Archive for January, 2017

I had planned on writing mini-reviews for all of the movies I saw that I missed reviewing in the months of October, November, and December. Unfortunately, things have taken a turn for the worse for me. I got kicked out of my home by my ex and am currently crashing with friends until I can find a place to live. Unfortunately, most of the apartments down here want your monthly income to be 3Xs the monthly rent, which I do not make working part time as a movie theater manager. So, I am stuck looking for a full time job to supplement my part-time theater income while also going to school. Yeah. Writing reviews is not the highest on my priority list. So, here are some VERY SHORT mini-reviews:
The Birth of a Nation
Film has weird message about religious violence being justified, but has an unintentional atheist message since the pro and anti-slavery sides think The Bible supports their cause, leading on to the conclusion that religion is bullshit that people pick and choose an interpretation of to justify their own attitudes anyway. The director’s rape allegations do hover over the film, since rape plays two plot points. The film is good, but flawed by the director’s lack of perspective on religion. B
The Accountant
A very good action/thriller/drama that attempts to make a sort-of Aspie superhero. The film eschews cliche in many ways (the climax, no simple love story) and contains a great lead performance by Affleck. One of my favorite films of 2016. A-
Dr. Strange

The story is your average Marvel movie. No more, no less. What it does, it does well, and I was entertained. But it does no more than is required, and has very little imagination, though the visuals are often quite good. B

Arrival
An incredibly intelligent sci-fi films (released from a major studio, no less) that isn’t about war and explosions, but rather about the attempts to communicate and bridge gaps along cultures. The film is about diplomacy and empathy, while also socking you with emotion when it comes to the characters. Amy Adams was robbed of an Oscar nod. Aside from my contention that her character ultimately makes a horrible selfish decision that the film wants us to think is profound and correct, the film was one of the best I saw in 2016. A-
The Edge of Seventeen
A pretty by-the-numbers coming of age film that starts out as comedy and moves into dramedy. The lead performance by Hailee Steinfeld is quite good, and I enjoyed the humor and the characters, but this film doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done better in other films. It won’t stand out as a memorable teen film. B
Miss Sloane
A film political junkies will like. The twist ending is absurb and unrealistic, but the film largely works as a cynical indictment of the power lobbyists and media consultants have over Washington, and is something of a player’s guide to how people upset with the system can attempt to change it from within by adopting the opposing side’s playbook and not being afraid to get their hands dirty. B+
Allied
A shitty, sappy Hollywood ending capsizes what was otherwise a fun little throwback to Old Hollywood films (Casablanca being the obvious and overt influence). The film is a fun little mystery with pretensions of being more. B-
Bad Santa 2
Not nearly as good as the first film, but no one expected it to be. I laughed a decent amount of times, enjoyed seeing Christina Hendricks in a dirty little role, and just enjoyed some stupid, raunchy laughs. B-
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Aside from an unlikable main character who seems to be autistic (and does everything wrong for autistic characters, unlike The Accountant which felt right even though it skewed things for its narrative), this film was a worthy expansion of the Harry Potter franchise. Taking the world to the U.S. and creating a new magical government and bureaucracy and new, likeable supporting characters made this a fun little dip back into the world, even if it’s not as compelling or absorbing as the main franchise. B
Office Christmas Party
Mostly unfunny, wasting a talented cast (though Jason Bateman has been stagnating by playing pretty much the same role in all of his films, and Olivia Munn gets on my nerves). There are maybe 5 laughs in the hour and a half film, but most of the time I just sat bored, waiting for it to end. C-
The Founder
A surprisingly good film about how the original McDonald brothers created a small business and attempted to run it the way naive Conservatives view Capitalism to be. Then a guy named Ray Kroc comes in to franchise it, and he uses the way Capitalism ACTUALLY works to steal the business, become rich, and screw out the original creators. It’s about wealth by idea theft and legal/capital might over actual small business ingenuity. While the view of small business isn’t shared by my Marxist self, the film does a good job of showing how a pie-eyed concept of Capitalism is crushed by the harsh reality of it. B+
Split

Some part of the film are really good, and some parts are unintentionally hilarious, which is a flaw Shyamalan has suffered in many of his films. This is still probably his best film since Unbreakable, which was his last solidly good movie. James McAvoy gives a great performance (performances, really) in the lead role(s), and the ways that the film twists a real life disorder into something supernatural eventually makes sense when you find out this film shares a universe with another one of Shyamalan’s films. B-

That’s every movie I’ve seen in a theater that I haven’t had time to write a full review of. I don’t know when I’ll have time to write full reviews again. If you’d like, I’ve set up a GoFundMe to help with my financial expenses right now:
gofundme.com/daveandkarl

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Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

Posted: January 17, 2017 in Uncategorized

“Moonlight” is the story of a boy, Chiron, shown at three different periods of his life. As a young child he is played by Alex Hibbert, as a teen by Ashton Sanders, and as an adult by Trevante Rhodes. The story is not much to write home about. Chiron is gay, though he doesn’t figure that out until he’s a teenager, even if everyone else knows it from the time he’s a child. Being gay is hard enough, even in 2016, but tack on being in poverty, and being Black, and having a mother addicted to crack (yeah, that’s a bit of cliché, no?), and you have the recipe for a really trying childhood. To its credit, “Moonlight” shies away from easy melodrama and focuses on character moments and has a tone of realism that allows the film to rise above its more clichéd narrative moments to be a film that is at times be heartbreaking.

When we first meet Chiron, he is running from some kids who are teasing him, and he takes refuge inside a boarded up crack den. He is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who happens to be the main drug dealer of the community. Juan is actually a good guy, save for the fact that he sells the drug that hurts his impoverished community, and is directly causing Chiron hardship by creating the environment in which Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) can lose her seemingly good job as a nurse to become a dope fiend (and possibly a  prostitute, though this is merely implied). We get the feeling that Juan doesn’t necessarily view himself as some gangsta crimelord or emulate Scarface, but is rather making the best living he can under his limited circumstances. We’re told he came from Cuba as a child, indicating his family probably came to United States with nothing and that Juan, therefore, didn’t have much of an opportunity to excel, especially being black, regardless of the “American Dream” many citizens of this country are deluded into believing actually exists. Juan takes a shine to the boy and becomes something of a father figure to him. He treats Chiron well, feeds him, and even his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monae) becomes something of a more responsible mother to the child. When Chiron is berated by his real mother, you see Juan’s remorse and inner turmoil with knowing he is responsible for Chiron’s life being irreparably worse due to Juan’s actions, and you know it kills him.

As a teen, Chiron is still teased by other kids. His mother is even more of an addict, and Juan has since died. The one bright spot may be Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome in the teen segment, and later by Andre Holland), a boy who treats Chiron like a friend and gives him the nickname Black. Kevin seems to be straight, bragging about getting detention for having sex with a female peer, but then one night Chiron and Kevin share a sexual experience down by the beach, and we know Kevin is either bisexual or on the down-low.  In any event, Kevin does not experience the teasing that Chiron does, and is even liked by some of the very same kids who bully Chiron regularly.

Events transpire, and we then see Chiron as an adult, having followed in Juan’s footsteps and ended up a drug dealer in Atlanta. One day he gets a call from Kevin, who he hasn’t spoken to since an unpleasant event a decade earlier, and old unresolved feelings come flooding back, as does the realization that Chiron never became the person he was truly meant to be, or who he was inside, as he remained forever stuck in the circumstances life threw at him.

Each individual segment has moments of power. This is largely a movie about people interacting with people, and the things people leave unsaid between themselves. It’s about how we don’t have as much of a choice in life as to who we are as we think we do. It’s about struggles that are both universal and also very specific to sexual identity, economic status, and race. While I wish the story maybe didn’t hit as many clichéd story beats as we’ve seen from other films about Black poverty, or even gay teen coming of age films, the film does make up for this by having across the board phenomenal acting, and isolated moments of extreme power as we feel for the characters. While some characters, like Chiron’s mother, feel like a cliché, other characters like Juan and Kevin eschew clichés associated with their characters, revealing that behind archetypes of the ghetto drug dealer or the closeted gay Black man, are human beings with struggles and reasons that they have lived the lives they have lived, even if they are lives they don’t wish they had lived.

“Moonlight” is at time powerful, and the good moments far outweigh the more clichéd narrative issues. B+

 

“La La Land” is a film about many things. It is a film about nostalgia in general and classic jazz music and the silver age of Hollywood in particular. While a lot of Hollywood is driven by nostalgia in the modern era, as evidenced by the slew of reboots and the return of everything from “Full House” to 8-bit Ninentdo systems, “La La Land” specifically makes an argument that there is a difference between nostalgia driven by past art being of higher quality, and empty nostalgia based solely on remembrance. At a low point in his life, one of our two main characters, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is reduced to playing keyboards in a lame 80s cover band. While I myself love 80s music, it’s clear that writer/director Damien Chazelle does not (sample line of dialogue: “You don’t ask a serious musician to play ‘I Ran’” [the Flock of Seagulls song]), and is making a differentiation between being nostalgic for the heyday of jazz as being legitimate and worthy nostalgia because it is something better than what is being produced today, and nostalgia for 80s New Wave music.

The film makes no such comparison between modern filmmaking and Silver Age films, though barbs against modern Hollywood run rampant in the film. There’s a sleazy screenwriter who hits on our other main character, Mia (Emma Stone), by talking about his gig writing a modern-day reimagining of “Goldilocks” from the bears’ perspective, which is only slightly exaggerated from some of the crap mainstream studios have in the pipeline right now. There’s also a scene where Mia is on a double date and her companions are complaining about the modern day experience of going to the theater, citing the temperature of theaters and the rudeness of other patrons, and claiming that watching movies at home on a big TV is better. Any lover of film will recognize that argument and immediately hate the characters making it. This is contrasted with Sebastian and Mia seeing a screening of a Silver Age Hollywood picture (“Rebel without a Cause”) at an old school movie theater, and the later sadness in a montage of seeing that theater closed down because, well, modern audiences neither appreciate the movie theater experience, nor appreciate old movies like they used to, perhaps thanks to streaming replacing video stores and many streaming services lacking in classic cinema choices.

So yes, a lot of “La La Land” is an ode to film and music that was popular in the 1950s, but the specific focus on quality differentiates it from a reactionary knee-jerk idea (now clichéd) that the 1950s were universally better than the modern era. No, that argument is reserved for reactionary White American Conservatives, and that false nostalgia gave us President Trump and his promise to restore America to some faux remembered greatness, which to them is usually that same idealized 1950s, when it isn’t the Reagan 80s. What’s interesting is that “La La Land” itself is not simply a film attempting to emulate the 1950s. It is set in the modern day, and the film makes no bones about that. In fact, a lot of the film centers around how the modern day material conditions of society often infringe on the things that make us happy, and the ability to follow our dreams. When a ringing cell phone brings a musical number to an abrupt end, or the film breaks when attempting to watch a classic movie, the film is making a point with those many moments of the real, modern world insisting on interrupting happiness and destroying dreams. That is really the other thing that this film is about, the difficulty in following one’s dreams in the face of the unavoidable challenges of the modern world.

The film itself is structured to showcase that theme. When the film begins we see people stuck in a traffic jam, the likes of which are infamous on L.A. highways. Then they break out into song, in a stark contrast to their surroundings and situation, giving a setpiece we would never actually see in a real 1950s music of the “Singin’ in the Rain” variety. The incongruity displayed in that number sets the stage for the themes of the film as a whole. As the film goes on, the musical numbers go from upbeat to sadder and more somber. They also become less frequent. The visual style of the film goes from having bright colors and costumes, reminiscent of the 50s musical, to a more muted and realistic color palette. The choreography becomes less elaborate, and the camera moves around a lot less fluidly. The visual style of this film is heavily tied to express the film’s themes and messages, and the writer/director deserves all of the accolades possible for pulling it off. Those early sequences, where the camera moves around in a dizzying, kinetic, hypnotizing fashion are almost breathtaking, especially considering how long some of the takes go without a cut and how elaborate the choreography taking place is.

The music itself ranges from excellent, to good, to forgettable. “La La Land” isn’t a great musical, even though it is a great film, and that’s okay. The rough and tumble nature of trying to turn real life into a Hollywood musical is expressed by the mixed quality of individual songs, and matches the struggle the characters go through to become their ideal selves. Sebastian wants to bring back classical jazz and open up a jazz club where he can play true, uncompromised jazz music. Mia wants to be a famous Hollywood actress, but is held back by the garbage Hollywood wants to produce and the powers that be not caring about artistic quality. They struggle to make ends meet, to not be viewed as objects of pity or derision by those who know them, and to maintain their dignity and purity in their quests to achieve their goals. Compromise is inevitable, and no one can truly make it in either art form of music or film without at some point selling out at least a little bit, and the struggle becomes what level of selling out is acceptable and necessary, and at what point does holding back from selling out just make you stubborn and pretentious. Mia can’t get any good roles, so she’s convinced by Sebastian to write her own play and thus a good role for herself. Sebastian, hearing half of a phone conversation between Mia and her mother, knows that he seems like a loser to any outsider for not having a good, steady job, so he compromises and joins a band that blends classical jazz with modern music. The band is successful, and the music sounds good (at least to my non-jazz-liking ears), but he’s miserable and feels the music he plays is an abomination. The film wants its audience to ask if it is right that dreams are unachievable without heavy compromise based on largely economic and partially social pressures, or if it is wrong to expect to be able to achieve your dreams because life isn’t fair and we shouldn’t expect it to be.

The film has maybe a mixed answer to this. There’s a little montage at the end of the film that shows an alternate version of events of this film if everything in our main characters’ lives went right after the first act. It’s a much different film, and a much happier alternate reality than the ones the characters actually inhabit. Does the film, and the audience, want that life for the characters? Of course. Was it ever reasonable to expect that for them, or anyone? No.

When Sebastian joins to band fronted by Keith (played by musician John Legend), Keith makes the argument that you can’t be a revolutionary if you’re a traditionalist. If you are too beholden to the past, you will never make anything new, never introduce the art form you love to new audiences, and what you love will die because you can’t accept change. The film, or at least Sebastian, originally treats Keith as practically the antichrist for holding this belief, but in the end “La La Land” is doing to the Silver Age Musical exactly what Keith’s band does to jazz in the film, and because of that audiences are accepting and loving “La La Land” even if they wouldn’t necessarily ever rent “Singin’ in the Rain” or “My Fair Lady”. So is Keith right, that art needs to change to survive, or is Sebastian right, that to change art into something it is not or is only partially what it used to be fatal to its quality and merely a slow death as opposed to an immediate one? I think the answer is that they are both right. Sebastian opens his club and it is a success, but Keith’s band is also a success. Perhaps the film thinks Keith compromised too much, and that “La La Land”, itself a compromise between and old film and a modern one (Prius jokes), threads the needle correctly, and that realistically, beyond arguments of right or wrong, there is no objectively possible way to create successful art and make enough money off of it to live without a degree of compromise for modern audiences’ tastes. My guess is that Chazelle accepts this reality, but finds it heartbreaking nonetheless. Also, while nostalgia for better art is understandable, especially when a lot of modern art (namely music and film) is abject swill, being strictly beholden to the past will only kill quality art. If quality art is to survive, it has to find where the acceptable level of compromise is. “La La Land” found it, so it is possible.

Beyond all this meaning and theme talk, it must be said that this film makes you care about its characters, who are well-performed by the actors even if their singing voices are merely better than average (don’t worry, there’s no Russell Crowe-level bad singing, it’s just not Broadway-caliber, which is fine). Sebastian and Mia aren’t the richest or most multi-layered characters, but you like them and enjoy seeing them on their journey and want them to be successful. I enjoyed the music, tapping my foot to many of the numbers, and I came close to crying at a couple of scenes, but ultimately did not do so. The film is funny and dramatic, and as much fun to watch as it was to analyze and think about. I loved it. A