Thursday, November 24, 2016

Nominations announced for 2017 Independent Spirit Awards

It's Thanksgiving week, which means that most of America is settling down to eat, watch football, and maybe catch a movie or two. Meanwhile, Hollywood is bracing for the final awards season push, which will reach a fever pitch over the next few weeks with a deluge of nomination announcements, plenty of critic awards, and an avalanche of end-of-year releases. Screeners are being sent out all over the country, and you'll probably be seeing tons of "For Your Consideration" advertisements if you visit any of the major movie sites. With the festival circuit all but finished, the Independent Spirit Awards were the first major show to announce their nominations. On Tuesday, they unveiled their picks for the best of the year in indie film. Check them out below!


American Honey
Manchester by the Sea


The Childhood of a Leader
The Fits
Other People
Swiss Army Man
The Witch


Andrea Arnold, American Honey
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Pablo Larrain, Jackie
Jeff Nichols, Loving
Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women


Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
David Harewood, Free in Deed
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Jesse Plemons, Other People
Tim Roth, Chronic


Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Sasha Lane, American Honey
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie


Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Shia Labeouf, American Honey
Craig Robinson, Morris from America


Edwina Findley, Free in Deed
Paulina Garcia, Little Men
Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
Riley Keough, American Honey
Molly Shannon, Other People


Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, Little Men
Mike Mills, 20th Century Women
Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water
Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight


Robert Eggers, The Witch
Chris Kelly, Other People
Adam Mansbach, Barry
Stella Meghie, Jean of the Joneses
Craig Shilowich, Christine


I Am Not Your Negro
O.J.: Made in America
Under the Sun


My Golden Days
Toni Erdmann
Under the Shadow


Free in Deed
The Childhood of a Leader
The Eyes of My Mother
American Honey


Swiss Army Man
Manchester by the Sea
Hell or High Water


Free in Deed
Hunter Gatherer
Spa Night


The Independent Spirit Awards aren't necessarily a great prognosticator of the Oscar race, so I'm taking everything here with a grain of salt. After all, Chronic was nominated for Best Feature and I had legitimately never heard of that film before this announcement. In addition, I read an article yesterday that played up American Honey as an Oscar contender because of its strong showing at the Spirit Awards, which I think is simply ludicrous. After all this is an awards show that honors the best in indie film, and if you asked me which film was the most "indie" of 2016, I would say American Honey without hesitation. Moonlight, Jackie, and Manchester by the Sea had a nice showing here, certainly indicative of things to come for those three films. If there are any losers coming out of these nominations, it's probably Hell or High Water and Loving. The two films racked up their fair share of noms, but missing out on the Best Feature category has to hurt. Nonetheless, I wouldn't be too concerned- major Oscar forecasts have continually shown that the former is high on voters' lists, while Loving is the kind of film that really connects with the Academy. Both films should be fine.

The Independent Spirit Awards will be held on February 25, 2017. Look for more awards coverage in the near future.

'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' review

Let's face it- no franchise is ever going to come close to Harry Potter. What J.K. Rowling accomplished with her epic series of novels was dazzling and what the creative team behind the movie saga managed to pull off was possibly even more impressive. Potter was the franchise of a generation, a cultural phenomenon like nothing else in cinematic history. It was just a terrific story, which managed to touch the hearts of people all around the world. Producer David Heyman and filmmakers Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell, and David Yates kept things rolling for over a decade, delivering consistently terrific films at an almost unprecedented rate. Not to mention the impeccable cast, led by a trio of young actors (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) who fit their roles to perfection and a team of veteran British stars who stood out in supporting roles. Rowling's Potterverse is a world of limitless possibilities, but nothing will ever be quite as magical as the story of the Boy Who Lived.

But that isn't stopping Warner Bros. from trying to recapture the magic. After the series wrapped up with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2 in 2011, many assumed it was the end of the Potter story. And while those characters continued their adventures in this summer's best-selling play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (which we all know will inevitably be adapted into a film), Rowling and Heyman seemed set on not pushing for a useless continuation of that story. Instead, they did what all other Hollywood studios do- spin-offs and prequels! As soon as Warner announced the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them trilogy, there was a collective groan around the world. Fans and critics lamented the series as a weak cash grab, another misstep like The Hobbit that would merely serve as a way for one of Hollywood's top studios to maintain their biggest brand. When Rowling and Warner later announced that the trilogy would be expanded to five movies, there was an even bigger eye roll from franchise-weary moviegoers across the globe. Couldn't we just get through one movie before announcing four more?

The idea of returning to the Potterverse was always infinitely appealing to me. After all, I was one of those kids who fell under the Potter spell. I devoured the books, watched all the movies, and even shed a tear when the series was over in 2011. I even loved The Cursed Child, the somewhat controversial play that many fans seemed to reject as fan fiction. So basically, I'm a nerd for all things Harry Potter. I love the characters and I love the world that Rowling has created. Even with a heavy dose of Hollywood franchise skepticism, I maintained a healthy level of excitement for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I remember seeing the trailer in theaters in front of The Jungle Book back in April, and I nearly jumped out of my seat with giddiness as the iconic notes of the Potter theme blasted through the IMAX theater. I was ready for this movie, and even if it could never reach the levels of Harry Potter, I was hoping for another spectacularly fun adventure in this brilliant universe.

As a member of the Potter fandom, it gives me no pleasure to report that Fantastic Beasts is a bit of a disappointment. No, it isn't a bad movie, but it's a profoundly messy one, a jumbled mix of tones and ideas that never forms into a cohesive whole. There's plenty to love about Rowling's expansion of the Potter story, which takes place in New York in the 1920s during the height of the jazz age. But there's no denying that this is an experience that is less joyous and magical than it is tiresome, a film that is 20 minutes too long and hindered by a weak story. The characters, led primarily by Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander and Katherine Waterston's Tina Goldstein, are likable enough, and the action scenes deliver as expected, which makes it all the more unfortunate that Fantastic Beasts just barely misses the mark. There's still some fun to be had with this film, and I haven't given up on the potential for an excellent franchise, but Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a rocky start to the new age of Harry Potter.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is set several decades before the events of Harry Potter, shifting the action to 1920s New York. The opening scene reveals that there is trouble brewing in the magic world, as dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (it was recently announced that Johnny Depp will be taking on the role, which will be expanded in the sequel) is wreaking havoc across the globe. Meanwhile, there's a new sense of fear surrounding wizards and witches in the United States, as the Second Salem movement, led by the terrifying Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), pushes to expose and exterminate those with magical powers from the country. After that brief prologue, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in the city of New York with a case full of fantastic creatures, hoping to return one to its rightful place. However, things quickly go south, as a few of the beasts escape from the case. After a wacky switch with No-Maj (the American term for Muggle) baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), Newt realizes that three beasts have escaped to spread mischief across the city of New York.

To find those creatures, Newt teams up with Jacob, exiled Ministry of Magic official Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), on an epic quest throughout one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. Simultaneously, there's a much darker plot going on, involving Ministry leader Graves (Colin Farrell) and Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the son of anti-witch activist Mary Lou. Graves seeks a dark power that has been repressed inside the Barebones family for generations, a power has been creating destruction around New York City. Graves and Credence both wish to control that power, which could both serve their own interests very well. As Newt's beasts continue to run free around New York, No-Maj fear begins to grow, and the paths of Graves, Credence, and Newt intersect in a way that could change the wizarding world forever.

It will always be fun to spend time in J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World. It's a universe of magic and monsters and refined style and everything is so perfectly crafted that you can't help but fall in love with the wonder of it all. My so-so reaction to Fantastic Beasts is not indicative of how I feel about the future of this series or the future of other Harry Potter spin-offs and sequels. Essentially, I'm not writing off the idea of other stand-alone films in the Potterverse just because of one slight misfire (emphasis on the "slight"). I like the characters and the direction of this new series, and I think it will be interesting to see where Newt, Tina, Grindelwald, and Young Dumbeldore (who will be appearing in the sequel) go from here. The future of Harry Potter on the big screen is still as limitless as it was before Fantastic Beasts hit theaters. There are so many directions to go and there's still so much fun to be had.

But this movie is a mess. My love for Rowling, Yates, and Potter can't mask the fact that Fantastic Beasts is a film with a flimsy foundation, compounded by a weak story, an array of competing tones, and some seriously poor pacing. This film wants to have its cake and eat it too, and it seems like the main idea in the early phase of pre-production was "What if we combined Sorcerer's Stone with Deathly Hallows? What would that look like?" At times, Fantastic Beasts is a rambling, exceedingly goofy fantasy film about a nerdy magizoologist and his kooky creatures, and at other times, it's a dark, violent film with intense socio-political themes. If those two elements don't sound compatible, that's because they aren't. Rowling and Yates never figure out exactly what movie they're trying to make, so you just end up with a hodgepodge of scenes. One minute, Newt is dancing around Central Park trying to stop one of his creatures from having sex with a hippo, and then before you know it, Credence is getting brutally beaten by his fanatical mother. In the months leading up to this film, Rowling was sure to emphasize how much darker Fantastic Beasts was than previous Potter films. She failed to mention that it was also sillier, a tone that nearly sinks the movie at various points.

The tonal change might be more forgivable if the story wasn't so weak. Not only is Fantastic Beasts a tale of two radically different tones- it's a movie dealing with two completely separate stories. One story follows Newt's quest to find his missing beasts, and the other involves Graves, the New Salemers, and Credence. The way that these two stories connect is forced at best, and the constant back and forth sucks the momentum out of the film. Newt's adventure is fun at first, but it never goes anywhere, so I turned most of my attention to the politics of magical New York and the new wizard war. Unfortunately, for every potentially interesting development in the fight between the Magic Congress of the USA and Grindelwald, there's another tedious scene depicting Newt trying to catch some wacky creature. Fantastic Beasts moves forward in jolts, and the pacing just sinks the film after a while. By the time the city-smashing conclusion rolls around, the journey is less magical and more exhausting.

Even though this is a major missed opportunity, Fantastic Beasts does lay some good groundwork for the future of the new Potter franchise. Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander is a likably awkward lead, and as a major part of the Potter lore, it'll be interesting to see how Scamander factors into the war between Grindelwald and Dumbeldore. Katherine Waterston's Tina is a fun character as well, and of course, it'll be enjoyable to see fan favorite Jacob Kowalski continue with his adventures in the wizarding world. The 1920s New York setting is fully realized, and while some fans were up-in-arms about decisions made by Rowling, the cultural differences between the British and American wizarding worlds are quite fascinating. There is no clear direction for where the franchise will go from here- we know who the players are, but not the future of the story. And yet, wherever Yates and Rowling decide to take this franchise (which will supposedly span 19 years), the foundation is in place. Now they just have to execute.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is certainly a letdown, but I'm not discouraged quite yet. The creative team behind this film didn't miss by much, and if they can narrow the focus for the upcoming sequels, I have no doubt that the franchise will get back on track. But as much as I love the Harry Potter series, I can't let my fandom keep me from seeing how messy this movie is. Fans will probably have a decent enough time, but there's a sinking feeling that comes with watching Fantastic Beasts. Everything starts out great- I dare any fan to not get a little emotional when that iconic theme music blasts over the Warner Bros. logo. But as the story continues on and it becomes abundantly clear that the movie isn't going anywhere, there's a sense of dread that comes creeping in. And as the end credits pop up on the screen, it's hard to shake the feeling of disappointment.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.2/10)

Image Credits: IMDB, Coming Soon, Joblo

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

'La La Land' review

Hype can really kill a movie. When you've heard nothing but great things about a film for months, seeing the final product for yourself can lead to inevitable disappointment. I've had this happen many times before, and whenever I see a hotly-anticipated festival title or a movie that I've been looking forward to for a long time, the potential for a letdown weighs on the back of my mind. For me, Damien Chazelle's La La Land was a perfect storm of anticipation. I absolutely adore Whiplash, Chazelle's first feature, I love both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and the idea of a throwback to the Technicolor musical classics of the 1950s is inherently appealing to me. Going into 2016, I was already pretty excited for La La Land. Then came the reviews. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival before going to Telluride and Toronto, and at all three festivals, La La Land received almost unanimous raves. Critics and audiences alike hailed it as a monumental achievement, a blast from the past that could revitalize a dying genre and send shockwaves through the industry. Within days, the film was at the top of every prognosticator's list for the Best Picture Oscar. My excitement only grew, and it increased even more with the release of several top-notch trailers. I expected a masterpiece, an instant classic, one for the ages, etc. But was there any way that this movie could ever come close to reaching my lofty, wild expectations?

After months of hype, La La Land still managed to completely and totally blow me away. For starters, yes, it's a musical that looks back fondly at the old days of cinema, where movie stars, glorious colors, and beautiful dreams graced the screen and transported viewers to a different world. It's a truly magical film, with sequences that will go down as all time classics and moments that will slap a big smile on your face. It's invigorating and full of joyful life, a beautiful ode to Los Angeles and the dreamers that live there. Its energy is infectious- I wanted to dance and sing for the rest of the day. La La Land is a colorful, happy musical that will be beloved by pretty much everybody. But it's more than that. I overheard a conversation when I was at the Toronto International Film Festival about this film, from some people who presumably had yet to see the film. "Yeah, yknow, it's gonna be this year's version of The Artist," said one of the men, as the others in the group nodded in agreement. "It's a musical for people who've never seen a musical, just like The Artist was a silent movie for people who'd never seen a silent movie," he concluded, as the conversation shifted to other topics. 

This stuck in my mind, and part of me firmly expected La La Land to purely be an exercise in nostalgia. Some critics had said that it was more than that, so I kept my hopes high. But if it had just been a fun, somewhat slight throwback musical, I would have been fine with that as well. Thankfully, Chazelle has more on his mind than old-school theatrics. La La Land is a sneakily profound film, a movie that further encapsulates Chazelle's favorite themes as a filmmaker and showcases them on a heartbreaking, thoroughly romantic scale. If Whiplash was about a man so violently driven by his passion that cutting off all connections and destroying his humanity was like second nature to him, then La La Land is about two people conflicted by their love for each other and their love for their art. With that idea in mind, Chazelle has created one of the greatest love stories ever, one of those instantly iconic romances that dreams are made of. La La Land is as magical and dazzling and gorgeously made as you've heard, a hopelessly romantic musical that will send audiences over the moon. It's everything you could want it to possibly be and more.

It's another hot, sweaty, traffic-filled day in Los Angeles, the city where dreams go to die. Or if you're the characters in La La Land, it's just "Another Day of Sun." As the traffic piles up on the interstate, tons of colorfully dressed Californians hop out of their cars, singing and dancing in the hot sun to celebrate the place where anything is possible. After this splendid opening number, we meet Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who's on her way to an audition. She's trying to study lines, and she's holding up traffic. A car zooms by and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist, stares her down and honks his horn. She gives him the finger and the two move on with their day. This is just the first of many encounters between Mia and Sebastian, two artists caught in the web of the Los Angeles talent machine. Her audition doesn't go spectacularly well, while he is fired later in the day by a boss (J.K. Simmons) that doesn't appreciate his jazzy freestyles. They're both stuck, clinging to dreams that seem more and more distant by the day.

Cut to several months later and the two run into each other again, this time at a pool party. After a coffee date, a walk around the Warner Bros. lot, and a dance in the sparkling moonlight of L.A., it's clear that Mia and Sebastian are beginning to fall for each other. Their storybook romance begins, and it's clear that their love for one another is quite strong. However, their relationship will be tested by their own personal dreams. Sebastian finds a great opportunity to raise money for club through an old friend's band, while Mia is left to work on her one-woman show. As the two slowly begin to see their dreams shift and crumble and grow, the question is raised- can they be together and realize their dreams at the same time? Through lyrical sequences of joyous musical poetry, La La Land gives us a bold tribute to the ones who dream and the sacrifices that are made along the way.

Damien Chazelle was always too smart of a filmmaker to make a movie that was just a throwback to a bygone era, and La La Land is no pure nostalgia trip. Chazelle clearly has a deep sense of adoration for the musicals of the MGM days, but he's also a writer and director who has some heavy stuff weighing on his mind. Whiplash was about obsession and the pursuit of success, and La La Land takes those ideas and applies them to one of the most lovely big screen romances we've seen in a long time. It's a wondrous, spectacular film that somehow manages to be grounded in a painful, truthful sense of reality. Most of all, La La Land is a movie about dreams. The magical Los Angeles in the film is shining home of the dreamers, a place where even the most hopeless, broken dreams can come true. It's relentlessly optimistic, but deeply real.

Success comes at a personal cost, which is a motif that seems to constantly be on Chazelle's mind. In the pursuit of dreams, people will sacrifice their well-being, their friendships, and even the people they love most to achieve their passion. La La Land focuses on the latter, and there's such a strange sense of cold, hard truth in this marvelous, colorful universe. Chazelle is infatuated with the idea of the glamour, beauty, and magic of old Hollywood, but he recognizes that it's all a fantasy. In the movies, you achieve fame beyond your wildest dreams and you get to be with the love of your life. But in the real world, that doesn't happen. Things get in the way- jobs, tours, recording sessions, rehearsals, auditions, performances, the list goes on. At some point, you have to make a choice. That choice isn't easy and it may leave you wondering what would have happened had you chosen another route, but it's one that has to be made. La La Land is a movie about making an impossible choice between two things that you love. It's a shining, remarkable musical about love, success, and the heartbreak that comes when those two mix together.

With that whirlwind of ideas in mind, Chazelle has made a movie that will send your heart soaring into the clouds before bringing tears to your eyes with one of the best cinematic endings I've ever seen. His movie is an astonishing feat of filmmaking that blends his adoration for the magic of movies with his keen eye for humanity and emotion. Chazelle hasn't just imitated the classic musicals of the olden days- he's taken the style and made it his own, injecting it with so much love, passion, and vibrant energy that you'll probably have a hard time sitting still for the rest of the day. La La Land's sense of fun is contagious, and its craft is even more sensational. It will fill you with the sense of pure joy that only the great movies can, a testament to Chazelle's talent as a filmmaker and the sheer power of this story. It's the kind of movie that can be both quiet and lively, poetic and electrifying. To quote Ryan Gosling's Sebastian: "It's very, very exciting."

La La Land certainly fits into the musical genre, but it's better defined as a musical romance. All musicals have at least a dash of romance to them, yet this film just takes it to a different level. Love stories have gotten a bad rap in recent years, mostly due to the dominance of John Green and Nicholas Sparks adaptations. They're often sappy and incompetent, filled with weepy endings and ham-fisted, "tragic" subplots. That's not what this genre was founded on, and it's the reason why genuine, heartfelt romance films like Silver Linings Playbook and (500) Days of Summer have connected in recent years. La La Land towers over them all, which is possibly due to the blending of music and dreamy visuals. Chazelle has crafted a film about love that is refreshingly free of cynicism and extraordinarily honest and sincere. You will fall in love with Mia and Sebastian- there's no question about it. In a movie firmly based in the world of the classic Hollywood couples of the golden age, it's a delightful twist of irony that Chazelle has created an iconic duo of his own.

La La Land originally starred Miles Teller and Emma Watson, a pairing that just doesn't work in retrospect. I love Teller as an actor, but he has a presence of arrogance and bravado that doesn't work for Sebastian. On the other hand, Watson doesn't have the sense of melancholy desperation that haunts Mia at all times, and I just don't see her pulling off a difficult role. Chazelle replaced Teller before production and Watson passed to star in Beauty and the Beast, two decisions that shaped the fate of this film. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are the perfect actors to play these two characters. No other actors would have sufficed- it had to be them. Stone's performance is getting more attention (deservedly so), but I don't think Ryan Gosling's contribution to this movie can be valued enough. Gosling is a versatile, talented actor, able to be the romantic lead (The Notebook), the comic relief (The Nice Guys), or the steely tough guy (anything with Nicolas Winding Refn) with ease. Here, he's the charismatic, endearing center of La La Land's universe. Sebastian is a smooth-talker, driven, funny, and committed to his success. But there's an underlying sadness, a passionate sense of love and sorrow that bubbles under the surface. Gosling can convey this with a simple look, which is why he's in contention for Best Actor.

Nonetheless, this is Emma Stone's movie through and through. She's radiant and breathtaking, a career best performance by a country mile. She's been a superstar since 2010's Easy A, making it odd that her performance in La La Land feels like such a revelation. Maybe it's just the nature of the part- the role of Mia is very much a "Star is Born" kind of role. However, chalking it up as that diminishes how excellent Stone is in this film, which requires her to put so much on her shoulders. When we first meet Mia, she's a down-on-her-luck actress, memorizing lines in a car as she races to an audition- but it doesn't stay that way for long. The transformation of Mia from failed actress to Hollywood's chosen one is genuinely incredible to watch, and Stone injects her character with so much raw emotion and empathy that you can't help but fall in love. Her audition scene near the end of the film is one of the best scenes of the year, a powerful rendition of "The Fools Who Dream" that will send chills through your body and send your jaw straight to the floor. It's one of those movie moments that will endure forever.

Oh, and did I mention the music? It's perfect. There's not another word I could use to describe it. Every song, written by composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Pasek and Paul, is truly magnificent. Chazelle's masterful orchestration of the musical sequences is equally stunning, and each scene stands on its own. Some songs are hautning, some are exuberant, but all of them are utterly terrific. When Lionsgate finally releases the soundtrack, you can guarantee that "Another Day of Sun" will be playing on repeat on my phone for days. On top of the music, the performances, and the wizardry of Chazelle, La La Land is just a masterpiece of cinematic composition. The techincal work by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, production designer David Wasco, and costumer designer Mary Zophres cannot possibly be commended enough, and there's no doubt in my mind that Oscars will be coming their way very soon. Editor Tom Cross, who won an Oscar for Whiplash, does dynamite work here again, creating the jazzy beat of the film and ensuring that each scene has a pulse of its own. La La Land unfolds meticulously, but with an energy that most films simply cannot match. Its structure is astounding, building the film to an emotional crescendo in the final minutes that will leave you in a breathless daze.

La La Land isn't the kind of movie that you just watch and enjoy. It's not the kind of film that will leave your mind the moment you exit the theater. It's a film that you fall in love with. It's the kind of unforgettable, unparalleled masterpiece that we simply don't see anymore. It's a buoyant, splashy celebration of Los Angeles and the magic of cinema, and it's a heartbreaking romance about the personal price of success. It cements Damien Chazelle's status as a world-class director and it puts Emma Stone in the conversation as one of the best actresses on the planet. Watching La La Land gives you a pure sense of elation, like you've lifted off the ground and ascended to the stars, much like Gosling and Stone do in one of the film's centerpieces. If you don't feel like singing and dancing through the rest of the day, you're doing it wrong.

Give into the magic, and brace yourselves for one of the best films to come around in a long time. Believe the hype. La La Land is the real deal and then some.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A+                                             (10/10)

Images courtesy of Lionsgate

'Loving' review

Note: This review is a re-publication of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Loving opens in theaters nationwide today, with more theaters added on Friday.

Jeff Nichols' films are very difficult to describe. They're gentle, patient, and quiet, but most importantly, they're incredibly distinctive. When you see a film by Nichols, you know it. The Arkansas-born director has a tendency to take genres and twist them to fit his style, resulting in a fresh take on an iconic American idea. After bursting onto the scene with Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, Nichols hit another level with Mud, an atmospheric take on the Mark Twain mythology of the American South. The director followed that up with Midnight Special, an ephemeral, mystifying take on the classic John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg sci-fi chase movies of yesteryear. Both films are charming and singular in their own right, but I have to admit that I didn't adore either (although I do plan on revisiting the latter many times in the future). Nichols is a very accomplished filmmaker, and I like his minimalist, humanist take on various genres. I'm just not sure if I'll ever love one of his movies.

Loving feels like Nichols' take on the esteemed Oscar bait sub-genre, a sweeping historical romance that has the director's classic touch. It's beautiful, well-acted, timely, and another assured piece of work from Nichols. Did I love it? Unfortunately, I did not. Maybe it wasn't manipulative enough for me, or maybe it is truly lacking in some areas, but it just didn't hit me in the way that I was hoping it would. Nichols is a very restrained filmmaker, and while that can be refreshing at first, eventually I always start hoping for more. But nonetheless, Loving is an impressive film when judged on its own merits, a moving portrait of two deeply ordinary people who were thrust into an extraordinary situation. Led by the outstanding duo of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, Loving is a topical, quietly powerful rallying cry for gradual progress and the universal idea that all love is equal.

Based on the story of the couple that changed America forever, Loving chronicles a decade in the life of Mildred and Richard Loving (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton). It's 1958 in Virginia, and they're just like any other young couple. Richard works a construction job and fixes his car in his free time, but his goal is to eventually marry Mildred and build a house for her. They take the trip up to Washington, D.C. to get married, and hang the marriage certificate proudly in their new house. However, things don't stay quiet for long. One night, the local police sheriff (Martin Csokas) bursts into their home with a small army of officers, arresting the couple for violating the Racial Integrity Act. The Lovings are forced to plead guilty to avoid prison time, and they're essentially ex-communicated from the state of Virginia.

The family isn't intent on turning this into a big deal, so they quietly pack their things and move to Washington, only to return to Virginia once or twice for special occasions. But once the NAACP and other civil rights groups get a hold of their case, the Lovings end up becoming the focal point of a battle that they never could have anticipated. Led by rookie lawyer Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and the brilliant legal mind of Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass), the Lovings end up reluctantly taking their case to the Supreme Court of the United States. With an unexpected amount of press coverage (including an iconic visit from a Life photographer, played by Michael Shannon) and the weight of the Civil Rights movement on their shoulders, the Lovings and their lawyers will make their case to the highest court in the land, with the hopes of changing America for the better.

On paper, Loving looks like great Oscar bait. Remarkable true story, timely subject matter, moving finale- it checks all the boxes, right? With that in mind, it's kind of surprising to realize that Loving is actually very, very far from being generic Academy fodder. In fact, I would almost say that it plays like the opposite of every other awards biopic ever made. Where other movies would go for a grand emotional moment, Loving stays silent, quietly working with its soft-spoken characters and delivering the subtle pathos of its story. There are no Oscar moments to be found here, even though the lead performances are stunning. Nichols gives us a near-reversal of the awards formula, a character study out to prove that iconic true stories don't have to be shamelessly manipulative and obvious. They can be reserved and still remain compelling.

Nichols' approach to this story and these characters is quite fascinating, even beyond the decidedly less showy execution. Nichols (who also wrote the screenplay) portrays Richard and Mildred Loving as truly ordinary people thrown into an crazy, life-changing situation. Usually, when a filmmaker tries to normalize such important people in history, it comes off as forced and even a little tedious. Not in Loving. Richard and Mildred truly were everyday people, unremarkable in every aspect of their lives beyond this one act of love. They weren't fighting the fight with the leaders of the movement- they were just regular folks trying to live their lives. But in silently and slowly fighting for convictions, they were heroes in their own right. This provides a very interesting contrast to other films about famous agents of change, especially Nate Parker's upcoming Birth of a Nation, which bills Nat Turner as the "chosen one" in a way. Circumstances turned Richard and Mildred into the embodiment of heroism, and it's that devotion to normalcy that brings some truly poignant moments to Loving.

But even with the careful, mature direction of Nichols, Loving would be nothing without the spectacular performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. Over the last several years, Edgerton has proven himself to be one of the most talented actors in Hollywood, a multi-hyphenate with the ability to play a wide range of characters. Edgerton has spent a good chunk of his career playing brash, arrogant individuals (The Great GatsbyExodusBlack Mass), which has made his recent series of roles much more impressive. He played a manipulative bullying victim in his directorial effort The Gift, and now, he's tackling a quiet man with a good heart. Richard Loving has no desire to be a hero, but he always wants to be a good person. This is his defining characteristic, and because of Edgerton's performance, you feel that humanity at every corner. "You tell the judge I love my wife," he says to Cohen as he prepares to go to the Supreme Court, in what just might be the most beautifully simple line of the year.

Negga is significantly less famous than Edgerton, but her stock has been on the rise over the last year, thanks to smaller roles in Preacher and Warcraft. After seeing Loving, there's no doubt in my mind that she'll be a star. Negga's Mildred is more forceful than Richard, willing to talk to the press and work with the lawyers to ensure that justice will be done. She wears the pain of their oppression on her face during the most intense parts, and you can always see what these hateful laws have done to her. But during all of that pain and tragedy, Negga and Edgerton show the Lovings' passion for each other. They love each other- it's no more complicated than that. This is their show from start to finish, but Nichols leaves room for some great supporting turns as well. Michael Shannon has a terrific one-scene cameo as Grey Villet, while Nick Kroll also has some memorable moments in a much more serious role than usual.

Loving is an imperfect film. Like all of Nichols' projects, the pacing is a tad too slow, the emotional punch is a bit too muted, and the overall impact is never felt as deeply as it should be. I wish that Loving was a little better, but even with its flaws, this is still essential viewing. With an assured filmmaker at the helm, this drama serves as a wonderful reminder of the ordinary people who changed the world. Led by two dynamite, Oscar-worthy performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, Loving is a patient, rock-solid portrayal of one of the most important Supreme Court cases of all time. It's not flashy, it's not manipulative, and it's not perfect, but I have a feeling that the quiet power of this beautiful love story will resonate with audiences around the world.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.3/10)

Images courtesy of Focus Features

Long-awaited trailer for Martin Scorsese's 'Silence' is epic and mesmerizing

It seems like there's always a degree of uncertainty with a new film from Martin Scorsese. We know that it's coming out eventually, and we know that it will probably be great, but we just don't quite know when it'll show up at our local theater. Shutter Island got pushed around a bunch of times back in 2009/2010, The Wolf of Wall Street was bounced all the way to Christmas Day after a lengthy post-production process, and this year, Scorsese's Silence was placed in a similar situation. The director's longtime passion project was originally slated for a release in the fall of 2016, but with Paramount's loaded slate (Arrival, Allied, Fences, and more) and another long session in the editing room, rumors began to swirl that we wouldn't be seeing Silence until February 2017. Thankfully, that didn't end up being the case. Scorsese locked the film, and Paramount set a December 23 release date with an expansion in early January. Now, the conversation fully surrounds the awards prospects for the film. Only National Board of Review members have seen it, and while the film is screening for the Vatican, there's no word on when critics and voters across the country will get a chance to bask in the glory of Scorsese's latest vision. That being said, Paramount is moving forward with the marketing machine for the film. The first trailer for Silence is attached to showings of Allied this weekend, and while it was originally meant to hit the web on Saturday, an accidental release last night gave us our first look at the film. Check it out below!

As a fan of movies, of course I was excited for Silence. When a new Martin Scorsese film hits theaters, it's a cause for cinephile celebration. That being said, this film wasn't nearly as high on my most anticipated list as it should have been. This is one of the best trailers of the year, of many years for that matter. Every shot in this preview is filled with eye candy for movie lovers, a fever dream of brilliant performances, gorgeous cinematography, and outstanding music. You can't do much better than Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson as your leads, and all three look to deliver incredible performances. Each shot looks like a painting, and the beauty, agony, and brutality on display here is just awe-inspiring. I'm not familiar with the 1966 novel that this film is based on, but the idea of Apocalpyse Now in Japan from a legendary filmmaker is so incredibly enticing. Producer Irwin Winkler said that Silence is Scorsese's best film, and after watching this trailer, I have no doubt that we're about to see one of the best films of the year and another movie for the ages from an iconic director. The wait for this movie is going to kill me. I need to see this as soon as possible.

Silence debuts on December 23 in limited release, before expanding across the country in January.

Image Credit: Joblo

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

'Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk' review

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a prime example of how reviews and film festival reception can make or break a "prestige" picture at the box office. Going into this year's Oscar season, few titles were as highly anticipated as Billy Lynn, the latest from two-time Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi). The film was near the top of the Gold Derby lists throughout September and most of early October, with some prognosticators actually picking the film to win Best Picture. Others speculated that Lee would win his third Best Director Oscar, an accolade that would put him in some truly historic territory. Billy Lynn was anticipated by cinephiles not only because it was the new film from Lee, but also because the filmmaker was playing in a new sandbox with some truly unprecedented technology. Lee shot Billy Lynn in 3D at 120 frames per second, which has never been done with a major motion picture. When Sony and Lee took the film to the New York Film Festival in October, many thought that we were about to see the birth of a groundbreaking masterpiece.

Then people actually saw the film. There was an almost immediate rejection of Billy Lynn, a sweeping "nope" from everybody in Hollywood. The 120 fps format was blasted for being a major miscalculation and distraction, while the film itself was labeled as hokey and overly sentimental. The film dropped off the Oscar radar almost instantly, and audience interest was lost as well. Billy Lynn did okay in its first weekend, where Sony debuted it exclusively in the only two theaters equipped to project 120 fps 3D in the entire country. But when it expanded into over 1,000 theaters this weekend, Billy Lynn exploded like a nuclear bomb, grossing only $930K for a $791 per theater average. If reviews have positioned it as a major Oscar player, you would have seen a much different result. Now, there's just the question of the quality of the film. Is it the historic misfire that everyone has billed it as? Or is there something more interesting going on? I've settled for the latter option, and while Billy Lynn certainly is far from a great film, there are some engaging, fascinating elements that deserve your time and attention. It's a strange, messy mixture of ideas and tones, but if you look beyond the surface, Billy Lynn might just have a little bit more on its mind.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is set during the height of the Iraq War, and it follows the adventures of Bravo Squad, an infantry unit that recently fought in a major battle. They're coming home as heroes from their first tour, and the media sees Bravo as the feel-good story that could turn public support back to the war. One of the soldiers in the unit is Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), who took out several Taliban fighters while attempting to save his close friend, Sergeant Shroom (Vin Diesel). Billy returns home to a warm welcome from his mother (Deirdre Lovejoy) and his sister (Kristen Stewart), who doesn't want Billy to go back for his next tour. Bravo is being celebrated at a glitzy halftime performance at a Thanksgiving football game, where they will walk across the stage with Destiny's Child. They're also trying to sell the rights for their movie, which is being negotiated by Albert (Chris Tucker), a Hollywood middleman. In the midst of all of this chaos, Billy reflects on his time in Iraq and the traumatic events that led him to this point.

Billy Lynn can often be a bit messy- there's no way to get around that fact. Lee's grasp on the material is slippery at times, and there are moments where the movie meanders too much for its own good. I'm not familiar with the source material by Ben Fountain, but from what I've heard, it's a sly satire that could prove tricky for any filmmaker to work with. Even a two-time Academy Award-winner like Lee can't entirely pull it off, struggling with the blend of schmaltz and satire that Fountain has created. There are moments in Billy Lynn that will make you cringe, and there are others that prove to be quite compelling upon further thought. Nonetheless, while certain scenes fall flat and other performances completely disappoint, Billy Lynn is a captivating, often riveting swirl of anti-war themes and satirical humor. It may be a disappointment, but it's far from a waste.

The fact that Lee convinced a major studio to make a movie about the inherent corporatism of global conflict and the ridiculousness of American patriotism is a feat itself. Billy Lynn is either incredibly overt with its satire or very subtle, a combination that constantly keeps the audience on edge (not always in a good way). There are scenes that literally spell out the themes of the movie to the audience, while others rely on subtle humor and minor tics to convey the occasionally weighty ideas. For the life of me, I'm not quite able to understand why Lee didn't commit to a more quiet, reserved, and absurdist approach. The speeches and moments of melancholy emotion don't work, but the minor jabs at American culture and the occasionally disingenuous nature of the "Support the Troops" movement of the Iraq War are dynamite. Those were the times where I really dug the film, and the fact that Lee has some great, biting stuff in here gives the movie some merit that others are overlooking.

Nonetheless, Billy Lynn is an aggressively strange piece of work, a film that often feels like a cluster of ideas thrown up on the screen. Nobody could accuse Lee of playing it safe with this one- this may be a slight misfire, but it's innovative and entirely unique. Many films have dealt with post traumatic stress disorder before, as well as the challenges of adjusting to life back at home after war. No film has approached this subject quite like Billy Lynn before, which makes the argument that the celebration of "heroic" deeds can awaken memories and harm soldiers in even stronger ways. The world of Billy Lynn is occupied by soulless Hollywood producers, money-hungry businessmen, insensitive performance organizers, and people who shamelessly want to feel better about themselves with their support for Bravo squad. All of these people are hoping to profit off these regular, honest guys in their own cynical, greedy way. They're fake people, friendly faces who will stab you in the back without hesitation.

Billy Lynn has been advertised as a patriotic celebration of war heroes, but it's quite the opposite of that. This is actually a movie about how shallow patriotism is, a film occupied shallow people with shallow goals. Sadly, there are some inherent flaws in the story, as it tries to shove in some sentimental moments and a feel-good ending for the audience. In a way, I wish that Billy Lynn was darker, focused more on the satirical elements and how patriotism exploits and damages these soldiers in different ways. Instead, Lee bogs down the film with some minor subplots that feel useless, including one that centers on Billy's relationship with a Dallas cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) and another that focuses on Kathryn's desire for her brother not to return to Iraq. Both of these plots contribute to the film's ham-fisted conclusion, which relies more on emotion than ideas. Lee's frenetic, strange direction (the centerpiece of which is the stunning halftime show itself) is impressive and the ideas swirling around in Billy Lynn are fascinating. The story and the characters are the root of the problem here, dragging down the movie even during some high points.

The performances are all over the place, with some actors turning in stellar turns and some feeling totally and completely out of place in this world. Newcomer Joe Alwyn is solid in the titular role, effectively detailing the emotion and sadness that lingers inside Billy Lynn. Alwyn features in pretty much every single scene of the film, which doesn't leave much room for supporting players. Great actors like Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, and Steve Martin are all pushed to the side, which minimizes the impact of weaker turns from Vin Diesel and Beau Knapp. Much of the acting feels stilted and fake, injected with a healthy dose of fabricated emotion. In any other film, this might entirely sink the project. But there's just enough metatextual acknowledgment of the artifice of filmmaking and essential cliches of war storytelling that this all might have been intentional. It might be a stretch, but Lee is a smart filmmaker and he has some clever, funny concepts bubbling under the surface. I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt here.

Is Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk a great movie? No, not even close. Is it a good film? Not really. It's messy and unruly and too long for its own good. But even with a bevy of flaws, Billy Lynn is a profoundly interesting film, a singular, bizarre piece of filmmaking that isn't quite like anything I've seen before. Even in the absence of Lee's technological wizardy (which is all but guaranteed if you don't live in New York/Los Angeles), Billy Lynn feels different and that experimental sensation carries the film through the rough patches. Lee clearly has a critical and financial misfire on his hands with this one, but the film itself is bold, thought-provoking, daring, and even effective at times. Billy Lynn might fall well short of original expectations, but that doesn't stop it from being a strange, alluring whirlwind of ideas and cinematic styles.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.7/10)

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures

Monday, November 21, 2016

'Allied' review

I don't know if Brad Pitt intended to do this or not, but he has now effectively starred in a trilogy of World War II films. He kicked things off with Inglourious Basterds in 2009, Quentin Tarantino's comedic war masterpiece in which he played the brash Lt. Aldo Raine. Five years later, Pitt returned to the WWII genre with Fury, David Ayer's grisly tank film that featured some of the most explosive war scenes in recent memory. And now, Pitt is back in action with Allied, a romantic thriller set in Casablanca and London during the height of the war. As a huge fan of both Fury and Basterds, I was quite excited to see Pitt in another film set during this time period. In addition, there's an aspect of tabloid intrigue with Allied, as many speculated that Pitt's "steamy" sex scenes with Marion Cotillard could have contributed to the downfall of his marriage to Angelina Jolie. Throw director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) into the mix, and you have a movie that is quite the enticing proposition.

Sometimes, a movie just goes terribly wrong and there's no real explanation for why it happened. It's hard for me to put my finger on just where Allied went off the rails, but it's a movie that never even comes close to working. There's such a plethora of talent in front of and behind the camera, so I must admit that I'm still scratching my head over this one. Essentially, it boils down to the fact that Allied is an ambitious movie that has no clue what its ambitions are. Does it want to be a war-set romance movie in the vein of Casablanca? Part of the first act certainly indicates so. However, other sections seem to hint at a much more violent, stylized action thriller. And then by the time the third act rolls around, Allied is a full-on romance/morality play, with none of the necessary suspense, intrigue, or tragedy to pull it off. Instead, it's just a big jumble of tonally inconsistent scenes, hindered even further by Zemeckis' awkward direction, clumsy pacing, and surprisingly weak storytelling. Despite a few moments of visual grandeur and sweeping old Hollywood style, Allied is a major misfire that falls well short of expectations.

As Allied opens, we see a man parachuting into the Moroccan desert. That man is Max Vatan (Pitt), a Canadian intelligence officer tasked with assassinating a German official in 1942 Casablanca. Vatan is set to rendez-vous with Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard), a beautiful and talented French resistance fighter. Vatan and Beausejour are meant to convincingly play husband and wife, an act that is tested in the Nazi-infested streets of Casablanca. As the danger piles up and death becomes a more imminent threat, the pair of assassins begin to slowly fall for each other. Their romance begins mere hours before they're set to carry out an assassination that could get them both killed, so at this point what do they have to lose. After a successful mission, Vatan asks Beausejour to move to London with him to be his wife. She accepts and the two lovebirds get married in the middle of the war.

Max and Marianne have a child, move to the suburbs of London, and happily grow their family and their home. Max continues his work with British intelligence, serving under his good friend, Frank Heslop (Jared Harris). But one day, everything changes when Max meets with an official from a dreaded division of the intelligence sector. The man, played by Simon McBurney, informs Max that there's reason to believe that Marianne is not actually the daring resistance hero she claims to be. According to intelligence, Marianne is a German spy, sent to retrieve information from a high ranking official of the army. Of course, Max refuses to believe it. This is the woman that he loves, the mother of his child- she couldn't possibly be a spy, he says. The official gives him 72 hours to find out, so without hesitation, Max conducts an intense investigation with the hopes of proving his wife's innocence and saving the future of his family.

Casablanca is my favorite film of all time, and it's not even a close contest. To me, the 1942 Bogart/Bergman classic represents both the best of humanity and the best of filmmaking, a hopeful, optimistic, and iconic piece of cinema. The main reason I was intrigued by Allied was the Casablanca setting and the sweeping tone, which was clearly meant to evoke those romantic wartime classics of the 1940s. From a pure design perspective, Zemeckis and his team pull it off. The dusty landscapes, gorgeous costumes, and sun-baked locales are all impeccably crafted, which is a huge credit to the art directors, production designer Gary Freeman, and costume designer Joanna Johnston. For a moment, Allied almost convinces you that it's a film ripped from a bygone era. There's a nostalgic feeling that emerges in the first few moments that I really enjoyed, especially as a fan of classic cinema.

Sadly, that feeling evaporates almost as quickly as it appears, as I soon realized that there's absolutely nothing under the surface in this film. No dynamic characters, a storyline as tedious as it is clunky, a lack of thematic interest or relevance, and weak direction that does the movie no favors. Allied is a shiny black hole of nothingness, an old Hollywood epic that is flat and dry in all the wrong ways. Zemeckis and screenwriter Steven Knight clearly knew what kind of movie they wanted to make, but they had no idea what story to tell or what characters should inhabit this world. Allied is an inconsistent movie in just about every way, and watching it flail around onscreen trying to accomplish something is a true chore. With this film, Zemeckis tried to make a love story, a mystery, and a spy thriller at the same time. It's an ambitious cocktail of ideas, and in a different film, things could certainly have turned out differently. But when none of the stories and none of the ideas work in the slighest, your movie is in trouble.

The romance is brutally boring- there's no chemistry, no sexual intrigue, nothing to invest the audience in these two characters. Brad Pitt's Max Vatan is reserved and quiet, and while it initially seems like Zemeckis and Knight will later reveal more compelling elements to Vatan, that never happens. It's hard to blame Pitt since there's just nothing to work with, but he does the film no favors with a performance that feels static and disinterested. Marion Cotillard is basically playing Marion Cotillard in this film, and while she manages to inject a healthy dose of her trademark sultriness, Marianne Beausejour is never as mysterious as she should be. Their romance is basically "Hey, we might die, so why not amirite?" which is not a good basis for an iconic movie love story. The love scene between Pitt and Cotillard in a car during a desert sandstorm is one of the most laughable moments of the year, so awkward, strange, and just miserably ill-conceived. And when the time comes for the tragedy and sadness (including an ending that is baffling, depressing, and shocking all at the same time), you just really don't feel anything for these two. They're both ciphers, and not in a good way.

So if the romance fails, the spy and action movie elements must work, right? Nope. It's almost stunning how poorly directed Allied is, considering Zemeckis' body of work as a whole. Remember, this is the guy who directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Back to the Future, and Forrest Gump, three movies that were revolutionary in their time. He's a talented filmmaker with a keen eye for time and place and a remarkable gift for mixing pop culture and historical fiction into a very entertaining hodgepodge. He drifted away from his wheelhouse in the last decade, focusing more on motion capture work that eventually imploded with Mars Needs Moms in 2011. Zemeckis returned to live-action filmmaking with Flight and The Walk, and on the surface, Allied seems like a film that fits directly in his wheelhouse. I don't know if Zemeckis just lost the movie at some point during production, but every scene of Allied feels uninspired. There's no movement, no energy- just passive, weak camerawork and a total lack of momentum.

Zemeckis does nothing to elevate the film, but Steven Knight deserves a good deal of the blame here as well. Knight, who directed Locke and wrote the screenplay for Eastern Promises, has crafted a story that has no flow and no real point. Not every movie has to be about something, but it helps if there's at least something going on in your movie. Allied feels like a collection of flat, stodgy scenes, accompanied by a variety of tones and some bizarre bursts of life that are totally out of place in the grand scheme of the movie itself. Allied's choppiness is somewhat fascinating at the start, but eventually, you have to find a sense of propulsive momentum in a film like this. That never happens in Allied, and the fact that Knight and Zemeckis have nothing bubbling under the surface from a thematic standpoint makes matters even worse. They had a bunch of ideas and they just threw them on the paper in the hopes that some would stick. Unfortunately, very few do.

Allied is a total misfire from start to finish, a beautiful-looking movie that manages to be one of the most mundane disappointments of the fall season. With the excellent talent involved and the classic style, this movie should have been great, even as a mere nostalgia trip. Instead, it never gets off the ground, sputtering as it tries to get the wheels turning on its plot machinations. In the end, Allied is ultimately an exercise in cinematic futility, a forced, awkward, and messy drama that feels like a major missed opportunity. Maybe I'm being too harsh on a movie that is meant to be pure Hollywood escapism, but the unfortunate truth is that Allied can't muster the strength to be fun or enjoyable in any way. It's exceedingly beautiful and dreadfully lifeless.

THE FINAL GRADE:  D+                                           (4.7/10)

Image Credits: IMDB, Paramount, Coming Soon

Emilia Clarke joins the cast of Lucasfilm's untitled Han Solo movie

On paper, a young Han Solo movie (especially one that doesn't star Harrison Ford) is a terrible idea. There's no real reason to do it whatsoever, and it comes across as a pure cash grab. So with that said, I'm beyond excited for Disney's Han Solo movie, which is set to hit theaters in May 2018. Lucasfilm has taken a property that feels lazy, uninspired, and cheap, and they've injected it with such a talented cast and crew that I'm more intrigued by it than any other upcoming Star Wars stand-alone film. Things got off to a good start when Lucasfilm announced that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the directors of The LEGO Movie and the Jump Street series, would be taking on this film. Lord and Miller are two of the most exciting, energetic voices in Hollywood, and it's at the point where pretty much anything they touch turns to gold. But there was still the matter of who would be cast in the major roles, and if Lucasfilm didn't get the right actor to play Han, there would be a revolt from Star Wars fans. Thankfully, they didn't make that mistake. Hail, Caesar! and Rules Don't Apply star Alden Ehrenreich was cast as Solo earlier this year, emerging as the perfect choice for the iconic, roguish smuggler.

Lucasfilm followed that up months later by announcing that Donald Glover (aka rapper Childish Gambino) would be taking on the role of Lando Calrissian, a move that was met warmly by fans. And if that wasn't good enough, Lucasfilm announced on Friday that Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke has joined the cast of the still untitled Han Solo movie. Clarke burst onto the scene in the aforementioned HBO show, and has slowly become a superstar in Hollywood. She appeared in this summer's sleeper hit Me Before You and last year's blockbuster flop Terminator: Genisys, and is set to star in multiple movies over the next few years. Star Wars will undoubtedly be her blockbuster breakout, and I'm very excited to see her join this universe. I'm not overly familiar with Clarke's work (I know, I need to watch Game of Thrones), but I'm hoping that she's given some real material to work with- I'd certainly be disappointed with a simple love interest role. Lord, Miller, and Lucasfilm continue to make all of the right moves with this film, and my anticipation can only grow from here.

The Untitled Han Solo Anthology Film will hit theaters on May 25, 2018. Before that, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will debut on December 16 and Star Wars: Episode VIII will premiere on December 15, 2017.

Image Credits: IMDB, Joblo, Paramount. Disney

Sunday, November 20, 2016

'Bleed for This' review

Did we really need another boxing movie? No, not at all. In recent years, a whole range of inspirational fighter dramas have hit theaters with various degrees of success. Creed is still a near-masterpiece, The Fighter was a strong family drama and Oscar favorite, but Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw missed by a mile. Ben Younger's Bleed for This, which tells the true comeback story of Vinny "The Pazmanian Devil" Pazienza (Miles Teller), falls comfortably in the middle. It's hard to screw up the boxing formula, and Younger doesn't make any specific missteps or attempt to reinvent the wheel in any way. His film is competent and mostly entertaining, a well-acted drama that manages to be pretty watchable. Unfortunately, Bleed for This never manages to fully justify its own existence as another boxing movie, sticking to genre conventions through thick and thin. It isn't particularly inspirational or nuanced, instead settling for a sense of authenticity that carries the movie through some dull patches. It's all decent enough, especially with the dynamic and charismatic performances from Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart. But it's tough to shake the feeling that this could have been more than just another boxing movie, that Younger could have elevated this to fascinating, harrowing territory. Instead, it's just a solid, passable film, another mildly formulaic entry in a genre that has seen its fair share of ups and downs.

After suffering a broken neck, Vinny Pazienza managed to stage one of the most miraculous comebacks in sports history, fighting iconic fighter Roberto Duran after a lengthy, brutal recovery. How did this happen? Bleed for This seeks to find that answer, taking us back to the start of Pazman's story. After a humiliating loss to Roger Mayweather, Vinny decides that it's time to shake things up a bit. Facing pressure from his father (Ciaran Hinds) and his promoters, Vinny turns to Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), an iconic trainer who led Mike Tyson to glory for several years. Rooney advises Vinny to move up from lightweight to middleweight, a major jump that could be seen as a huge risk in the boxing world. However, as Vinny and Kev grow closer and bond together, the risk pays off. During his first middleweight title fight, Vinny emerges as the champion of the world once again, proving himself as a disciplined, talented fighter.

Everything is going swimmingly for Vinny, until one day, he's in a vicious car accident. The crash leaves him with a fractured neck, an injury that could potentially threaten his life and his career. The doctors tell him that he won't be able to fight again, and that if he doesn't undergo a spinal fusion surgery, there's a chance that he won't ever be able to walk again either. Stubborn and committed to his dream of fighting in the ring once more, Vinny instead opts for Halo surgery, a procedure that relies solely on his body to heal naturally. The Halo contraption is grisly and awkward, involving multiple screws in his head, while one bump could cause him excruciating pain and sever his spinal cord. With an injury so serious, most people would take their time to heal, avoiding any risky activities that could potentially threaten their life. Not Vinny. He sees a physical handicap as a death sentence, and he refuses to believe that he won't fight again. Instead, he embraces the pain, training with Rooney and building his body into peak physical condition. It all builds up to the title fight against Duran, where Vinny will put his body on the line for one more chance at glory.

Vinny Paz's outlook on life is positioned as being rather simple, and the movie reflects that at pretty much every turn. The final scene of Bleed for This details his philosophy, which is literally "it's that simple." Even if somebody tells you that it's impossible, you can still do it. Why? Well, because. You just can. This philosophy trickles over to the film itself, which is mostly free of complexity or true character depth. It sticks very closely to the tried-and-true formula, and it is workmanlike, blunt, and rock solid. There's no real attempt to understand why Vinny embraced pain so much, or why he saw his only opportunity in life in a boxing ring. This was a guy who defied everybody's recommendations and expectations, who made decisions that could have seriously harmed him and pushed himself beyond any reasonable standard. Bleed for This merely documents the action, constantly balancing the idea of "Isn't this guy crazy?" with "Wow, isn't this inspiring?" at nearly every turn. Younger never takes a side, which benefits the docudrama style, but hurts the film as a character study.

Miles Teller is a brash, method performer, an actor willing to throw his all into the right role. His ferocity and energy was at its highest point in 2014's Whiplash, the music indie that broke out in a big way and became a modern classic. Teller throws his all into the physical aspects of Pazienza, bulking up and accurately portraying the pain that Paz put himself through at every turn. He nails the coastal accent, and carries himself with a swagger that is fitting for such a larger-than-life character. He's less effective at helping the audience understand why the hell Vinny went to such extremes, putting himself through total torment just to fight once again. I know that the film positions boxing as the most fulfilling thing, maybe the only thing in Vinny's life, but I just struggle to believe that. His story was not conventional, and this movie is. Most of the blame there goes to Younger's script, so I don't think Teller deserves much of the blame. He gives a sturdy, strong performance. Aaron Eckhart is the standout of the supporting cast, gaining a pretty hefty amount of weight and fully changing his accent to play Kevin Rooney. In a weak year for supporting actor, Eckhart might be this film's best chance at Oscar glory.

Younger's direction is gritty and realistic, which gives the film a unique taste of its own. The somewhat frenetic style feels clearly like an imitation of David O. Russell's The Fighter, making it less original but no less satisfying. Younger previously directed Boiler Room and Prime, and at one point, I had hoped that Bleed for This would be a big breakout for him. Of course, this was back when the film was being sold as the boxing movie since Raging Bull, which is pretty far from the truth. Now, this will merely represent another moderate step forward for a filmmaker who hasn't gained much traction throughout his career. And as rock solid as the craftsmanship is in Bleed for This, there isn't much in the film that feels exceptional. Even the boxing scenes fail to feel all that rousing or engaging. Like everything else, they're well done, but they don't have that power, that "oomph" necessary to turn an okay boxing movie into a great one. Younger's screenplay is often even more problematic, feeling mostly like a recap of Vinny's life rather than a focused, precise study of specific moments in his life. It almost feels like two movies shoved into one at some points. Younger has a great eye for crisp dialogue and directorial energy, but he never quite hits the mark with this film.

But don't get me wrong, Bleed for This is still a fine enough film if you go in knowing what to expect. Fans of Miles Teller will have a good time, fans of boxing movies will enjoy themselves, and even some cinephiles will view the film as passable. There are no egregious transgressions nor any outstanding achievements- it's just a decent, mildly entertaining movie. Nothing less, nothing more. With my early expectations for Bleed for This, it has to be viewed as something of a disappointment. There was a time where I thought this movie had the potential to be something great, a film that would transcend genre cliches and deliver something truly unique. Instead, it's just a fairly standard boxing movie with some shaky storytelling and a lack of true introspection. I wanted more from Bleed for This, but in the end, I was moderately engaged by its authentic, visceral story of a truly crazy figure in the boxing world. It's no boxing classic, but it gets the job done.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.7/10)

Images courtesy of Open Road Films

Friday, November 18, 2016

New trailer for 'Kong: Skull Island' teases striking, thrilling blockbuster

The year-round blockbuster season has been proposed by Hollywood studios for a long time, and in 2017, I think we'll see the best example of this idea yet. February features potential blockbusters like Fifty Shades Darker, A Cure for Wellness, The LEGO Batman Movie, and God Particle (the next Cloverfield movie), April has Fast 8, May through August will be spectacular as usual, and the months of September and October will see the release of It, Ninjago, and Blade Runner 2049. However, it didn't dawn on me until recently that March 2017 could be one of the best blockbuster months in recent memory. Logan, Beauty and the Beast, Ghost in the Shell, and Power Rangers all hit theaters in March, as well as smaller action flicks like Free Fire and The Belko Experiment. The most anticipated film of all may be Kong: Skull Island, Jordan Vogt-Roberts' reboot of the beloved monster movie icon. Set in the 1970s, the first trailer for Skull Island debuted at Comic-Con and the reaction was incredibly strong. The tension was palpable and the Apocalypse Now style was enticing for many cinephiles. Late Wednesday night on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Warner Bros. unveiled the second trailer for Kong. Check it out below!

From a pure visual standpoint, Kong: Skull Island looks absolutely phenomenal. Even the poster is straight-up gorgeous, with a bright mix of primary colors and a beautifully simple design. The 70s setting looks incredible, and as a Creedence Clearwater Revival fan, hearing "Bad Moon Rising" open this trailer sent a wave of happiness through my body. Jordan Vogt-Roberts appears to have made the transition from indies to blockbuster filmmaking quite well, and the action scenes in this movie appear to be truly dazzling. The design of the iconic King Kong is spectacular, and I love the idea of a war against terrifying creatures that live below the surface. Vogt-Robert appears to have made a singular, stunning blockbuster here, a throwback that will combine Larry Fong's excellent retro cinematography with modern setpieces to great effect. Plus, the cast is top-notch- Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, and so on. To me, the only question mark centers around John C. Reilly's character, who seems to be the comic relief of the film. In what looks like a pretty intense movie, that might be necessary, but it sticks out like a sore thumb in the trailer. Nonetheless, I adore nearly everything that I've seen from Skull Island so far, and I can't wait to see how it all turns out.

Kong: Skull Island hits theaters on March 10, 2017.

Image Credit: Screen Rant