Friday, December 2, 2016

Moonlight


**** out of ****

Moonlight is a three-part story about the childhood, adolescence and adulthood of a poor black male growing up in a section of Miami that is steeped in drugs and violence, while regularly suffering for being quiet and distant, if not for the fact that he is gay.

The first part is about him befriending a local crack dealer (the excellent Mahershala Ali) who becomes something of a sober father figure to a kid who has been given little guidance, encouragement or love. At the same time, the dealer struggles with the guilt of his chosen profession, which contributes to the decay that makes this kid’s life so tough.

As we skip to the teen years and then adulthood of our main character, we see how his formative years influence his need to survive as a man. It’s hard to write more about the plot, but I will simply say that this is a slow –yet hypnotically intense film that is captured with brilliantly planned sound and imagery reminiscent of films by Terrence Malick and Gus Van Sant.


With known talents like Andre Holland, Naomi Harris and the three actors playing the main character at different ages, the cast in this film does solid work. Writer/director Barry Jenkins deserves a lot of recognition for such an accomplished piece of filmmaking. Moonlight is easily among 2016’s best movies.

Allied


**1/2 out of ****

There are a strange amount of strengths and weaknesses to Allied, a spy/romance thriller set during World War II. For the most part, it’s a good-looking melodrama with some interesting plot twists (avoid seeing the trailer) while on the other hand it’s missing some essential elements necessary to emotionally engage its audience.

Steven Knight’s screenplay tells an interesting story about a Canadian spy (Brad Pitt) working for British Intelligence, who is sent on a mission to meet a French spy (Marion Cotillard) in Morocco, where the two will pose as husband and wife while tasked in the assassination of a German Chancellor.

This section of the story is all you should know going into the film, while the plot that follows has a way of unfolding that is best left for the movie viewing experience. This is an intriguing drama with a lot of good talent involved. So why didn’t I love it?

While a director like Robert Zemeckis, a man responsible for some highlight movies of my life, brings a lot of spectacle to this film (including some excellently choreographed action segments), some of it is phony-looking and costs the film’s atmosphere a sense of realism in places where it is needed.


The other problem is sadly another talent I normally admire: Brad Pitt. With certain exceptions, Pitt mostly has a gift for playing somber and reserved characters. Having him play a spy makes sense, but a spy in a melodrama? Mr. Pitt isn’t up for the task. While the filmmakers are doing everything to convey this character’s emotions, Mr. Pitt isn’t doing the same job. For me, this void hurt an otherwise strong film.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


**1/2 out of ****


At the risk of offending Harry Potter fans, my interest in author J.K. Rowling’s world is limited. My opinions can be written off since I haven’t read the books and my perception of her work through movies is most likely missing something essential, but I’m just here to write about how they’ve worked for me as movies –and where the new Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them fits in.  

After eight Harry Potter movies (based on Rowling’s seven novels) made Warner Bros. a fortune and most studios are trying to survive through the exploitation of their popular properties, the plea for the author to provide new material was certain. For now, we can be thankful that the movie business did not force a needless excuse to return to Hogwarts for more magical school shenanigans.

The Harry Potter movies were a mixed bag for me. They were launched at a time when studios felt enabled to emulate fantasy worlds through the boom of computer generated effects, which had gone from simply enhancing filmed content to flooding the average movie frame. Anything was possible but there was no guarantee that indulging this new hybrid of animation and live action filmmaking would have the same transporting effect as the fantasy movies that had come before. Regardless of so many advances, this continues to be the case. 

The storytelling in the Potter films was often bogged-down by action set pieces, which often left me trying to remember what was going on when the plot managed to get going again. I remember the fourth movie being so full of holes that I got into arguments with fans who said that I needed to have read the book, leading me to ask, “Then why make a movie at all?!”

Through the movies, I saw a fantasy world that didn’t have enough limitations to make me feel afraid for its characters. There were too many spells and powers that could turn around a sticky situation for me to feel like anyone was ever really in – or out of danger.

I admit that most of these criticisms apply to a lot of fantasy series’, including ones I love, but for the Potter films, it was always a little more noticeable.

What I liked about the films was how they offered an entire generation of kids the ability to grow up with its characters from the cute first entry to the serious finale. Their whimsical charm and atmosphere were rather winning as well -and felt inspired by the entertainments of Terry GilliamGuillermo del ToroTim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Just about all of that winning atmosphere survives in the spinoff prequel Fantastic Beasts and with Rowling working as its screenwriter with the best director of the Potter series David Yates at the helm, they brought to life a pretty admirable concept.

Different time. Different place. Different Characters. The film is set in New York during the 1920s as the world-traveling English wizard, Newt (Eddie Redmayne), arrives with a mysterious suitcase that is somehow harboring an excessive amount of magical creatures, which he is protecting and trying to return to their proper habitats. 

In a strange mishap at a bank, this case is accidentally switched with one filled with sample products by a lonely amateur baker (Dan Fogler) trying to get a loan to open his own business. When he gets home and opens the wizard’s case, several beasts escape, causing mayhem in the city. 

Meanwhile, Tina (Katherine Waterston), a magic government agent, takes Newt into her custody for breaking various American magic laws concerning the permission to bring mystical animals into the country and their threat in exposing the hidden world of witches and wizards. With an unrelated force of supernatural destruction taking place in the city, Newt is under suspicion for being responsible.

After finding the baker, the trio set out on a mission to find the beasts before more damage is done.

Fantastic Beasts takes a proper direction for the great amount of now grown-up Harry Potter fans by using adult protagonists in a universe-expanding story. Aside from my normal gripes about indulgent CGI and loosely defined magic rules, it’s a pretty fun story with amusing characters and a great atmosphere.

The film’s big problem is in its small story - that would have made a great pilot episode for a TV series - feeling so drawn out to fit a long movie. The film’s sense of pace is oftentimes awkward and the character chemistry isn’t developed enough to be worth some of the lengthy cartoonish scenes.

The obvious aspect of this film’s existence - and the likely sequels to follow, is that it is another maneuver by Warner Bros. to compete with Disney’s various successful franchises, by taking one of their successful properties and imitate the same universe-building business tactics. Compared to their wretched DC comics movies of late, Fantastic Beasts feels a little more inspired, but I could have done without all the deliberate loose ends and the famous actor cameo near the end, attempting to get me to come back for more.

I still truly miss a time when major studios could be content in producing a charming well-rounded escapist film that could exist happily by itself.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Arrival


**** out of ****


In a long history of films dealing with aliens appearing to the people of earth, something rather unique happens during the beginning scenes of Arrival. As television broadcasts reveal to everyone the twelve alien space crafts that have appeared in random places all over the globe, we don’t get a clear image of what everyone sees, we only get a long beautifully drawn-out take of people staring at the screen in disbelief. The big reveal of the ships is still waiting for the audience and when the film’s characters finally see a ship in person with unforgettable imagery accompanied by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s wonderfully eerie score, it is a moment that does not disappoint.

Without any surprise, director Denis Villeneuve does for a basic science-fiction premise what he did for his far-fetched crime/mystery film Prisoners, escalating typical genre norms with rich cinematic tones. Here, he brings all the scary wonder a gifted director could bring when imagining such extraordinary events to occur in reality.

Arrival generates the awe-inspiring atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, but manages to deliver a cohesive story free of needless action/horror and it stars relatable characters coping with the unbelievable in ways that emotionally involve us with the mystery they are trying to solve.

Amy Adams plays a linguist recruited to a team of scientists researching the ship floating above rural Montana, which, along with the other UFOs in different parts of the world, can be entered through an opening every eighteen hours. Inside, through a long tunnel, is a gigantic window where aquatic-looking creatures float in a thick fog while emitting indecipherable noises. 

The team's mission is to learn the intentions of the strange visitors. The linguist and a scientist, played by Jeremy Renner, begin to defy the regulations set by their superior (Forest Whitaker) in order to establish some level of communication.

The film really orients one’s mind with the daunting task of establishing dialogue with something that is not of this world. There’s no telling if an alien life form uses words, has emotions or even understands what a question is. While panic and hostile fear escalates throughout the world, the teams in each country communicate with one another in a struggle to understand the meaning behind the arrival. 

Just when I thought that good science fiction was becoming scarce, I finally started watching the TV series, Black Mirror. Between that excellent BBC invention and this film, I’m feeling pretty spoiled right now with material in the great style of The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone.

The screenplay comes from Eric Heisserer, whose resume of screen credits are so absorbed by sensationalist horror, it is a surprise that he worked from a story by celebrated science-fiction author Ted Chiang to give a thoughtful director like Villeneuve a mind bending fantasy about problem-solving.


Without divulging spoilers, one of this movie’s best qualities is in a tired cliché introduced at the beginning, which, until the amazing twist in the third act, seems like a weak aspect to the film. The ability to repurpose an old concept in a way that gives it twice as much weight is reason enough to celebrate Arrival as one of the best science fiction films of the decade.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Doctor Strange


*** out of ****

Producer Kevin Feige and Disney continue to run Marvel with the confidence and showmanship of a modern circus. They use a dependable model for making entertaining comic book adaptations and while the business of making an international box-office hit twice-a-year dictates their art, they don’t seem to be running out of ideas for how to deliver a new theme for the same old show.

Doctor Strange takes the universe already filled with superheroes and explores a secret human society of wizardry where a select group of brilliant human beings in different areas of the world have learned how to transcend space and time. Our title character has been waiting a long time to make an official cinematic appearance, especially for those who have known him since his comic book debut in 1963.

In this story, he is an arrogant surgeon named Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who loses his only sense of purpose after a car accident: The control of his hands.

Desperately searching for a cure for his problem, his journey turns into a world quest when he stumbles upon something unexplainable. Finding initiation in a Katmandu monastery, a mystical leader known only as “Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton) teaches him how to conjure powerful forces without physically using his hands at all.

In accordance with the genre, there is also a group of evil renegade sorcerers. The awesome Mads Mikkelsen plays their formidable leader on a mission to gain a forbidden power for which only the newly initiated Doctor Strange may be able to contest.

Aided by Wong (Benedict Wong), Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Strange’s former medical colleague Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Strange sets out to save the world in mind-bending action set pieces, which have almost as much awe-inspiring visual inventiveness as 1999’s The Matrix and 2010’s Inception.

I am still thankful that these Marvel movies continue to bring in unlikely directors. In the case of Doctor Strange, Scott Derrickson seemed like a gamble, given his dark filmography of varying quality, which includes the effectively creepy Sinister from 2012 and the abominably joyless 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Derrickson does an excellent job at finding ways to involve us with a cold-spirited protagonist on a journey to enlightenment. The film starts off with a dreary palette, but slowly brings about more bright and colorful sequences, which are rather mesmerizing. I only wish that the film would give its action a backseat to the plot at times.


What we have here is a typical Marvel action movie snack - but with a new flavor. The only problem is that this flavor is so alluring that I wonder what it would have been like as a full-course meal. This is the frustration that comes with the serialization of mainstream cinema: Future installments are inevitable, so why bother getting everything right? Like every entertaining entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, things feel as if they could use more development and clarity, but even the philosophical Doctor Strange can’t get that into itself.

Inferno


** out of ****

I watched The Da Vinci Code on a spring day in 2006, knowing that when it was over, I’d be carpooling a bunch of friends to a party a little way out of the city. One of the people I was picking up was a young lady for whom I had I bit of a crush. The problem was that The Da Vinci Code didn’t seem to end.

I impatiently sat through that convoluted excuse for a thriller, where characters spouted expositional dialogue that didn’t save them from their superficial development. In an era of gripping thrillers like the Bourne movies this film was trying to get similar results, but outside of this false cinematic context, it would have been perfectly fitting as a BBC miniseries.

The story’s mystery was eventually solved, the movie did end and I did go to that party - but the story of my love curiosity at that time never blossomed into anything worthwhile, just as The Da Vinci Code didn’t leave me wanting more.

2009 gave us Angels & Demons, a sequel that I skipped without a second thought. Until this week, I was so confident that I could avoid seeing another cinematic entry based on Dan Brown’s novels intended for those who like to live vicariously through a protagonist who is a little like James Bond but always has to visit museums in every exotic country he frequents while keeping things platonic with the select young lady who accompanies him on a mystery.

Starting next week, movies I want to see will start being released. For now, I have to review something.

I feel as if I’m awfulizing something that is actually watchable. This movie is more of the same, but feels tonally shifted. Director Ron Howard this time takes his chameleon abilities to channel the likes of Danny Boyle’s work with kinetic editing geared toward emphasizing psychological disorientation - which does work in the service of the story.

Tom Hanks’ Robert Langdon, who wakes up in an Italian hospital during the film’s beginning with no memory of the last forty-eight hours, is saved from an murder attempt through the help of a nurse played by Felicity Jones, who coincidentally is an incredibly educated follower of the world renowned “Symbologist” protagonist.

A plot unfolds revolving around the recent suicide of a population-control extremist (Ben Foster) who left behind clues to the location of an engineered virus capable of wiping out half the human race. Naturally, these are academic clues that Langdon can solve with the help of the genius nurse. While trying to recover his memory as mysterious agents follow their trail, Langdon struggles to understand what his involvement was with someone’s plan to release a plague and is unsure of whom to trust.

There are ridiculous plot twists aplenty and enough mini-lectures in moments of urgency to leave any rational mind uninvolved with the story’s believability. Still, the locations are grand and well captured. I get the sense that Hanks’ acting, Howard’s direction and David Koepp’s screenwriting are all working in the service of bringing some schlocky material to the screen in the best way they can.

While Felicity Jones is still one of the most emotionally limited of beautiful actresses to gain prominence in recent years, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Irrfan Khan and Sidse Babett Knudsen make up a nice group of international supporting players.

I still can’t get past all the talent involved in such a forgettable series. Hanks has been doing some of his best work lately and Ron Howard just released an excellent documentary about The Beatles. As long as studio-mandated franchises about symbols and the occult are being brought back, could someone please get Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman to finish the Hellboy trilogy?


I saw this movie after a long and tough day when it was nice to simply unwind in a movie theater. Without a party to attend after it was over, I didn’t feel like my time was terribly wasted.