December 2, 2016

Moonlight Review

            For decades (even centuries) now one of the defining characteristics of the United States of America as a country has been its state of race relations.  The relationship between black America and white America has been so turbulent that it comes off as such a striking irregularity with the rest of the world.  This topic has been even more at the forefront recently with the Black Lives Matter movement and the election of a president who has never had the best intentions for minorities in mind.  So now is the perfect time for a movie such as Moonlight to hit the zeitgeist.  American cinema almost never allows the space for films from an African American perspective.  The two exceptions are independent films (and I’m talking about the ones that are truly independent films and not ones that are able to get Hollywood actors and call themselves independent) and films where the “main” character is black but the hero is a white character (and therefore not really from an African American perspective).  Moonlight, in fact, is very much one of the former films, but being released at the perfect time and having a ton of Oscar buzz may allow this film to be remembered in film history in a way that most independent films never will be able to.  That is great for a film that so authentically portrays the black experience but still conveys universal emotions that anyone of any culture or race should be able to connect to.

            That being said, Moonlight, has a very dark and depressing theme at its core.  Moonlight follows a boy named Chiron (played by multiple actors and most effectively so by Trevante Rhodes in the adult incarnation of the character) as he is raised by a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) and his drug addicted mother (Naomie Harris).  Chiron is quiet but very smart and quickly realizes that he is gay.  The rest of the film follows him as he ages and struggles to find a way to live in a very tough neighborhood while being gay.  Unfortunately for Chiron, his life does not go so well and this film becomes a striking tale of missed opportunities and the dangers of being lured in by societal norms.  On one hand this allows the film to deliver a lesson to white audiences on why African American society is so different without being condescending.  On the other hand this also causes the film to deliver an ending with a theme so powerful and so personal it’s hard not to get depressed by this ending.  This is not an easy sit.

            The film itself is divided into three chapters.  This storytelling technique for the most part works.  All three chapters serve as individual films with a beginning, middle, and end in each.  It also allows the first and last act to deliver some truly powerful moments.  However, the middle chapter feels a bit stilted thanks to the format as it does spend some time setting up the final act (Yes, it still can ultimately function as its own story though).  The middle chapter also suffers from a lack of memorable performances (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae steal the show in the first chapter entitled “i. Little” and Trevante Rhose is really impressive in his breakthrough role in “iii. Black”).

            Ultimately, Moonlight is a powerful bit of filmmaking that does suffer a bit from being too powerful.  It’s an essential bit of filmmaking that I just don’t see myself revisiting too often in the future.


November 21, 2016

Of the Sad State of the Fall Season Blockbusters

            Thus far, 2016 has certainly been considered a somewhat disappointing year in the film world (and in general, actually).  That has especially been the case in regards to the blockbusters that have come out this year.  I think the root cause of this has been studios taking their established franchises and running them into the ground.  There have been just way too many examples of this as of late, and despite not many blockbusters being released during the fall season, the ones that have been released during these months have followed this pattern.

            Let’s start with Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.  Now the original Jack Reacher wasn’t exactly a big hit at the box office ($80 million at the North American box office), but with a star in the lead in Tom Cruise, its much read source material, and a supporting cast filled with familiar faces (Rosamund Pike and Robert Duvall), it certainly has the pedigree of a blockbuster.  It’s unfortunate that the follow-up, Never Go Back, reveals no real reason to exist at all other than the studio thinking it could make some easy money with infrastructure it already had in place.  There is no artistry on display in this film despite the usually dedicated efforts of Tom Cruise.  In this film, Reacher (Cruise) tries to meet up with a major (Cobie Smulders) that has taken over his old job.  However, when he reaches her she has been jailed and caught up in a massive conspiracy.  This sounds like your typical action thriller plot, and that’s because it is.  There are no new ideas here, and the film mostly goes from uninspired set piece to the next uninspired set piece.  This is especially disappointing when you consider the first film had some moments of originality and that the director of this second film, Edward Zwick, has done some notable work in his past.

             One of the next films with a blockbuster pedigree to come out this fall was Inferno, the latest Robert Langdon film teaming up Ron Howard and Tom Hanks.  Through two films of the series, the team behind this series hasn’t exactly delivered anything inspiring.  However, Angels & Demons was at least a well-acted thriller that didn’t require much thought.  Inferno once again assembles an impressive cast.  However, the plot of this film just goes by so quickly it makes you wonder what the filmmakers were trying to do with this film (other than making some money).  Almost, every character that Robert Langdon comes across has some interesting backstory that is only briefly touched upon.  If this film gave some of these developments some room to breathe maybe we could have gotten a great film or at the very least much better performances out of the likes of Felicity Jones, Ben Foster and Sidse Babett Knudsen.  The film also is not helped by the fact that this film brings back flashbacks where Ron Howard utilizes that awful, gritty sheen that he used to such terrible effect in The Da Vinci Code.  Despite the plot moving so fast, these moments tend to bring the entire film to a halt and contribute to the increasingly growing mess.

            As we have gotten closer to the holiday season we have seen even bigger blockbusters, and yet they have been just as bad.  The latest edition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange, turned out to be one of its worst entries yet.  Strange oddly has a similar problem with Inferno in that it moves at such a fast clip that there is no room for the many developments to breathe.  That is especially troubling for a film that needed some world building.  Instead we are just thrown into a world of multiple dimensions, sorcerers, and time-bending artifacts in the shape of eyes.  Throw all the special effects you want on a film, but nothing is going to help it if you present a crazy idea and don’t ground it in something.  Instead with this film we get a weird and confusing adventure that feels like a rip-off of Inception (just without the heart of that film).  What’s really irritating about this film is that so much great talent is wasted.  Benedict Cumberbatch is dragged down by the fact that he is forced to use an American accent.  That ends up being a choice that causes him to waste so much effort on just one thing that he never really acts in this film.  Mads Mikkelsen gets forced into the typical “well he’s the big bad guy, but he’s not the really big bad guy that we will show you next time” MCU villain role, and Rachel McAdams is really just there to look pretty.  It just seems like all of the MCU’s problems (as well as some new ones) all came to a head in Doctor Strange.

            Finally, there was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  It’s a spinoff of the Harry Potter franchise and yet I’m still trying to figure out how it added any depth at all to those films.  Fantastic Beasts follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne in a role that does not help with his tendency to ham it up) as he tries to recover his creatures that accidentally got loose in 1920s New York City.  That is until the film randomly decides it wants to be about a teenager (Ezra Miller) that is being forced to suppress his magical powers.  Sure, Newt is the main character and it’s his ordeals that the film follows for the most part, but the thing that this film really wants to be the heart of the movie is the stuff dealing with Ezra Miller’s character and Colin Farrell’s auror.  This is a colossal mistake by J.K. Rowling and director David Yates as the film fluctuates so massively and so frequently in tone that it’s hard to ever know what this film is really about.  In that respect it’s very reminiscent of the problems that plagued Spider-Man 3.  There’s even a sequence just as ridiculous as Peter Parker’s emo dance in this one.  This all leads to a finale that comes out of nowhere and features a twist that just wants to set up the next film rather than give a defining note to this one.  In conclusion, Fantastic Beasts is just another example of the majority of blockbusters as of late spending way too much time setting up the next film or trying to capture the magic of a predecessor.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back=3/10
Doctor Strange=5/10
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them=5/10

October 17, 2016

On the 2016 Fall Film Season

            The early fall portion of the film year always tends to be a bit weird.  Most of the talk about cinema ends up being directed towards the major film festivals and the films that play there.  The problem with this is that most of the talk about film during these months is directed towards films that won’t be in theaters until the winter.  That leaves the films currently in theaters with little room to make an impression, and you end up with a batch of films that tends to be underrated.  For instance, the early fall season last year gave us Everest, a film that didn’t fall in the blockbuster category or the prestige category but ended up being one of the best films of the year.  The 2016 early fall season was no different.  I was only able to catch four films during this time period (one of them kinda counts as a late summer release and another I will be saving for a later blog post), but most of them were quite notable films that might end up in the discussion for my year-end Top 10 list.

            The first film (and the best of the lot) was Sully.  Now Sully did play at the Telluride Film Festival, but discussion surrounding the film feels like it doesn’t exist at this point in time.  That’s a shame because the film features some great artists stretching their talent as much as possible to create an entertaining film out of a concept that really has no business being a feature length film.  I think at this point we take Tom Hanks for granted too much and because of that another fantastic performance in this film is doomed to be overlooked.  He is once again asked to carry a film on just his persona and he more than steps up to the challenge.  The film’s other integral element is Clint Eastwood, whose work here is his most visually experimental since Letters From Iwo Jima.  Eastwood has a reputation of not putting much effort into his films as of late, but it doesn’t seem to be the case here as his visual storytelling allows the narrative of this film to be expanded from what should have been a fifteen minute short into a ninety minute film that does not feel bloated.  It was also nice to see that he was able to use his acting roots to get a very talented cast that includes Aaron Eckhart in one of his finest performances to date as the co-pilot and Anna Gunn, Laura Linney and Mike O’Malley making the most out of roles that barely exist.

            The next film could also be considered a summer film as it was put into limited release in August.  That film is the modern western, Hell or High Water.  This film premiered at Cannes and somehow remained under the radar until its release.  Yet the film contains some strong work from a trio of acclaimed actors and enough directorial and screenwriting gusto to overcome a generic plot.  The film follows two brothers, one a typical middle-aged Texan with no signs of living for greatness or infamy (Chris Pine) and the other an erratic con-man (Ben Foster), as they rob a series of banks.  The bank robberies attract the attention of a soon to be retired ranger (Jeff Bridges), who is struggling to let go of the job that was his entire life.  Now this seems like your typical western film based off of that plot and it kind of is.  However, director David Mackenzie finds new ways to visually portray clich├ęd scenes.  Additionally, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan uses a series of screenwriting gimmicks that actually deliver deeper meaning to elements of the film.  For instance, the names of the two brothers are never mentioned until the final act of the film.  It’s a startling realization once you realize it but it also reveals the deep relationship that these two brothers have with just one simple gimmick.  So this film deserves a lot of credit for finding some freshness in a genre that has been on its way out for a while now.

            The final film I was able to see during the season was the least successful.  Just like Hell or High Water, The Dressmaker has some western tropes.  The problem is that in addition to these tropes it has the tropes of multiple other genres and this mismatch does not work at all.  The film is a revenge tale of a clothes designer (Kate Winslet) who returns to her hometown to exact revenge on the townspeople who made her leave in the first place.  The film never really takes itself seriously and has many comedic moments.  One problem with this is that most of the comedy becomes extremely campy to the point that I can’t see how anyone would find it funny.  The other problem with this is that this film has quite a few dark moments (including a series of flashbacks about the death of a boy) and the film seems like it doesn’t what to take these moments seriously either.  All this being said, Kate Winslet is typically great and the film is one of a few that you will ever see that is able to incorporate its over-the-top costume design into the plot in unexpected and engrossing ways.

            These films and the controversial but memorable The Birth of a Nation made for an interesting season that almost made up for 2016’s disappointing summer season. 

Hell or High Water=8/10
The Dressmaker=4/10

October 11, 2016

One-Eyed Jacks at New York Film Fest 54

            This Sunday I was fortunate enough to attend the New York Film Festival and see a restoration of Marlon Brando’s lone directorial effort, One-Eyed Jacks.  Big names such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg worked on the restoration process, which Scorsese explained in full and rambling detail in an introduction to the film, so I was interested in finding out what attracted them to spending so much time and effort on a somewhat unheralded film such as this.  One-Eyed Jacks is certainly a film worth watching, and very much comes across as a predecessor to Unforgiven.  While the film begins as a typical western it quickly becomes a very subversive genre film that you can’t tell where it will be going next.

            One-Eyed Jacks follows a robber known as Rio (Marlon Brando) as he tries o track down his partner (Karl Malden) who left him for dead.  Obviously this seems like a simple and stereotypical western based off of the basic plotline.  However, this film has a sense of awareness that is ahead of its time (the film was released in 1961).  The film is constantly going left when you expect it to right.  Whether it’s a character abandoning his quest for revenge, female characters driving the plot or the film deciding to create a villain in the third act of the film, this film was using plot techniques that we wouldn’t actually see become common until decades later.  Additionally, this film has a unique sense of comedy for a western.  Brando’s Rio has a set of reoccurring jokes (and we are also introduced to the man while oddly lounging and eating a banana in the middle of a bank robbery he is perpetrating) that are quite notable for an archetype that is usually driven by his seriousness. 

            While the ambition of Brando’s use of comedy in this film is something to be admired it also reveals he was not as strong of a director as he was an actor.  The comedy works in a theater where you can feed off the energy of a crowd, but I can’t see many of the jokes landing while watching this film alone.  Additionally, the comedy is just more added time to an already lengthy film.  Brando tries to do a lot in this film, and his work certainly feels like a man just learning how to direct.  The runtime and pacing of this film certainly suffers because of that.

            That’s not to say Brando’s directorial work was bad here.  The visuals are stunning in this film and Brando finds some interesting ways to bring certain sequences to the screen (a sequence involving Mexican authorities setting up a trap in the middle of a sandstorm comes to mind immediately).  He also gets some fantastic performances out of himself and his cast.  Karl Malden deserves special credit as he delivers one of the more memorable villains I have ever seen in a film.  The lengths that Malden’s character goes to obscuring his lies are incredible and Malden gets to do just about everything (he gets an action sequence, he gets a monologue, he gets to act drunk, he gets to dance) over the course of the film.

            The last restoration I saw at the New York Film Festival was a few years back when they did Richard III (which also happened to be introduced by Martin Scorsese), and One-Eyed Jacks is easily the more memorable of the two.  This film also goes to show that the good stuff in any film festival isn’t just reserved for the main slate and premieres sections.