Sunday, September 10, 2017

Review: It

Full disclosure here.  I knew NOTHING about the story of Stephen King's It until I saw this film.  I totally missed the 1990 miniseries and didn't really read any reviews leading up to this feature film adaptation.  Now I am well versed in the story of seven kids living in Derry, Maine who spend a Summer trying to ward off an evil force that manifests itself into both a killer clown and individual fears of each child it encounters.  The story is definitely creepy and classic King, but from what I've seen of the 1990 miniseries, the film adaptation of It (directed by Andy Muschietti) is clearly the more accomplished page to screen translation.

The real key to this film being a faithful adaptation and a watchable frightening experience, is the casting choices made by New Line Cinema.  Bill Skarsgard (yes, another son of Stellan) plays Pennywise, the creepiest clown since Heath Ledger's Joker who can morph into a variety of nightmarish shapes and has the dental makeup of a great white shark.  Appearing at various times throughout the film (usually proceeded by an ominous red balloon), Pennywise is the heart and soul of this horror tale and Skarsgard does a bang-up job by being equal parts jolly and terrifying.  His performance is so much more nuanced and effective than Tim Curry's in the miniseries version. 

Another great casting coup for this film was made in the kid-actor department.  Nearly all of the main seven child actors bring a sense of realism and authenticity to their roles.  The highlights lie in Sophia Lillis (who plays Beverly), a young actress with natural beauty and an eerie likeness to what we all imagine Amy Adams looked like as a child.  In-fact, after the film I found out Lillis is actually tapped to play a young Amy Adams in an upcoming HBO series.  Lillis plays the lone female character among six other boys and does a great job with a difficult role that features parental abuse and elements of bullying.  Finn Wolfhard also stood out to me as Ritchie (the comic relief character in King's novel).  Wolfhard is one of the leads in Stranger Things (Season 2 coming soon to a streaming device near you) and embraces the ability to spew rated-R dialogue in this role.  He delivers most of the quality laughs of this film and his delivery and cadence make him one of my favorite young actors working today. 

Speaking of the Netflix series, this film version of It is steeped in proper late 80's culture.  We see a lot of movie references of the time, a Street Fighter stand-up video arcade machine and several 80's music references including a nicely placed New Kids on the Block poster.   Taking a queue from Stranger Things, we seem to be getting a nice slice of 80's nostalgia and it's really a joy to take in as someone who grew up in that era. 

Overall, I really didn't find myself to be that "scared" by the film.  There are definitely some creepy elements, but a lot of the "terror" seemed more cartoonish than disturbing.  That's just a personal preference though.  I know a lot of people will get genuinely scared by this movie.  Some of the scares also got a bit repetitive as the film went on.  There's a lot to like here though and the performance of Skarsgard, Wolfhard and the other talented kid actors clearly make up for some of the low points. 

It seems as if It will help resurrect the dying box office (this Summer has been a real letdown for Hollywood in terms of box office grosses).  Like an emergency CPR maneuver, It ended up having a KILLER weekend, grossing $117 Million, the second highest weekend opening for an R-rated movie EVER.  So it looks liek we're definitely going to see the Chapter 2 sequel that is teased at the end title of this movie.  Go ahead and give this a watch in theaters, while not perfect it's a good horror film that will resonate with you for a while.  A solid 4 out of 5 JRs for It, a nostalgic look at fear and youth with a wonderfully whimsical killer clown mixed in for good measure.

NOTE 1:  With such a huge box office success, mark my word... Pennywise will be the #1 Halloween costume next month for boys/men age 14 - 40-something.

NOTE 2:  MoviePass is BACK.  I had recently unsubscribed from the all-you-can-watch movie service a few months ago.  The price went up as high as $50 per month.  MoviePass recently dropped to an amazing $10 per month and if you see at least one movie a month usually, this should be a no-brainer purchase for you.  Due to high demand, I still don't have my card yet, but once I get it, my movie watching frequency will ramp-up again.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Dunkirk + 17 Movie Ratings from 2017

Well, it's been a LONG time.  2017 has flown by and work has got in the way.  Therefore I have TOTALLY slacked on my reviews.  I've seen a lot this year and I really think the quality of movies in 2017 is much better than 2016.  I've given 4 perfect ratings thus far.  I'll give a quick review on one of those perfect films (Dunkirk) and then give ratings for the rest of the movies I missed covering on this blog.

Christopher Nolan is head and shoulders above the rest of the directors of his generation.  Following 2014's remarkable sci-fi Interstellar, his recent track record of excellence continues with Dunkirk, an experimental, immersive film that is light on both dialogue and plot, but original and rewarding in so many ways.

Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh as well as Nolan stalwarts Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy head up the cast of soldiers, commanders and townsfolk that all band together in an attempt to evacuate 300,000+ infantry from the beaches of Dunkirk, France back to safety in England during WWII before America's involvement.  All of the actors in this film do an admirable job, but this movie is certainly not a showcase for acting skills.  The heart and soul of Dunkirk is war-immersion.  From the opening sequence when gunshots ring out in a French village to the dogfight battles in the air, we are there with these young men.  Fast-paced and nearly all action, Dunkirk bring so much authenticity to the big screen.  Without a doubt this seems like the most realistic war film ever made and one that it is able to do so without the gore that brings with it an "R" rating.

This movie is so unique on many levels for a war movie and I feel that audiences will either love it or hate it.  My wife hated it.  She wanted more exposition, more story, more of what we get in recent war films like Hacksaw Ridge and Saving Private Ryan where we learn the back story of each key character.  This just doesn't happen in Dunkirk.  Nolan picks us up and drops us directly into the war.  The limited exposition in plot only accentuates how alone these young men are and Nolan allows us to experience these elements of survival first-hand. The large-format (IMAX 70mm) screen that Nolan prefers helps draw the audience in even further.  There is no escape for us.  In addition to the in-your-face visuals, Nolan also experiments in this film with the narrative, directing three acts (land, air, sea) and intertwining all three scopes throughout the film.

I was thoroughly engrossed in this movie from start to finish.  Dunkirk is a fine example of a master craftsman at the top of his craft.  Nolan uses different angles, practical effects, huge, epic, vastly-scoped sequences that are tailor-maid for the over-sized screen.  Huge ships sink, authentic planes tattoo each other with bullets, mass amounts of infantry scramble for safety as enemy bombers swoop in.  All of this is expertly accentuated with Hans Zimmer's pounding score.  Zimmer just completely gets his director's vision in this the sixth on-screen collaboration between the two.

If you haven't seen Dunkirk, go out and catch it in IMAX (I saw it at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum) before it's too late.  Don't go in expecting a story, just go in pretending that you are riding along with these young brave soldiers who are all acting on instinct.  The best takeaway I can give you after seeing this film is that Christopher Nolan was able to make bomber planes look so menacing in the skies that on the drive home from the movie I had actual tension when I saw a commuter jet flying my way.  Nolan allows you to experience WWII first-hand and leaves you existing the theater shell-shocked. 5 JRs for the best film of 2017 so-far and yet another gleaming gem in the crown of the most skilled director working today.

Side Note:  It's really interesting to notice the quirks in Tom Hardy's movie career.  In half of his last 8 films, Hardy has had his face obscured by some sort of mask/obstruction for part of the film (Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant *beard* and now with his airman mask in Dunkirk).  Hardy spends most of this film in a cockpit which hearkens back to his similar role as a man driving a car through the entire duration of Locke.

So many movies, so much work, so little time to write my reviews... What follows are my quick hit reviews and JR ratings for each one in chronological order of viewing:

Split - 3.5 JRs - Night is back with a satisfying twist for fans of his films.

A Dog's Purpose - 3 JRs - Good family film.

The Lego Batman Movie - 5 JRs - So much fun from start to finish.  Mass amounts of creativity.

Logan - 5 JRs - Best comic book movie I've seen.  Gritty, hardcore R and super entertaining.

Get Out - 5 JRs - Surprise of the year.  Wildly inventive and entertaining.

Kong Skull Island - 2.5 JRs - Great FX but the plot is messy.

The Belko Experiment - 3 JRs - Interesting concept, but feels like cheaply made.

Life - 2.5 JRs - Forgettable science fiction film.

The Fate of the Furious - 3 JRs - Just not feeling this franchise much anymore.

Alien: Covenant - 4.5 JRs - On par with Prometheus for me.  Not Ridley's best, but still very good sci-fi.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - 4 JRs - Funny, but not as good as #1.

All Eyez on Me - 4 JRs - I really enjoyed this as a Tupac fan.  Not for everyone though.

Cars 3 - 3.5 JRs - Better than #2 but not nearly as good or original as #1   I think this franchise is done.

Baby Driver - 4.5 JRs - Edgar Wright's opus.  A amazingly choreographed action movie with a spot-on soundtrack.  Ansel Eggort is great along with Foxx and Spacey.

The Beguiled - 3.5 JRs - Coppola's creepy take on feminism during the Civil War.

Spider-Man: Homecoming - 4.5 JRs - Nearly perfect.  Tom Holland is the best Spider-Man to-date.

War for the Planet of the Apes - 4.5 JRs - Epic battles and amazing special effects keep this franchise churning in a positive direction.

Hopefully I'll get more on track with reviewing films right after I see them.  I can't promise anything, but I'll do my best:)  As always, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Top 10 Movies of 2016 + 7 Bonus Quick Reviews

It's that time of year!  The Oscar nominations are out and I've completed my homework by seeing all nine Best Picture nominees.  I know you are all anxiously waiting THE LIST, but first let me give some really quick reviews on movies I saw over the holidays:


Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence didn't really seem to have great chemistry in this sci-fi snoozer.  Michael Sheen as the robot bartender may have been the best part of this film.

2.5 JRs


Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are at the very top of their game in a tour-de-force of acting in an on-screen telling of August Wilson's famous play.  This film is tense throughout and does a great job of portraying inner-city African American family life in the 1950's.  As good as Casey Affleck was in Manchester by the Sea, I think Denzel deserves the Oscar more for this performance.

4.5 JRs


This is the Jackie Kennedy biopic that none of us were really clamoring for, but director Pablo Larrain does a good job of chronicling the events of the early 1960's through the eyes of the First Lady.  Natalie Portman totally owns the titular role and her mannerisms and voice are spot-on in channeling Jackie O.  Despite Portman's brave and effective performance there's not much substance here to make this film reach that next level of excellence.

3.5 JRs


M. Night Shyamalan continues his resurrection with this interesting slice of crazy that focuses on the many split personalities of Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) who ends up kidnapping a trio of young women.  There are some mild scares throughout and whole lot of emoting from the expressive eyes of Anya Taylor-Joy (the girl from The Witch).  This is McAvoy's vehicle all the way though and he is super talented at playing a variety of characters.  If any of you are fans of Night's work, please contact me after you see this.  I REALLY want to discuss some big spoilers, but I can't address them here.  This is a good but not great movie and a slight step down from The Visit, although I can tell you with 100% certainty, NIGHT IS BACK!

3.5 JRs


Barry Jenkins joins the short list of young, talented Hollywood directors that have burst onto the scene in the past few years.  In his second feature film, he delivers a unique and powerful look at human self-discovery in a story of a young black man growing from childhood to adulthood in a tough neighborhood in Miami.  The acting in this movie is outstanding throughout especially Naomi Harris and Mahershera Ali, both of whom are nominated for Oscar.  Ali in particular completely nails his performance as Juan, a smooth drug dealer with an actual heart and passion for helping others.  The film is shot beautifully by Jenkins with a classical score that accentuates the drama perfectly.  The end of the film is not as strong as the first two thirds but that's a slight nitpick in an overall outstanding movie. This is a near perfect film in tone, visual theme, acting and music.  I was thoroughly impressed with Jenkins are a director and I can't wait to see what he does next.

4.5 JRs


The true story of an Indian child who gets separated from his family and subsequently adopted by a wealthy Australian family.  Twenty years later and with the advent and assistance of Google Maps, the boy locates his old village and attempts to reconnect with his lost family.  This story is worth telling on the big screen and there is real emotion throughout.  Oscar nominee Dev Patel stars as the older version of Saroo and gives an effective performance.  Nicole Kidman is nominated as well and gives a quiet, subdued turn as Saroo's adopted Mother.  This is a well made, well acted film that nearly missed my overall top ten for the year.

4 JRs

Hidden Figures

Another true story, retelling the lives of a trio of African American women who helped shape America's role in the space race.  Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, a mechanical expert who ends up programming one of the first IBM supercomputers.  Janelle Monae (a real find as a singer-turned-actress) is Mary Jackson, a high-level engineer.  Tajari P. Henson rounds out the three women as Katherine G. Johnson, a mathematical genius and human computer.  Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst give supporting turns in a movie that brings the decade of the 1960's to life and showcases some unsung American heroes who had to live through the obstacles of segregation in the South.  I really feel like Henson gave the best acting performance of the film but thanks to some crowded categories this year, she was left out of the Oscar hunt.  Spencer did get nominated but I feel she gave a slightly weaker performance.  Overall, this film was solid but I feel it came across as a mix of Ron Howard films in Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind.  Good but not great and I don't feel it's Best Picture worthy.

3.5 JRs

Now.... on to the list.  Note that I did not see everything this year despite seeing 53 films in theaters.  That's about 1 a week.  Moviepass helped with that but I'm thinking of giving that up in 2017.  Work is getting busier and I don't know if I can keep up this pace.  In reverse order these are my Top Ten favorite films of 2016.

#10 - Eye in the Sky

This film came out very early in the year but still resonates with me, especially since the brilliant Alan Rickman passed away just over year ago.  Rickman, Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul star in this cyber espionage thriller that focuses on a critical decision about whether to engage or not in the war on terror.  Drone technology plays such a major role in the film and ethical questions lead to an extremely tense final act.  This is one of the most intense films I saw all year.

#9 - Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson. Whether you reject him off-camera or not, you have to respect his innate ability to stage an epic war film.  In a unique spin on the conventional war movie, Gibson centers on Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) a pacifist who ends up enlisting and fighting in World War II, saving 75 soldiers in the process.  Garfield is humble and determined in the lead role and deserving of his first Oscar nomination.  I'm glad the Academy honored Gibson in his comeback directorial effort.  This was easily the SECOND best war movie of the year (more to come on this topic).

#8 - Fences 

As I mentioned earlier, Denzel and Viola are two titans of acting in this movie.  With simply a good story and no action or visual effects, this film/play has to be carried on the shoulders of strong acting.  Davis will deserve her Oscar (although she SHOULD be nominated for Best Actress and not in a supporting role) and I'm hoping that Denzel upsets Affleck.  Kudos to the supporting cast of (Bubba Gump) Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo and Stephen Henderson for adding character to the story.  Denzel's direction works and he cements himself as simply one of the very best actors in cinematic history.

#7 - The Conjuring 2

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga star in James Wan's follow up to the 2013 original (which I did not enjoy).  An offspring of The Exorcist, this movie explores paranormal possession in London, England.  This film was terrifying and spooky throughout thanks to a trio of evil adversaries.  The creepiest one being the Crooked Man, played by the tall skinny, strangely proportional actor Javier Botet.  Madison Wolfe is a revelation as young Janet Hodgson, a character you find yourself caring about as she experiences a world of horror.

#6 - Manchester By the Sea

The winner of the most depressing movie of 2016 goes to Kenneth Lonnergan's small town New England tale of tragedy and family.  Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a janitor who takes on new responsibilities as the guardian of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after the death of his brother. Michelle Williams earned another Oscar nomination for a couple-minute sequence in which she tries to reconcile with her ex-husband.  Affleck is very good and Hedges may be even better in his turn as a regular teenager adapting to difficult situations.

#5 - 10 Cloverfield Lane

Released very early in the year, this movie is all about the acting and charisma of one John Goodman.  If there's one actor that didn't get nominated for Oscar this year that deserved to, it's Goodman who gives his best performance of his career as a paranoid gun-toting psycho who goes toe to toe with Mary Elizabeth Winstead (and her expressive eyes) and John Gallagher Jr. in a bunker as the "end of the world" occurs outside.  The movie is totally tense throughout and this film might actually be number one on my list if it wasn't for the ridiculous final 10 minutes.  Bonus kudos to screenwriter Damien Chazelle (who I'll mention shortly) who helped pen this film.

I'd like to pause to state that numbers 1-4 on this list are soooo close together that I almost want to rank them 1 A,B,C,D.  These four films were all very good and while I think the movie crop this year was not as solid overall as what we had in 2015, this top four sits at a next level compared to the rest of the list.  

#4 - Moonlight

While some reviewers (*cough* Omar *cough-cough*) have claimed that "nothing happens" in this movie, I completely disagree.  We see a young African American boy grow through life and watch as he tries to come to grips with his sexuality and place in the world.  Wooden and stoic Remy Danton on House of Cards is so far from where Mahershera Ali's performance as Juan lies that it's a testament to the impressive range of the actor.  Ali shows compassion and heart beneath a tough bravado of an exterior. While the narrative slightly trails off at the end, the entire film is a work of art.  Any other year, Barry Jenkins would deserve the Best Director Oscar, but unfortunately for him this is the year of Chazelle.

#3 - Hell or High Water

A modern-day Western with some Breaking Bad DNA, this bank heist yarn is spun beautifully by director David Mackenzie.  Jeff Bridges (in a well deserved Oscar-nominated role) plays the gruff and tired Sheriff Marcus Hamilton, an aging authority of the law that won't retire until he finishes the current case he's on.  Ben Foster and Chris Pine excel as brothers / bank robbers as they move all over Texas and Oklahoma in an amateur spree of crime. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan follows up Sicario with this jewel of a story that showcases family bond and Texas justice.  Mackenzie paints all of this on a brilliant rustic canvas of wide-open plains, small run-down towns and farmland.

#2 - La La Land

Play this while reading this next paragraph:

Originally I had given this movie 4.5 JRs but I found myself thinking about it for weeks after seeing it and I've listed to the catchy soundtrack many times.  Therefore I've bumped it up to a 5 JR rating and it falls in this penultimate spot on the list.  Damien Chazelle is talented beyond his years and this film is his career masterpiece to-date.  Pulling off this large scale Hollywood musical is the best directing achievement of the year and he was fortunate enough to have Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling along for the ride.  The chemistry between the two leads is effective and Stone in particular comes across as genuine and charming.  Yes, this is another movie about Hollywood that the Academy is going to eat up later this month, but it simply is an extremely entertaining well made movie that plays against a lot of the cookie-cutter films we see churned out of Hollywood each year.  Chazelle uses choreography and color as tools to help assist with his storytelling and he isn't afraid to give us an unconventional ending.  Big props to Justin Hurwitz for crafting the movie score of the year, which is currently running through my head as I write this assessment.  Bum-ba-bum-ba-buh-ba-da-DA-dah....

#1 - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

I never thought that the spin-off Star Wars film scheduled for release in 2016 would (A) be better than The Force Awakens and (B) come across as such an epic war film.  Rogue One has some decent performances led by Ben Mendelsohn, Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, but this film is certainly not an acting showpiece.  What powers Rogue One to the top of the list is sheer spectacle of Gareth Edwards' vision of battle in the Star Wars universe.  The epic clash at Scarif that spans the final third of the film is simply the truest example of why we go to the movies.  Seeing it for the first time on the big screen my mouth was wide open in amazement.  This was the battle I had envisioned as a kid when I was playing with my Star Wars action figures.  Edwards took the DNA of George Lucas and executed it perfectly on a grand scale.  Yes, the movie is slow at times and some plot points needed more depth, but I was able to get past all of that and revel in the spectacle of a supremely entertaining Star Wars movie.  What sets this apart from every other film I saw is the care taken with tying this film directly to the events at the beginning of Episode IV.  The CGI insertion of the late Carrie Fisher was a nice finishing touch on a thrill ride of a movie.  The force is very strong with Disney and I can't wait to see what Rian Johnson pulls off with Episode VIII at the end of this year.

There it is, that's the definitive list for 2016.  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise:)  Stay tuned for the FOURTH annual ARCademy Awards with Omar Latiri over at Arts Review and Commentary.  Thanks for reading my blog over the past year and one of my New Year's Resolutions is to get back to more full reviews and less mini-reviews.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Reviews: Rogue One, La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge

I feel that I can definitively declare that George Walton Lucas Jr. is the individual who has had both the most positive and negative influence on the Star Wars film franchise.  Yes, he did give birth to all the characters, planets and concepts of the universe that has dominated science fiction for the past 40 years.  BUT, he also single-handedly gave us the episodes 1-3 prequels that should have been WAY more entertaining and polished than what they turned out to be.  Director Gareth Edwards throws a middle finger directly at Lucas with his epic Star Wars stand-alone masterpiece Rogue One.  The story of the rebels' plight to retrieve secret Death Star plans is a rousingly entertaining and enjoyable experience that culminates in the best 45 minutes of CGI wizardry I've ever seen on screen.  Disney has responsibly and effectively taken the reigns from George Lucas and it's undoubtedly the best thing that's happened in Hollywood in quite some time.

The general plot of the film is well known by Star Wars fans, but early-on in this movie, we meet the key players in the mission to retrieve the plans.  Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones - whom I feel is just a gorgeous and talented actress) is the daughter of a weapons expert who helped construct the Death Star under the guidance of Director Krennic (Bloodline's every-man Ben Mendelsohn).  She ends up being stranded as a young girl and looked after by rebel activist Saw Guerrera (Forrest Whitaker).  Meeting up with rebel captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a band of misfit mercenaries including an aging blind ninja-style assassin and his hefty warrior friend, the team steals a rebel ship they codename "Rogue One" and attempt to retrieve the plans left by Erso's father.  The movie starts a bit slow but picks up steam towards the end with the battle of Scarif.  All throughout we get a bit of comedy with K-2SO, a new robot in the vain of C-3PO that has a deadpan delivery and a clever sense of self-worth.  Like BB-8 with R2D2 in Episode VII, K-2SO is an improvement on it's original (and frankly out-dated) golden plated predecessor.

All of the acting is solid and Jones and Mendelsohn stand out in particular.  However, the real spectacle of this film lies within the battle sequences, carefully crafted by Edwards. This is no Transformers/Matrix hodgepodge of CGI clashes in the darkness.  Hell, even Edwards' Godzilla film featured mostly dark-lit combat sequences.  The battle of Scarif at the end of the movie is filmed gorgeously during the light of day on a beach-laden planet.  Stormtroopers and AT-ATs never looked better on screen.  There's something so satisfying as a life long Star Wars fan in seeing such a grand-scale all out war in this universe.  X-Wings and Tie Fighters darting around in a bright Earth-type atmosphere while giant rebels ships and star destroyers wage war against each other above in space.  Edwards simply paints the canvas with all out chaotic battles by using the camera as his brush.  It's truly amazing to witness on the big screen and if the Academy does not honor this technical achievement it will be a terrible omission.

What I experienced during the battle of Scarif was youthful joy pure and simple.  As a kid watching the original trilogy unfold, I kept thinking that these characters and vehicles of this world could be used again to entertain and engage me in future stories.  When the prequels were announced I got my hopes up that episodes 1-3 would be just that, bad-ass Star Wars films.  Unfortunately, Lucas disappointed but hope sprung up in me again with The Force Awakens.  Thankfully J.J. Abrams quenched my thirst with a very entertaining and well crafted follow-up last year.  Edwards has taken that progress and pushed it to 11 with Rogue One.  We FINALLY get a BAD ASS Star Wars film with rebels and imperial forces going all-out against each other.  The battle of Scarif makes the awesome aerial action at the end of ROTJ seem like child's play.  Huge Star Destroyers are crashing into each other.  Imperial walkers are attacking and crashing all over sandy beaches.  All of the epic mayhem is playing out on-screen with the same DNA of A New Hope (all of the ships and uniforms are spot-on in matching the design of the first Star Wars release in 1977 and the action looks "lived-in" like it really did occur right before Episode IV).  Add in the much-satisfying scenes with Darth Vader (including an amazing smack-down at the end of the film) and you get a movie-going experience that speaks DIRECTLY to the pre-teen Jordan Rose who was so enthralled with this universe during the original trilogy.  I especially enjoyed how the movie ends right where Episode IV begins.  You could almost classify this film as Episode 3.5.

This movie is not perfect, but it's damn near close to perfect and the second best Star Wars movie of all time after The Empire Strikes Back.  Yes, this is better than A New Hope and better than The Force Awakens.  5 out of 5 JRs for the most entertaining and satisfying motion picture of 2016.  Edwards has a bright future ahead of him.  He's only 18 days younger than me and he has probably earned the opportunity to be very choosy with his next project.  All I know is Rian Johnson has his work cut out for him in topping this one with Episode VIII next Christmas.  Thankfully, the future of Star Wars is so bright and definitely in the proper creative hands with The Mouse.

Damien Chazelle is Hollywood's new wunderkid Director.  At age 31 he already has a critically acclaimed gem under his belt with 2014's Whiplash.  With La La Land, he gives a throwback nod to the big budget Hollywood musical machine of the past and delivers a unique and enjoyable tale of love, jazz and life in modern-day Los Angeles.

This film is different right out of the gate with a carefully choreographed sequence in traffic on a Los Angeles highway where gridlocked motorists jump out of the cars and sing and dance with glee.  Chazelle gives us nearly a single take as the camera whips through traffic while we hear one of his original songs in a showcase of musical talent.  The choreography continues throughout the film as the plot centers on the relationship between two Hollywood dreamers in Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).  Both are struggling to live up to their childhood dreams in Tinseltown. Sebastian as a Jazz pianist (Chazelle once again focusing on this genre of music after Whiplash) and Mia as an actress.  They meet, fall in love and are faced with challenges along the way as we go in and out of various musical numbers and settings.  Chazelle is always innovating with his camera, adding in classic movie fades and dissolves while mixing in some technical wizardry (including an effective method of dimming all lights in certain scenes to focus on his two talented leads).  The music is good, but not great, although it's supremely impressive that nearly ALL of what we see and hear is the brainchild of Chazelle himself (his friend and composer Justin Hurwitz composed the amazing score and songs **give him the Best Score Oscar right now**).

This movie doesn't work at all without Stone and Gosling in the leads.  Their chemistry is so solid and they're both individually multi-talented in many aspects (singing, dancing, humor, looking good, etc..).  Stone in particular carries a lot of weight throughout and the fact that she delivers such a quality performance in this type of a demanding role puts her in the driver's seat as the front-runner for Best Actress.  The set design is top-notch and everything just looks bright and vibrant.  LA is painted as a living, breathing character on its own and this film comes off as a love-letter to the city as a whole.  It was helpful to me that I had just visited there a few months earlier and saw the majestic Hollywood hills views that Chazelle tried to convey on screen.

After this accomplishment, it's clear that Chazelle is the biggest prodigy in Hollywood right now.  In fact he began 2016 with writing the screenplay for another top ten movie of the year in 10 Cloverfield Lane.  His vision is unique and he's able to do amazing things with the camera. I just wish he would try to branch out a bit and helm a movie that has nothing to do with music (in fact, his third - and debut - directorial credit in 2009 is about a jazz trumpeter).   I can only imagine what he'd do with a dark drama or science fiction film.  Regardless of what he does next, he can hang his hat on La La Land, a welcome musical throwback that showcases two actors at the top of their game.  4.5 out of 5 JRs for one of the best movies of the year.  I have a feeling this is going to win Best Picture, but I really wish that the Academy wouldn't gush so much over every really good movie about making movies in Hollywood (The Artist, Argo, Birdman, etc...).  Chazelle for Best Director is something I can get behind though.

Mel Gibson makes a triumphant return to the director's chair with another epic battle film that falls in line behind Braveheart and The Patriot as a gripping authentic war movie.  Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Southern pacifist that enlists in the Army to help battle Japanese forces during WWII.  The movie starts slow and progresses through Doss'efforts to make it through basic training without firing (or touching) a rifle.  Doss meets and marries the beautiful Dorothy Schutte (the always easy-to-look-at Theresa Palmer) shortly before enlisting.  Schutte sticks with her husband through his various legal issues with the Army and eventually Doss perseveres and is able to be deployed overseas in battle.  This is where the film really picks up as Gibson is able to showcase the brutality of war and the total selflessness of Doss' actions.  There are numerous scenes that feature Doss saving soldier after soldier, lowering each one down over the ridge.  This all happens amidst a slew of violence that Gibson has so much experience with conveying on-screen.  It's truly a remarkable look at a real American hero and one of the better war films I've seen.  I really hope people can look past the fact that Mel Gibson is BAT-SHIT-CRAZY and perhaps the Academy can honor this directorial achievement with a nomination.  Garfield is really good as a green-but-eager young soldier.  His career seems to be taking off and I wouldn't be surprised if he has a handful of Oscar nominations in the next 5-10 years.  This film may be out of theaters by now, but give it a watch on video when it comes out.  I was thoroughly entertained and engrossed by Gibson's vision and I have to give this film a 4.5 out of 5 JR rating.

These last three movies that I've seen are all solidly in my Top Ten of the year so-far.  I still have a handful of films I need to see before awards season kicks into high gear early next year.  Moonlight, Jackie and Fences are at the top of the list and I want to give Passengers (J Law, C Pratt) a look-see as well.  Stay tuned for more reviews over the holiday season!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Mega Fall Mini Review (8 Films including Manchester by the Sea)

Sorry everyone, I've been pretty busy lately and haven't focused as much on the site.  I'm going to try to catch up quickly with a few rapid-fire short paragraph reviews of the last eight movies I've seen in the theater (in reverse order of viewing).  Thankfully we're starting to ramp up into Oscar season and STILL the best film on my list is Hell or High Water (now available on On Demand!).

Bad Moms

Mila Kunis and company decide to let loose a bit and fight against Christina Applegate and the perfect PTA Moms.  This movie was hysterical.  The funniest film of the year so far and the perfect showcase for the uber-talented Kathryn Hahn.  4.5 JRs

The Birth of a Nation

Nate Parker's tour-de-force performance as slave uprising leader Nat Turner carries this quality film.  Not as deep or as moving as 12 Years a Slave, this film still resonates and is worth a viewing, even if you don't agree with Parker's questionable past.  I still think Parker has given the best performance of 2016 so-far but his off-screen issues will hurt him come Oscar time.  4.5 JRs

The Girl on the Train

In the vain of Gone Girl, this is a relationship drama / whodunnit that runs off the rails near the end.  Still, Emily Blunt is really good as usual in the lead role as an alcoholic.  Solid supporting turns including the beautiful Haley Bennett help keep the plot together and the end result is still an entertaining experience. 3.5 JRs

Doctor Strange

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as the sinister/creepy/smart Dr. Strange in Marvel's latest comic adaptation.  I personally knew very little about the character when I went to see this but was quite entertained with a combination of good acting and great special effects.  Marvel should probably give some credit to Dark City / Inception for some of the building-shifting effects.  Rachel McAdams is kind of wasted here in a throw-away role but I can see myself getting into this franchise going forward.  Bonus points for a hilarious stinger post-credits scene with Thor.  4 JRs


Director Dennis Villeneuve had hit it out of the park with his last two films in Prisoners and Sicario, so I was expecting another masterpiece with this sci-fi drama.  Instead I found this tale of communication between humans and an alien race to be a bit disappointing.  Amy Adams is strong in the role of a linguistics expert and mother dealing with a key loss in the family but her performance alone couldn't carry the slow plot and questionable ending.  I wanted to love this film, but I merely liked it.  It's still worth a viewing and parts of it are filmed beautifully.  I still have faith in Villeneuve but this just wasn't his best effort.  3 JRs

Bad Santa 2

Billy Bob is back at it again playing the grumpy Santa role, spewing vile lines of dialogue and getting chummy with his evil Mom played gleefully by Kathy Bates.  Karrin Michael Lauren Graham is missed in the sequel, but thankfully Thurman Murman (the chubby kid) returns and delivers some supporting laughs.  This isn't better than the original of course but it's still a fun time at the movies.  3 JRs

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Eddie Redmayne helms this JK Rowling addition to the Harry Potter cinematic universe.  We get plenty of CGI wizardry through a slew of new characters and beasts including a magical briefcase that is home to a virtual zoo of creatures.  This is a solid entry into what should be an entertaining (5 film!?!?) franchise.  A bit cookie-cutter, but entertaining nonetheless.  3.5 JRs

Manchester by the Sea

I just saw this on Saturday and was very impressed with the ensemble acting in this movie.  Kenneth Lonergan's tale of dealing with extreme grief in New England focuses on Casey Affleck and his relationship with key family members including his ex-wife Michelle Williams, brother Kyle Chandler and his teenage nephew Lucas Hedges.  The bond between Affleck and Hedges is so believable and authentic that it powers the entire film.  My biggest complaint is that the movie STILL feels way too short even at over 2 hours of run time.  The movie ends abruptly and I felt that there was still more to be explored in the narrative.  That being said, the performances across the board are so good.  Affleck will be a contender for Best Actor in a reserved role that emotes withdrawl and isolation due to a key event in the middle of the film.  Even with such a short on-screen performance, Williams will get a serious look at Supporting Actress simply because of one key scene (a win for Michelle would be similar to Anne Hathaway's win for Les Miserables).  I REALLY hope that Hughes gets some real consideration for Supporting Actor as I thought he was so believable as a genuine teenager in today's world.  Go see this film.  I was going to give it 4 JRs initially (backlash for the ending) but I keep thinking about it after the fact and I feel I have to bump up my rating. 4.5 JRs

PS:  I also saw Sausage Party on On Demand recently and I was a bit underwhelmed by it. It had some good laughs and was plenty raunchy but it seemed to be trying too hard and I just didn't find it all that funny overall.  A rather forgettable 2.5 out of 5 JRs.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Review: Sully

Tom Hanks as Captain Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger is the example of perfect Hollywood casting.  A modern-day Jimmy Stewart and one of the most likable actors in the history of motion pictures, Hanks simply embodies all the qualities of the real-life captain that made a split decision to land US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River on January 15th, 2009.  The events of that day and the subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board are revisited in Clint Eastwood's comprehensive and entertaining Sully.

It's not much a of a stretch for Hanks to take on the role of an unassuming, professional, selfless captain.  In fact, he's played a captain many times in his career (Captain Phillips and Captain John Miller - Saving Private Ryan).  Thankfully, Hanks is on top of his game once his hair is dyed white and he dons the trademark mustache.  Hanks IS Sully and it happens in the first frame of the film.  This movie covers all aspects of the crash into the Hudson, jumping back in forth in time and covering all angles of the incident.  The real-time crash itself is brilliantly shot by Eastwood with an unfiltered look at the major players (pilots, stewardesses, air traffic controllers, NYC rescue workers) that banded together to prevent disaster.  It's obvious that Eastwood is trying to make an authentic NYC film, highlighting the spirit and resolve of the men and women who work tirelessly to keep the citizens safe.  Even more poignant was having the opportunity to view this on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.

Aaron Eckhart is very good as Sully's co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, who was able to be there to support his captain both during the crash and in the hot seat while the NTSB conducted their investigation.  Laura Linney plays Sully's wife whom we only see communicating with him via phone.  Still, Linney manages to give a solid performance as a concerned wife who tries to comfort her husband from afar.  Hanks is the real star here though.  This movie is nothing without him.  I'm pretty sure Tom will end up getting his 6th!?!? Oscar nod next year.  This is not his best-ever performance but it is one of his most effortless one.  He eases into this role and is able to emote concern, regret, doubt and authority all at the same time.  The audience is with Tom through this entire journey and we never doubt his intentions and authenticity along the way.

This movie is gripping at times and an interesting dissection of the role of the NTSB and the media in shaping the narrative of a real American hero.  The biggest drawback I had with the movie is that the jumping around in the timeline seemed to be more distracting than anything.  I would have enjoyed it more if Eastwood had played the events in sequence (as Paul Greengrass did in the excellent and superior United 93).  In reality though, that's just a small blemish in an otherwise excellent movie.  A strong 4 out of 5 JRs for Sully, one of Eastwood's better films and a reminder that the 60-year-old who starred in Bosom Buddies might be the most talented living actor we have.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review: Hell or High Water - Bonus Reviews

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan crafted one of the better film stories of 2015 with Sicario, a gripping thriller about he US/Mexican drug war.  In 2016, another Sheridan screenplay hits the big screen under the careful crafty direction of David MacKenzie.  Hell or High Water is a modern-day Western about bank-robbing brothers with an amazing cast and vast open visuals.  It is simply the very best film I've seen in 2016 so-far.

Ben Foster and Chris Pine star as brothers in Texas who attempt a string of bank robberies in order to get enough money to save their late Mother's ranch from foreclosure.  Foster plays Tanner Howard the hotheaded just-out-of-prison loose cannon.  Often acting on impulse alone, it's not too hard to believe he's spent many a year behind bars.  His younger brother Toby (Pine) is the brains behind the operation and is simply looking to earn a little extra cash to pay child support to his ex-wife for his two sons.  The bulk of the movie centers on the robberies, escapes and the steps the brothers have to go through to launder the money and keep from getting caught.

In pursuit of the two brothers is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton played by Jeff Bridges.  Nearing retirement, Hamilton is out to achieve justice for one last time before he retires to his front porch.  Bridges is absolutely incredible in this role.  Similar to his Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart, he delivers marble-mouthed old-time old-man dialogue that flows perfectly on the big screen.  His mannerisms scream that he's nearing the end of his rope but there's this underlying resolve and determination that make you empathize with the character.  Bridges simply gives one of the very best performance of his career in this film.  Pine and Foster have great chemistry and this is probably Pine's best work of his career.  He really has showed a great deal of range over the past few years in cinema.

MacKenzie lets the West speak for itself in this movie with long sequences of wide-open land shots and gritty small town slices of life.  Rather than dress any set up, it seems that McKenzie simply rolled in with his film crew and started shooting immediately. The authentic gritty look of the film helps add a sense of realism and draws the audience in to the action on screen.  The dialogue throughout seems so natural and unrehearsed.  It's amazing to see such polish and craft from a totally unknown Scottish director.

This movie paces along perfectly and the tension it builds towards the final sequences is unbelievable.  I dare you to try to take a calming breath during the police roadblock scene near the end of the film.  MacKenzie and his uber-talented cast of A-plus actors help make this film one that simply can't be missed.  This movie is still playing in most theaters.  Do yourself a favor and go see Bridges, Foster and Pine at the top of their game in a supremely entertaining movie.  5 out of 5 JRs for Hell or High Water, a film that needs to be recognized come Oscar time.


Three other one paragraph reviews of films I've seen in the past few days:

Jason Bourne - 3 JRs - Another Paul Greengrass shaky-cam special.  Damon is solid as usual in the lead role and the Vegas car chase is nearly worth the price of admission alone.  The motives are not totally clear here and the tech is completely fabricated and laughable at times.  Mr. Robot has set the standard for plausible IT in TV/Film and Bourne falls way short of that bar.

Kubo and the Two Strings - 3 JRs - A stop motion animation film set in Japan, this movie is beautiful to watch but the plot is a bit convoluted and tired at times.  My kids really loved it but I was bored occasionally.  Decent voice acting from a talented cast but this really isn't one of the better animated films I've seen this year.