Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Thor Ragnarok + 5 Other Small Reviews

As MoviePass season has heated up, I've been slacking on my reviews.  I'll start this post with five very quick takes on movies I've seen within the last month.

American Made: Tom Cruise as a drug smuggler during the days of Pablo Escobar.  Doug Liman's film means well but I just was not that interested in getting an Iran Contra history lesson along the way (3 JRs)

The Mountain Between Us:  The movie Alive, without all the cannibalism. Idris Elba and Kate Winslet get stranded in the mountains of Colorado after a plane crash.  Decent chemistry between the two but the ending seemed a little forced and the plot drags along at times.  Bonus points to the director for filming the opening crash sequence which was shot from a perspective of the passengers in the plane and was thrilling to watch.  (3.5 JRs)

Only The Brave:  Josh Brolin stars in the real-life story of a team of Arizona firefighters that experience a tragic accident.  Great acting and an amazing re-telling of true events, however, I was a bit bored by the firefighting tactics and I don't think they translate very well to the big screen.  (4 JRs)

Happy Death Day:  Jessica Rothe plays the lead role as a college student that experiences a horrific death day-after-day Groundhog Day style.  Rothe is great, but the story is repetitive (shocker) despite a decent twist at the end.  Worth a rental for sure though. (3 JRs)

Bad Mom's Christmas:  The gang is back together again barely a year after the first Bad Moms film.  More of the same here with Kathryn Hahn stealing the show again.  A good turn by the mom's moms (Baranski, Sarandon and Hines) help buoy a sub-par script.  Glad to see This Is Us's Justin Hartley (The Manny) getting some film work. (3.5 JRs)

Now on to the main event....

Thor Ragnarok is the third stand-alone Marvel film, matching Iron Man and Captain America as the only three-time solo acts in the Marvel Universe.  As much as I like Chris Evans as Cap America, I really enjoy Chris Hemsworth's take on Thor the most out of all Avengers outside of Tony Stark.  This time around, Taika Waititi is at the helm of this action-comedy extravaganza and he brings a quirky sense of New Zealand humor to this film.

Set as a follow-up to the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ragnarok begins with Thor battling a fiery monster.  Asgard is trouble once again and a few of the Avengers show up in support including Dr. Strange, Hulk and that meddling brother Loki (played with glee by Tom Hiddleston).  A funny and surprising cameo turns up in a play about Loki and Thor and the stage is set for a lot more fun along the way.

After a devastating visit from Thor's evil sister Hela (played with extra campy venom by Cate Blanchett), Thor and Loki end up on a scrap-filled planet where Jeff Goldblum plays the Grand Master who runs a sort of large-scale Fight Club.  Goldblum's signature delivery fits in perfectly with the Waititi tone of the film and it's on this planet where we see Hulk and Thor hook up.  The humor surrounding Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, who gets a lot more to chew on here than he does in other films) and his long-term turn as the Hulk become a topic of hilarious back and forths between Thor, Banner and Valkyrie (a new supporting character).  While Ragnarok is definitely a Thor vehicle, we get a whole lot of the big green guy and there is a lot of quality character building that should set things up nicely for the next Avengers film.

The story flows well and the movie never shows it's 2-hour plus run time.  Great visual effects, a solid rocking soundtrack and quality acting all around.  Nearly everyone is extremely likable in this movie.  Waititi himself lends his signature Kiwi voice to Korg, a CGI stone man who looks a lot like a smaller version of the Rock Biter from Neverending Story.  Korg calmly delivers his lines and brings an extra layer of off-beat wit to the movie.

From early on in the film it's clear that Waititi has planned to load the dialogue with a bunch of deadpan delivery and self deprecating humor.  There is a sequence near the end of the film where Ruffalo as Banner jumps out of a spaceship.  The resulting scene brought my half-full theater to a full roar of laughter.  Once Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song blare during the final battle, the whole audience is on-board and loving every minute of it.

This is easily my favorite Thor film and one of the best Marvel superhero movies ever made.  5 out of 5 JRs for the 6th time this year.  I really hope that Waititi gets a chance to do more in the Marvel universe as his style certainly fits well in the comic book genre.  Black Panther is next (MICHAEL B. JORDAN + RYAN COOGLER!!!) and then we get our first taste of part 1 of Avengers Infinity War next May.  Marvel is doing such a great job of building all these characters in the stand-alone films that it's quite obvious we need a super-sized two-part Avengers feast the next time around.

I recently heard some experts tout that this is a down year for movie quality overall.  I respectfully disagree.  The year started with SEVERAL totally awesome films and we've gotten some gems over the Summer and Fall as well.  It'll be interesting to see if any quality Oscar contenders emerge over the next few weeks.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Reviews: Blade Runner 2049, Battle of the Sexes

To prepare for Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049, I finally forced myself to watch Ridley Scott's 1982 original Blade Runner this week.  While I didn't HATE the movie as much as others (Omar), it certainly was not a memorable entry in Ridley Scott's filmography.  I did really like Scott's vision of the future with congested cities, flying cars and loud, vibrant billboards.  The score from the original Blade Runner (synth-heavy by Vangelis) was also well-done and added to the tone of the film.  Thankfully, Villeneuve (who directed recent gems with Sicario and Prisoners but faded a bit with Arrival) takes all of what I enjoyed in the original film and ramps it up exponentially into a truly vibrant and visceral experience.  The music, sound, acting, effects, really... EVERYTHING that makes up Blade Runner 2049 is satisfying and the result is nearly three hours of retro-futuristic WOW that immerses the viewer and transports us to another time.

Despite the brilliant visuals of Villeneuve's world he crafts, the plot of the film is important here and builds off of the events at the end of the original film.  Ryan Gosling plays K, a Blade Runner (a detective who seeks out to kill rogue replicants *androids*) who is also an android himself.  We watch his interactions with his boss played with gusto and gumption by President Claire Underwood Robin Wright.  In an early scene we see his dedication to his job as he pays a violent visit to Dave Batista (this guy is going to be a movie STAR) at a desolate location and uncovers a key plot point.  Gosling is really good in this movie and gives just enough of emotion to show that a hint of heart exists in his android body.

Harrison Ford is indeed in this film reprising his role as Rick Deckard from the first movie.  We don't see Ford though until about two thirds of the way through the movie.  His presence helps tie the events of 2049 back to the original and we even get some sequences with a CGI Sean Young as the replicant Rachel.  Ford is solid, but you can see that his action-movie days are numbered as a 75-year old actor.  The acting across the board is so good in this movie and two virtually unknown female stars contribute in a major way.  Ana De Armas plays Joi, a hologram female companion of K in a role slightly borrowed from Spike Jonze's Her.  De Ajos gives a beautiful performance as she helps add an emotional layer to Gosling's character.  Luv, an assasin / assistant of the evil Wallace Corporation is played by Sylvia Hoeks.  I had never seen Hoeks in a film before and actually thought her character was being played by Pauley Perrette (similar bangs and hairstyle).  Hoeks has much more range than Perrette thankfully and totally killed her nuanced performance adding in fits or rage mixed into a calm exterior.  A cameo turn by Edward James Olmos (who plays an older version of his character in the original) and a creepy, passionate acting job by Jared Leto (as the sinister tech corporation boss) help round out the talented cast.

I have to talk about the living legend Hans Zimmer for a few moments.  The score in this movie is sooooo good.  Pulse-pounding and over the top at times and cues that are spot on with bringing you into this futuristic landscape.  If Zimmer does not win his second Oscar for either this film or Dunkirk this year, it will be a crime.  The man simply adds so much to the movies he scores.  The combination of Zimmer's future-symphony paired with cinematographer Roger Deakins' (THIS MAN NEEDS AN OSCAR TOO after 13 nominations and NO WINS) vast epic sprawling shots of cities and wastelands is a total joy to experience.  I feel that this movie will be looked at fondly for years as science fiction done right.  The vibrant visual joy I experienced in watching this film reminded me of the way I felt taking in the neon-glowing world of Tron Legacy years ago.  Future-done-right can be very powerful thanks to the advances in technology we have today.

This movie MUST BE SEEN on the big screen.  Much like Dunkirk.  In fact, I currently cannot choose between Blade Runner 2049 and Christopher Nolan's WWII epic for my favorite film of 2017.  Both movies just stand out so much and affected me in similar ways.  Total immersion for the audience in both situations and that's exactly when Villeneuve and Nolan set out to do.  They both utilize Zimmer's talents to the fullest as the score for each movie PERFECTLY compliments the on-screen visuals. If you are even remotely a fan of science fiction (and whether you've seen the 1982 original or not), go out ASAP and see Blade Runner 2049 in the largest, loudest theater available.  5 out of 5 JRs for another amazing accomplishment from a visionary director.  It's unfortunate that this movie did not succeed at the box office.  Much like Ridley Scott's Alien Covenant, perhaps the public is just not into these sci-fi sequels.  I hope the lackluster returns do not prevent either auteur from pursuing more science fiction projects.

Bonus Quick Review - Battle of the Sexes

Earlier last week I used my glorious MoviePass for the first time since the price drop and took in Emma Stone and Steve Carrell in Battle of the Sexes, a re-enactment of the famous tennis match and (preceding build-up) in the Astrodome in 1973 between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.  While not totally remarkable, I definitely enjoyed the slice of 70's from directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris that showcases one of the finest actresses of her generation in Stone.  While it was a bit difficult to morph the gorgeous Stone into a near spitting image of a young BJK, it worked and Emma's performance was pitch perfect throughout including a tough breakdown after the climatic match against Riggs.  I went into this film fully sure that Riggs actually won the real-life match.  For some reason I probably got it confused with his earlier victory against Margaret Court . Carrell looks nearly IDENTICAL to Riggs and was the only actor alive who could possibly play this role.

This film is timely and focuses on not only women's rights but LGBT issues as well as we see King and her conflicting relationship with her husband and a female stylist on the Virginia Slims tour.  While a bit murky and slow at times, this movie is entertaining and both Carrell and Stone do a great jobs of embodying the real life stars of this monumental match.  Stone's tennis game is on point and I'm sure she and Carrell spent a lot of time training for the final match.  Once the credits roll and we see the real-life pictures of King and Riggs, we realize just how spot-on the two leads' looks and performances were.  3.5 out of 5 JRs for an accomplished sports movie with a timely and effective message.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Reviews: mother! and Brad's Status

I saw two movies over the weekend, one I would like to forget about, the other that I enjoyed.  I just wish both of them were seen using MoviePass, but alas, the service that chopped its monthly fee by $30 is having a hard time handling the demand.  I’ve been waiting about 5 weeks for my new card which still hasn’t arrived.  Therefore, I will be holding back in October on seeing some of the movies I’ve been on the fence about (not Blade Runner 2047 for sure).


I should have held off on Darren Aronofsky’s latest biblical delusion.  After giving us Noah in 2014, he delivers mother! (yes, lowercase with the exclamation point).  Starring (and I do mean starring… like all the time… in your face) his real-life love Jennifer Lawrence and featuring such respected actors as Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer and Domhnall Gleason (who is in EVERY movie I swear), mother! is a steaming turd of a film that only becomes a little bit palatable after you realize the stunt that the director was trying to attempt. 

Nearly the entire film takes place within an old restored home in the middle of a large field.  Lawrence plays the wife of a struggling poet (Bardem) who is in the midst of a remodeling effort within the house.  Visitors end up straggling in at various times including Harris and Pfeiffer as an odd married couple.  Slow and plodding in the beginning, things ramp up severely mid-way through when more visitors descend upon the home.  What is billed in the trailer as a horror film is a total ruse and a lot of what happens (hell just about ALL of the film) makes no sense.  Once Kristin Wigg shows up in a strange cameo role, I had already thrown in the towel. 

I won’t get into the symbolism here in case some of you brave souls want to take on the burden of sitting through this, but if you do see it, go Google the theories on the interwebs afterwards.  Once I found out WHAT Aronofsky was “trying” to do here, this jumbled mess makes a little more sense.  That being said, this movie is barely watchable and steers out of control at the end.  The sequence near the end with an unrecognizable CGI version of J Law is so cringe-worthy that any artistic cred that was built up over the rest of the film is completely lost at that point.

Aronofsky used to give us quality films early-on in his career.  Requiem for a Dream is still a powerful look at drug addiction and I liked the Wrestler and Black Swan well enough.  I just feel that he’s gotten a little too big for his britches now and maybe his infatuation with J Law tainted this film as well.  I didn’t HATE HATE HATE it quite as much as my lovely wife did, but mother! is DEFINITELY the worst movie of 2017 so-far.  A paltry 1.5 JRs for a film that everyone should try to avoid at all cost.

Brad’s Status

Trying to get the taste of mother! out of our mouths, my wife and I saw a small Plan B (Brad Pitt doing his thing once again) production titled Brad’s Status.  Directed by (ex-Amazing Race contestant and School of Rock creator) Mike White and staring Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Michael Sheen and the always-cute Jenna Fischer, Brad’s Status gives us Stiller in the title role as a father taking his high school senior son on a college visit adventure in Boston, MA.

Brad is concerned about his “status” in his life having had some close college friends achieve more lucrative and notarial successes in their lives.  Sheen (a political pundit and professor), Luke Wilson, White himself (in a brief role) and Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement pop in from time-to-time over the phone and in-person as Stiller’s link to the past and a reminder that his non-profit job doesn’t quite “match up” in stature.  Various hurdles stand between Brad’s son Troy (a musical prodigy) being accepted into Harvard (a goal he wants to see achieved almost more than his son).  Brad ends up using his famous Rolodex to pull some strings and help his son reach his dream.  The bulk of the film deals with the dynamics of Brad’s vision of himself and his place in the world and wondering if he’s done enough over the span of his life and career.

This film is a touching and interesting take on an authentic father-son relationship and a look at a dillusional (slightly-disturbed) man going through a sort-of mid-life crisis.  Fischer is solid as Brad's loving and devoted wife but it’s really Abrams that steals the show here in my opinion.  Following in the footsteps of Lucas Hedges' performance last year (Manchester by the Sea), Abrams is totally believable and authentic as Troy, a modern-day teenager who often has headphones in his ears but still has a respect and admiration for his family.  Stiller is very good as well, but I really can only look at his face for so long in a dramatic role before I start thinking back to all the antics in Something About Mary.  I do think he was properly cast though as I can't think of another middle-aged actor who could pull off a sketchy late-night meet-up with one of Troy's ambitious co-ed friends in a Harvard bar.

I would definitely recommend giving Brad’s Status a try.  It’s a small film that may not garner any Oscar attention but it’s definitely a well-made movie that makes you think and flies by (101 minute run-time) effortlessly on the screen.  A solid 4 out of 5 JRs for a film that really makes you think about how much career status should factor into the view of your own life.

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!