Saturday, December 10, 2016

'Moana' review

Every single time I write a review of a new Disney animated movie, I seem to write the same opening paragraph. It's a new Disney renaissance! They're making good movies again! They're on a roll! They're better than Pixar! I could certainly write the same thing once again for Moana, Disney's newest feature and the latest in a string of critically acclaimed hits for the studio. Yes, everything that has been said about Zootopia and Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph applies here once more. In fact, Moana might just be the best movie in the 2010s Disney resurgence yet. After the remarkable success of their last few movies, you would think that I would have higher expectations for a new Disney film. Even with Oscar buzz, critical raves, and a Rotten Tomatoes score at 98%, I was barely anticipating the film's release. In a season led by two major blockbusters (Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts) and an abundance of Oscar contenders (La La Land, Manchester by the Sea), the biggest animated film of the season got lost in the shuffle for me.

But as I have with almost all of the recent Disney animated films, I headed to the theater to check out Moana on opening day during its first screening. And I was simply blown away. Moana is as purely enjoyable as any of Disney's recent output, and even in a banner year for animation, this Polynesian adventure might just be my favorite animated film of the year. It's certainly Disney's best princess film since the early 90s, although this is a completely different kind of princess tale. Here is a Disney movie featuring a female protagonist with no love interest, something that has never happened in the company's storied animated history. Moana is just a strong, fierce heroine, a girl who uses her brains and her strength to save her island. It's a necessary and vital story of female empowerment, and the fact that the film is so entertaining only improves matters. With excellent songs from Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda, glorious, colorful visuals, a dynamite turn from Dwayne Johnson, and a great story that takes a joyous look at Polynesian culture, Moana is a brilliant delight.

In the opening moments of Moana, we're told the story of Te Fiti, the goddess of the island. She was the force that united the islands, maintaining a sense of peace and harmony. But one day, her heart was stolen by Maui (Dwayne Johnson), the powerful demigod who is the idol of humanity. During a battle, the heart was lost, and the forces that Te Fiti kept at bay were unleashed on the world. The islands are slowly dying, and unless the heart of the ocean is returned, that will continue to happen. Chief Tui (Temeura Morrison) knows this, but with the looming threats in the depths of the sea, he doesn't want anyone to make the trek. Especially not Moana (Auli'i Cravalho), his adventurous and skillful daughter. Tui wants Moana to prepare to be the future queen of the island, but all she wants to do is travel the world and see the ocean.

Oh, and there's one other thing- the ocean has gifted Moana with special powers. Not only does she have a burning desire to travel beyond the confines of her island, she's also the chosen one in a way. The ocean gifted her the heart, and she's destined to find Maui and restore the power of Te Fiti. With a little bit of help from her wise grandmother (Rachel House), Moana learns the true story of her people's past and goes on an adventure of her own. Along with Hei Hei (Alan Tudyk), her bone-headed chicken companion, Moana ventures to find Maui, a bombastic figure who may have a bit more under the surface than you might think. Together, they'll have to combine their smarts and strength to save the day, and restore the glorious path of the islands.

I saw Moana over two weeks ago, and I've been struggling to come up with much to say about it, simply because I just really had a blast. This movie is so much fun, and if it we hadn't seen a couple of musical masterworks from Damien Chazelle and John Carney, Moana may have ended up as the best cinematic experience of the year. It's pure visual eye candy, a lush, immaculately designed film that has some of the most dynamic animation I've seen. It's a movie that feels vibrantly alive at every moment, pulsating with the island spirit and moving like the waves of the oceans. Every color is vivid and bright, every action scene is beautifully staged, and every moment feels perfectly realized. After dominating the world of hand-drawn animation, it's clear that directors Ron Clements and John Musker have tapped into the potential of CGI animation, and have utilized it to put their unique, stunning vision to life on the big screen.

As jaw-dropping as the visuals are, Moana's charm comes from more than just the expert work done by some of Disney's most talented animators. Clements and Musker had a really great story on their hands here, and it translates so well to the big screen. Of all the criticisms of Moana, I've been most baffled by those who have said that the story is weak and doesn't generate much interest. I couldn't disagree more. The story here may be simple, but that word is not synonymous with weak. Moana hooks you from the first scene with its charming, epic mythology, and keeps you enticed with its blend of excellent character moments, large-scale music numbers, and stunning action scenes. Moana is a traditional adventure narrative, a hero's journey story that is refreshingly free of fluff or filler. The pacing is truly incredible, and each profound emotional moment is balanced with an action beat that is gleefully entertaining. This movie is a blast from start to finish and it doesn't let up.

Moana is a perfect heroine for this story, and Auli'i Cravalho brings her to life in a great way. She's strong-willed, determined, beautiful, and endlessly likable- pretty much perfect for Disney's first truly independent female lead. Cravalho, a newcomer, is instrumental in creating the personality of Moana, and her vocals are astounding. "How Far I'll Go" is one of the standout numbers of the film, and Cravalho pours her heart and soul into it, turning a traditional Disney ballad into a true show-stopper. She's balanced by the always-terrific Dwayne Johnson, who creates one of the best characters of the year with Maui. Johnson is a larger-than-life personality, which makes him the perfect fit for the herculean demigod. But as with all of Johnson's characters, there's a tenderness underneath the rough exterior, which comes out during some of the film's most vulnerable moments. Oh- and he can sing! "You're Welcome" is maybe the most entertaining number of the movie, a brilliant burst of musical exuberance.

Beyond those two centerpiece numbers, Moana is filled with great scenes and unforgettable musical moments. "We Know the Way," which is sung by Lin Manuel Miranda himself, is a booming, beautifully staged piece, and the reprise at the end of the film is nothing short of spectacular. In addition, Jemaine Clement almost steals the show as Tamatoa, a giant crab who feels like a funnier riff on Smaug from the Hobbit films. "Shiny" is Clement's main musical showcase, and it's as hilarious and goofy as anything in the movie. The whole sequence with Tamatoa is terrific, and it's one of the most important parts of the quest that Moana and Maui embark on. However, that dynamite scene is upstaged by an action beat involving an army of coconut monsters. It's a clear homage to George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, and I jumped up and down with nerdy excitement in my seat when I saw what Clements and Musker had done. It's such a breathtaking moment in a movie filled with them. I can't say enough good things about this film.

When Moana comes to a close, the title slams onto the screen with a simple power that reflects the movie that you just witnessed. Make no mistake about it- this is a new Disney classic, and quite possibly the best animated film they've made since the 1990s. I loved every second of this thrilling, enchanting movie, and it's one of those rare instances where I can't imagine people not enjoying it. Moana has it all, and its four-quadrant appeal will make it one of the biggest hits of the holiday season. Memorable music, fantastic story, dazzling animation, great action scenes- what more can you ask for from a Disney movie? Moana is just plain awesome.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.5/10)

Image Credits: Coming Soon, Joblo

Friday, December 9, 2016

Mysterious trailer debuts for James Ponsoldt's highly anticipated 'The Circle'

Most people probably don't know who James Ponsoldt is. After all, his movies in total have barely made over $10 million at the box office, and he's only a household name in the indie world. But to be honest, I have a feeling that could change very soon. Ponsoldt directed The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, two movies that defied genre conventions and became truly remarkable achievements in their own right. The Spectacular Now took a frank, occasionally tragic look at the high school experience, giving us a harrowing portrait of an alcoholic teenager (Miles Teller) and the beautiful relationship that blossoms in his senior year. It was a stunning reversal of the high school genre, and I truly believe that it's a modern classic. The same can be said for The End of the Tour, which is a stunning, introspective road trip movie that features some of the most thought-provoking and graceful sequences of dialogue that I've ever seen on screen. Ponsoldt has an incredible eye for humanity and character, and his films are soft-spoken, playing out in a lowkey manner that hits you right in the heart. Ponsoldt might just see his big breakthrough with The Circle, a technological drama that stars Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, and John Boyega. Based on the book by Dave Eggers, The Circle has the potential to be one of the most absorbing films of 2017. Check out the first trailer below!

This is an incredibly intriguing trailer, and the more I watch it, the more I like it. Most of my excitement for this movie surrounds the fact that it's coming from Ponsoldt, but upon further inspection, there really are a lot of fascinating elements in this film. For starters, the cast is great. Emma Watson and John Boyega are pitch-perfect protagonists, and I adore the idea of Tom Hanks as a tyrannical version of Steve Jobs. Secondly, the technological themes are compelling and topical, especially in the modern age of surveillance. Nobody knows yet if The Circle will have anything thoughtful or reflective to say about our societal embrace of connectivity, but the idea is exciting nonetheless. Many immediately drew comparisons to Netflix's Black Mirror, the hit anthology series that has tackled various issues involving modern society. On the surface, it's easy to see why the two pieces are thematically similar and, depending on who you ask, redundant. But for me, the wild card here is Ponsoldt. He's a talented filmmaker who always has a lot to say, and I know that he wouldn't have tackled this ambitious project if he didn't have a particular viewpoint on this issue. Even from some of the conversations in The End of the Tour, it's clear that Ponsoldt is deeply troubled by our current direction. I love the idea of creating a dystopia from a utopia, and overall, this trailer does a great job of selling the movie's general idea. Simply put, The Circle is one of the movies that I can't wait to dive into next year.

The Circle will debut on April 28, 2017.

Image Credit: IMDB 

'Nocturnal Animals' review

Note: This is a re-publication of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Nocturnal Animals opens in theaters nationwide today.

"Nobody gets away with what you did. Nobody."

This is the line that caps off the first trailer for Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, which hit the internet a few weeks ago to the delight of film fans everywhere. It's a line that teases an exciting, vicious revenge movie, one that will pit Amy Adams against Jake Gyllenhaal in a battle of strength. In reality, Nocturnal Animals offers a different kind of battle. It's a psychological revenge thriller if you will, a movie about the great lengths one will reach to enact vengeance on those who wronged them. It's a movie about how people can never let go of what has happened to them. It's about mistakes, greed, selfishness, and the nagging regret of years gone by. Ultimately, it's a movie about how we can never, ever escape the past. We will never be able to run away from what we've done.

But most importantly, Nocturnal Animals is a movie. It is pure cinema in just about every way, a sensational blend of genres, visual styles, and musical cues. It's a cross between Hitchcock, Lynch, and the Coens, a pulpy thriller blended with a juicy fashion drama. The music is a unique mix of Hermann and a James Bond score, the cinematography is both sun-baked and darkly glitzy, and the plot is like an endlessly fascinating puzzle. Nocturnal Animals is just such a blast. Oh, and did I forget to mention the performances? Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are all magnetic here, showcasing their talents in one of the best movies of the year. Delicious, rich, and completely engrossing, Nocturnal Animals is a jaw-dropping thriller that doubles as a provocative, disturbing work of art.

Set in the modern art world of Los Angeles, Nocturnal Animals tells the story of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a gallery owner who finds herself in a hole of boredom and regret. She's married to the handsome, but shallow Hutton (Armie Hammer), and spends most of her day wandering aimlessly around her cold, vapid world. One day, she receives a manuscript in the mail from Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), her ex-husband from many years ago. Susan hasn't heard from Edward in a long time, despite thinking about him often. Late at night, she opens the manuscript and begins reading his new novel, which is entitled "Nocturnal Animals." What she finds inside shocks and disturbs her to her core.

Edward's writing had always been autobiographical in tone, and she often chastised him for that fact, saying that his style would prevent his success. His latest work is not that. At this point in the story, the action turns to the book-inside-the-movie, where Gyllenhaal also plays Tony Hastings, the protagonist of Edward's book. Tony and his family (played by Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber) are on a late-night road trip through Texas when disaster suddenly strikes. They begin to engage a mysterious car in an increasingly dangerous chase before they're run off the road. Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is the man behind the wheel, and he's as deranged and unhinged as they come. After a brutal kidnapping and murder, Tony is left to search for answers with the help of an ailing sheriff (Michael Shannon). With nothing left to lose, Tony begins his quest for the ultimate revenge.

Why is Edward's latest work so violent? Is this about something that happened in their past? Is
"Nocturnal Animals" Tony's greatest act of revenge? What did Susan do to him? As the swirling, multi-layered plot is broken down, these disturbing answers will all be revealed.

Tom Ford is both a fashion designer and a filmmaker, and while many other people in various fields have failed in an attempt to transfer their talents to the big screen, Ford has been remarkably successful thus far. A Single Man received critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for Colin Firth, and if there's any justice in the world, Nocturnal Animals will receive the same kind of Academy adoration. With his violent, delightfully crazy follow-up, Ford proves himself to be an impeccable visual stylist and a keen observer of characters and emotions. Each frame of this film is unbelievably gorgeous, and when I listened to Ford discuss the cinematic choices during the post screening Q&A, it was immediately clear that he had a vision for this movie that he was determined to put on the screen.

But I don't think that Nocturnal Animals is an example of style over substance. I've seen a lot of people seemingly rejecting this film as an exercise in flashy, empty design, and I just don't think that's the case. Nocturnal Animals is too rich, too layered, and too gripping to dismiss. It's the kind of movie that you want to dive headfirst into and watch over and over, obsessing over the plot intricacies and themes. In fact, my first reaction after I left the theater was "I need to watch this again." There's so much going on in Ford's film that one viewing just won't suffice. With his experiment in strange Hitchcockian suspense/horror, Ford has created a movie that works as meta revenge thriller, something I don't think we've ever really seen before. Nocturnal Animals is about the lengths we go to in real life to enact our revenge, but it also features one of the best cinematic revenge thrillers I've seen in a long time. It's a strange, mesmerizing twist on the genre that works like a charm. It's a hurricane of goodness and I sat back in awe for most of this film.

Ford has assembled quite the cast for this movie, and he has given them such meaty, savory material to work with. Amy Adams probably has less screen time than some of the supporting characters, but her Susan Morrow is definitely the focal point of the movie. Adams is one of the best actresses alive, and she continually reinvents herself with each new performance. Her turn in Nocturnal Animals is unlike anything I've seen from her before- a contemplative, quiet, pained performance. Susan Morrow is restless, melancholy, and maybe even remorseful. She's haunted by what she's done, and she might even believe that she deserves Edward's wrath. The fact that Adams is able to convey all of this without even saying a word is so incredibly impressive. Ford described Susan's world as "cold" in the Q&A, and the same could be described for her character, which Adams plays to absolute perfection.

Unfortunately for Adams, her relatively muted performance is overshadowed by the other actors in the cast, specifically in the Texas-based plot. Jake Gyllenhaal is magnificent as always in his dual performance, playing Tony and Edward with brilliant energy and anger. Nobody plays crazy quite like Gyllenhaal, but he also has an uncanny ability for playing likable characters that the audience can relate to, a charm that he brings to both of his roles in this film. And yet somehow, even Gyllenhaal is outshined in this film by Michael Shannon. As the laser-focused, morally ambiguous Texas sheriff, Shannon chews every bit of the scenery available to him, even bringing some dark comic relief to the grueling intensity of the story. Shannon seems like a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination here, a role that he was practically born to play. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is the final member of the principle cast, and he's brilliantly menacing as the murderous Ray Marcus. Taylor-Johnson is terrifying, but you won't be able to take your eyes off him.

With all of this praise about the labyrinthine plot, the smart deconstruction of the revenge thriller, and the dark tone and themes, you're probably thinking that Nocturnal Animals is another grim end-of-year drama with no sense of fun in sight. Actually, quite the opposite. Any lover of film will have a blast with this movie. It blends genres, styles, and tones so well, and it's the kind of unique crime movie that we just don't see nearly enough of anymore. It has sequences with tension that will tear your nerves to shreds, moments of drama as profoundly sad as anything I've seen all year, top-notch performances across the board, and a jump scare for the ages (seriously, this thing is up there with the scene from Mulholland Drive, clearly one of the main inspirations for the film). Tom Ford put so much into his madly entertaining concoction of a film, and it's a joy to watch it come to life.

Nocturnal Animals will be a little too weird and confusing for some tastes, but for fans of pulpy, original crime thrillers, Tom Ford's second film will hit the spot. It's a sensational, lurid high-wire act, and it puts Ford firmly on the map as one of the best directors working in Hollywood today. With Nocturnal Animals, Ford hooks the audience into a web of revenge, leaving us with the feeling that we're as trapped as Susan. She can't escape what she did to Edward all those years ago, and we can't get out either. But with a film as good as this, why would anyone want to escape? A captivating thriller about the complex, inevitable, and messy nature of revenge, Nocturnal Animals is an instant classic.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.3/10)

Images courtesy of Focus Features

'Moonlight' wins big at Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards

Here's the simple truth- everybody is fairly certain that La La Land is going to win Best Picture. No movie has been as universally adored as Damien Chazelle's musical masterpiece, and it's the burst of Technicolor wizardry and romantic storytelling genius that we need this year. It's a film that has infinitely broad appeal, and when you mix that in with its throwback elements and reverence to old Hollywood, you have a film that is pretty much a Best Picture lock. But even though La La Land is in excellent shape for this year's Oscars, that doesn't mean that other films won't win some awards along the way. Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea are considered to be the other front-runners in the race, and with the stunning critical reception for those films, it would make sense for some critics' associations to recognize them. Manchester had a spectacular showing at the National Board of Review, and at Sunday's Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, Barry Jenkins' coming-of-age epic took several of the top prizes. Here are the results for the LAFCA Awards.

Best Picture- Moonlight
Runner-Up- La La Land

Best Director- Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Runner-Up- Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Best Actor- Adam Driver, Paterson
Runner-Up- Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Best Actress- Isabelle Huppert, Elle & Things to Come
Runner-Up- Rebecca Hall, Christine

Best Supporting Actor- Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Runner-Up- Issey Ogata, Silence

Best Supporting Actress- Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
Runner-Up- Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea & Certain Women

Best Screenplay- Efthymis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster
Runner-Up- Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Best Production Design- The Handmaiden
Runner-Up- La La Land

Best Editing- O.J.: Made in America
Runner-Up- La La Land

Best Cinematography- Moonlight
Runner-Up- La La Land

Best Music Score- Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, La La Land
Runner-Up- Mica Levi, Jackie

Best Foreign Language Film- The Handmaiden
Runner-Up- Toni Erdmann

Best Documentary/Non-Fiction Film- I Am Not Your Negro
Runner-Up- O.J.: Made in America

Best Animation- Your Name
Runner-Up- The Red Turtle

New Generation Award- Trey Edward Schults and Krisha Fairchild, Krisha

Moonlight is one of the best movies of the year (of many years, for that matter), and it is connecting with people on a deep, resonant emotional level. If there is a threat to La La Land in the Best Picture race, it's this film. Sure, Fences and Manchester are well liked, and Martin Scorsese's Silence will probably have its fans. But as the season is moving forward, we're back to where we were in September- it's Moonlight vs. La La Land. Even though Moonlight took home the top prize, the fact that Chazelle's musical is doing so well with critics' groups bodes well for its Oscar chances (it won the NYFCC award last week). Pretty much everybody loves this movie, and with one win and five runner-up results at LAFCA, La La Land has the boost of a strong performance at the major critical awards on both coasts. In addition to the main race, Isabelle Huppert continues to make her push for an Oscar nomination, while Adam Driver has now thrown himself into the race for his turn in Jim Jarmusch's lowkey drama Paterson. The Handmaiden also did exceptionally well, which makes its omission in the Oscars' foreign language category (South Korea submitted a different film) even stranger.

That does it for most of the major critical awards, but with the Golden Globes and Guild nominations coming soon, it's safe to say that the 2016-17 awards season is just beginning.      

Images courtesy of A24

Trailer for 'The Mummy' introduces the Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe

Cinematic universes are all the rage in Hollywood, although the unfortunate truth of the matter is that no studio beyond Marvel has been successful. Many franchises have tried to expand on individual films to create a web of inter-connectivity, but most studios have struggled right out of the gate. DC has the greatest potential to demolish the box office with their cinematic universe, and even Warner Bros. is struggling with it so far. However, none of this will stop studios from trying, and Universal is at the forefront of this movement. A few years ago, the company announced plans to push for a cinematic universe surrounding their classic monsters franchise, which includes characters such as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man. Their big kick-off movie was supposed to be 2014's Dracula Untold, but with weak critical and fan reception, Universal has decided to just pretend that it never happened. The studio's new starter movie is The Mummy, which stars Tom Cruise and is directed by Alex Kurtzman. With appearances by other members of the future connected universe, Universal is hoping that The Mummy jump starts this bold new franchise idea. Last weekend, the first trailer was released for the film. Check it out below!

If this was a trailer for any other major summer blockbuster, maybe I'd be excited. The initial plane crash sequence is pretty stunning, and any movie that stars Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe is certainly worth a look. But I must admit- while I watched this trailer during Sunday Night Football, I repeatedly uttered "Oh no." This is not the kick-off that I wanted for the Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe, and quite frankly, it's not the Mummy movie that I wanted either. I don't want my old-school monster movies to look like Mission: Impossible or the Avengers. Look, there are two ways to do a Mummy movie- you can do a campy adventure movie (like the Brendan Fraser series) or you can do a straight horror film. I was really hoping that Universal would go with the latter, doing more of a creepy riff on Alien set in Ancient Egypt. Instead, The Mummy just looks like every other blockbuster made in Hollywood these days. Going into this, I was pretty excited for the Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe, most likely because I had a strange, possibly naive idea of what it would be. Now, I could truly care less. Sure, it'll be a serviceable action thriller, but do we really need more of those? I just don't feel like watching a Mummy movie where cities get destroyed and Tom Cruise runs around and helicopters shoot at stuff, with no recognition of the campy nature of the concept or the horror elements.

The Mummy will make money because of brand recognition and Tom Cruise, and maybe the Universal Monsters franchise will have success going forward because of this film. But if they truly want to match Marvel and do something interesting with this series, it's going to take more than this.

The Mummy opens on June 9, 2017.

Image courtesy of Universal 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

'The Edge of Seventeen' review

During the 1980s, teen movies were at their peak. With iconic directors like John Hughes and Cameron Crowe leading the charge, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Say Anything..., and more all became classics. Those films have endured for years, and have all been celebrated by generations of young people. But as the leaders of the teen movie genre like Crowe and Hughes moved on to bigger and better projects, the genre started to fade. The 90s and 2000s were less impressive for the genre, with only a few films like Dazed and Confused and Mean Girls truly standing out from the rest. In recent years, there's been something of a teen movie resurgence, with movies like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Spectacular Now, and Easy A surprising and delighting audiences in equal measure. They're still few and far between, but there have certainly been some classics.

Expectations were pretty low for Kelly Fremon Craig's The Edge of Seventeen, a high school-set comedy that focuses on the misadventures of Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). Even though the film was from Simpsons producer James L. Brooks and nabbed the closing night spot at TIFF, nobody really paid this film a whole lot of attention. But as soon as people actually saw it, Fremon Craig's directorial debut broke out in a big way. Sure, the box office hasn't been spectacular thus far, but with some of the best reviews of the year, this is going to be a teen favorite for a very long time. And with good reason. Even if you think you know what to expect from a movie like this, The Edge of Seventeen still has boundless ways to surprise you and subvert your expectations. While Nadine's various mishaps and blunders are painfully awkward and often quite hilarious, this is truly a bittersweet, brutally realistic film about how tough high school can really be. No character in The Edge of Seventeen is exactly who you think they are, and the way that the film continually finds ways to surprise the audience makes it a true treat. It's poignant, funny, and oddly tragic, and I have a feeling that many people will find a piece of themselves in this refreshingly honest teen flick.

Ever since she was a young girl, Nadine has viewed herself as an outsider. She's living in the shadow of Darian (Blake Jenner), her handsome, popular brother, and when she's a young girl, she has very few people to connect with. The only people who truly understand her are Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), her best friend, and her loving, whip-smart father (Eric Keenleyside). Unfortunately, her father passes away, leaving Nadine to venture through her high school years with only her mother (Kyra Sedgwick), who doesn't seem to understand her at all. Thankfully, she still has Krista, her best friend and closest confidant. But when Krista and Darian strike up a relationship, the world begins to crumble around Nadine. As she searches for meaning in her messed up universe, Nadine finds solace in the company of a disgruntled English teacher (Woody Harrelson), while also finding herself on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

I have a natural distaste for teen movies that feel fake or phony, films that play into high school cliches without ever truly examining what these formative years are like. The best teen movies are introspective and maybe even a little existential, concerned more with the never-ending stress and awkwardness of the experience rather than the stereotypes of cliques and popularity. Because quite frankly, both of those things are a myth, and they're not subjects that require that much thought or consideration. The best high school movies treat their characters like real people, not like tropes that need to be deconstructed. That's why I'm not necessarily the biggest fan of The Breakfast Club- sure, it has a few compelling moments, but its setup is so miserably contrived that Hughes' reflections often feel shallow. On the flip side, movies like Dazed and Confused, American Graffiti, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower handle their characters like lost souls, searching for connection and meaning while on the cusp of adulthood. The people in those films are not defined by their social group or relation to the high school hierarchy- they feel like real people.

The Edge of Seventeen certainly joins that esteemed group, thanks to the excellent script by writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig. Each and every character is deceptively and surprisingly deep, not defined by their surface-level characteristics or even your first impression of them. Because to be quite honest, many of these characters are flat-out unlikable at first glance. Nadine is a character that you can relate to, but she isn't exactly "likable" in the true sense of the word. She seems to have a complaint about everything, and she fits into the typical snarky archetype that many teen movies have used over time. But as the story progresses, Nadine becomes an almost tragically awkward figure, a girl falling apart internally as the world zips by her. The third act is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the movie, because it reveals the true pain at the heart of both Nadine and Darian, who is also much more kind and thoughtful than he initially seems.

Hailee Steinfeld is one of the major reasons that The Edge of Seventeen takes off like it does, and it's abundantly clear that she's turning into a major Hollywood star. Steinfeld's turn as Nadine alternates between cringe-inducing hilarity, profound innocence, and true heartbreak with almost breathtaking ease, crafting a layered, complex character along the way. Steinfeld has so many spectacular moments in the film, and the fact that she feels like a real, authentic person that I could possibly know in my own life only makes the performance that much more impressive. Everybody Wants Some's Blake Jenner also dazzles as Darian, Nadine's popular, charming, and ridiculously successful brother. Jenner is great at playing it cool, but here, he's allowed to dig a little deeper, finding the true soul of a character who could be played off as a one-note cliche. In a lesser film, Darian would be a prick from start to finish, but Fremon Craig never even comes close to that level of simplicity. Believe it or not, the popular people and the jocks have problems of their own. Jenner is thoroughly convincing in the role, and he really should be considered one of the breakout stars of 2016.

Haley Lu Richardson is also poised to be a breakout star in the next year, with her role in this and M. Night Shyamalan's Split. She's excellent as Krista, the girl torn between her friend and the guy she loves. Hayden Szeto rounds out the main teen crew as Erwin, the charming filmmaker who's literally head-over-heels in love with Nadine. Szeto is a thoroughly likable presence on screen, and he deserves to be a star. Woody Harrelson is his usual self as the clever and sarcastic Mr. Bruner, but the film does something with the typical teacher role that I thought was very fascinating. The kindly teacher (almost always an English teacher) who bonds with a student is a tried-and-true concept, but in The Edge of Seventeen, Fremon Craig changes the script and creates a world where the teachers are just as unhappy and unfulfilled as the students. Harrelson is the perfect actor for this curmudgeonly role, and the fact that he emerges as major part of the movie's emotional core is even more impressive.

But ultimately, even with an array of stellar performances, the real breakout star here is Kelly Fremon Craig. This is her directorial debut, and if she doesn't get more projects from this moment on, there's something seriously wrong with Hollywood. Fremon Craig doesn't deliver a film with flashy style or an innovative story, but she proves herself to be an incredibly thoughtful filmmaker with an exceptional eye for character. There's such immense depth to everybody who inhabits the world of The Edge of Seventeen, and the impeccable pacing only enhances the journey that these characters take. Fremon Craig has an uncommonly strong eye for how people relate to each other, and the conflict and connections that can come from terrible situations. She nails high school, which brings about the danger that she could be pigeonholed as a "teen" filmmaker. I hope that doesn't happen, because it's clear that she's a strong directorial voice that will be introducing us to some great stories and wonderful characters for years to come.

Is The Edge of Seventeen a full-blown teen classic? No, not quite. It took just a tad too long for me to really tune into its wavelength, for me to connect with the characters and the movie's emotional arc. But as the story begins to tie together in a way that works extremely well, Fremon Craig delivers a final product that I truly enjoyed. Led by a remarkable performance by Hailee Steinfeld and a terrific supporting crew, The Edge of Seventeen is an honest, authentic, and funny portrait of high school life that will be adored for years to come. It's ingenious, funny, and endlessly intelligent, but in the end, the film's emotional center is what holds it all together. It's an uncommonly wise teen movie, and even though it's falling short at the box office, I have no doubt that The Edge of Seventeen is going to find an audience someday.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.8/10)

Images courtesy of STX Entertainment 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

First trailer for 'Transformers: The Last Knight' is filled with Bayhem

What's really left to say about the Transformers franchise? You either like it or you hate it. Michael Bay has made four of these things. They aren't gonna change. They just keep getting more and more ludicrous. The original was a mostly contained story with a large final battle, the first sequel saw things get totally out of control, the third film damn near destroyed the city of Chicago, and the fourth installment introduced giant dinosaur robots before demolishing a major Chinese city. Bay's just going to keep trying to top himself, and anybody who expects something unique or fresh from a Transformers sequel is insane. Subtlety and story cohesion are nowhere to be found in the world of the Autobots and Decepticons, and you either accept that or you walk right past to a different theater. In my opinion, Bay's films are glorious trash. I grew up with this bonkers franchise, and every few years, I sit down and shove popcorn in my face as I watch the finest entertainment computers can create. Watching a Transformers movie is like watching a demolition derby on steroids, and I'm totally cool with that. I've never been ashamed to say that I enjoy these films, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I'll be there opening weekend for Transformers: The Last Knight. Yesterday, Paramount unveiled the first trailer for Bay's fifth installment during halftime of ESPN's Monday Night Football. Check it out below!

Okay, so here are just a few of my initial thoughts on this trailer (these are best enjoyed if read while watching the trailer):

-Wait, how the hell did they get Anthony Hopkins to do this?
-Was that a Nazi symbol? World War II robot fighting? Transformers/Dunkirk crossover?
-This is the most dramatic voiceover ever for a Transformers trailer, and that's saying something.
-Three cheers for Aspect Ratio changes!
-"I'm an inventor! I'm so patenting this sh*t!"
-Looks like Josh Duhamel needed another paycheck.
-Didn't we already do the whole Evil Optimus thing in the one where he ripped Megatron's face off and blew Leonard Nimoy's brains out with a shotgun? We're going down this road again?

So I've heard that The Last Knight involves time travel of some kind, as well as a visit back to the days of King Arthur. Honestly, all I can do is laugh. There's plenty of Bayhem on display here, and I'm sure that I'll have a great time watching the famous director blow things up again. I can't say I'm all that interested in the direction of this new series of Transformers films, but honestly, I don't think anyone is. They're just a vehicle for Bay to make the most expensive, outlandish explosions in cinematic history while simultaneously making $1 billion dollars. So yeah, get your earplugs ready for this one.

Transformers: The Last Knight debuts on June 23, 2017.

Image Credit: Coming Soon