Sunday, October 30, 2016

'American Honey' review

What is the definition of a dream?

This question lies at the heart of Andrea Arnold's American Honey, a sprawling, beautiful slice of modern Americana. Most films about the American Dream involve uncontrolled ambition, tales of greed, power, and excess like The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street, and more. American Honey is about the dream that this country was based on, but it takes a markedly different approach. Arnold's film is about small dreams. It centers around people whose stories are not usually told on film, members of the lower and middle class who have been destroyed by the economy in recent years. The dreams in American Honey are small- owning a trailer, having a boat, spending time with the person you love the most- but nonetheless, they're still dreams. Arnold's alternate look at the defining dreams of our country is hopeful, stunning, and epic all at the same time, an indie film about finding the good in any bad situation.

This is a message that I don't think we hear enough. The idea of finding hope from hopelessness is brave and daring, something that takes a lot of effort and optimism. The people who know me best know that I'm prone to being both cynical and absurdly optimistic, often at the same time. So on that level, I firmly identify with American Honey. That this is still an imperfect film doesn't diminish the fact that I think it's a profoundly good one, a stunning tale of aimless youth and the distant appeal of future success. Like the heroes (or anti-heroes) of every film about the American Dream ever made, the members of American Honey's "mag crew" are scamming their way to the top, hustling and lying and doing whatever it takes to be successful. They're all seeking an escape from their downtrodden lives, and in this makeshift family, they find love and hope. American Honey may not always hit all of the right notes throughout the course of its 163 minute runtime, but it's still an extraordinary achievement that works as an astonishing portrait of a unique group of characters.

As American Honey opens, we find Star (Sasha Lane) rummaging through a dumpster, as two small kids wait outside of it to see what she finds. Star discovers a few food scraps and a whole chicken- food for their dog. After she crawls out of the dumpster, Star and the kids head to a local K-Mart to get something to drink. On the way, they're passed by a large van, thumping loud club music and flying down the street. When they get inside the store, Star sees a group of scrappy teens, and as Rihanna's "We Found Love" starts blaring over the speakers, they all start dancing. Star is quickly eyed by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a charismatic teen clad in black suspenders and a white shirt. He tells Star that he's part of a crew that sells magazines door-to-door, and that she should come with them to Kansas City. After going home to think about it for a day and dealing with her abusive step-father, Star leaves in the middle of the night, sleeping outside the van of the "mag crew." The next morning, they're off to the races.

And just like that, American Honey's story begins, a kaleidoscopic trip through the heart of America that will change Star's life permanently. The mag crew is run by Krystal (Riley Keough), a domineering, driven girl with a chilly Southern twang. Krystal's message to Star is clear- make me money, or you're out of the crew. There's always the threat that the crew's authoritarian leader could drop them at any moment, but that never stops them. They're all young and they all party like there's no tomorrow. Between drunken late-night parties, trips through suburban neighborhoods in the hopes of selling more subscriptions, and aimless conversations, the crew will grow closer together than ever before. But most importantly, Star and Jake's relationship will evolve in new ways, giving the young couple their first taste of true love. As the crew delves deeper into the desolate Midwestern landscape, will they ever find what they're looking for? American Honey doesn't always find an answer to that question, but it sure is one hell of a ride.

American Honey is incredibly authentic, which is probably its defining characteristic. Every single character feels like a real person, and there's no cinematic artifice to be found at all. Moments of intimacy have an appropriate level of awkwardness, conversations between characters are grounded in reality, and most of the scenes almost feel improvised, which is certainly a compliment. With this film, Arnold has created what quite possibly could be one of the most low-key epics ever made, a marathon-length film defined less by its cinematic grandeur and more by a profound emptiness and a search for connection. In a way, it feels like a nice companion piece to Boyhood, an indie saga defined by its focus on individual moments. But the fact that Arnold can bring those singular scenes together to form a grander statement on youth and hope makes American Honey all the more impressive.

Arnold's direction is subtly spectacular, never feeling too showy or ostentatious despite a few visual quirks. Her movement with the camera is excellent, panning across the landscapes of the American Midwest and focusing on each beautiful little eccentricity or strange oddity. Arnold captures the scenery with a magical emptiness, which gives the film both a melancholy sense of desperation and an alluring optimism. The unique 1.37:1 aspect ratio limits the frame to a certain extent, but Arnold still manages to find so much to capture and concentrate on. She finds love and happiness in the small things, and it's made all the more impressive by the fact that it feels so natural. Nothing in American Honey feels mechanized or fake- it's all coming from a place of genuine love and intrigue, which is so unusual in today's cinematic world. She has created a raw and essential portrait of a place and a group of people, bolstered by an incredible soundtrack and some stellar direction.

Arnold receives a big boost from her cast as well, which is filled with mostly unknown actors. The story behind the movie is that Arnold found most of these actors on her own, approaching them on the street and casting them in the movie. Her greatest discovery is unquestionably Sasha Lane, the enigmatic and radiant center of American Honey's universe. Star is both relentlessly romantic and deeply damaged, which Lane is able to convey at pretty much every turn. You can see the pain, the anguish in her eyes, but her smile and cheery optimism masks it well. Lane is terrifically paired with Shia LaBeouf, who along with Riley Keough is one of the few professional actors in the film. After years in the Disney/Michael Bay universe, LaBeouf has finally come into his own as an actor, delivering a great performance as a character that perfectly utilizes his gruff charisma and humor. Jake feels like a loose cannon and a born liar, but he's so likable that the audience never turns on him, a testament to how good LaBeouf is in this film.

American Honey is sweeping and compelling, a fresh and exciting take on the intricacies and depth of the American Dream. But did it really need to be almost three hours long? I feel like that's up for debate. The lengthy runtime allows for Arnold to delve deep into the world of these characters, but it also feels excessive at times. There's some fat that could be shaved off, and while the epic length certainly makes the film feel unique, it also strains the audience's attention through repetition. It's the same issue that Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann runs into, although Honey's length problems are slightly more pronounced. The film remains fascinating and engaging for all 163 minutes, which is hugely impressive, but there's a case to be made for a shorter version being more effective. Nonetheless, this is really the only major problem that this film runs into, and it's overshadowed by just how wonderfully joyous the film can often be.

American Honey may be too meandering and esoteric for some tastes, but it's a film that should speak to everyone (especially young people) on some kind of level. It has a universal message that is as essential and important as anything you'll hear in a film this year, and it made me so ecstatic to see it come to life in this gorgeous film. Led by the sensational performances of Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf, American Honey is a wonderfully crafted movie for the moment, a story of desperation, dreams, and poverty that is as hopeful as it is desolate. It may be a tad obvious, but there's a reason that "We Found Love" is the anthem for this film. American Honey is a nearly three hour long epic about finding happiness in the hopelessness, and to me, that's something worth celebrating.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.7/10)

Images courtesy of A24

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Trailer for Gore Verbinski's 'A Cure for Wellness' is beautiful, bizarre, and terrifying

Gore Verbinski may have recently been sucked into the Disney machine, but the director didn't start his career with the Mouse House. Verbinski began his career with the family comedy Mousehunt, Brad Pitt vehicle The Mexican, and The Ring, which later became a cult horror classic. His career changed in 2003 with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the first installment in the epic franchise that quickly became a cash cow for Disney and Johnny Depp. The Pirates series has quickly become synonymous with Hollywood "sequelitis" and excess, which makes it easy to forget how great Curse of the Black Pearl is. Verbinski's follow-up efforts, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, had their own unique virtues, but none managed to top the simple swashbuckling charms of that original film. Verbinski has had opportunities to stretch his imagination outside of the Pirates series with The Weather Man and Rango, but in 2013, he was brought back into the world of Johnny Depp for The Lone Ranger. The infamous fiasco was both a box office flop and critical failure, and oddly enough, Verbinski has not made a film since. However, that will change next year when the director returns with A Cure for Wellness, a mysterious new horror film. Check out the first trailer below!

I had no idea that A Cure for Wellness existed before late last week, but damn, this looks absolutely spectacular. There seems to be a hesitation in Hollywood towards big-budget horror films, and each year, I continue to hope that that might change. I have no idea what the budget is for A Cure for Wellness or if it'll change any long-standing Tinseltown trends, but it sure does look like a beautiful ride. This sorta looks like Shutter Island meets The Shining, and from this trailer, it's abundantly clear that Verbinski's influences are coming from a wide range of horror movies (there's a fun shot that looks like a homage to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead.) I love the cerebral nature of this trailer, and the concept that seems like a hodgepodge of Kubrick and Wes Anderson. Verbinski's latest is definitely giving off a horror vibe, but it looks so gorgeous and meticulous that I'm not even certain what to expect. We really haven't seen a horror film like this in a long time (maybe since Scott's Prometheus?), and the mystery surrounding this film will be fun to dissect. There's just so much to adore in this trailer, although I must say that it's a bit hilarious that it blends two of the most well-worn trailer tropes in recent memory- loud Inception "Braaaaaahms" and slowed down pop songs in a creepy voice. Nonetheless, I can't wait for A Cure to Wellness. This looks exceptional in just about every way.

A Cure for Wellness opens in theaters on February 17, 2017.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Monday, October 24, 2016

'The Accountant' review

There have been plenty of career turnarounds in recent years, but none more impressive than the one Ben Affleck has take over the last decade. After spending a lengthy period of time as a tabloid laughingstock (this culminated with Gigli and Daredevil in 2003), Affleck re-established himself as a director, a move that completely rejuvenated his career. Gone Baby Gone and The Town were great starting points, but Affleck emerged as one of Hollywood's finest with Argo in 2012. The Tinseltown-set caper was one of the most acclaimed films of the year, walking away with the Best Picture trophy (even though Affleck himself was snubbed in the Best Director category.) The superstar actor was back on top, and he had an infinite amount of directions he could take. He lined up a whole variety of directorial projects, but then Batman came along. When Affleck took up the mantle of the Caped Crusader for the newly minted DC Cinematic Universe, his promising new career took a slightly different turn.

Thankfully, Affleck has also continued to tackle some very interesting prestige projects, original movies from great directorial voices. He was utterly exceptional in David Fincher's Gone Girl in 2014, a magnificent thriller that proved itself to be one of Affleck's best movies. Affleck's next directorial effort, Live by Night, will hit theaters in December just in time for Oscar season, making it one of the most anticipated movies of the year. But before that, Affleck has teamed with Warrior director Gavin O'Connor for The Accountant, a Jason Bourne-esque thriller that is certainly one of the most high-concept films of the year. In this film, Affleck plays Christian Wolff, an autistic man who is also a mathematical savant and a trained assassin. Sounds like a lot of fun, right? Well, not really. The Accountant is a concept in search of a story, a wacky thriller that isn't nearly as compelling or enjoyable as it sounds. It's another disappointment in a string of early fall letdowns.

Christian Wolff is diagnosed with a unique form of autism at a young age, which causes him to have difficulty socializing while also displaying special cognitive skills. Christian's parents are told that he could be raised in a sensory-friendly environment that would help him lead a normal life, but his militaristic father (Robert C. Treveiler) rejects that idea right away. "The world is not a sensory-friendly place," he says, instead opting to train Christian in the art of self-defense. The family is quickly divided by his father's tough love style, as Christian and his brother's mother leaves them at a young age. Christian and his brother travel the world, gaining experience in obscure martial arts and honing their self-defense skills.

Later in life, Christian (Affleck) is working as an accountant for ZZZ Accounting in Illinois. He's still a socially awkward person, but he's able to get by and handle his business. However, there's something strange about Christian's dealings. He has connections with some of the most dangerous people on the planet, which catches the eye of Federal investigator Ray King (J.K. Simmons), who is hellbent on catching him. Wolff is capable of uncooking the books for gangsters, assassins, and drug cartels before escaping without a trace, a skill that has made him very, very wealthy. When Christian is called in to uncook the books and find a missing sum of money for businessman Lamar Black (John Lithgow), he'll embark on a dangerous adventure that will lead him to some incredibly unexpected places. With the help of the mild-mannered Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), Christian will uncover a conspiracy and do his best to get them both out alive.

To be quite honest, with this synopsis I probably made The Accountant sound more coherent than it actually is. This film has an incredibly weak and flimsy story, a narrative that amounts to a whole lot of "Who cares?" The stakes are never clearly defined and neither is the film's main scenario. As the story progressed, I found myself asking "Why are they doing this?" and "Who's trying to kill who?" at pretty much every turn. The villains are weak as well, lacking any sense of showmanship or terror. I guess it's meant to be a surprise as to who the villain ends up being, so I won't spoil that here. But when you reach the final destination in The Accountant, I guarantee that you'll be disappointed. For a film that has clear Jason Bourne/James Bond aspirations, there's a surprising lack of fun and tension and a severe dearth of quality action scenes. Affleck's Wolff is a cold-blooded killer who takes out people with startling effectiveness, so it's a shame that we don't get the ludicrous action scenes that this movie deserves.

Instead, we're stuck with an incoherent, cookie-cutter plotline, and a bunch of characters that I didn't care about in the slightest. Seriously, I don't think I could explain why half of these characters are in the movie in the first place. J.K. Simmons' Ray King is probably at the forefront of the film's problems, simply because his story is both directionless and totally superfluous to the narrative. At first, you assume that King and Wolff will cross paths at some point- after all, that's usually how these movies work. But as the story moves forward, that never happens. Director Gavin O'Connor does a pivot and somehow connects Christian and Ray's past experiences together, hoping for some kind of symbolic statement on what Christian values in life. This would all make a little bit of sense if Christian and Ray met in the actual events of the movie, but they don't. Instead, I was left wondering why Ray was even in the movie. Anna Kendrick's Dana has a more explicit purpose in the film, but it's still a mystery to me as to why she disappears halfway through only to pop up again once all the drama is done. Her and Affleck's scenes together are some of the best of the movie, and I would have loved to see the two of them go through this buddy spy adventure. But in the end, that never happens.

The supporting cast is strong and prestigious, but they struggle with a difficult script at times as well. John Lithgow, Jeffrey Tambor, and Jon Bernthal all have substantial roles, and some fare better than others. Lithgow plays a robotics executive and does an okay job, but his character is majorly underwritten. Tambor is Wolff's mentor behind bars, the man who teaches him everything about the world of criminal bookeeping. It's a role that plays almost like a cameo, and while Tambor is solid as usual, it almost feels like a waste of his talents to be in this movie. Finally, Bernthal's character is almost entirely useless until the end, but the actor chews up the scenery, carrying a few scenes almost on his own. In terms of our lead trio, Affleck, Kendrick, and Simmons are all fine. Affleck is surprisingly convincing as Wolff, Kendrick gives off her usual dorky charm, and Simmons, well, he's J.K. Simmons. He's great.

The Accountant's murky, confusing story is a problem, but the bigger issue may be the absolutely ludicrous twists and turns that occur near the end of the film. I had read that there were some wild plot shifts during the final act, and yet I had no idea that they'd be this ridiculous. I'll try to avoid spoilers here, but The Accountant falls into the trap of trying to connect everything, which is still a baffling choice. One advertisement billed this film as "Jason Bourne meets The Usual Suspects" It's not that. This is not a mystery movie, and the fact that The Accountant plays out its third act like it's some kind of epic family saga makes no sense. These are some of the dumbest twists that I've ever seen, which is really saying something. They're the kind of revelations that will make you shake your head and laugh out loud, two things that you never want to do in an otherwise "serious" film.

Established as one of the major "prestige" options for this October, The Accountant instead emerges as a disappointing, absurd, and mostly tedious action film. The concept is great, but the execution is poor. It's easy to blame director Gavin O'Connor for this misfire, but I certainly feel that writer Bill Dubuque had a major role as well. No matter how you spin it, this is a movie that just doesn't work. Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, and J.K. Simmons are all solid in a movie that does them no favors whatsoever. A basic story riddled with outlandish twists and incoherence sinks The Accountant, despite a ton of raw potential. After good box office receipts, there's a chance for this to become one of Affleck's major franchises. If they do decide to create a follow-up, they're gonna need a much better story to make it work.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.5/10)

Image Credits: Joblo, Coming Soon

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sneak peek at 'Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2' teases one of summer 2017's most anticipated blockbusters

It's funny to look back at 2014 and remember that Guardians of the Galaxy was not considered a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination. It was Marvel's biggest gamble by a country mile, and after the surprise billion-dollar success of The Avengers and Iron Man 3, Guardians was a risky proposition that would test the brand. The cast of characters were relatively unknown and featured a talking raccoon and a giant tree, Chris Pratt wasn't a superstar yet, and James Gunn was a mostly untested director. But after a great marketing campaign led by one of the best trailers in recent years, Guardians of the Galaxy emerged as the must-see movie of 2014. Reviews were strong (91% on Rotten Tomatoes) and the film grossed $333 million in the US and $773 million worldwide. At the time, it was the eighth highest grossing comic book adaptation of all time. Marvel had firmly established its cosmic universe, and a sequel to Guardians was as inevitable as another Avengers movie. Three years and four films later in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Lord and the crew are back for Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2. Check out a sneak peek at the film below!

This is a pretty brief trailer, working more as an announcement trailer than a full-fledged look at the glorious return of the Guardians to the big screen. After all, James Gunn did say that this was just a sneak peek at a longer trailer that we'll see later. But what we have right now pretty much tells us all that we need to know- the Guardians of the Galaxy are back and better than ever. The use of "Hooked on a Feeling," which was the defining song of the original film's marketing campaign, is a nice touch, and the trailer gives us a nice look at each of the returning characters from the original. Pratt's Star Lord is roguish as usual, Drax (Dave Bautista) is blunt and awkward, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is taking down more bad guys, and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is blowing things up again. Oh, and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) is there too! How could I forget? This looks like a lot of fun, and while I'm still hoping that we get a better look soon, this sneak peek at one of next summer's biggest movies is more than sufficient for now.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 debuts in theaters on May 5, 2017.

Image Credit: Superhero Hype

'Moonlight' review

Note: This review is a re-publication of my review from the Toronto International Film Festival. Moonlight is in limited release now, and will expand nationwide in November.

It feels like nobody knew about Moonlight until a month ago. There had been whispers among some critics who got the chance to see it early, but the indie film was a relatively unknown quantity until A24 released the first trailer. Hypnotic, mysterious, and stunningly gorgeous, the preview for Barry Jenkins' second feature (and the first film developed in-house at A24) unleashed a wave of anticipation that hasn't stopped ever since. I had never heard of Jenkins before, nor had I seen his first film, Medicine for Melancholy (something that I definitely feel that I should rectify). But after watching that trailer, Moonlight instantly became one of the films that I simply couldn't miss at the Toronto International Film Festival. The buzz at the Telluride Film Festival (where Jenkins had been a volunteer for years) was deafening, and as Saturday night approached at TIFF, there was a feeling in the air that is almost indescribable. As the Winter Garden Theatre filled up with movie fans, stars, and industry insiders on a rainy night in Toronto, the room was electric. We knew that we were about to witness something special.

I throw around the word "masterpiece" quite often on this site, probably more than I should. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it's a bad habit of mine. Sometimes, if there's a film that I really love and enjoy, I'll call it a masterpiece just as a show of my support. Unfortunately, I believe there are times where I can get a bit overeager, deeming a movie to be a masterpiece without really considering all that means. In reality, that word has meaning. A masterpiece is what happens when all of the elements of film combine in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. It is not a common occurrence and something that I've realized that I need to take more seriously. Going into TIFF, I knew that I would see a lot of great films, but would I see any films that truly deserve such a meaningful title? If there was one, I figured it would be Moonlight. The film has been called a masterpiece by plenty of critics who have gotten the chance to see it, and thanks to its sterling reviews, this almost seems to be the general consensus.

And with good reason. This is an incredible piece of filmmaking. You will not be able to stop thinking about this movie- it has haunted my memory ever since I saw it. It is astonishing, it is heartbreaking, and yes, it is a full-blown masterpiece. But maybe most importantly, Moonlight is pure cinema. It is poetic and remarkably graceful, breathtakingly emotional without ever feeling manipulative. The storytelling is elegant and patient, but even more than that, the filmmaking on display is momentous. The performances are out-of-this-world, the cinematography is thrilling, the use of music is brilliant. Moonlight is a true piece of art, the rare perfect work that combines everything you want from a motion picture into one dazzling concoction. It's a vital, sensational, unforgettable movie, a film so essential and so terrific that it's difficult to put its genius into words. It's one of the best films I've seen in a very, very long time.

Based on the play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" by Tarell McCraney, Moonlight is the story of three decades in the life of Chiron. The story begins when Chiron is just a young boy (played by Alex R. Hibbert) growing up in a dangerous neighborhood in Miami. He's known mostly as "Little" and during his early days, he's befriended by a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who sees him as a lost soul in need of some help. Little's father is no longer around, and his mother (Naomie Harris) is a drug addict, so Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), take him under their wing. Time passes, and the young boy becomes a teenager who goes by his birth name of Chiron. As a teen, he's dealing with his newfound sexuality and the dangers of being a gay man in high school. And finally, the third chapter finds Chiron as an older man, known simply as Black (Trevante Rhodes). After a life-changing event, Chiron must come to terms with the course of his life and reunite with his past.

That's a pretty general synopsis of this movie, and to be quite honest, I wish I could be even more vague about the story Moonlight tells over the course of its 110 minute runtime. The less you know, the better. This is an entirely singular film experience, and I love the idea of somebody seeing it, having no idea what to expect, and being utterly blown away. You're going to hear plenty of people comparing Moonlight to other films (Richard Linklater's Boyhood chief among them), but I think that diminishes the unique power of Jenkins' triumph. Moonlight is a monumental achievement, a gorgeous, dreamlike portrait of the life of a beautiful, troubled soul. From the opening frame to the mesmerizing final shot, Moonlight is completely spellbinding. I cannot say enough good things about this movie.

It took Barry Jenkins eight years to make his sophomore feature after his acclaimed debut, but after seeing it, all I have to say is that I really, really hope that it won't take another eight for his third. With Moonlight, Jenkins proves himself to be a filmmaker of immense talent, a director with an uncommonly good visual eye and a knack for gentle, rhythmic storytelling. The film opens with Mahershala Ali's Juan parking his car on the side of the road (accompanied by a great musical cue), and when he gets out to meet a friend, the camera circles around the conversation for one single shot. It's such a dizzying, brilliant way to draw the audience into the movie, and Jenkins doesn't stop there. His work with the camera is impressive, but never gimmicky, fitting the mood of each shot with poise. Every frame feels absolutely essential, and it's amazing how well Jenkins nails the tone and feeling of each scene. He's a major talent, and if he doesn't get a Best Director nomination this year, there's no justice in the world.

Oh, and did I mention how beautiful this movie is? James Laxton worked as the cinematographer on TuskYoga Hosers, and Camp X-Ray- nothing that would indicate that he could deliver something as jaw-dropping as this. Moonlight is soaked in stunning colors and alluring visual contrasts, giving it the feeling of an exquisite painting. The entire film has a blue hue (which makes sense given the thematic connection), and the disparity between the grainy, brutal reality of Chiron's world and the calm, smooth world of Miami is amazing. It would be one thing if Moonlight was just a great film to look at, but it also has one of the most haunting scores in recent memory. If you've seen the trailer, you've heard it already. The aching pain of Nicholas Britell's score permeates every scene of Moonlight- through those mournful violin chords, you can hear the tragedy, feel the loss of love. Jenkins never abuses the brilliance of Britell's score, nor does he emphasize it during the most intense moments. Instead, it underscores the entire work, only adding to the artistry of the film.

The cast of Moonlight is equally outstanding, and they deliver such raw, nuanced, emotionally resonant performances that I have to imagine awards recognition is in their future. Chiron's evolution is the main arc, and we're treated to three stellar performances that capture his personality and soul at different times in his life. Alex Hibbert plays the young Little, and he's dynamic and captivating, often without ever saying a word. As the quiet, often terrified Little, Hibbert is able to convey so much pain and confusion with just a look. There's an unusual amount of reflection and contemplation in Hibbert's performance, and it's without a doubt one of the most stellar child actor turns in recent memory. Once Hibbert exits the story, Ashton Sanders takes his place as the older Chiron, amplifying his quiet reserve in a new way. Sanders captures Chiron at a point in his life where so much tragedy has already occurred, and there are no easy answers to the big questions that haunt his life. Like Hibbert's Little, you can feel the sadness and anger and turmoil in Sanders' performance, and I was simply blown away.

As Moonlight's third act arrives, Trevante Rhodes takes over the role of Chiron. And even after two incredibly impressive performances from two unusually terrific young actors, Rhodes steals the show. He's the breakout star of the movie, and if he isn't immediately scooped up by studios all over Hollywood, I'll be shocked. Rhodes represents Chiron at a point where he has internalized all of his conflict. He no longer wears his pain on his face- it's buried deep inside, underneath an iron clad exterior. So when Rhodes eventually breaks down, it's all the more wrenching to watch. It's sad to see Chiron transform into something that he knows he isn't, but Rhodes uses that to his advantage as the emotional moments arrive. The final third of Moonlight is probably the most impressive display of cinema I've seen this year so far, and Rhodes takes everything that McCraney and Jenkins give him and creates something sensational.

Moonlight is Chiron's story, but it's also the story of the people who shaped who he becomes as a man. There are so many excellent supporting roles in this film, and each member of the cast knocks it out of the park. Mahershala Ali could gain some serious traction for his role as Juan, the drug dealer who becomes a father figure for Chiron. Ali is soft-spoken and kind, a man devoted to the life of this young boy even though his profession is less than noble. His girlfriend is played by Janelle Monae, the pop star who is poised to have a breakout year with her role here and in Theo Melfi's Hidden Figures. Monae is the mother that Chiron really needs, and her tender, no-nonsense love is beautiful to watch. Naomie Harris is most likely to gain significant Oscar attention for her turn as Paula, Chiron's drug-addled mother. Harris is able to capture the tragedy of a woman trapped by her addiction, and although she's never a major part of the film, she's enthralling to watch. And finally, I was incredibly impressed by Andre Holland, who plays a character dealing with his impact on Chiron later in life. Holland's charisma and warmth shines through, and I would love to see him get more roles along with his co-stars.

The cast and crew behind Moonlight are invaluable to the success of the film. But the magic lies with the script, written by Jenkins and based off McCraney's play (who I imagine had quite a bit to do with the adaptation). This is simply a miraculous story, structured, written, and told with extraordinary skill. Jenkins' decision to tell the story in three definitive acts was an act of genius, and the way that the movie builds to an emotional payoff is devastating. Even Boyhood can't compare to Jenkins' treatment of the trials and tribulations of life, handled so delicately as the film explores the legacy of pain that can start in our youth. The tagline for Moonlight says "This is the story of a lifetime." It lives up to the title. It's the story of a young man coming to terms with who he is, who he loves, and the people and community who created him. And if it doesn't take your breath away, nothing will.

Movies don't get much better than Moonlight, an ephemeral, beautiful portrait of a life marked by love, loss, and tragedy. Any fan of film needs to see this movie, and I can't imagine anyone walking away disappointed. We don't see nearly enough films about the African-American experience, so it's a blessing that we have artists like Jenkins and McCraney to tell the stories that have been pushed to the side for too long. With Moonlight, Jenkins has crafted a universally appealing masterwork, a film that will be remembered for years to come. What else can I say? Just see it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A+                                             (10/10)

Images courtesy of A24

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Brutal and harrowing trailer for 'Logan' is a must-watch

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine might just be one of the most iconic casting choices in history. On paper, the 6'2" Australian actor doesn't share too many physical characteristics with the small-but-mighty character, but over the course of 8 appearances as Logan, Jackman has been simply terrific. The X-Men franchise is terribly inconsistent, making Jackman one of the few constants. However, as Fox prepares to take the X-franchise in a new direction and as Jackman approaches his 50s, it appears that Logan will be heading on one final rodeo before riding off into the sunset. After a cameo in last summer's X-Men: Apocalypse, Jackman will finish out his time as Wolverine with one final solo adventure. He'll be joined by Patrick Stewart, also presumably in his final appearance as Professor Charles Xavier. So far, Wolverine's solo outings have been less than satisfying. X-Men: Origins- Wolverine is one of the most despised films in the franchise, and while it received better reviews, The Wolverine didn't fare all that well either. Jackman and director James Mangold will have one more chance to get it right with Logan, which will be hitting theaters next March. Check out the first trailer below!

Set in the near future, Logan will center around a famous comic book storyline known as "Old Man Logan," which sees Wolverine's powers fading as most of the other mutants are dead. After the surprise success of Deadpool, Logan will receive an R rating from the MPAA, allowing Jackman's final ride to be as profane and grisly as necessary. I've been consistently let down by the Wolverine movies thus far, but if the trailer for Logan is any indication, I'm going to love this movie. Stewart and Jackman have been playing these characters for my entire cinematic life, and to see them going out with a movie like this will be incredibly sad. This trailer plays off that emotion, off the sadness of seeing Logan and Charles with nothing left to give. I absolutely adore the dusty Western landscape that Mangold has put on display, and the simple plot seems like a refreshing change of pace. I didn't have that much interest in Logan before, but now, this is without a doubt one of my most anticipated movies of 2017. I cannot wait to see more, and I'm fully expecting this movie to physically and emotionally destroy me.

Logan debuts on March 3, 2017.

Image Credit: Joblo

'13th' review

America has an ugly, brutal racial history. There is no way to avoid that. Slavery. Jim Crow Laws. Lynching. The Ku Klux Klan. These are disturbing parts of this country's past, and to skip over that would be wrong. It would be equally misguided to skip over the impact that these events are still having today. There is still a lot of work to be done, which is highlighted by the surge in police violence in recent years and the subsequent growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Ava DuVurnay's blistering, brilliant, eye-opening documentary 13th is the story of the creation of this modern society, specifically of how the passage of the 13th Amendment gave way to mass incarceration, a different kind of slavery. DuVernay's film (which premiered at the New York Film Festival and is on Netflix now) asks a fundamental question at the heart of the American system- "Why does this country have 1/4th of the world's prison population?"

It may be a simple question, but this is no simple issue. Over the course of this epic documentary, DuVernay creates a disturbing film that feels like a living, breathing chronicle of our pained past. The War on Drugs, the prison-industrial complex, specific clauses in the 13th Amendment, the Black Lives Matter movement, even the current election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump- it's all discussed in this phenomenal film. 13th is an urgent, topical piece of cinema, a meticulous history lesson that doubles as a movie for the moment. In a year where we've seen so much division and unrest (I'm from Charlotte, so I've seen this first-hand), DuVernay's film excels as both a sobering look at the systemic problems that plague our nation and an intense, passionate cry for change. It is a top-notch documentary, and one of the most important films of 2016.

13th comes at a critical time for America. People are very divided, seemingly over every issue. Civility has been thrown out the window. We just had a presidential debate last week where most of the time was spent on discussing a leaked audio of one of the candidates talking about how he sexually assaulted women. That same candidate has been running a disgusting campaign for months, preying off the paranoid fears of Americans and exploiting every possible minority in the country. People on the right are angry, and because of that anger, people on the left are mad too. It's a no-win scenario. Citizens feel like their voices are not being heard, and this is the result of years of frustration. But in the midst of all this mud-slinging ugliness, we've seemingly lost sight of a number of issues. Our attention has been so focused on the meteoric rise of a terrifying figure in American politics that other issues have only received brief coverage in the media.

DuVernay's film exists to start a conversation, to provoke thought and hopefully stimulate a thoughtful discussion on how to fix our broken criminal justice system. Because the system is broken. I don't think that any reasonable person would argue against that, which is proven by the fact that DuVernay has prominent figures from both sides of the aisle contribute to the documentary (one of the most surprisingly thoughtful interviews comes from Newt Gingrich.) So why is nobody really talking about this? Sure, the police shootings get coverage. The resulting protests and riots are all over CNN and Fox News. But by merely covering one aspect of a systemic problem, we're ignoring the issues that are deeply rooted in our society. Police brutality and racism is part of a larger system of oppression built on decades of mass incarceration and negative policy decisions. To ignore these issues is to ignore the problem.

We're in the midst of the second Civil Rights movement, which won't be slowing down any time soon. This is going to shift into some personal opinion, but when discussing this documentary, it's kind of hard to not find yourself injecting your own political views into the conversation. The first half of 13th methodically moves through the history of African-American oppression in the aftermath of the Civil War amendments, which has included everything from Jim Crow laws to the War on Drugs. Around the midway point of the film, DuVernay shifts the conversation to the modern day. The history is laid out simply and effectively, which makes the blistering takedown of the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration all the more astounding. DuVernay is careful and meticulous, delivering a steady stream of facts and information to the audience without ever going off the rails. It's a dazzling feat of documentary filmmaking, a movie that will simply knock you off your feet.

Why is Colin Kaepernick sitting down for the national anthem? Why have there been riots erupting all over the country? What is the cause of our modern situation and conversation regarding race? 13th answers these questions in the most measured way possible, all while managing a subtle undercurrent of anger. With this film, DuVernay has crafted a film for the moment (and the movement, as one Twitter user pointed out to me) while also delivering a masterclass in filmmaking. Other topical films like Spike Lee's Chi-Raq pale in comparison to DuVernay's epic, sprawling, and utterly outstanding breakdown of this broken, oppressive system. After breaking out in a big way with Selma, DuVernay proves that she's a versatile, effortlessly talented director with 13th, one of the most gripping and moving documentaries I've ever seen. She's always had an eye for social issues and modern injustice, but with 13th, DuVernay transcends film to create a living, breathing document of the past, present, and future of race in America. It's a stunning achievement.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.2/10)

Images courtesy of Netflix

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Trailer for 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' debuts final look at 2016's biggest movie

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in prime position to be the biggest movie of the year. After all- it's Star Wars, right? The first installment in Lucasfilm's attempt to expand the universe beyond the Skywalker bloodline is set to hit theaters on December 16, the same weekend that J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens hit last year. The seventh chapter in the Star Wars saga went on to gross a record $936.6 million in the US, and became only the third film to cross the $2 billion threshold worldwide. Much of that success has been chalked up to the film's holiday release, which allowed for a massive opening weekend and incredibly healthy legs. Gareth Edwards' Rogue One should have that same benefit, so why not expect another absurd success for Disney? Well, there are plenty of reason to be skeptical about Rogue One. Edwards and his team are wading into untested territory, and while the fan excitement is there, I'm not sure if general audiences are as pumped for Rogue One as they were for The Force Awakens. Mix that in with the talk of major reshoots and it's clear that there's concern in some corners of Hollywood for this film. Disney is going to have to sell this film, and late last week, they began their final push with a full trailer. Check it out below!

Look, I know all the rumors about the behind-the-scenes drama. I've heard the stories of massive reshoots, of nearly half the film being tinkered with. I know that some believe Gareth Edwards no longer has final cut, that Disney had to bring in Tony Gilroy to save the film. But after watching this trailer......I don't care. Good lord, this looks great. I've said that the December 16 release I'm more excited for is Damien Chazelle's La La Land, and while I stand by that, I'm beginning to feel much better about Rogue One. This trailer is utterly distinctive, filled with rich, luscious imagery and a gritty feel that is totally fresh to the Star Wars universe. Edwards' film looks brutal and rousing in equal measure, a true war movie that just happens to be set in the Star Wars world. We've been hearing about all of these things for months, but to finally see it coming together is magical. Felicity Jones looks excellent as Jyn Erso, Ben Mendelsohn is obviously going to be a stand out as Director Krennic, and the supporting crew looks great as well. I love the look, sound, and feel of this film, and I'm really hoping that it lives up to the hype. And if worst comes to worst, we'll still get a fight scene on an island in a Star Wars movie. That alone is worth celebrating in my humble opinion.

Rogue One hits theaters on December 16.

Image Credit: Star Wars

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

'Mascots' review

Is sports "mascotting" really a thing? Are there people who go to competitions and perform routines in big, sweaty suits? These are likely the questions that will be swirling around in the heads of audience members after watching Mascots, the latest film from Christopher Guest, the director of Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. Set around the festivities of the 8th annual World Mascot Association Championships, Guest's sixth film follows a group of oddball characters all competing for glory. They're pursuing The Golden Fluffy, the highest possible award of the sport, chosen by a team of judges (Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr., and Don Lake). Some of the men and women under the suit at this year's competition include married duo Mike and Cindy Murray (Zach Woods and Sarah Baker), British fan-favorite Owen Golly Jr. (Tom Bennett), bad boy Tommy Zucarello (Chris O'Dowd), the uber-dedicated Cindi Babineaux (Parker Posey), and the socially awkward Phil Mayhew (Christopher Moynihan). As the wacky competition unfolds, some will emerge as heroes and others will crumble in their pursuit of legendary status in the mascot universe.

And yeah, that's the movie. I'm not familiar with much of Guest's work, so I'm not quite as disappointed as others seem to be with this film. But it is a remarkably simple comedy, one that doesn't have much of a story or even any true sense of cohesion. It's a series of bits with mostly likable oddball characters. Some of those bits land, some of them fall flat. It's hit or miss, and there's never a consistently funny sense of comedic rhythm. Even as things pick up towards the end, Guest's film still ends on a relatively flat note. Don't go into this film looking for a satisfying narrative or any real sense of payoff- Mascots offers a series of laughs, and that's about it. The film is often clever, witty, and whip-smart, but it lacks the satirical kick needed to elevate it to another level.

Guest gets a nice assist from a terrific cast, all of whom are fully dedicated to their eccentric characters. It's a mix of relative newcomers and veteran actors, and they all work together well. Tom Bennett is the standout of the cast, bringing a warmth and clever humanity to Owen Golly Jr. Zach Woods and Sarah Baker have tremendous chemistry with one another, and it's always a blast to watch their sparring married couple. Chris O'Dowd has some funny one-liners as "The Fist," while Parker Posey's southern girl is a totally unique and often hilarious creation. Christopher Moynihan rounds out the mascot crew, and he hits the right notes as well. For me, the only weak links came in the form of the adults and judges. Guest tries to do some funny things with Michael Hitchcock's Langston Aubrey, but the jokes are few and far between. Bob Balaban is wasted, and while I could see where they were going with the characters, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley, and Don Lake fall flat as well. On top of all that, John Michael Higgins plays an executive for the Gluten Free channel, and it's a joke that sounds better on paper than in execution.

Mascots builds up a head of steam as it approaches its third act, which is where the actual mascot competition takes place. The finale is by far the funniest part of the film, a blend of ludicrous physical humor and just all-around ridiculousness. Moynihan's plumber has a dance routine with a walking piece of poop that is crudely absurd, a jaw-dropping scene that will leave you in stitches. Same goes for O'Dowd's bawdy, violent routine, which ends with The Fist flipping off the entire audience. The best scene is Bennett's high-wire act of a performance. a dizzying, crowd-pleasing burst of fun and optimism. Guest doesn't execute the mascot competition particularly well, settling for a random series of performances that don't really mesh together. But thanks to the talent of the actors and the insanity of the setpieces, the finale works.

Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot to recommend with Mascots beyond those climatic scenes. The initial acts have some funny moments forced out of just sheer awkwardness, but Guest is never able to connect with any of the themes or the characters. It just leaves you thinking that the film is overstuffed, spreading itself thin over multiple characters and subplots. Guest has some truly strong creations with Owen, Zook, Babineaux, and Phil Mayhew, but he throws in so many other characters, drowning out the people you actually care about. And in the end, you can't help but feel that the entire film is just kinda pointless. The award ceremony is mostly predictable, and Guest struggles to show that there's a reason for any of this. I get the whole "social outcasts united by a cause" thing, but when your movie just ends, there's no real poignancy or satirical edge that works.

Mascots is good for a quick laugh, but it's almost instantly forgettable, a hit-or-miss comedy that never manages to fully connect. As someone who is mostly unfamiliar with Guest's work, this wasn't the best possible introduction. There's plenty to like with Mascots- especially the performances of Bennett, Posey, O'Dowd, and Moynihan, and even some of the cameos from Fred Willard and Guest himself- but the inherent slightness of the film is tough to overcome. Simply put, any movie that leaves you wondering "Why did I just watch that?" isn't in great shape. There's a few big laughs and some memorable moments, but in the end, Mascots is a goofball comedy that isn't as effective or as ridiculous as it should be.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                            (6.1/10)

Image Credits: Indiewire, IMDB

Sunday, October 9, 2016

'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children' review

Tim Burton is probably one of the most enigmatic directors in Hollywood, and I'm not talking about the style or content of his films. He just has an incredibly strange filmography, highlighted by some great films and some huge turkeys. In recent years, Burton has been as inconsistent as ever. Big Eyes was a breath of fresh air, Alice in Wonderland remains a terrible big-budget action movie, Dark Shadows was a massive bomb in almost every way, and even though there was clearly love and care put into Frankenweenie, it came off as dull and forced. Long gone are the days where Burton consistently churned out cult favorites like Batman and Edward Scissorhands and critical darlings like Ed Wood. Now, a new Burton film requires a certain amount of guesswork. Will it be great? Will it be a total trainwreck? Who knows anymore, really.

Burton's latest is Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, and it definitely looks and feels like a film from the notoriously quirky and kooky director. In fact, I genuinely have a hard time believing that this movie was adapted from a novel. This feels like prime grade Burton, and there's so much material in here that fits right into his wheelhouse. It's almost as if Ransom Riggs (the author of the source material) wrote the book with Burton in mind, designing visuals and writing characters while thinking of what the iconic director could do with the material. And thankfully, there are some moments that are peak Burton in this film, sequences that illuminate his pop art sensibilities and his throwback style. It's just unfortunate that they're stuck in a film that isn't all that good, one that feels boring and sluggish even with all of its......peculiarities. There's some fun to be had with Miss Perergrine, but it's a mildly diverting Burton movie at best, and an inconsistent, convoluted, and tedious mess at worst.

Set in sunny Florida in the modern day, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is the story of Jake (Asa Butterfield), a shy teenager with a boring life and a ho-hum job. His shining light in life is his grandfather (Terence Stamp), who tells fantastical stories of a children's home that he lived in during World War II. One day, Jake's grandfather is killed- he finds him in the middle of the woods with his eyes missing. Jake is emotionally traumatized by this, and through several sessions with his therapist (Allison Janney), he realizes that the only way to move on is to take a visit to Wales in the hopes of finding the mystical home. His parents (Kim Dickens and Chris O'Dowd) reluctantly agree, and along with his dad (who only wants to go for the bird watching), Jake heads on a quest to find the children's home.

When he arrives in Wales, things aren't quite as they seem. Jake's dad is disinterested in helping him find the home, even encouraging him to go hang out with the other kids instead of continuing his search. Of course, Jake disobeys him. One day, he enters "The Loop," the mystical force surrounding the home. He goes back in time to 1943, which is where the Peregrine home is permanently located. Confused yet? Just wait. Jake meets Miss Peregrine (Evan Green), who tells him all about the wonderful world of the peculiars. Basically, they live the same September day over and over to avoid a bombing, which happened during the Blitz in World War II. Staying in The Loop also helps them fend off the Holos and Barron (Samuel L. Jackson), an evil peculiar who needs them to redeem his science experiment gone wrong. Along with his grandfather's old friends, Jake will face down Barron, who poses a greater threat than the peculiar world has seen in a long time.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is like a combination of Back to the Future, Harry Potter, and a classic Tim Burton movie. That sounds great on paper, right? It really does. The wacky, time-bending science fiction elements blend well with the school setting and Burton's decorative style, creating a film that is a beauty to behold. Everything about this film is simply sumptuous and delightful, a feast for the eyes and the senses. Colleen Atwood's costume design is excellent, Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography is top-notch, the set design is immaculate, and the visual effects work is innovative. I can't say enough good things about how brilliantly designed this movie is. Burton has created a stylish, unconventional piece of work, and I wanted to be drawn into the world of the movie based on the might of the visuals alone.

Wait. Pause. Did you read that synopsis that I wrote? Did that actually make any sense to you? Because I sure didn't understand it. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that as great as Miss Peregrine's Home looks, the story surrounding it is flimsy, convoluted, and just plain nonsensical. The complicated mechanics and logistics of the universe are a constant struggle, but the problems with the story extend much further than that. This is just a tedious sit at times, and as Burton and screenwriter Jane Goldman sluggishly moved their way through an endless array of exposition, I just wanted the movie to end. Like many other Hollywood blockbusters, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is clearly and obviously setting up a thousand different sequels and spin-offs. There's so much to set up that the story of the movie is never all that interesting as a standalone.

This issue is caused by a strange clash between the characters, the tone, and the pacing, three aspects of a movie that hold endless importance. For starters, the stakes of this movie are never clear. Barron wants the eyes of the peculiars to maintain his human form. Okay, got it. But as oddly intimidating as Barron is, Jake's chosen one arc feels one-note and bland- he's given an essential power, but he's just not all that interesting of a character. Nobody in this movie is all that interesting or likable really, which means that they amount mostly to a set of cliches and stock characters. The tone is inconsistent as well, flip-flopping between childish and humorous setpieces and gross violence with no real sense of direction. All of this is compounded by the fact that the movie is painfully slow, taking forever to get to the actual story before devolving into a lengthy chain of action scenes. I checked my watch more than I'd like to admit.

Asa Butterfield has been typecast over the years as "offbeat YA kid" and I don't know if he'll ever escape that distinction. He's great in Hugo and fine in Ender's Game, but I was really disappointed by his performance in this film. Butterfield's Jake like a shell of a human being, a sweet character who is never as interesting as one would hope. Jake fits the "fish-out-of-water" trope, but he never seems all that surprised by what's going on around him. It's a strange approach to the character, and Butterfield's delivery of the lines is shaky as well. Eva Green has done great work in bad movies before, but I wasn't a fan of here as Miss Peregrine. Green pumps up the quirk to a new level, and while there's a certain level of emotional connection between Peregrine and her children, it's never as pronounced as it should be. Samuel L. Jackson is the only one who seems to know what kind of movie he's in, while the rest of the kids don't do much of anything at all. Bottom line is that the cast in this one is merely okay. They seem to know that they're in a Tim Burton movie, but none of them really know what that entails.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a visual treat, a movie that proves that Tim Burton still has imagination and filmmaking ability to spare. But for all of its wondrous and strange charms, this hodgepodge of a movie is still severely lacking in the story department. With a plodding narrative, questionable logic, forced universe-building, and a mostly uninteresting cast of characters, Miss Peregrine's Home falls flat. I wanted this to be the wacky, populist return to form for Burton, which would prove that he's still a director who can deliver a unique big blockbuster. Instead, I got another dopey YA movie with only intermittent flashes of imagination. There's still some hope for the Peregrine universe in Burton's hands, but the franchise gets off to a rocky start with this overstuffed, mostly tedious affair. It may be peculiar, but that doesn't mean it isn't dull.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C+                                               (6/10)

Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Oscar Update 10/8/16- 'La La Land' leads; 'Live by Night' and 'Silence' join the race

The days of Toronto, Telluride, and Venice are long gone. New York just kicked off.

What's next for the Oscar race?

This is the question on everyone's minds as we enter the next stage of the awards season, a stage that will find Hollywood turning their eyes to the New York Film Festival and AFI Fest. New York opened last week with Ava DuVernay's critically-acclaimed documentary 13th, a scathing indictment of the criminal justice system (it's on Netflix now) and a new Oscar favorite. The festival will continue over the next few days with James Gray's The Lost City of Z (which won't hit until 2017) and Ang Lee's hotly anticipated Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. After that, AFI Fest will see the premiere of Warren Beatty's Rules Don't Apply, and there's the possibility that Allied and a few other favorites could premiere at the Los Angeles-based festival as well.

In addition to that, we're getting a clearer picture of what films will be debuting in limited release before the end of 2016. Ben Affleck's Live by Night was announced for an Oscar-qualifying run earlier this week, and it will be accompanied by Martin Scorsese's Silence, Peter Berg's Patriots Day, Mike Mills' 20th Century Women, and likely Theo Melfi's Hidden Figures. All of these films have a good chance to jump into the Oscar race, just like The Big Short and American Sniper did in years past.

But here's the truth of the matter- coming out of Toronto, Venice, and Telluride, we already have a pretty good idea of what will be contending for the big prizes. After impressive showings, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, and Jackie are here to stay. Some films changed the game, others bombed big time, but the picture is much clearer than it was in early August. As of today, here are my predictions for the main categories of the 2017 Oscars.


1. La La Land
2. Manchester by the Sea
3. Fences
4. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
5. Silence
6. Moonlight
7. Loving
8. Live by Night
9. Lion
10. Jackie

11. Arrival
12. Nocturnal Animals
13. 20th Century Women
14. Patriots Day
15. Hell or High Water

I said back in August that if La La Land ended up being as good as it looked, it would win Best Picture. Well, if early buzz is to be believed, it's living up to the hype. Damien Chazelle's musical is wrecking audiences- people are literally going crazy for this film. If there's no surprise contender that jumps out of nowhere, this will win Best Picture. I'm calling it right now. Manchester by the Sea has a chance as well, but I think that there's a better chance for Kenneth Lonergan's family drama in categories like Best Actor and Best Screenplay. Fences released a great trailer, and if Denzel Washington's adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play does well with critics, the Academy's diversity push could send this to the top of the list. I'm still uncertain about Billy Lynn, but we'll see soon enough- the film premieres at NYFF on October 14.

Silence is at #5 on the list, because you simply can never underestimate Martin Scorsese. His drama about Jesuit priests in Japan could be a tough sit for Academy members, but I think it'll make the cut. Moonlight is one of my favorite movies of the year, and if there's a comparison to be made, it's to Lenny Abrahamson's Room, which took the Academy by storm last year. Barry Jenkins' film is jaw-dropping and beautifully poetic, and there's no justice if it doesn't make the cut. Loving and Lion are both well-liked films, both of which will benefit from the preferential ballot system. Live by Night feels like a contender, simply because Warner Bros. bumped the release up so far in order to get this into the Oscar race. Affleck is a perennial favorite, and after his snub for Argo, he could find his way into the Best Director race as well. Finally, Jackie exploded at Venice and Toronto, making it a major contender in many categories. Fox Searchlight needs a new contender after Birth of a Nation fell flat, and this is it.

As of now, I have five movies that are just missing the cut. Arrival is being pushed hard by Paramount, but I don't trust the Academy with science fiction. Nocturnal Animals is a great piece of work, but it's too dark, brutal, and confusing for the Oscars. Plus, the word out of Toronto wasn't nearly as rapturous as the word coming from Venice after the film's world premiere. 20th Century Women has a real shot to invade the top ten, and I've heard so many great things about Mike Mills' latest. Peter Berg's Deepwater Horizon won't make the cut in any significant way, but Patriots Day has a real chance. The trailer released earlier this week is haunting and visceral, and this could be in the Oscar wheelhouse. And finally, Hell or High Water still has a very good chance to sneak in- it's one of the best reviewed films of the year.


1. Damien Chazelle, La La Land
2. Ang Lee, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
3. Martin Scorsese, Silence
4. Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
5. Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Bubble Line: Jeff Nichols, Loving
Ben Affleck, Live by Night
Denzel Washington, Fences

Damien Chazelle is going to win Best Director. I know that he would be the youngest winner in the history of the category, but after the one-two punch of Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle is Hollywood's new whiz kid. Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese are two of the usual suspects, and if their respective films are good, they'll snag nominations. Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is an achievement too impressive to ignore, and I hope that the Academy recognizes that. To round out the top five, Kenneth Lonergan will probably make the cut based on how well-liked Manchester is. This is a universally-adored film, and Lonergan will be recognized for his piece of work.

My feeling is that Jeff Nichols will miss the cut simply because of how understated his work is in Loving, while depending on the reaction to their respective films, Affleck or Washington could sneak in. But for now, I'm fairly confident in my top five.


1. Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
2. Ryan Gosling, La La Land
3. Joel Edgerton, Loving
4. Denzel Washington, Fences
5. Tom Hanks, Sully

Bubble Line: Michael Keaton, The Founder
Miles Teller, Bleed for This
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nocturnal Animals
Dev Patel, Lion

This is an unusually weak year for the Best Actor category, and unless someone surprises out of nowhere, Casey Affleck seems set to win his first Oscar for his beloved performance in Manchester by the Sea. Ryan Gosling, Joel Edgerton, and Tom Hanks are likely nominations, while Denzel is currently set as the wild card. If he stuns in Fences, Washington could be on his way to a third Oscar. As of right now, I have several actors on the outside looking in. Michael Keaton looked like a sure thing a few months ago, but I haven't heard much about The Founder in a while. It seems to still be in play, but will Weinstein push it? Or will he shift his attention to Lion and Gold? We really don't know.

Miles Teller could still get nominated for his work in the boxing drama Bleed for This, but the film had a muted reception at Telluride and Toronto. Reviews are okay, with many critics singling out Teller's performance as the best part of the film. He could sneak in if the situation works. Meanwhile, there's talk that Dev Patel could be campaigned in supporting for Lion, since his character apparently doesn't appear until later in the film. This seems like an odd choice considering how empty the Best Actor category is, but somehow, the state of the Supporting category is even more dire. So Patel's fate is up in the air. And finally, Jake Gyllenhaal could definitely enter the campaign for his performance in Nocturnal Animals, which is unquestionably a lead role (Amy Adams is the central character, but Gyllenhaal has more screentime). He's great, and I'd love to see a nomination for him.


1. Emma Stone, La La Land
2. Natalie Portman, Jackie
3. Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
4. Viola Davis, Fences
5. Amy Adams, Arrival

Bubble Line: Ruth Negga, Loving
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

While the Best Actor race is unusually weak, the Actress race is very, very strong this year. Emma Stone won the Best Actress award in Venice, putting her in prime position for a win in February. She looked like a sure thing for a few days, but once Jackie premiered, Natalie Portman changed everything. Her performance as a grieving Jackie Kennedy drew universal acclaim, thrusting Portman into the thick of the awards conversation. If she gains more momentum, she could be a true force to be reckoned with. Annette Bening is also gaining steam after the warm reception to 20th Century Women, where her performance is being singled out as one of the best parts of the film. She could fade, but right now, I think she's in the thick of the race. On the other hand, Viola Davis is in the same position as Dev Patel- she could go supporting or lead, depending on the state of the race. I have a feeling she'll shift to supporting, but she'll be listed in this category until we hear otherwise. And finally, after two great performances this year, Amy Adams has to get some kind of recognition. I think Arrival is her best bet.

Ruth Negga has a good chance as well, and if Davis moves to supporting or Bening's momentum tapers off, she'll be the first one in. Isabelle Huppert has a shot, but Elle is too dark, brooding, and disturbing for the Academy. Sony Pictures Classics is going to have a real problem with actually getting people to watch that one. On the other hand, Paramount will have no problem getting the Academy to see Florence Foster Jenkins. It's just a matter of the voters deciding that Streep's performance is so good that it warrants another nomination in such a strong year.


1. Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
2. Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals
3. Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
4. Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
5. Liam Neeson, Silence

Bubble Line: Steve Martin, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Jovan Adepo, Fences

This is another category that seems to be pretty light at the moment, with only Mahershala Ali and Michael Shannon standing out as sure things. Moonlight could get a broad range of recognition, but Ali seems like the movie's best bet, especially after his star turn as the villain in Marvel's Luke Cage. It'd be cool to see Andre Holland and Trevante Rhodes join the race as well, but Ali seems like the front-runner. On the other hand, Shannon delivers one of the best performances of the year as a grizzled, deadpan Texas sheriff in Tom Ford's slick thriller, and after years of stunning performances, he could be due. Jeff Bridges seems set for a nomination as well, and there are plenty of critics raving about Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea. Liam Neeson surprisingly only has one Oscar nomination, so if he's really great in Silence, there could be a "He's due" movement for the veteran actor.

The same could be said for Steve Martin, who has never even received a nomination. For some reason, I still feel shaky about the size and importance of his role in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, but we'll find out soon enough. Finally, Jovan Adepo has an outside chance for his role in Fences. He's highlighted in the trailer, and if he has a large enough part in the movie, Adepo could sneak in.


1. Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
2. Kristen Stewart, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
3. Felicity Jones, A Monster Calls
4. Naomie Harris, Moonlight
5. Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women

Bubble Line: Janelle Monae, Hidden Figures
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Elle Fanning, 20th Century Women

The supporting category is in flux because of the Viola Davis situation (there are also some rumblings about Annette Bening shifting to supporting), which means that Michelle Williams will continue to be the front-runner here. Her performance is slightly more divisive than initially thought, but this feels like her year. Kristen Stewart also seems like a sure thing for Billy Lynn (she has a really emotional moment in the trailer), and Naomie Harris is in good shape to be nominated for Moonlight. A Monster Calls feels like a movie that is right in the Academy's wheelhouse, and although it likely won't make the Best Picture cut, a great way to honor the movie would be a nomination for Felicity Jones' extraordinary work. 20th Century Women reviews dropped yesterday, and everyone is raving about Greta Gerwig's performance in the film. Her stock is steadily rising and she could certainly snag a nomination.

Hidden Figures is still on shaky ground at this point, but if the movie gets a platform release, expect at least a few nominations. With the one-two punch of this NASA drama and Moonlight, I think Janelle Monae is the film's best shot. Nicole Kidman could be in contention as well for Lion, and if the Academy falls hard for 20th Century Women, Elle Fanning has a chance to join the race.

After attempting to predict the screenplay categories back in August, I've decided that I'm going to hold out until we get more information. That race is unclear. I'll be back next week with another update after the New York Film Festival wraps up.

Images courtesy of Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions, and A24

Friday, October 7, 2016

'The Birth of a Nation' review

Note: This is a re-publishing of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation opens in theaters nationwide today.

So where do I start?

For anybody writing about Nate Parker's The Birth of Nation, in theaters nationwide on October 7, this is the question that comes to mind. This was always going to be a controversial film destined to spark debate, but the story has taken a dark, disturbing turn in recent weeks that has complicated things even further. The 1999 rape case, where Parker and Jean Celestin (his co-writer) were accused of sexually assaulting a woman during their time at Penn State, has come to dominate the conversation surrounding the film, overshadowing all of the Oscar buzz and topical themes that sparked excitement at Sundance. The case was always known by some insiders, but when Fox Searchlight tried to get the jump on the media speculation by having Parker conduct interviews with major trades such as Variety and Deadline, things took a rough turn. Parker appeared cold and inconsiderate during the interviews, emphasizing the emotional impact that the case had on him and how he had changed since that dark time.

The interviews were tough to stomach- no apology, no sense of remorse, nothing more than an acknowledgement that he had made mistakes. Then came the bombshell that Parker's accuser had committed suicide, seemingly as a result of the case that had haunted her for years. The news was shocking and gut-wrenching, and then the questions started to come in. Could we even watch The Birth of a Nation at this point? Would Fox Searchlight bother with a comprehensive Oscar campaign? Does Parker deserve our money and our respect? Can we truly separate the art and the artist? These questions are not easy to answer. And I'm not going to try to do that here. If you don't feel comfortable watching Birth, I can't blame you for that. It's tough to argue for watching a film from an individual who not only was accused of a heinous crime, but also seems to not recognize any of the harm that he caused.

But truth be told, I've never been one to boycott or avoid a film based on the actions of the people behind it. I still see Woody Allen's new movie every year, I'm certainly going to be checking out Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge, and I would be there for a new Roman Polanski movie. I've made a decision to separate the art from the artist, but if people don't feel comfortable with that, I understand. With all of this in mind, I sat down at the Elgin Theatre at TIFF to watch one of the most talked-about movies of the year. Would Parker be booed? How would the crowd react? Was the film over-hyped at Sundance? Did critics hold back on what they really thought? All of these questions swirled through my head as I attended one of the most buzzed-about events of the festival.

And ultimately, it was kind of a disappointment across the board. Parker was received warmly, the screening occurred without protests or problems (the real controversy occurred at the press conference the next day), and the film is just fairly mediocre at the end of the day. It's far from a trainwreck, but it surely isn't anywhere close to being a good film. Parker's debut is bruising and effective in a way, and there are plenty of moments that emerge as memorable (one scene involving force feeding is especially harrowing). Unfortunately, Parker has the distinct misfortune of following in the footsteps of filmmakers like Steve McQueen and Quentin Tarantino, who tackled the slavery issue in very different fashions with 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained, respectively. Parker tries to combine the two radically different tones in a meaningful way, but the result is a brutal slog, one that delivers all of the build-up and none of the payoff. He's got talent, but The Birth of a Nation is riddled with problems.

Reclaiming the name of D.W. Griffith's 1915 film about the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation tells the story of Nat Turner (Parker), who was behind one of the most famous slave rebellions in American history. From birth, Nat is told that he's a special young man. He's represented in the film as a sort of "chosen one" figure, the man destined to lead a rebellion. He's taught to read by his master at a young age, and as he gets older, he becomes a preacher for his master and former friend (Armie Hammer). But as he travels through the plantations of the south and witnesses the horror of slavery in various ways, Nat changes from a preacher to a revolutionary. He assembles an army and prepares to overthrow the system, intent on killing every person who stands in his way. And by orchestrating one of the most powerful rebellions in history, Turner etches his name into the history books.

Parker has a spectacular visual eye, but he is less adept at dealing with complex characters, tone, and pacing. You know, things that are kinda important. He's able to create a provocative, haunting, and sickening image, but he can't connect those various images into a cohesive whole. It's a problem that hangs over the entire film, and I think that audiences are going to have a really tough time engaging in Birth of a Nation on an emotional level, despite the passion involved with the subject matter. The only character that even comes close to registering on the emotional scale is Turner. Everybody else is just sorta there, and his relationship with the supporting crew is very loosely defined. There are plenty of secondary characters in The Birth of a Nation, but their individual stories and motivations are drowned out in the grand scheme of the story. Turner's love for his wife even struggles under the ambition of the movie, although there is one gruelingly terrific scene with her towards the end.

I think that there will be plenty of interesting discussions surrounding the use of violence in Birth of a Nation, and I don't know if there's a right or wrong way to feel about it. But ultimately, the simple fact of the matter is this- the scenes that detail the horrors of slavery have been done better in other films, and the scenes involving violent revenge and uprising have been done better in other films. That's a fact that I think is irrefutable. Parker is great at staging disturbing, gut-wrenching scenes depicting man's inhumanity to man, but he misses so much of the emotion. There's not a scene in Birth of a Nation that made me want to cry or weep- instead, they just make you want to throw up after a while. Now, nausea is an equally valid response to such chilling images, but I do feel like there's an emotional distance to this work on the whole that is disappointing. It's angry and passionate and infuriated, yet those emotions never translate to the audience.

This is an issue that stretches to the rebellion, which may be the most problematic aspect of the entire film. For one, what you've already heard is 100% right- the rebellion happens way too late in the game. The revolution occurs with around 20 minutes left in the film, and that doesn't give it nearly enough time to work in an effective manner. The first chunk of Birth of a Nation is stodgy and devoid of subtlety, but Parker keeps the audience engaged by the promise of a fulfilling and exciting rebellion. And that it just sorta happens? Yeah, you're not gonna get much satisfaction at all by the end of Birth of a Nation. Parker puts himself into a corner by starting the rebellion so late that by the time things actually get moving, the film has to wrap up at the same time. In the days since I saw this, I've been piecing together ways that I think Birth of a Nation could be improved, and I remain frustrated that Parker didn't make some of these realizations earlier.

If Birth of a Nation did away with 30 minutes of the setup, focused on the most potent story beats, and shifted the attention to the camaraderie between Turner and his fellow rebels earlier in the story, then we might have an entirely different story here. But in its current state, that is far, far from the case. Essentially, we get 90 minutes of okay setup before 30 minutes of a rebellion that feels dull and rushed. That's not exactly an appealing combination, even if there are some terrific moments spread throughout the film. Surprisingly, Parker's performance as Turner emerges as one of the better aspects of the first part of the movie. He has an instant likability and even though I'm fairly certain he'll never work again after this whole fiasco, he definitely has a movie star presence.

The Birth of a Nation can best be described as admirably flawed. Parker shoots for the skies with his debut feature, and he partially succeeds. He's an exceptional visual stylist, but frankly, I don't think he's much of a storyteller. He has so many interesting themes to deal with- the nature of violence, the power of uprising, the moral line between murderer and revolutionary- and he just chooses to ignore them. Even though it features its fair share of memorable moments, The Birth of a Nation is immensely frustrating and disappointing. People are going to want to see it to be a part of the conversation, but I think that most audience members will find a film with many elements that have been done better elsewhere.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.9/10)

Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures