Friday, January 20, 2017

Silence Review

It's my final review of a 2016 release before I give you my lists of best and worst movies of 2016. Not that I'm done watching movies from 2016 or earlier years. I think it's always good to go back to past years instead of only watching brand new movies. And I still might give you reviews of "Hidden Figures" or "20th Century Women" if I get around to them. But there's always a small handful of movies that get a limited release at the end of December and expand nationwide in January that I feel I absolutely need to see before creating my end of year lists and this year that included "A Monster Calls," "Patriots Day" and "Silence." Now that I have seen all three of them, and recently reviewed the other two, it's time to give you my review of "Silence," create my end of year lists, then jump into the 2017 releases such as "xXx: Return of Xander Cage" and "Split." As pertaining to the movie "Silence," this was the most anticipated movie of the year for many people, and for good reason. It's the return of Martin Scorsese in a movie that looked absolutely brutal and intense. Could it be 2016's "Schindler's List" or "12 Years a Slave"? Well, not quite. But it's still a good film worth seeing.

The interesting thing about the anticipation of this film is that the marketing here kinda killed the movie. Usually this is the type of movie that the studio and marketing team would be completely open about. The Oscar formula is to send the movie through the film festivals, give it early screenings to awards voters, release it on a limited front in December and expand it throughout January when Oscar nominations come out in order to get the box office. Instead of doing all of that, they kept this movie a big secret. They didn't submit it in any film festivals. They gave it no pre-sreenings to voters, thus making it essentially ineligible for all the early awards shows that can give movies momentum heading into Oscar season. There was even a significant period of time where we didn't even know if this movie was coming out this year. They finally made the release date official, but it was practically last minute. Thus they played all their cards wrong, killing all the awards potential and their box office. So instead of being like "The Wolf of Wall Street" in 2013, which was nominated for five Oscars and earned $116.9 million in the U.S., this may walk away with no Oscar nominations and less than $20 million at the U.S. box office. Ouch.

But I decided to be a good little boy and give the movie a chance, even if it seemed like Paramount themselves threw in the towel before the movie was released. And this movie really worked for me. For like 80 percent of it. If you're wondering what the heck this movie is about, it's a story where Spider-Man and Kylo Ren decide to team up and go on a journey to find Qui-Gon Jinn. Ha ha, sorry. I couldn't help it. Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson are just so freaking recognizable that I couldn't help myself. All of them do an absolutely fantastic job in this movie. Garfield and Driver actually play Catholic priests in the 1600's who go on a mission to Japan to find one of their fellow priests, who has gone missing there for many years. This specific priest, played by Neeson, was a mentor to both of them, or at least to Garfield. The issue here is that this is a period of time where Christianity was banned in Japan. And these Japanese people are absolutely brutal. If they find anyone who is Christian, they will force them to either deny their faith or torture and kill them. Yeah, not a super friendly environment to be in, but Garfield and Driver go anyways.

And holy crap is this movie brutal. Certainly not for the faint of heart. In many ways it does compare to "Schindler's List" and "12 Years a Slave" in terms of how hard it is to watch. Watching people get burned to death is uncomfortable. And so is watching them get slowly tortured in other ways such us dripping burning hot water on them, hanging them upside down for extended periods of time or essentially crucifying them in water. I won't go into any further detail than that, but the things that happen to people in this movie make you physically angry. And I think that was the point. Certain movies make a point to show how awful these situations were in order to display the reality of what people like the Jews in World War II, the slaves in the 1800's or the Christians in 1600's Japan actually went through. And these are the types of movies that that you are worth watching once in your life, but then calling it good. It's not like I'll ever just decide to go watch "Schindler's List" when I'm bored on a Friday night, but I'll definitely recommend it to people who have never seen it. I honestly think that's a movie that everyone, once they are a certain age, should watch at least once.

As I said, for most of this movie, it was on the level of a "Schindler's List." Our first major problem with "Silence" is the run time. It clocks in at 161 minutes. I'm not one to always complain at long movies as if it's inherently bad. I think the fact that we have increasingly short attention spans is a bad thing because sometimes you need three hours to give certain stories justice and many movies cut 30 minutes off their movie because they're too scared to have a long movie, thus compromising the film. But I will admit that if you are going to be 161 minutes long, you need to make sure that run time is justified and you better be able to keep people's attention for the entire time. The beginning of this movie did not capture my attention at all. Because they decided to take 161 minutes to tell their story, they felt like it was OK to ease into the story instead of jumping right into all the brutality of the situation. In theory this could work. But in this instance it didn't. I think they could've shaved 10-15 minutes off that beginning and it would've made the movie better. Once they got into metaphorical hot water in the movie, that's where things picked up and finally got interesting. But even so, I will fully admit that they could've also shaved off 20-30 minutes in the middle to end and also been fine.

I won't say too much about what happens to everyone once they get in trouble, but I was fully invested. I will say that Garfield and Driver get separated and we spend most of the movie following Garfield. And man, he gets stuck in quite the dilemma, which is where the movie get super interesting. He decides as a priest that if they torture and kill him, then he will die a martyrs death like Christ or the apostles and he's accepted that. But the Japanese are a little smarter than that. They don't keep him in great condition, but they start threatening him in other ways. If he doesn't deny his faith, they will keep hurting and killing everyone around him. I'm done saying stuff, but that adds new layers to this horrific tale and ends up saying a lot about personal spiritually versus organized religion. Not that it's anti one or the other, but the moral of this movie is very interesting and worth discussing with friends after you have seen it. I will briefly add that in order to be completely on the level of "Schindler's List" or "12 Years a Slave," there needs to be the emotional payoff or else the whole brutal journey is ruined. If I'm being honest, there came a point towards the end where I became crushed and angry. Then I had a period of reconciliation with myself and wasn't mad anymore. Thus there ended up being emotional payoff. It just wasn't as strong as I hoped it would be.

There's definitely a lot more than could be said about this movie and I am genuinely sad that Paramount and company played all their cards wrong and made it so this movie will be both ignored by Oscar and the box office. It deserves much more than $20 million or so at the box office (and that's being generous - it's under $5 million right now). Andrew Garfield gives a performance equivalent to that of his "Hacksaw Ridge" performance. Adam Driver and Liam Neeson give performances worthy of a supporting actor nod as do a few of the Japanese supporting cast. There's a lot of technical categories like visuals, cinematography and score that it could be awarded. I hope it sneaks in something. And I wouldn't even be upset if it had been given a best picture nomination. It's a worthy candidate. On a personal level I was bored with the beginning and not completely satisfied with the emotional payoff at the end, but there were points in the movie where I was thinking it could be my No. 2 movie of the year and I still think it's a movie worth seeing at least once. And it may be the type of movie that gets better over time as I think more about it. But as for now I will give "Silence" an 8/10.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Patriots Day Review

How about we take a trip down memory lane real quick? A trip to a rather devastating time in our country's history. On April 15, 2013, I was sitting on my couch watching Sports Center. At 2:49 p.m. Eastern Time, there was an explosion towards the finish line of the Boston Marathon. A block away and 13 seconds later, there was a second explosion. Chaos ensued. Over 250 people were injured and three people killed. Being that I was sitting there watching Sports Center, I got news of this almost immediately from ESPN and quickly switched over to CNN, where I was glued to my TV in shock as I witnessed all of this unfold. Here's a quick timeline of what I posted on my personal facebook about the Boston Marathon that week:

April 15:

"BREAKING NEWS: Multiple explosions just happened at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Many people injured. Oh my horrible!!!"

In the comments on that post after a couple of my friends replied:

"Yeah I was just watching Sports Center and it was reported live and is all over the news. They showed footage of the explosions and they were pretty bad. They don't have a ton of details right now but it appears that there were bombs hidden in the trash cans. At least two, maybe more. Live footage is chaos and a lot of people hurt, some people said they have lost limbs."

April 16:

"At times like this, I wish people would show some respect and actually put aside their political party instead of wanting to spit in the President's face when he stands up to give the people in Boston some words of encouragement."

April 19 (early morning I believe):

"Taking a friend to the airport at 3:30 (a.m.), so how do I spend my night? Watching the drama in Boston unfold on CNN. So far after police officer shot and killed, a carjacking, and a shooting or two, suspect number one in Boston Marathon Bombing is dead, say the police. Praying that suspect number two gets caught asap."

Later on April 19:

"They got him!"

Then shortly after, I quoted two statements from the Boston Police Department (I think they came from twitter):

"CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody."

"In our time of rejoicing, let us not forget the families of Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu, Krystle Campbell and Officer Sean Collier."

Yes, the Boston Marathon Bombing was a tragic event in our recent history and one of the worst terrorist attacks on our country following 9/11. But it was also an event that brought our country together, especially the city of Boston. In just four days, both of the suspects were apprehended and good prevailed over evil. Boston proved that they would not cower in the face of danger and became as resilient as ever. A year later, and every year since, the Boston Marathon continued bigger and stronger than ever. This is such an amazing story of unity and strength that shows how great this country is. More terrorist attacks and mass shootings have happened both in this country and around the world since the Boston Marathon bombing and in each case our country has united in faith and prayer, putting aside our differences and disagreements, to support the people in places like Paris and Orlando when tragic events have happened. It's at times like these when you are reminded that, despite all the horrific events happening in our world, there is still plenty of good in the world. In this ongoing battle of good vs. evil, evil may win some battles. They may instill fear in the hearts of the people and take some lives, but evil will not win the overall war. Good will prevail.

And now we have a movie. Because that's what we do in Hollywood these days. We turn all major events into movies. Yes, historical movies have been made since movies existed, but recently it's been an especially popular trend to make movies out of major recent news stories. Director Peter Berg has especially enjoyed doing these types of movies, using Mark Wahlberg as his lead star each time. I'm talking about "Lone Survivor" and "Deepwater Horizon" in addition to "Patriots Day." I don't know what to call this trilogy of movies by Peter Berg, or if he's even done making them, but it's been interesting. While not all of these movies in this trend have been a success and I am a bit weary of Hollywood getting too carried away with this -- I don't think it's necessary to turn every news story into a movie, Peter Berg himself has done a fantastic job. I loved both "Lone Survivor" and "Deepwater Horizon" and thus I was excited for "Patriots Day." While I think "Patriots Day" is the lesser of the three, I definitely think it's worth watching as it's another home run for Peter Berg. I'm genuinely curious what he has up his sleeve next.

I don't need to tell you waht this movie is about. You know this event and what happens. If you didn't, I practically spoiled the whole movie in my facebook timeline that I just posted to start this off. The bombing happens. The FBI declares it terrorism and takes over. The hunt to find these two people quickly begins and includes the shooting of an officer, a carjacking, shootouts with the police, one of the suspects being killed and the eventual capture of the second suspect shortly after he escapes. But obviously the point of the movie isn't to tell you a story you didn't know, it's to put you in the perspective of these people, the citizens of Boston, the two terrorists, the FBI and the Boston police. And it's definitely an interesting perspective. It's one thing watching everything happen live on CNN in 2013. But it's a whole experience being there with everyone in 2017 as this movie shows us firsthand what everyone on both sides were going through and it fills in the small details that you may have not been able to know just watching the events unfold on the news or reading about them in articles later on. Peter Berg handles everything with extreme care, delivering an excellent movie in the process.

Comparing this movie to "Deepwater Horizon," which was released back in September, I found it interesting how Peter Berg decided to construct each movie. In "Deepwater Horizon," Peter Berg decides to have the actual explosion occur at the climax of the film. While everything seems normal for all of our characters for the first half of the movie, we as an audience know that things aren't normal and thus the suspense continues to build throughout the run time of the film until suddenly everything goes boom and the last half of the movie is pure chaos and darkness. "Patriots Day" is constructed in a much different way. The character buildup is fairly quick and the bombing takes place in the first part of the movie, almost without warning. Which is exactly how it happened in real time. After several minutes of panic and chaos, which was super intense and graphic, things settle down a bit and the bulk of the movie is spent on manhunt finding these two terrorists. With the two movies being so close together in release, I did appreciate how he took a different approach to both movies as opposed to making the same movie twice with different events, which he could've very well done. Especially since we had Mark Wahlberg in the lead both times.

Speaking of Mark Wahlberg, I thought he did a great job in both movies. In my review of "Deepwater Horizon," I said he gave an Oscar-worthy performance that I hope gets him some awards recognition. It hasn't of course. "Deepwater Horizon" sadly has received zero awards buzz and neither has "Patriots Day." I do think that's a shame, but it's whatever. Comparing the two performance, I think "Deepwater Horizon" was the better performance for Wahlberg as in this case I will simply say he gives a good performance. And it might even slip over to supporting if it was getting Oscar buzz. I don't know if there is a lead role in this movie because there is quite the cast of individuals all getting an equal amount of screen time. Among those are John Goodman, Michelle Monaghan, Melissa Benoist, J.K. Simmons and Kevin Bacon. Plus a whole host of other names, big and small, all tag-teaming on different sections of this movie in order to bring this to life. If there was an award at the Oscars for best ensemble cast (I don't know why there isn't), this would definitely be worthy of that award. In these situations I have to give credit to our director for making it all work like a charm.

There's not much more to say here. As a while, the movie isn't quite as intense as "Lone Survivor" or "Deepwater Horizon." I wasn't in pure shock and suspense during the entirety of this film like I was for both of those. But I did think there were a lot of great moments in this film that were all tied together nicely in order to put this whole week into perspective, giving us a great narrative. And the manhunt was equivalent to a fun episode of "Criminal Minds" on steroids, being how large the team was in order to capture these two. It's possible that I didn't find this movie as suspenseful as the other two simply because I knew the story like the back of my hand due to me spending so many hours and days following this story, but I still think they did a solid job. I don't think every news story needs to be a movie. Whenever a big article comes out, the studios don't need to be fighting over the rights to adapt it into a movie and people shouldn't be doing heroic acts so that they can be portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in a movie one day. I'm fine with we never have movies about major events such as Paris or Orlando. But in this case I think everyone did a solid job. I'm giving "Patriots Day" an 8/10.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Jackie Review

The story of President John F. Kennedy is a rather intriguing one. If I'm being honest, I am no historian and thus I am the last person you should turn to for an in-depth history lesson on the Kennedys. But the basics of his assassination is definitely something that I think every American knows. The assassination of President Kennedy has elevated him to be among one of the most well-known and widely discussed presidents to ever take the Oval Office. But what would his legacy be had he not been assassinated? I know many people that think that he was already one of the greatest presidents, thus making his assassination even more tragic. I also know people that think he was an awful president that only became a hero because he was assassinated. If you want my opinion on that matter, well you're not going to get it. At least not here. Because this is not a movie about John F. Kennedy. In fact, this is not even really a political movie at all. This is a movie about a woman who was sitting in a car next to her husband when someone shot him in the head and killed him and how she dealt with that horrific tragedy. That woman is, of course, John F. Kennedy's wife Jackie.

First of all let me say that if you are wanting a movie that goes in depth about the assassination of President Kennedy, this is not your movie. That scene exists in the movie and I'll talk about it later, but this doesn't dive into the investigation of his death and all the conspiracy that follow due to the fact that the man who shot him was also shot shortly after. This is all about how Jackie dealt with the loss of her husband. Here was a woman who had pretty much everything she wanted in life. I mean, her husband was the President of the United States. He was far from perfect, but he was still her husband and she loved him and it was a great position to be in. But then in a moment's notice, all of that was ripped away from her and now she is left as a widow with two young children. I don't care who you are, the death of a husband is an awful thing for a woman to have to experience and I would imagine it would be especially tough if that woman really wasn't able to have a ton of privacy to mourn his loss due to her position. This is not an in-depth biopic of Jackie's whole life. In fact, this focuses mainly on that brief period of time between her husband's assassination and his funeral and what she went through during that time, which had to have been devastating.

Before I go any further into this review, allow me to add my voice to the long list of people that have been praising Natalie Portman. I haven't spent much time in my life listening to or researching Jackie Kennedy. Perhaps that puts me in the minority. I can accept that. But luckily there was an invention called YouTube that has like every video ever. After seeing this movie, I searched Jackie Kennedy on YouTube and holy fetch. Natalie Portman sounds exactly like Jackie Kennedy. She perfectly captured all her speech patterns, movements and mannerisms. Add to that much praise for the makeup, hairstyle and wardrobe departments for making Natalie Portman look like Jackie Kennedy. Yes, it's Natalie Portman's face. That's hard to hide since she's one of the most recognizable actresses in the business. But the rest of her is Jackie Kennedy to a "t." On an emotional scale, Natalie Portman also does a fantastic job of capturing the complexity of the situation for this woman. I'm sure she would've loved a lot of privacy to mourn the loss of her husband, but she wasn't really able to have much of that. Thus she had to balance trying to be elegant and composed while at the same time giving herself time to mourn. It was an all-around brilliant performance.

If we're making comparisons here, Natalie Portman's performance is definitely on par with that of Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln." Definitely an Oscar-worthy performance for Natalie. Does she deserve to win? Well that's a bit tricky. Her main competition will be against Amy Adams from "Arrival" and Emma Stone from "La La Land." That's a hard one for me to choose. I really want Amy Adams to finally win an Oscar, but I don't think it should be a lifetime achievement award, so to speak. "Arrival" wasn't even Amy's best performance of the year. Even though "Arrival" is the better movie, I think "Nocturnal Animals" was the better movie. And "La La Land" is my favorite movie of the year and possibly my favorite movie of the decade and much of that lies on the shoulders of Emma Stone, who is one of my favorite actresses. But if I am isolating the specific performance, I think Natalie Portman gives the best performance of the three. We'll see who rounds out the final five when nominations come out, but I don't think I'd pick Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Isabelle Huppert, Ruth Negga or Annette Bening, either. Give the Oscar to Natalie!

So yes, I've established the fact that Natalie Portman gives an absolutely phenomenal performance, but how about the actual movie she is in? Well, that gets a bit tricky. I think there are a lot of amazing individual scenes in this movie. Perhaps it's the journalist in me, but I loved the scenes where the journalist is interviewing Jackie. That was such a crazy interview and an interview like that would be an absolute blast to conduct. She was quite the character in that interview as she would say things and go off on an emotional tangent, but then she'd tell the interviewer that she didn't say that. Then there were times where she became the interviewer and started interrogating the journalist and asking him questions. Then she would state that she would be editing the interview to make sure the quotes are what she wants rather than what she actually said. It was quite the fun interview and the dynamic between these two. The other moments that I loved were moments between Jackie and a priest. This is where Jackie was able to pour her whole soul out and express how she really felt without the pressure of her statements being published or broadcast to the world. Combine the journalist and priest scenes and you have quite the character study here for Jackie Kennedy that makes you really appreciate how she handled this horrific situation.

In addition to those scenes we would jump to the scenes showing the drama that happened directly following the assassination and all the decisions needed to be made for the funeral arrangements. There was also the difficult task of telling her two kids that their father had just been shot and killed and thus wouldn't be coming back. How do you do that? Then we have flashbacks to her time with her husband before he was killed, showing their relationship instead of just her telling the journalist or the priest about their relationship. And of course we do show the assassination scene, which is absolutely brutal. Seeing the actual live coverage of the assassination that we actually have is brutal enough, but this movie portrays it up close and it's extremely graphic and hard to watch. It adds a lot of weight to what Jackie went through as we see her react to her witnessing her husband's brains getting blown out with blood going everywhere. So yes, there are a lot of individually fascinating sequences in this movie. But together as a whole I don't think all the scenes weave together super well. It was just a bunch of individual scenes randomly glued together with a soundtrack that got noisy at times and camerawork that framed everything in the dead center.

So I don't know what to do with this movie as a whole. I don't want to say it was bad. Because it wasn't. I sincerely believe that Natalie Portman gave a legendary performance that deserves the win in a very crowded race. And if you isolate all the individual scenes, the movie is a fascinating character study that dives into the life of Jackie Kennedy directly following the assassination of her husband. Given her situation, she wasn't allowed a ton of privacy and all things considered she handled it pretty well, but when she did get some privacy, those scenes are very powerful. But all these scenes with this fantastic performance weren't glued together very well. I found myself loving the performance and being intrigued by this character study, but I wasn't loving the movie as a whole. I've seen a lot of other biopics that work much better as a movie. The scenes didn't connect together super well and there wasn't a strong overall story arc. This should've been a much more powerful movie than it actually was. Giving one grade to this movie is hard. Natalie gets a perfect score. A lot of individual scenes and moments get a perfect score. But in grading the overall movie, I feel I can only give "Jackie" a 7/10, but one number doesn't do this justice, so take that for what it's worth.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Lion Review

I make it no secret on this blog that my favorite type of films are independent films. While I do enjoy myself a good blockbuster or a major studio film, it's these smaller films that make going to the movies worth it for me. The fact that these movies don't have a large budget and aren't even guaranteed to make much money at all means that the filmmakers have to focus on storytelling and acting to make a good movie as opposed to leaning on explosions, intense action sequences and fancy special effects like many blockbusters do nowadays. Thus with these independent films we are taken back to the good old days where they didn't have the technology we do know and thus had no choice but to focus on good storytelling and acting in order to make a movie. The sad thing, though, is that it requires a bit more searching to find these excellent independent films. It often requires going out of your way to hunt them down as opposed to just looking at what's playing at your local theater. That's why I'm always on the lookout for a great independent film and when I find one, I do my best to announce it on the rooftops so that you don't have to do the searching. You just have to find where it's playing. And I've done it again. "Lion" is an absolute gem that you need to seek out!

There's always one or two movies in the Oscar season that sneak into a bunch of awards races despite not being super well known to the general public. Last year that movie was "Room." I don't think many casual movie-goers knew much about "Room" until it showed up in the best picture nominations and started winning awards. I think that "Lion" is that movie this year. Oscar nominations are coming up on January 24 and I believe that this is going to make it in to several of the big categories. Yet I predict that many casual movie goers will look at that list and be like, "What the heck is 'Lion'?" Well, I'm here to answer that before that question comes up. "Lion" is a very heart-warming, delightful, emotional film that needs to be seen. I went into the movie completely blind as to what the movie was about, so if you would like to do the same, just know that this movie is fantastic and you'll love it. Feel free to exit this review and go see it, then come back and read what I had to say. If you need to know a little more about what this movie is before you go see it, you can look at the trailer if you so desire or you can finish reading this review! It's up to you!

As far as the premise goes, this movie has absolutely nothing to do with the animal. This is not a DisneyNature film about lions and there aren't even any lions in the movie. So why is it called "Lion"? Well, I'm not going to tell you. That's a bit of surprise, but it certainly makes sense once you've seen the movie. I will say that it is adapted from the book titled "A Long Way Home," by Saroo Brierley, which is a much more descriptive title to what actually happens in the movie. Saroo Brierley wrote that book about the story of his own life. In the beginning of the movie, Saroo is an absolutely adorable young Indian boy. And when I say Indian boy, I don't mean Native American. I mean a little boy from the country of India. Saroo, who is around five years old, and his older brother Guddu, who is between 10-15 years old, live in humble circumstances with their mother. They are so poor that Guddu helps his mother find coal to make money and Saroo loves tagging along with him, confident that he can do everything that his older brother does. During one of their trips, Guddu tells Saroo to stay on a bench while he goes off and does something, but never returns, thus Saroo becomes lost.

While I can't remember exact ages of the characters in the film, Sunny Pawar is the little boy that plays Saroo and he is eight years old. Like Jacob Tremblay in "Room," this little boy is phenomenal in this movie. He is able to perfectly encapsulate the emotions of a little boy who tragically ends up lost. The movie becomes even more tragic when he boards a train to sleep in, only to end up stuck in that train as it takes off, taking him a long ways away from his home with absolutely no idea how to get back as he's too young to remember the exact name of the city he lives in. Saroo isn't a quiet little kid. He's a very talkative little guy with a cute voice, but like every little boy, when you end up being around a bunch of strangers in a foreign place, you become scared and super shy. Thus making it impressive that little Sunny Pawar is able perfectly capture that wide range of emotion in a little boy. If we still had that best juvenile award at the Oscars, which existed from 1934 to 1961 and awarded the best actor or actress under the age of 18, Sunny Pawar would definitely be my choice. He's just so adorable and manages to pull have such an emotional performance with this tragic story that will make it so you definitely want to have your box of tissues with you as you watch this movie.

Speaking of acting, I knew that Dev Petal and Nicole Kidman were supposed to be in this movie. They have been getting a lot of Oscar buzz and, outside a major shock, will be given best supporting actor and best supporting actress nominations accordingly. The opening credits also claimed that I would be treated to another Rooney Mara performance. But as I was sitting watching this movie about this lost boy in India, I began to wonder where in the heck are Dev, Nicole and Rooney? I was excited to see all three of them knock it out of the park like they always do, but they weren't showing up. I suppose that's why Dev and Nicole are getting supporting acting buzz as opposed to lead acting buzz. But then it happened. I didn't keep track of how far into the movie we got before the three of them showed up, but it happened when we jumped 25 years into the future. I don't want to say too much about this part of the movie, but needless to say, Saroo never finds home as a young child and is instead adopted by an Australian couple. Yup. Nicole Kidman is his adopted mother and it's David Wenham playing his adopted father. Rooney Mara is Saroo's girlfriend when he's older.

Many critics who have seen this movie are claiming this is Dev Patel's best work to date. Don't tell anyone, but I haven't actually seen "Slumdog Millionaire." Long story. The short version is that I've been meaning to get around to it, but haven't done so yet. Until I see that movie, I probably can't judge as to whether or not "Lion" is his best work, but it's certainly the best that I've seen. While Sunny is able to perfectly capture the emotions of a young boy who gets separated from his family, Dev does a perfect job picking up where Sunny left off, this time as an adult who still hasn't found his family. There is a lot of bottled up emotions here with this character that opens the door and allows Dev to shine. With this later part of the story taking place just a few years ago (the movie ends in 2012), Dev now has technology like Google Earth that allows him to go on a search for his home, which leads to a lot of drama between him, his girlfriend and his adopted parents. Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara and David Wenham all give excellent supporting performances that really build up Dev's performance, making for a fantastic emotional journey as this man is still searching for his home.

There's a lot more to be said about "Lion," but given that I went into the movie mostly blind, I want to save the rest of this fantastic little movie for you to discover on your own as there are a lot of layers to this film with some great themes to discuss. But needless to say, this is an absolutely heartwarming, emotional tale that will leave you both crying and glowing in happiness at the same time. My hat is off to director Garth Davis as this is his feature-length directorial debut. Man, what a first movie. With the time jump as well as a cast full of young children, there's a lot of pressure on the shoulders of a director to make a movie like this work. You have to make sure you get the best out of the child actors and you also have to make sure Sunny and Dev are in sync with one another as to make it believable that they are they are playing the same character. I think Davis handles this with perfection and this I'll be on the lookout for what he has up his sleeve next. And of course a big round of applause goes to every actor in this movie for making this work. With "Lion" I feel like I found a hidden gem and thus I hope all of you make an effort to see it. I'm giving "Lion" a 9/10.

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Monster Calls Review

It was a bit of an interesting journey to theaters for "A Monster Calls." This is a movie that was initially supposed to come at the end of the October during a weekend with a total of five wide releases. Probably a good thing that it avoided that weekend. What they decided to do instead was release it at the end of December and submit the movie into the major fall film festival runs. That's the route most major awards contenders take, so it was obvious that the studio was confident enough to promote it for awards season. Following that, they decided to adjust one more time and make it's December release a limited release and expand wide in January. A move that should've optimized its box office potential, releasing in a less crowded January while still having it's qualifying awards season run with that limited release. Add to that the movie's nearly universal praise by everyone who saw it and you would think this would equate to major box office and awards season success, right? Well, not so much. Not only is this movie turning into a major box office flop, but it's getting zero awards season buzz outside a potential visual effects nomination. That's quite a shame because this movie is great. Now I have to defend this movie as potentially the most overlooked film of 2016.

"A Monster Calls" is the story of a lonely boy whose mother is dying from cancer. It's based on a book by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie. I have not read the book, but I have several friends who have and absolutely love it. So there's a strong recommendation there. But since I have not read it personally, that's as much as I will say about the book. What attracted me personally, outside some great trailers, is director J.A. Bayona. In January 2013 he released a movie called "The Impossible," which had a similar box office story to "A Monster Calls." It was released in 2012 on a limited basis and expanded in January. Despite great reviews and an Oscar nomination for Naomi Watts, the movie really didn't reach an audience as it had a domestic run of just $19 million, a total that looks like will end up being five times more than what "A Monster Calls" will make here. Interestingly enough, both movies have done great in Bayona's home country of Spain as well as in the U.K. But we sadly seem to not have taken to this guy here in the U.S. That definitely will change soon as he's signed on to direct the "Jurassic World" sequel. When that movies comes out, know that you heard it here first. Bayona is a master director that deserves your attention.

Thematically speaking, "A Monster Calls" is similar to another movie I reviewed recently called "Manchester by the Sea," which is actually getting a ton of attention from both awards ceremonies and the box office. "Manchester by the Sea" definitely is a far superior movie, but I would say "A Monster Calls" is a much more accessible film and is still worth your time. It's rating is a PG-13, albeit a very light PG-13. In fact, I went in thinking that it was PG and left thinking it was PG. It wasn't until a later discussion that I realized it was PG-13, which honestly surprised me. I suppose I can see why this got a PG-13, but if it were up to me I would say that content-wise this is essentially a PG movie. Now if you've ever lost someone close to you, whether it be a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, a child, a friend or someone else, you'll know that that's a rough thing to deal with regardless of your beliefs of an afterlife. Thus touching on this theme is tricky because it's a very sensitive subject for many. Both "Manchester by the Sea" and "A Monster Calls" deal with the subject in a very honest, yet careful way. "A Monster Calls" shows things from the eyes of a young boy who is in the process of losing the only person close to him. And yes, this movie will make you cry.

The title of the movie comes from this boy being visited by a tree monster voiced by Liam Neeson who is there to tell him three stories as he is dealing with his mother's continually deteriorating health. I don't know exactly what to call these visitations. I don't know if they are dreams or visions, per se, but this monster is definitely more of a psychological thing for the boy as it's not a real monster visiting him. But the movie is built around these three stories that the monster tells the boy. After which, the monster tells the boy that the boy needs to share the nightmare he has been having with the monster. I won't tell you what these stories are, but I will say that my reaction was quite similar to that of the boy's. And I think that was intentional for this movie. I was bracing myself for three super deep, thought-provoking stories that would hit me to the core and I got that in a way I wasn't quite expecting. The stories didn't make any sense at first. And they didn't hit me to the core. Not right away, that is. But I was patient with the film as I got the feeling that there would be an "A Ha!" moment in the film where everything made sense. But until then, I vowed to be patient with the film as I trusted Bayona and knew that everyone that has seen the movie has praised it.

The first thing that blew me away were the visuals in the movie. This tree monster is phenomenal. And quite terrifying at first. I suppose that's where part of our PG-13 comes in. The movie is almost set up like a horror film when it first introduces the monster. The tone is very dark, the score is a bit creepy and the monster is very ominous. The CGI is very realistic and impressive with this monster and the way it approaches this boy makes you want to yell at the boy to escape. But of course the horror aspect goes away rather quickly once Liam Neeson starts speaking because you know he's not there to harm the boy, but rather help him. But Liam Neeson's voice is rather perfect. He has a very distinct and impressive voice that fits this role perfectly. He sounds gruff and scary like a monster, but he also has a very wise and intelligent voice, which is why roles like Aslan in "The Chronicles of Narnia" and Qui-Gon Jin in "The Phantom Menace" are perfect for him. Liam Neeson is a man you don't want to mess with or make mad, but he's also the perfect wise sage that you would trust with your life when he's talking to you and giving you advice. This is another excellent role for him.

Speaking of excellent performances, everyone in this cast perfectly portrays the correct amount of emotion and in the perfect way. First and foremost, much praise has to go to Lewis MacDougall as this boy. Without the perfect performance from him, this movie wouldn't work as well. And by goodness does this kid rock it. The only thing on his resume previously is a supporting role in that awful "Pan" movie from 2015, so this was quite the find. I can't remember how old his character is supposed to be, but Lewis is 14 years old. And he does a great job of portraying the honest emotions of a young teenage boy suffering a loss like this. It's much more than tears and sadness. He reverts to seclusion and bottled up anger. He pushes people away. He won't let people help him. It felt like an honest, real, young teenage reaction, thus elevating the tragic reality of the situation. Then we have Felicity Jones as his mother. My goodness is this woman impressive. This is another fantastic performance following most notably that of "The Theory of Everything" and "Rogue: A Star Wars Story." She's the perfect, loving mother to this boy. You just want to break out and cry that the world of this movie is taking her away from the boy. He needs her. But he doesn't get her for long.

I don't want to dive into the end of this movie. I'll let you experience it for yourself. But as far as my reaction, I will say that the patience I talked about earlier does pay off. Everything comes together perfectly as far as these stories in relating to the events of the movie. In comparing this movie again to "Manchester by the Sea," Manchester throws the emotion at you right at the beginning, punches you in the gut in the middle and sends you reeling backwards throughout the whole second half of the movie. "A Monster Calls" acts like it is going to punch you in the gut at several times, but backs off until the final act where it delivers at absolute TKO. If you have lost someone you love, this movie will destroy you emotionally. If you are a human being with a heart, this movie also should destroy you. If you happen to walk out and announce that you were unphased emotionally, I will be convinced that you are a robot. That's how strong this movie is. It takes a while to get there, but it's worth the wait. "A Monster Calls" is not likely to make it on my end of year list, but that doesn't mean it's not worth seeing. This is a phenomenal, emotional film. I'm going to give "A Monster Calls" a 9/10.

Nocturnal Animals Review

"Nocturnal Animals" is a title that immediately jumps off the page at you. When I first heard about this movie close to a year ago, I was immediately intrigued and I knew nothing about it. It just sounded like a cool movie to see. When the time came closer to these Oscar movies and I learned that this was in fact a crime thriller of sorts starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, I was sold. It's the genre that I love most starring two of my favorite actors. What could go wrong? Well, not much actually. This is a solidly entertaining, thrilling movie definitely worth a shot if this is a genre you enjoy. It has received it's fair share of Oscar buzz, although this isn't the type of film that Oscar usually embraces, so I won't be too surprised if it comes up somewhat blank. It did get a surprise win at the Globes that I'll talk about later and a lot of love from the BAFTA nominations (9 nominations total), so that's good news. And yes, this is the final movie that I saw back in early December, which means we'll finally get to my January showings next. In this case I'm glad I gave myself time to think about this, because in addition to being a thriller, it's a movie intended to make one think.

Directed by Tom Ford, "Nocturnal Animals" is essentially a three-in-one-movie. It's a completely different genre and movie than "Inception," but "Inception" is the movie that I thought of while watching "Nocturnal Animals" due to it being a story within a story where the story within the story has consequences to what's happening in the present time, much like the dream within a dream idea in "Inception." Amy Adams plays a woman named Susan Morrow, the owner an art gallery. Despite being well-off financially, she is living a somewhat miserable life. Her current husband, played by Armie Hammer, isn't being super faithful and thus their marriage is deteriorating. Then one day she receives a manuscript for an upcoming book from her first husband Edward Sheffield, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. The book is dedicated to her and is called "Nocturnal Animals." So Susan sits down and starts reading this book, thus we are introduced to this story within the story. While we see this story play out, we also go back and forth from that to what is happening with Susan in the present day and we see flashbacks to the rise and fall of her and Edward's relationship.

A setup like this has the potential to get quite messy. Often movies try to do too much with their story and end up self-destructing because of it. The classic example of a movie that tried to do too much with it's story is "Spider-Man 3," which set up a ton of villains and way too many story arcs that all crashed and died. "Nocturnal Animals" doesn't suffer that fate and thus the credit for making this complex story succeed has to go to Tom Ford, who wrote, directed and produced the movie, which was adapted from the 1993 novel "Tony and Susan," by Austin Wright. Interweaving these three different storylines had to have been a complex writing and directing process, but it worked. There is equal weight placed on each of the three arcs and you slowly see how all of them tie together to make for one beautiful story. Had the movie just been this book that Edward sends to his wife, that could've made for an interesting movie in and of itself. But being that it's a book that Edward dedicated to his wife, you began to feel uneasy about this relationship between Edward and Susan as you spend the movie trying to figure out how this story relates to the present, what it says about their former marriage and what it means about Edward's plans for the future. Thus all three story arcs complement each other quite well and the movie wouldn't have as much weight if one of the arcs didn't exist.

That said, if I were to make a determination as to which of these story arcs was the most interesting, it's easily the story within the story. This is where the movie transitions from becoming a drama surrounding a woman and her failed love life as well as the consequences of that to being an intense crime thriller. This book that Edward has dedicated to Susan is rather intense story. Edward himself is the main character of the movie, but in the story his name is Tony Hastings, thus we have Jake Gyllenhaal in an impressive double role in the film. Tony is driving with his wife and daughter, played by Isla Fisher and Ellie Bambeer, down the highway at night when his car is forced off the side of the road by a car full of thugs who kidnap, rape and murder his wife and daughter. Thus Tony is left all alone in life. The story picks up a year or so later when the police finally find a lead in the case and detective by the name of Bobby Andes, who was assigned to the case, gets together with Tony to help pin down this group of thugs. Yeah, you can see why Susan is pretty unsettled with this novel that she's reading. What is the purpose of this novel? How is it going to turn out? Is Edward planning something crazy? How does everything tie into the present?

I'm obviously not going to answer those questions for you, but this interweaving story really had my undivided attention throughout the whole run time. Lots of praise has to go to this whole cast, which if you couldn't tell, is loaded with talent. The star of the movie is easily Jake Gyllenhaal, who one of these days has to stop being ignored by the Academy. He's one of the best actors in the business and has quite the diverse resume where he brings his "A" game in each role. As both Edward and Tony, he gives two very different performances that combine for one complex character who you both fear and feel bad for. Starring right alongside Gyllenhaal is Amy Adams, who I honestly think gives a better performance than she did in "Arrival." I think "Arrival" is the better movie, but I think "Nocturnal Animals" is the more complex, emotional performance that impressed me more. But I suppose I'm in the minority in that because her "Arrival" performance is the one getting her all the attention and should get her her sixth Oscar nomination. I suppose I can't complain about that. One of these days I hope she gets an actual win at the Oscars as she's 0 for 5 so far with her nominations.

Speaking of awards attention that this movie is actually getting, Adams and Gyllenhaal, barring a big shocker on nomination morning, will not be the ones recognized. It's the supporting actor category where this movie is getting recognized. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon are the two. Both of these fellows exist in the story within the story. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays our main thug while Michael Shannon plays the detective helping Jake Gyllenhaal's character. My personal favorite performance out of these two is definitely Aaron Taylor-Johnson. I had no idea he was even in the movie while I was watching and he definitely unrecognizable as this main thug. Yet I was loving his character. This dude was such a creepy, despicable human being. Probably one of the best antagonists of 2016. When the end credits revealed to me that it was Aaron Taylor-Johnson playing this thug, I was honestly floored. When he shocked the world and won the Golden Globe for best supporting actor over expected winner Mahershala Ali, I gave a round of applause. That's definitely the more deserving performance. I hope he gets the Oscar nomination, but if it's Michael Shannon instead, I won't be complaining. Michael Shannon's character was pretty boss and made some great decisions in the story.

As far as negatives for this movie, while I did think the present storyline with Amy Adams in the present was an important factor to the movie, I'm a part of the group of people who were disappointed in the resolution of that story arc. Going back to the "Inception" comparison, the movie gives us an ending similar to "Inception." In this case, though, I was hoping for a bit more. You have to sit there and draw your own conclusions and I was somewhat unsatisfied with this. I was expecting something completely different with the ending and I would've rather had my ending than the movie's ending. But that's all I'll say about that. I also was appalled by the opening credits. I've read Tom Ford's explanation about it, but in my opinion he could've done something a bit different and still sent the same message. It was completely unnecessary to the plot of the film in my opinion. I won't say what happens to avoid putting bad images in your head if you haven't seen it, but if you have seen it, I will just add that it had nothing to do with the shape and size of the individuals. But outside that opening scene and the final resolution, I think this is a solid film that's definitely worth seeing if you enjoy crime thrillers and complex stories that are beautifully told. I'll give "Nocturnal Animals" a 9/10.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Loving Review

Oscar season is in full-force right now and my goal is to get caught up with all the reviews of the major awards contenders that I have seen, but not yet reviewed. "Loving" is another movie that I made sure to see when it came out, but waited until now to give you my review for various reasons, the main reason being I was super busy in December and had to carefully pick and choose which movies to review. I decided it would be fine to wait until the awards season is in full force to give some of my smaller reviews. I hope I haven't missed my window with "Loving," because while it is a major contender in many categories, with all the intense competition, it very well end up on the outside looking in with many of these categories, which in my opinion will be a shame. It's better than it getting completely ignored, but I think this is a beautiful little film that deserves a bit more attention right now than what it's actually getting. I think the reason for that may be because of certain stylistic choices it takes that stray from your typical Oscar-bait formula. Personally I ended up appreciating the movie more because of those choices, so let's dive right into this review and explain why.

If you haven't heard of "Loving," this is a historical drama based on the U.S. Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia. I won't tell you all of the details of that case if you don't already know because I don't want to spoil the outcome of this movie, but needless to say this was a very important court case when it comes to marriage and civil rights. The movie begins in the late 1950's when a man and a woman fall in love and get married. The happy couple are named Richard and Mildred Loving, hence the title of the movie "Loving" and the court case, Loving v. Virginia. These are two people that really wanted nothing to do with the rest of the world, the press or politics. They just wanted to get married and live a quiet life together with their family. That's all. Why was this such a big problem? Well, Richard was white and Mildred was black. That was a big no no in Virginia and in many other states. Why? I have no freaking clue. That's just how it was. Interracial marriage was against the law. We look back on it today and it's quite laughable. Why can't a man and woman who love each other get married? Especially couples like the Lovings who just wanted to live a quiet life. What harm were they doing?

You can see that all the pieces were in place for this movie to be a loud, formulaic civil rights movie. And if they played the right notes, they could easily pull it off and have it be a contender for best picture like "Selma" was a few years back. "Selma" was a very loud, preachy movie with some in-your-face performances that made you take a step back and really think about things. Quite frankly I have no problem with those types of movies when they are done right. I love "Selma." But "Loving" doesn't take that approach at all. Instead of being equivalent to a loud sermon given by an animated preacher in front of a congregation, it's more like a good friend of yours sneaking in through your back door, sitting at your kitchen table and very quietly telling a simple story. And many times in life it's those smaller moments that end up making the biggest influence in your life. Sometimes it's the next door neighbor that inspires you more than the main pastor from the Church you go to. Sometimes it's your younger sibling that really makes you think instead of your parent giving you long lecture. And that's not taking anything away from the pastor or the parent, but "Loving" is like the neighbor or the sibling and that's why I loved it so much.

A lot of credit for this has to go to director Jeff Nichols, who I'm not super familiar with. But to be fair, he's only directed four other films before this and all four of them were pretty low key releases. Of the four, I have not seen "Shotgun Stories," "Take Shelter" or "Midnight Special," but the one I have seen of his is "Mud," which is a fantastic film that I love and own from 2013 that I think is criminally overlooked and underrated. If you've not seen "Mud," come over to my place and we'll have a movie night. Or watch it on your own. But it's a good one. After seeing "Loving" and thinking it's even better than "Mud," I do have a desire to search out the other three and pay more attention to Jeff Nichols in the future. He could've played all the formulaic notes and it could've been a good movie, but the fact that he decided to go with the more subtle route with this film, really impressed me. The main focus was not on all the loud Civil Rights stuff. Despite being in that era as the movie spans from 1958 to 1967, the focus here is 100 percent on this couple and their relationship. The major events that everyone knows are either inferred because we've told the story a hundred times or is shown on a TV in the background rather than being front and center.

With the movie being focused 100 percent on this couple, the movie could probably be classified as more of a romantic drama with Civil Rights undertones. As such, the weight of the movie is placed entirely on the shoulders of Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, who both give Oscar-worthy performances. Looking at predictions, it appears that these two are both on the outside looking in due to some heavy competition, but when I look at the best performances from this year that have been equally as praised, these two performances are definitely on that level. The romantic chemistry between this couple is flat-out perfect and they are portrayed as extremely humble individuals that no one in their right mind would want to do any harm to. I especially loved Joel Edgerton in this movie. If it were up to me to rank the major performances from this year, I would put Joel Edgerton just barely behind Denzel Washington and Casey Affleck, while being just ahead of Andrew Garfield and Ryan Gosling. I haven't seen Viggo Mortensen from "Captain Fantastic," so I can't judge. But this is definitely a performance worthy of recognition and I hope that one of them can sneak in a nomination.

What I really liked most about this couple is how they honestly came across as two people that really didn't want the spotlight at all. Sometimes a person will say they don't want the spotlight, but their actions show otherwise. This is a couple that when they first were arrested and eventually released, instead of fighting the unfair arrest, they simply submitted and moved because they weren't interested in causing a fight. When the lawyers eventually discovered their case, most people in their situation would've jumped for joy at the potential opportunity that was given to them. But these two didn't even want to do it. There was a lot of persistence on the side of the lawyers to be able to get this done. Mildred was the one who was willing to do interviews and make this move forward, but she was reserved about it and Richard essentially hated it every time the press or the lawyers came around. And everyone was on his side. That just blew me away. And then there's several moments where Richard just breaks down and sobbingly tells Mildred that he loves her and that he could be a good husband. You can tell that this is honestly getting to him and it was a touching performance that had me close to tears as I was watching.

This movie has performed decently well for a movie of it's size. It's nearing $10 million at the domestic box office, which considering how small of a budget and how few theaters it's been in is fairly impressive. But at the same time, it's the type of movie that has the potential to fly under a lot of people's radars who are more casual film fans as opposed to people like me who seek out all of these films. So here I am doing my duty to spread the word for this film. I've done the digging to search it out, now you just need to find where it is and go give it a shot. This has one of the best on-screen romances that I've seen, at least from this year. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga do a phenomenal job of portraying these two people who wanted nothing more than to live a quiet life with each other, but do to some injustices in our country back in the day, weren't allowed to. The movie is subtle and quiet. Because of that, it ends up speaking extremely loud in my mind and is probably one of my personal favorite Civil Rights movies. Because both marriage and racial equality are still very much a hot topic today, this is also a movie that manages to be impressively relevant despite not making any connections in the movie to the present day. I'm going to give "Loving" a 9.5/10.