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Moonlight: A Dissent

23 Dec
Moonlight

Moonlight

I was eager to see “Moonlight”, after reading so many rave reviews. It is being hailed as the best movie of the year by many critics, who call it a masterpiece and a revelation. Such praise places high expectations on a new movie. So I watched it with eagerness, and there were aspects of it that I loved. But there was one key aspect that I didn’t like, and which kept me from fully embracing it.

First, what makes the film moving: the acting. No Best Actor or Best Actress statues will be given to any of the actors from “Moonlight”. It is truly an ensemble piece, which makes sense given that the movie is all about a handful of key people who revolve around the protagonist, Chiron- three individuals who believe in him and support him, and his mother, a mercurial crack addict. No man is an island, and Mahershali Ali, Naomie Harris and Janelle Monae do fine work- especially Ali, whose Juan says so much with a glance, a weary look. Kevin, the friend who knows Chiron from childhood to manhood, is expertly played by three different actors. And the three actors who play Chiron illustrate his interior life with their sad eyes, their hunched figures, their sullen faces. Look at the picture that accompanies this post.

But this is where my main criticism lies. The actors playing Chiron rely so heavily on physically manifesting the character in their faces and bodies because they are not given much dialogue. Chiron is practically written as a mute. Rather than think this is a profound statement of how alienated he is, I saw it as a cop out. Someone who is neglected and lonely throughout childhood will certainly not socialize like a normal boy, but he could act out. Rant. Rave. Be awkward and make weird jokes that fall flat. Talk back to his mother. He could confide in one person, and have a moment to reveal something about himself. But because he is so underwritten, we get no sense of his interiority. We only see this wounded soul with sad, puppy dog eyes, but nothing is revealed about him. For most of the movie, we see someone who is barely present in his own life. It is deeply touching to see others reach out to him, especially in the last scene. But I was frustrated at how opaque Chiron remained throughout.

 

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Top 5 Movies of 2016

18 Dec
La La Land

La La Land

It’s time for my annual review of movies that I saw this year that I found particularly funny, enjoyable, insightful, moving, or otherwise memorable. 2016 was a dumpster fire of a year; these movies made things better for the two hours of their running time. Who knows what future generations will make of the movies released during this last year of Obama’s presidency: are they the relics of a dying culture, a burst of creative energy before our society fell in 2017? Who knows what this list will look like next year. But here are my favorite movies from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Midnight Special: I argue that this is a better first contact movie that the over-hyped “Arrival”: more spectacular, more thrilling, more human and more urgent than the one in which Amy Adams teaches heptapods the rudiments of English grammar. “Midnight Special” starts with a bang, as we see a boy, wearing goggles, taking off in the night with two grown men. They are fleeing- but from whom? The movie is tautly paced, tossing clues out to the audience slowly but surely so that we may put the pieces together about who the boy is, and why he is so desperately sought by a religious movement and the government. The score is spare and haunting, the acting is superb, notably Adam Driver, Michael Shannon, and the young Jaeden Lieberher as Alton, the young boy whose special powers are at the heart of the movie.

A Hologram for the King: I enjoyed the Dave Eggers book that this movie was based on, but didn’t think that it’s meandering plot lent itself to a film adaptation. But I was happy to be proven wrong when I saw this movie starring Tom Hanks, who has had a knack in this latter half of his career for playing decent men in extraordinary circumstances (Captain Philips, Sully). But here he plays an ordinary man who finds himself in an extraordinary place: the Saudi Arabian desert. Tasked with landing the biggest pitch of his life and making a sale to a Saudi prince, he ends up feeling free being so far from home. He strikes up a friendship with a local driver and begins a flirtation with a doctor. This isn’t the “Lost in Translation” version of being far from home and alienated; this is the liberation of becoming a newer, fuller version of oneself in a distant place. It’s a lovely little film.

The Girl on the Train: This is the rare case of a movie being better than the book. I read the novel earlier this year, and was disappointed in the flimsy plot, since I was expecting something akin to Gone Girl. Well, “The Girl on the Train” proves to be an effective thriller, while also serving as an effective showcase for Emily Blunt. Academy voters will most likely forget about her performance come award season, but she plays a tricky role- alcoholic, desperate, obsessive- and deserves to be recognized.

Southside with You: This movie will feel even more bittersweet as the Obama years fade into memory, I imagine. I already felt nostalgic when watching it this summer, an intimate story of two young, black professionals falling in love over the course of one long, first date….and those two young people are Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. “Southside with You” takes its time, lingering over the hesitant face of Michelle as she opens herself to her confident, assured suitor. We witness the spectacle of two people getting to know each other through conversation, and it is a joy to behold.

La La Land: Unlike the movie described above, “La La Land” gives us the chance to see a young couple fall in love not so much through long conversations, but through song and dance and visual spectacle. And what a spectacle it is. It is gorgeous, with clever nods to French new-wave cinema and classic Old Hollywood musicals, while still being entirely original. This is the rare musical that has you humming the original tunes as you leave the theater, the sure sign of a good musical (can you sing any tune from “Wicked”?). But “La La Land” is more than a musical: it is a love story and a story about the age-old conundrum of safe career paths vs bold creative choices. What if one’s creative dreams clash with one’s pursuit of true love? That is the story told here in loving detail, expertly directed by Damien Chazelle. It’s because of movies like this that we go to the movies.

Dishonorable mention: Hail Caesar. Sadly, I have to call out the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar” for wasting two hours of my life that I will never get back. This film might be enjoyable for old Hollywood aficionados who can guess the real-life inspirations behind the goofy cast of characters. But otherwise, I was left thinking…why? Why watch this movie? Why make this movie? It was all a story not worth telling, in my view.

Top 6 Movies of 2015

13 Dec
Trainwreck

Trainwreck

It is time for my favorite time of year: the movie theaters are playing the films that studios hope will have a shot at an Oscar come next February. And, oh, the most anticipated movie of the last few years, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, premieres on December 18th. In compiling my list of favorite movies of the year, I am pleased to note that half of them are targeted to a female audience. It was a good year for women in movies. Feel free to peruse my favorite movies from 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

Spy. In a perfect world, Melissa McCarthy would star in a comedy every summer. But only if it were a good movie- she needs the right vehicle. One that allows her to use her gift for physical comedy, which means not only falling all over herself, but also using her face and small gestures to convey humor in small moments. Notice the scene where she attends a dinner with her work crush, played with over the top smarm by Jude Law. Her romantic disappointment is palpable, and funny. “Spy” is a fast-paced action movie that just happens to be a really funny comedy as well. Bonus points for featuring Rose Byrne as the villain.

Magic Mike XXL. Along with “Spy” and “Trainwreck”, “Magic Mike XXL” was part of this summer’s trifecta of films proving the power of the female audience. Though not starring a woman, but rather a quintet of studs, “Magic Mike XXL” was a strong feminist movie. The hunky strippers at the heart of the story make their way through the southern U.S., making various women’s wildest dreams come true- not by being gigolos, but by paying close attention to them, listening to them, treating them as perhaps no other man ever has. A highlight of the movie for me was watching the men woo a gaggle of middle-aged divorcees in the living room of a southern belle played by Andie MacDowell. That was a highlight, along with the sight of Michael Strahan and Donald Glover performing at a private club in Savannah. It’s a fun way to spend two hours. And it’s all for you, lady.

Trainwreck. If the Comedy Central show “Inside Amy Schumer” is like an intro course into the comedy and worldview of Amy Schumer, “Trainwreck” is her thesis, her dissertation. In it we learn how Amy came to have such a blasé attitude toward men-her jaded father, played by the perfectly cast Colin Quinn. Trainwreck expertly weaves vulgar comedy with genuine romance- romance as experienced by two real, very flawed individuals. The supporting cast is great, notably LeBron James and John Cena.

The Martian– The best sci-fi film of the year (although admittedly, I haven’t seen Ex-Machina), “The Martian” continues a trend from the last few years of survival stories set against a stark, outerspace backdrop (Interstellar from 2014, Gravity from 2013). The struggle is mostly man against nature, as a botanist played by Matt Damon fights to stay alive in a harsh environment, knowing he may not have contact with other humans for years. The movie produces the same optimism and faith in human ingenuity seen in “Apollo 13”. The extended cast is stellar, from Jessica Chastain to Chiwetel Ejiofor to…Donald Glover, his second appearance on this list. One of Ridley Scott’s best films in years.

Bridge of Spies. Going into awards season, it doesn’t seem like “Bridge of Spies” will earn much acclaim, despite the involvement of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Perhaps it is due to its delicate subject matter: that foreign agents held in U.S. detention must be accorded the same rights that we would want given to American agents abroad. It’s a Cold War tale with much to say about current conflicts and how to handle them. Mark Rylance, an actor I had never seen before, does a wonderful job as the accused Soviet spy. The suspense in the film’s third act is expertly filmed, and the movie gets bonus points for featuring German actor Sebastian Koch, who I would watch read the phone book. In German.

Spectre. I was particularly anxious to see this movie, since I was in Mexico City during filming, and recall the excitement of seeing the filming of a helicopter over the Zocalo with a stuntman dangling out. I was excited to see my city as part of the glamorous Bond universe. While Mexico City fades away as the opening credits begin, the rest of the movie is a rip-roaring action film. For one thing, it is not as morose as “Skyfall”. And we get to see the best European acting talent do their thing- Lea Seydoux, Monica Bellucci, Naomi Harris. And of course, the creepy Christoph Waltz. It’s sensual, it’s exciting, it’s thrilling. It’s so good.

 

Top 5 Movies of 2014

15 Dec
La Dictadura Perfecta

La Dictadura Perfecta

It’s my favorite time of the year: yes, in addition to the holidays being in full swing, it’s also time to play Roger Ebert (R.I.P.), and list my favorite movies of the year. It’s a subjective list: these are movies that I thoroughly enjoyed. Why? I explore why below. Also, take a stroll down memory lane and recall my favorite movies from 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. I’ve been doing this for five years now!

The Other Woman. This is the comedy I enjoyed the most this year. It was a revelation to see Cameron Diaz, after Bad Teacher, prove herself once again to be a talented comedienne. And speaking of revelations, Nicki Minaj! Who knew she could be so convincing as a sassy New Yorker?? The plot took twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, so it really wasn’t your typical romantic comedy. The ending was unexpected and satisfying, and all throughout, there were plenty of laughs.

Begin Again. I’ve already written about how this movie, about a young musician who partners with a grizzled music industry vet to produce a record on the fly, dovetailed nicely with my life this summer. So there is a personal reason why it finds a place on my best-of list this year. But beyond the personal, it is a good movie for anyone who enjoys good music but may not think of themselves as a fan of movie musicals. Like the movie above, this one has a feminist angle about striking out on your own. A lovely little gem of a movie.

Boyhood. This movie is currently ending up on many critics’ top ten lists. Will a backlash be inevitable? I think there already has been a bit of a backlash. Yes, the movie is innovative, but what makes it great is not just the way it was filmed- a few days each year for 12 years, chronicling one boy’s physical maturation- although that is certainly part of its charm. I found the first half of Boyhood to be more moving than the second half. The bits and pieces we see from each year of Mason’s life are the moments that anyone remembers from childhood, whether it be a memorable trip to the ballpark with Dad, or the first day at a new school. Boyhood strings together moments that together make up one young man’s youth, and the movie is made much better by the participation of the under-rated Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette.

Gone Girl. This is the rare movie that is just as good, if not better than, the very good book it was based on. David Fincher was the perfect choice to direct the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s page turner. It’s got his trademark somber color palette, a moody soundtrack by Trent Reznor, and an amazing performance by Rosamund Pike in the title role. The movie is expertly paced, and even if you know what’s coming, you’ll be on the edge of your seat.

La Dictadura Perfecta. If you’re outside of Mexico, I’m not sure if you’ll be able to see this subtitled in your local arthouse theater. It may be available soon on Netflix; I saw El Infierno, by the same director, on Netflix last year. It’s a very Mexican film about a very Mexican subject: corruption. The plot is ripped from the headlines- a small-time governor uses the help of a certain major television company to boost his image. The audience here in Mexico chuckled along at the all-too-familiar plot lines, and the movie was well-plotted and well-acted. I also appreciated seeing telenovela staple Saul Lisazo as a smarmy TV news presenter. There’s a reason the movie was such a hit with Mexican audiences. It strikes a nerve.

 

The Late, Great Philip Seymour Hoffman

2 Feb
Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Is there any movie where Philip Seymour Hoffman’s presence didn’t make the movie better? I don’t think so. Both character actor and movie star, he is one of those actors whose breadth is hard to conceive of. In a 25 year career, he appeared in over 50 films. He was the Smithers to Lebowski’s Mr. Burns in “The Big Lebowski”, he was so smooth and cunning as Tom Cruise’s nemesis in Mission Impossible: III; he was a no-nonsense CIA officer in “Charlie Wilson’s War”. Was “Capote” his best role? Probably not. Yet in “Capote”, he delivers a truly chameleonic performance, showing the famously narcissistic Truman Capote in both flamboyant and quiet moments.

For me, two roles stand out as the most memorable by Philip Seymour Hoffman: first, Father Flynn in Doubt. The central conceit of the movie is that, just as the nuns at the heart of the film played by Amy Adams and Meryl Streep, we are doubtful as to whether Father Flynn has molested a young boy or not. Are you any clearer on the truth after watching the young priest’s face in this pivotal scene?

The other role is as Andy, one of two brothers who conspires to rob his parents’ jewelry store, in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Things go badly. Hoffman plays a a bully who manipulates a weak brother. He is one of the best things about this taut, suspenseful, criminally underrated thriller.

What a shame that we won’t see him in more movies. Rest in peace.

Top 5 Movies of 2013

11 Dec
Spock

Spock

Ah, it’s the most wonderful time of the year! The streets are adorned with lights, passersby are wrapped head to toe in wool, and thoughts turn to the year that is about to pass us by. Favorite memories, trips I took, and of course, the movies I saw! I can pinpoint five movies that I saw this year that I truly, thoroughly enjoyed. Herewith, it’s the third annual (you loved the 2010 edition, the 2011 edition and the 2012 edition) top movies of the year list!

To the Wonder. Critics were pretty divided on this most recent Terrence Malick film. I think that Malick conveys the high of being in love, as well as the low of falling out of love, masterfully in this movie. I was well aware, as I sat watching the movie, that others may hate it. The constant narration. The lack of plot. The lack of dialogue. But one must go into a Malick film knowing that it is primarily about mood and visuals. The interplay between the beautiful Olga Kurylenko and the stoic Ben Affleck is almost like modern dance. We see them dance towards each other and then eventually dance away from each other. It is a wondrous, beautiful film.

Star Trek Into Darkness. I love a good action film- but only a good action film. Meaning that there are plenty of bad ones out there. I have no need for catchphrases such as “Yippie ky ay motherfucker”. Just give me a tightly-plotted, well-directed, well-acted, fast-paced story with visual effects that are impressive but that don’t overpower the story or verge on the ridiculous. I am not a big fan of Chris Pine, but I understand that he has to act within the confines of a character first played by the Dean of overacting, William Shatner. But Zachary Quinto to me is great as the logical Spock. J.J. Abrams is a skilled storyteller, and he directed the best action movie of the year.

Much Ado About Nothing. Speaking of skilled action movie directors, this is the first Joss Whedon movie that I had ever seen. I have never seen The Avengers, or Firefly, and was not into Buffy the Vampire Slayer back in the day. But I do have great fondness for Much Ado About Nothing, a Shakespearean comedy that I participated in when I was an adolescent. So I was very curious to see this modern adaptation. It was a wonderful adaptation, preserving the rambunctious spirit of Shakespeare’s play, honoring the dialogue, while making the modern update relevant. The whole movie was filmed at Whedon’s beautiful Hollywood Hills home, and the whole film has the air of a breezy, fun weekend with friends. If those friends included Nathan Filion!

The Heat. This is the funniest movie I saw this year. Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy complement each other perfectly as cops cracking a big case. This movie also gets big points for featuring Bill Burr and Demian Bichir in supporting roles, both actors I like. Melissa McCarthy should star in every new comedy, since she is a big ball of energy who is also blessed with perfect comedic timing. Couple that with Sandra Bullock playing uptight, which she does well, and you have a pretty awesome comedy.

Blue Jasmine. What can I say about this movie that I didn’t already say in my praise of Cate Blanchett? She does what she does best, ably guided by Woody Allen’s direction. We get to see several shots of San Francisco, both the famous postcard views and the lesser-known areas. We get to see an actress lead an ensemble cast that includes Louis C.K. in a semi-dramatic role and Alec Baldwin at his smarmy best. We get to see what happens when a woman bases her self-worth on how the men in her life value her. All in all, highly recommended.

A Cranky Moment with Dwayne Kennedy

15 Sep