Writer/Director Mike Mills’ acclaimed 2010 film, Beginners, which brought Christopher Plummer an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, was, by his own admission, a movie about Mills’ father. Now, his latest project, 20th Century Women, is an homage to his maternal side. Starring Annette Bening in the role inspired by Mills’ mother, 20th Century Women is a tender, insightful and charming movie about mothers, sons, friendship and what the world was like in the time just before the internet, AIDS and Reagan shaped it. And, just like Beginners, Oscar may come knocking again, this time for Bening, who shines in perhaps the best role of her career.
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I may not be the least bit interested in religion, but I am interested in history. And history is the most compelling part of Martin Scorsese’s new epic, Silence. This film feels like (and is) the culmination of a personal journey for the legendary director—an introspective, cathartic and deeply emotional film about belief—but, while it is a beautiful film made by a legitimate master of his craft, it is far from what we have come to expect from Scorsese, in terms of fast-paced, character-driven crime dramas. That’s not to say it’s worse…just different. Very different.
Silence takes place in seventeenth-century Japan, an era and region I admittedly knew nothing about before seeing this movie. I had no idea that following Christianity was a crime, under penalty of death. I had no idea that European Jesuit priests would risk their lives trying to propagate Catholicism in the strictly Buddhist country. This film follows two such priests, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, who travel to the Japanese countryside in the hopes of finding one of their colleagues, played by Liam Neeson, who has gone missing while attempting to convert Japanese peasants to Christianity.
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First of all, if anyone who tells you A Monster Calls is a movie for kids, do not believe them. Its PG-13 rating and cool monster effects/animation notwithstanding, A Monster Calls is pretty intense viewing, and I wouldn’t want to take a kid to it for fear of it really upsetting them. I mean, I’m in my late 40s and it kind of upset me. But that’s not to say A Monster Calls isn’t a really, REALLY good movie.
Directed by J.A. Bayona and written by Patrick Ness, based on his own novel, A Monster Calls stars Lewis MacDougall as Conor, a pre-teen whose single mother, played by Felicity Jones, is dying from a terminal illness. An outcast at school and facing the impending loss of his mother, Conor dives into his vivid imagination to help him cope with his raging emotions. He invents a tree monster, voiced by Liam Neeson, who visits him nightly, to channel his anger, sadness and confusion. A nightmare come to life in Conor’s mind, the tree monster enables Conor to confront the brutality of his reality and face down his own personal demons.
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There have been a lot of comparisons, real or imagined, between the new movie Lion and the Academy Award Best Picture winner from 2008, Slumdog Millionaire. Both take place predominantly in the slums of India and both star actor Dev Patel, and, yes, they are both about what it takes for a child to survive in some of the worst conditions on earth—well, ok, they do have a lot in common. But don’t let anyone talk you out of seeing Lion just because you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire. They are two different movies and Lion deserves to stand on its own and to be seen for its own unique qualities.
Directed by Garth Davis, Lion is based on the true story (and book) of Saroo Brierley, an Indian child who gets separated from his family in India, finds himself in the slums of Calcutta and ends up in an orphanage, from which he gets adopted by an Australian couple. More than 20 years later, as an adult, Saroo is determined to go back to India to find his family. The movie is a powerful and emotional testament to personal understanding and connection to where you came from and who you are.
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It’s a perspective that we hadn’t yet quite seen, that of Jackie Kennedy in the wake of her husband President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in October of 1963. Director Pablo Larain’s movie Jackie attempts to take us inside the world and mind of Mrs. Kennedy in the hours before, during and after the seminal moment in Dallas that altered the course of the country’s history. Starring Natalie Portman as the First Lady, Jackie is an unflinching examination of life in a political fishbowl, where a personal tragedy can be turned into a national spectacle and manipulated for emotional and psychological effect. It really is a subject matter that could define compelling, if only the movie itself weren’t trying so hard to create its own kind of psychological warfare on the audience.
There really is nothing worse than a director who puts his own desire to make “art” above the narrative needs of the movie he’s making. In Larain’s case, Jackie is so painfully paced and self-aware that it detracts from any enjoyment or appreciation of the tale it’s trying to tell. Close-ups of Portman’s face dominate the screen time and, while she’s a strong actress and does the best she can with the portrayal of Mrs. Kennedy, even Portman can’t overcome the overexposure and the painfully calculated decision to communicate emotion and story through slight facial expression and brooding music cues.
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I’ll be the first to admit I was hesitant to watch Hacksaw Ridge, not only because I didn’t want to, implicitly or explicitly, support director Mel Gibson, but because I truthfully am not a fan of Gibson’s movies. I didn’t like his 1995 Oscar Best Picture-winning film Braveheart, and I wasn’t interested in either of his two most recent films, 2004’s The Passion of the Christ or 2006’s Apocalypto. His style of filmmaking is just a little too aggressive for me, too preachy and too masculine.
But when I saw the subject of his newest film, Hacksaw Ridge, it piqued my interest. The story of WWII Army medic Desmond Doss, Hacksaw Ridge is the true tale of how Doss became a war hero while staying true to his religious principles: he refused to ever touch a gun or take a life. His heroics during the battle for Okinawa, the bloodiest battle of the war, earned him the first Medal of Honor awarded to someone who never fired a shot.
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I’ll admit that I was pessimistic over the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm back in 2012. Hearing it would be Disney taking over the reins of my most beloved movie franchise, Star Wars, filled me with dread, as I imagined a perceived “Disney-fication” of the stories and characters we love so much. Not only would Disney surely ruin all new movies they make under their banner, but they might even tarnish the warm nostalgic feelings for the original films, due to their over-marketing and over-saturation. It was clearly just a cash grab, right?
Well, two movies into the new Disney/Star Wars era, it looks like I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, Disney is clearly making money hand-over-fist, but it’s also clear that they actually care about both honoring nostalgia the right way AND building new audiences for the future of the franchise. When I saw Disney’s debut Star Wars film, Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I was happily surprised. With the lastest release, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a “stand-alone” movie set in the Star Wars universe, Disney proves once and for all that they know what they’re doing and we, Star Wars fans, had nothing to be worried about.
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The prevailing narrative from reviewers and journalists as they approach the new movie, La La Land from director Damien Chazelle, is that Chazelle is reviving the movie musical, moving a classic genre to the modern era, in the hopes of creating renewed interest and passion in what was once a staple of the studio industry. While all that is true, I feel, after having finally seen it for myself, that everyone is missing the real point with this movie. La La Land is not just a musical for the modern era, it is a movie that speaks specifically to the modern era and is perhaps the bravest example of guerrilla filmmaking I’ve seen in a long time. What Chazelle has rediscovered on screen is something we all need so desperately and seemed to have forgotten altogether: optimism.
From the opening sequence (which is staggering) to the addictive chemistry between its two stars, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, La La Land is so passionately brazen in its desire to make you feel something that it cannot be denied. It works on every level and you truly have never seen anything like it. It glows with a retro vibe that is intoxicating, and I found myself wishing this movie could seep into my bones and stay there.
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The Tree of Life is a lot like Tootsie to me. Let me explain.
When I saw Tootsie for the first time back in 1982, I was struck by the powerful and memorable performance of one Jessica Lange—an impact that lasts to this day. Nearly the exact same revelatory feeling came over me when I saw Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life nearly 30 years later. Her performance and presence in that film was luminous, powerful and, yes, memorable. Chastain proceeded to validate my first impression with a string of incredible performances since, including Take Shelter, The Debt, The Help, Lawless, Zero Dark Thirty, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, A Most Violent Year and Crimson Peak. Two Oscar nominations already and more surely to come, Chastain has proven herself a force to be reckoned with as one of the top actresses in Hollywood.
And, in 2016, following closely on the heels of Amy Adams, another actress with an impressive resume, who top-lined a movie all by herself to critical and commercial acclaim with Arrival, Jessica Chastain carries the drama Miss Sloane. Considering Chastain’s pedigree and the December opening, could Miss Sloane be as strong for Chastain as Arrival was for Adams, even portending Oscar?
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