Monday, December 5, 2016

[Review] Manchester By the Sea

I'm not saying you should bring some tissues to Manchester By the Sea, but you should probably bring some tissues to Manchester By the Sea. This film is a commendably adept character study and stirring rumination on the rippling complications of a family death, as well as a crisp and cinematic postcard of the picturesque New England harbor town.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a lonely janitor and repair man, spending his days un-clogging toilets, trying to fix leaks that won't quit, and shoveling endless piles of snow (cue the baggage metaphors). After the sudden death of his brother (Kyle Chandler), he reluctantly inherits custody of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The narrative follows them as they cope with the haunts, burdens, and messy aftermath of a tragedy, all while they straighten out their lives going forward.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me) pens an excellent script, full of blunt and snappy dialogue, all-too-real human conflicts, and genuinely affecting emotion. The multiple flashbacks enrich the story and give the characters depth, while adding a heart-wrenching undercurrent of unspeakable tragedy. It's sad stuff indeed. But even amidst the somber circumstances, the film doesn't forget its sense of humor. This thing is actually really funny. You'll laugh in between the tears. It's fully dimensional. Just like life. Lee and Patrick's relationship isn't of the blatant warm and fuzzy Hallmark variety. It's awkward, pugnacious, and full of ribbing. But they're cool with each other, and we know they care deep down. They're both in the same boat (pun definitely intended).

Casey Affleck gives a seriously tremendous performance. Lee isn't the most likable character, but we still sympathize with him. It's as if his distressing numbness, self-resentment, and repressed feelings have all transferred to his hunched shoulders and the darkness beneath his eyes. It's quietly devastating and nuanced, and Affleck nails it. Award nominations are certainly on the way. Michelle Williams is also stunning with her supporting role as Lee's estranged ex-wife Randi. She's only in a few scenes, but they're crucial scenes that leave a weighty impact. Newcomer Lucas Hedges is impressive too, seeming like an authentic high schooler dude who's going through some stuff. In fact, the entire cast is top-notch here, as you'd expect from one of this year's Oscar frontrunners.

There is a slight shred of uplift in the end, but it's still the type of story that'll make you want to go off and have a good cry in the movie theater parking lot afterwards. Manchester By the Sea is a film that hits hard no matter what, but it's especially poignant if you've ever lost someone close to you.

It's one of 2016's very best.

* 10/10 *

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

[Review] Moonlight

"Who is you, Chiron?"

Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is a special film. Revolving around a young man's struggle to find himself in the thick atmosphere of a poverty-stricken Miami, this artful portrait is as sprawling as it is intimate, and as raw as it is technically marvelous. It's truly a transformative experience.

The story is divided into three distinct chapters, which all follow the life of Chiron, a quiet and scrawny kid who's constantly picked on by his peers. He finds no solace at home because his mother (Naomie Harris) is a drug-addict. One day, he meets a supportive father-like figure named Juan (Mahershala Ali), who ironically makes his living as a drug kingpin. A complex and vicious cycle, to be sure. But Juan and his caring girlfriend (Janelle MonĂ¡e, terrific) practically begin to raise the boy themselves in their welcoming household. And from here, the film spans across Chiron's adolescence (Alex Hibbert), high school stint (Ashton Sanders), and matured adulthood (Trevante Rhodes), all while he attempts to form his identity, battle with masculinity, and ruminate on his sexuality.

The film exudes with life and bursts with heartbreak. The rarely-represented characters are fleshed out in a manner that isn't often witnessed like this on the big screen, and the performances are absolutely flawless all around. It'd be a crime to pick a standout in the cast, because they all shine in their own vital way. Everything is so richly detailed and beautifully captured amid the vibrant lighting, crisp editing, and stylized camerawork that frequently boasts 360-degree views, which breathes dimension into the scenes, while also creating a sense of the world spinning. The musical score flaunts piercing strings and somber piano keys, but it's really the deafening silences that have the most impact.

It's a film of defining moments, fateful connections, and memorable faces. A poetic character study. It's blue. It's black. It's glowing. It's Moonlight.

* 9/10 *

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

[Review] Loving

With acclaimed southern tales like Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, director Jeff Nichols has established himself as a big-time talent in indie cinema. Earlier this year, he continued the streak by shifting slightly with the sci-fi tinged Midnight Special. His latest film, Loving, is a more grounded, based-on-real-events historical drama entailing a supreme court decision on interracial marriage.

Beginning in Virginia 1958 (not that long ago, is it?), the story revolves around Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), a kind and reserved couple who are building a house and expecting a child. Their content life is maddeningly interrupted when authorities break up their marriage and throw them in jail. From there, the two fight the legal system just to be together.

Suiting for the spirit of the central characters, Nichols takes a quiet but distressful, understated yet affecting approach. The lead performances from Edgerton and Negga are superb--both displaying impressive sensitivity and gracefulness. As far as their emotions and thoughts, so much is shown strictly through the eyes and facial expressions, and in a film of this nature--that's all that's needed. In a surprising casting choice, oddball comic Nick Kroll takes on the role of a freshman civil rights lawyer, and he does a solid job. In a not so surprising casting choice, Michael Shannon shows up as an earnest, likable magazine reporter (because it wouldn't be a Nichols film without him).

Some sections of the narrative feel more like lulls than story developments, as they mostly work to convey passages of time. But it all eventually builds to something major. Something only rightful. The film's themes of division, injustice, and changing the system still resonate during current times.

Loving. How apt a last name. How apt a title. How necessary a film for today.

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, November 28, 2016

[Review] Moana

She's not a princess. She's MOANA.

Disney's latest surefire hit is a dazzling South Pacific adventure that splashes and beams with jubilance. Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) is a wide-eyed independent soul with her heart toward the sea, despite her Chief father's insistence on keeping her rooted at shore. But when an ancient darkness threatens to destroy their island's livelihood, Moana secretly sets out to find a shape-shifting demigod named Maui (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), and the two must sail across the ocean in order to return a mystical relic to a powerful island goddess, in hopes of breaking the curse.

The journey is exciting, dangerous, and memorable, as Moana and Maui encounter Kakamora pirates, cantankerous sea monsters, and a hot-headed lava goddess. It's all so visually gorgeous: The tropically lush, green and mountainous island scenery... The bioluminescent coral reefs... The splendid sparkle of the clear, starry skies... Maui's creatively kinetic tribal tattoos... Then there's the glistening blue ocean--in addition to being wonderfully animated, the endless body of water is also rendered as its own character, serving both as a majestic guide and an ominous and stormy force.

And of course there's a lot of playful humor. A guaranteed fan-favorite is a loopy stowaway rooster named Heihei, who seems to be a distant relative of Becky from this year's Finding Dory. The bickering, head-to-head dynamic between Moana and Maui is quite a treat as well. They roast each other, they bounce off of each other, they learn from each other, and they complain about each other. At one point Maui utters something like, "You're not gonna start singing are you?" ...Which brings me to the film's catchy soundtrack. Opetaia Foa'i and Lin-Manuel "Hamilton" Miranda (he's everywhere!) blend traditional Hawaiian melodies with Disney's trademark of ear-wormy pop sing-alongs and power ballads to boost the film's buoyancy and forgivably on-the-nose themes. The main theme song "How Far I'll Go" is pretty much destined to become the new "Let It Go", so enjoy it now before it gets played to death. (Interesting how both tracks embrace the word "Go".)

There are a few scary moments to contrast the sunny vibes, but for the most part, this is a really light and breezy film. Maybe too light and breezy for some audiences' preferences. However, it's without a doubt a genuinely uplifting and applause-worthy tale of bravery and forming your own path. It also enthusiastically explores and celebrates a vibrant Polynesian culture and mythology that's not often seen like this on the big screen.

Moana will warm your body, your spirit, and your heart.

* 9/10 *

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

[Review] The Edge of Seventeen

Oh, high school...

The Edge of Seventeen deserves to be praised for its sheer sense of genuineness. Wonderfully written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, this teen dramedy is up there with some of the best modern coming-of-age films in recent memory. It's refreshingly frank, funny, heartfelt, and yes--relatable.

Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a frequently bullied outcast who's stuck in a constant state of awkward. She's also brutally honest and unapologetic, spiting the "winners" of the world. Luckily, her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) is always by her side. But their tight relationship shatters, and their social statuses fluctuate when Krista begins dating Nadine's popular, tight shirt-wearing older brother (played by Blake Jenner from this year's lively Everybody Wants Some!!).

Driven by a terrific performance from Hailee Steinfeld, the story navigates through Nadine's growing pains, angsty confusion, and new endeavors. We're with her the whole way, flaws and all. Her dynamic interactions with her surrounding peers and family reveal a lot about her character, whether it's the chats with a friendly classmate who shows interest in her, or a clumsy encounter with her elusive "Too cool for school" crush who has yet to accept her Friend Request on Facebook. Seriously, it's just out there waiting in the abyss! The snappy bouts with her messy mother are a hoot, and the conflict reaches boiling levels when she fights with her rival of a brother, especially as the two still are coming to terms with the recent death of their father. Best of all, are the lunchtime conversations (she avoids the cafeteria) with her brash and apparently non-caring history teacher (Woody Harrelson in perfect form). He's one of my favorite supporting characters to grace the screen this year.

Kelly Freemon Craig's (I was going to abbreviate it as KFC but that sounded weird) script is hilarious, effectively uncomfortable, and rounded out with emotion. The sharp dialogue and comical raunch is fitting and in-touch the generational zeitgeist. The story taps into contemporary technology debacles like accidentally-sent text messages, as well as prevalent gut-punches like that sinking feeling of cutting ties with longtime best friend. Sure, there are a lot of familiarities and genre tropes here, but who's complaining when this flick is so immensely watchable and greatly intended. Some of the elements are freshly spun too, like its brief scene that casually de-stigmatizes antidepressants, or its well-drawn and stereotype-free depiction of an under-represented Asian character (Hayden Szeto in a breakthrough role). There's also a handclap slaying of skeezy dirtbags for the ages.

The Edge of Seventeen will make you cringe. It'll make you nostalgic. It'll make you wish you could go back to when you were a Junior and change stuff... or completely block that time out of your memory. Nadine just wants everything to work out and go her way--just like all of us did during those formative years.

* 9.5/10 *

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