Sunday, January 22, 2017

[Review] 20th Century Women


Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, and Billy Crudup are the terrific cast in the Mike Mills-directed 20th Century Women. If it wasn't for Green Room, I'd say this is the punkest movie of the year.

Set in the "everybody smokes" 70s, the film revolves around single mother Dorothea (Bening) as she raises and tries to *understand* her angsty teenage son Jamie (who she had when she was 40), played impressively by newcomer Zumann. Dorothea decides to enlist boarding roommate Abbie (Gerwig, in hip punk-rocker mode), and Jamie's friend and crush Julie (Fanning) to help teach Jamie "how to be a good man" ...whatever that means.

Leaning on the musical influences of Black Flag and Buzzcocks rather than Zeppelin or The Stones, the sharp script here is full of brash yet substantial dialogue, exploring the complicated world, sociopolitical shifts, identity, and most of all--womanhood. The richly developed characters are all greatly performed. Annette Bening shines at the center, feeling so human and organic--her facial expressions do wonders. Greta Gerwig often sneaks in to steal the show (any movie with a scene of her dancing is a winner in my book). Her character leads a hilarious dinner table scene where she attempts to break the 'hush hush' stigma of periods by getting everyone at the table to confidently say "MENSTRUATION."

The film's drifting pace makes it feel a bit longer than it actually is, but it's sort of fitting with the spirit and mood and deeply-detailed zeitgeist. 20th Century Women is a funny and melancholy slice of life at a significant time. It's about the things people do and the places they end up. I know that seems so broad, but it's also so specific. Oh, and it's about freedom ...whatever that means.

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

[Review] Silence


The masterful Martin Scorsese's longtime passion project Silence is a reverberating shout to God.

Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play Sebastiao and Francisco, two 17th-century Jesuit priests from Portugal in search of their estranged mentor (played by Liam Neeson). With the help of an interesting character named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), the two are secretly smuggled into Japan where Christianity has been pushed underground, and any known practitioners are persecuted.

It's definitely a change of pace for Scorsese, especially after the freight train of debauchery that was The Wolf of Wall Street. So there's no mafia, no raucous comedy, no Leonardo DiCaprio snorting coke off of a stripper's ass here. This is a slow, difficult, challenging, brutal, meditative, and nuanced viewing. A strenuous exercise in faith and doubt, will and betrayal. It poses the tough questions about religion and spirituality, and it raises crucial dilemmas for the characters involved.

Since Adam Driver sort of disappears for a while, it's Andrew Garfield that emerges as the film's central lead. His performance is stunning, capturing a deep pain and excruciation as well as a relentless devotion to his faith. Between 99 Homes, Hacksaw Ridge, and now Silence, Garfield is on a really impressive streak as of late. Also great is the ensemble of Japanese actors. Yosuke Kubozuka portrays a man caught between confession and survival. Issey Ogata is a menacing yet magnetic inquisitor, with Tadanobu Asano solidly playing his interpreter and enforcer.

A major "downfall" of Silence is that it isn't a film I'd sit through again any time soon. But its power is undeniable. Haunting, even. And beautifully shot. And the final image - absolutely perfect.

( 8/10 )

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Monday, January 16, 2017

[Review] A Monster Calls


I'm just gonna go ahead and say that I made the mistake of forgetting to bring tissues to A Monster Calls. And things got wet.

Based on a novel of the same name, J.A. Bayona (director of The Orphanage, one of my favorite horror films of all time) brings the emotional fable to the big screen, and the result is a dark blend of fantasy and tragedy seen through the eyes of a young boy.

That young boy is Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a doodler and daydreamer who resides in a rainy gray village in England with his mother (Felicity Jones), whose health is deteriorating due to an unnamed type of cancer. One night, a seemingly imaginary Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) that looks like a cross between Treebeard and The Iron Giant, comes to visit Conor and informs him that he's going to tell three stories. The final catch is that Conor has to tell a fourth one.

Like the Monster's deep roots, all the narratives here are intertwined. The three stories essentially unfold as parables for the whirlwind Conor is experiencing in his personal life. These fairytales are rendered in a strikingly layered animation style with emanating flows of melancholy watercolors. And the conception of the Monster itself is largely impressive. Created with a combination of physical construction, motion-capture, and CGI, the fully-realized creature occupies the "real world" with impressive vigor. It's also greatly enhanced by Liam Neeson's perfect voicework. And while the Monster thematically functions as a coping mechanism and a form of release for Conor, the film never sugarcoats his heartache and the pains his mother is going through. It's okay to dwell in sadness, and it's okay to unleash anger. "If you need to break things, by God, you break them" his mother says.

A Monster Calls is about the importance of truth. The hurdles of acceptance and letting go. The impact of strong visuals and the power of movies--especially when they reflect reality.

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, January 9, 2017

[Review] Hidden Figures


"We all get there together, or we don't get there at all."

Based on an unheralded true story, Hidden Figures is a crowd-pleasing biopic that aims for the stars.

It's set in 1961 Virginia amidst segregation, the Cold War freeze, and the so-called "Space Race" between the US and the Soviet Union. The plot revolves around three African American women--Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)--who played significant roles as brilliant mathematicians and engineers in NASA's innovative operations for achieving liftoff, all while facing obstacles of racism and sexism.

It comes as no surprise that the cast fantastic here. Taraji P. Henson greatly occupies the central story and carries a lot of the emotional heft, while Octavia Spencer is consistently graceful and nuanced. But my personal favorite is Janelle Monáe's character with her infinite swagger, bold line deliveries, and spunky sense of humor. As far as the supporting cast goes, Kevin Costner solidly clocks in to administer instructions and deliver a couple motivational speeches, like he does best. And if you've ever wanted to slap Sheldon from "The Big Bang Theory", just wait 'til you see his role in this as an annoyingly spiteful and prejudiced (but well-played) co-worker.

The presentation of the narrative and tone is a bit *ahem* by-the-numbers in that glossy Disney-ish sort of way (but it works), and the film can be slightly repetitive at times (there's a lot of writing on chalkboards and discussions about equations that are lightyears beyond my math skills). However, it's still a pleasant, admirable, and inspiring viewing that's full of heartwarming moments on large and small scales. And the social themes very much still resonate today.

Hidden Figures is a film of breaking down barriers, celebrating monumental Firsts, and living the "impossible". It honors under-appreciated work and little-known stories that deserve to be told--all in the name of progress.

* 8.5/10 *

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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

[Review] Lion


In Garth Davis' Lion, India's train system relentlessly roars across the country, giving and taking away. Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire fame (I still love that movie, by the way), plays the central focus in this sweeping but uneven film about being lost and found in the most poignant and fateful ways.

The film is very much a tale of two halves, beginning with 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar, what a fitting name) as he gets separated from his family, navigates homelessness, bounces through foster homes, and is eventually adopted by an Australian family (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). After a 20 years later flashforward, Saroo (now played by Patel) is a grown college student struggling with his identity, and painstakingly searching for his biological mother.

I found the first half to be significantly more compelling. Led by a remarkably sympathetic performance from youngster Sunny Pawar, it's a devastating, intense, and heartfelt story that's powerfully told with impactful visuals and minimal dialogue. It's both intimately and epically shot, capturing India's sprawling scenery. Unfortunately, the second half falls a bit flat. It's so dour and humorless that it essentially becomes one-dimensional melodrama. The repetitive narrative mostly consists of Patel's Saroo staring at Google Earth and getting into disagreements with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara, who doesn't have much to do here). This section would feel like a complete slog if Dev Patel's gloriously wavy mane of hair wasn't so impressive to look at.

With that said, the ending does deliver its emotional payoffs, as it goes into effective tearjerker mode, driving the amazingness of its real-life story all the way home.

( 7.5/10 )

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