's any sort of split between Huppert and Portman, that's good news for Stone.

Mahershala Ali was surprisingly upset by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the supporting actor category, but unless it becomes a trend moving forward, I don't think Team Moonlight has too much to worry about. Zootopia got a nice boost in the animated feature category, while Elle's victory in foreign language will have no impact on the Oscars simply because it's ineligible. As for the best moments of the night, I was particularly touched by Ryan Gosling's speech, which was a nice tribute to Eva Mendes and her late brother. Of course, Meryl Streep turned things into a major event with her terrific speech, which was rousing, effective, and emotional in equal measure. And as a fan of La La Land, the aforementioned opening number dazzled me. This was a very fun night, and as a huge fan of the two Best Picture winners, I couldn't be happier with the results. We'll see where the race goes for here, but La La Land is looking like the kind of Oscar contender that most studios only dream of.


Images courtesy of Lionsgate