Short takes: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Mommy Dead and Dearest & more

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a sizable leap forward from the first installment, a movie that feels like its own beast and has a distinct visual personality that is so often absent from other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Again following the planet-hopping exploits of a misfit group of reluctant heroes, director James Gunn doubles down on the ensemble’s comedic banter while refining the action set pieces. The generic, indistinguishable eyeball assaults that I’ve come to expect and dread from Marvel movies are mostly gone here, replaced with fun, varied fight sequences. Gunn also divides the team up so he can focus on different character dynamics rather than throwing everyone into a big, empty spectacle that flattens them.

That’s not to say that doesn’t happen occasionally. There are times when the movie trips over its own feet, skipping between plot lines by awkwardly cutting up scenes that would be better had Gunn just let them play out a bit longer. This is especially true of the ones between Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the Guardians’ leader, and the father (Kurt Russell) who abandoned him and his mother for a life of space conquest. Right as their scenes start to find a rhythm, the movie skips back to see what other members of the squad, Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), are up to while trapped on a space ship lightyears away.

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My 2017 Oscar predictions

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Best Picture: Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight

  • Will Win: La La Land seems inevitable, but if fatigue from that inevitability sets in, I could see Moonlight pulling an upset. 
  • Should Win: Moonlight. It’s always nice to see the Best Picture nominated for Best Picture. 
  • Left out: Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea can stay. I’d take out the rest and add Silence, Love & Friendship, Little Sister, Certain Women, Mountains May Depart, OJ: Made in America and Hail, Caesar!

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Our Favorite Movies of 2016

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1. Moonlight- “Who is you?”

The question seems to knock Chiron backward. That’s because when it’s asked toward the end of Barry Jenkins’ moving, intimate epic, everything that preceded it seems to wash over him at once.  Told in three stages of his life — as a young boy, a teenager and an adult — Moonlight charts Chrion’s evolution from a quiet, cripplingly shy child to a more confident adult without losing sight of his pent up frustration and insecurity.  Jenkins crafts scenes filled with long, winding conversation where Chiron slowly unfolds his inner desires as well as moments of loud, visual splendor, as in a scene where Chrion’s father figure Juan brings him to the beach.  Chiron’s entry into the water is overwhelmed by Nicholas Britell’s stirring, string-heavy score, the camera seemingly placed on the water’s surface as Juan supports Chiron as he floats on his back.

It’s exceedingly rare to see a film like this, a black, queer coming-of-age story that morphs into a beautifully observed romance, get a nationwide release and even an awards push. It’s nice to see the film get this kind of exposure, and hopefully it leads to Jenkins getting more resources for his next endeavor. However, the breathtaking artistry with which he realizes this deeply personal vision transcends whatever awards hype Moonlight might garner.  Jenkins charts Chiron’s inner life and emerging queer identity with extraordinary empathy and images of overwhelming power, finding rhyming verbal and visual cues that echo across decades. –Matt

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2. Manchester by the Sea-  Films often portray grief as a series of steps characters move through to reach the end of a dark tunnel and emerge back into the light. Kenneth Lonergran’s exceptional Manchester by the Sea is one of the few to acknowledge that, sometimes, a tidy reconciliation never arrives. The past continues to haunt and inform the present.  Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor living in Massachusetts – he sulks through his work with a dead-eyed stare, sometimes snapping to life at slight transgressions from customers and bar patrons. It is clear he is a man suffering, unable to rectify himself. Chandler is called back to his hometown, Machester-by-the-Sea – a place that holds painful memories – when he is informed his brother Joe has had a heart attack. Joe’s son, Patrick, comes under the temporary guardianship of Lee as the two negotiate the best course of action and form a strained – and often humorous – reconnection.

Lonergran’s 2011 film Margaret was an operatic and ambitious melodrama about a teenager emerging from solipsism in New York City, with narrative threads that piled on and split off in all directions to overwhelming effect. The tangled narrative structure is still here, albeit on a much smaller scale, absent of the escalating drama and more attuned to the ways comedy can coincide with tragedy. Its script is unconcerned with easy resolutions or adhering to formulaic notions of “growth” and “change” – most of the characters here end up much the same as before. As we all often do. -Sam

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Our Favorite Performances of 2016

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1. Krisha Fairchild- Krisha- Even though our introduction to the title character of Trey Edward Shults’ debut film seems relatively calm at first, erratic energy soon reverberates off of her.  Krisha mutters to herself as she exits her vehicle, stops mid-track to retrieve her suitcase and then trudges through a lawn until she arrives at the front door of her sister’s house.  She is there to make amends for her turbulent past, but the reunion only causes her to retreat back into it, opening up old wounds and carving out fresh ones. The camera shares her frantic perspective, sometimes observing at a nervous distance and other times focusing on Fairchild’s face as she searches for a way back into the family. She gives a volatile tour de force here, playing Krisha as a woman who desperately wants to make things right but is unable to escape her demons.

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2. Casey Affleck- Manchester by the Sea- Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature is one of the great recent films about guilt and grief.  At its center is Lee Chandler (Affleck), a man drawn back to his hometown Manchester from Boston after the death of his brother.  He’s shocked to find out that his brother’s will leaves him custody of his teenage nephew, and he’s forced to linger in town as he decides what to do.  Manchester is a place of unspeakable pain for him, and Affleck is tremendous at showing the weight of his character’s torment in both the present and in the movie’s many extended flashbacks.

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REVIEW: Moonlight

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Moonlight
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Written by: Barry Jenkins (screenplay), Tarell Alvin McCraney (story)
Starring: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes and Naomie Harris

Moonlight, a coming-of-age film from Barry Jenkins, is a moving, intimate epic. Told in three stages of his protagonist, Chiron’s, life — as a young boy (Alex R. Hibbert), a teenager (Ashton Sanders) and an adult (Trevante Rhodes)– Jenkins and the three actors who portray Chiron show his evolution from a quiet, cripplingly shy child to a more confident adult without losing sight of his pent up frustration and insecurity.

When we first see Chiron, he’s a frantic blur, a boy fleeing through grass from schoolyard bullies in Miami, his backpack thrashing behind him. To escape, he heads to a largely abandoned drug den and tries the doors until one opens. Locking it behind him, he’s finally alone and, temporarily, safe.  It’s not long before Juan (Mahershula Ali), a drug dealer who becomes a warm, caring father figure to the tormented boy, breaks off one of the wooden panels covering the window.

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REVIEW: Little Sister

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Little Sister
Directed by: Zach Clark
Written by: Zach Clark (screenplay), Zach Clark & Melodie Sisk (story)
Starring: Addison Timlin, Ally Sheedy, Keith Poulson and Peter Hedges

Colleen Lunsford hasn’t been home for a while.  The young novitiate (Addison Timlin) made her way from her hometown of Ashville, N.C. to Brooklyn and hasn’t looked back for several years.  Little Sister, from writer/director Zach Clark, establishes her life in New York and the rift between her and her mother with quick, economical cuts showing her new routine as her old life gradually, forcefully seeps its way back in. It begins with her mom Joani (an excellent Ally Sheedy) emailing her to tell her that her older brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) is out of the hospital and back home after being wounded and permanently disfigured in the second Iraq War.

The email, which she reads after ignoring her mom’s attempt to contact her by phone, spurs her to temporarily abandon her life of buying food for the homeless, reading to the elderly and attending anti-George W. Bush performance art shows and head South.  She asks the head nun if she can borrow her car for the trip; the nun agrees, but makes her agree to a time frame.  God created the Earth in six days, she says, so Colleen should be able to attend to her business in less than that. They settle on five, though Colleen doesn’t hold herself to that time frame.

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Short takes: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge and more

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Arrival — Arrival feels like the more hopeful and optimistic prequel to the 2009 sci-fi film District 9, a movie about the destructive, Apartheid-like aftermath of an alien spaceship’s sudden presence on Earth.  As in that movie, the large, ominous vessels in Denis Villeneuve’s film loom large over an otherwise standard landscape.  A dozen or so of the big, black ships pop up around the world, in places like Siberia, Sudan and Montana, where much of the movie is set. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, is called there by the U.S. military to try and communicate with the aliens and translate their messages.

If it weren’t for the strategic establishing shots with the spaceship, Arrival would feel like a much smaller movie, one that largely unfolds in an ominously foggy room inside one of the ships or in the close quarters of a temporary military base just outside it.  Its use of practical effects and news footage widens its scope and enhances the drama rather than distracting from it.  The movie focuses on a select few characters, but their actions are seen to have a huge and wide-ranging effect on how the rest of the world will respond to the crisis. Arrival builds to a moving, surprising climax, one that is both hopeful and heartbreaking.  Grade: B

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