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Only 2 months and 19 days until the next Oscars are awarded on February 26, 2017.

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MISCELLANEOUS

Manchester By the Sea

photo Every so often, a movie comes along that I am desperate to tell people about, but I don’t want to actually talk about. It sounds like it may not make sense, but sometimes my reaction to a movie is so visceral that I want to keep my emotions to myself, to feel it personally, deep down, and just hold it there.

Then there are the movies that I feel like I really can’t talk about, because there is no part of the movie’s plot or story that I could reveal that I feel wouldn’t be tainting somebody else’s experience of it for themselves.

There are just some movies that you have to take in as blank a slate as you can possibly be—Manchester By the Sea is one of those movies.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, who, despite his name-recognition, has only directed two other movies prior to this one (You Can Count on Me and Margaret), Manchester By the Sea is a movie you need to see. I won’t tell you why, and I won’t tell you what it’s about. But I will tell you that it is a movie that you will feel in your bones. It will gut you, it might bring you to tears, but it will also seriously stay with you. Despite the fact that the movie is a heavy one, there are many light moments, even a few laugh out loud ones, only certifying what an affective human experience it is.

What I can talk about are the performances. Casey Affleck stars in the film and carries the emotional and story-telling weight of it. He is raw and never false—never over the top or trying too hard. It feels as if he has lived in his character for years, understands him and all-at-once loathes and loves him. Michelle Williams, who has a small but pivotal role, is her usual standout self, playing a character who is strong but devastated, another moving and powerful performance in a filmography that is becoming one of the most impressive in Hollywood. The movie’s grounding figure, however, is 20-year old Lucas Hedges, who truly breaks out here. His performance is balanced and natural, the essential piece of realism to center the film.

But, truly, the strength of Manchester By the Sea is the screenplay. Lonergan has crafted a tale, and directed it in such a way, that the audience is held in and carried through a story in the present while giving us just enough pieces of the past to put together our own emotional puzzle. The script is smart and never condescending, either to its characters or to the audience. It has a story to tell, but it never once tells us how we should be feeling about it. Think about how truly rare that is.

Bottom line: go see Manchester By the Sea. Don’t read about it, don’t watch trailers for it, just go. Some movies just need to be seen. And felt.

Allied

photo Robert Zemeckis is an extremely admirable director. After all, he brought us all 3 Back to the Future movies, the groundbreaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as well as the monumentally successful Cast Away and Forrest Gump, for which he won the Oscar for Best Director. His movies are entertaining, heartfelt and, most of all, cutting edge. He is a masterful visual effect director, able to seamlessly meld effect with story. Even his dramatic movies, like Contact and Flight, are built on some sort of visual effect to draw you into the story and flesh out the characters. All of this is well and good, if you like to see movies where reality blurs with fantasy, where schmaltz and sentimentality rule the day and where tricks of the eye are par for the course.

Unfortunately, none of Zemeckis’ patented tools help him in his latest effort, Allied, starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Allied is supposed to be a dramatic spy movie, with plenty of romance and mystery thrown in, but, in Zemeckis’ hands, it comes off as a—I’m actually not sure what. Because Zemeckis is so good at the fantastical, it comes off as completely wrong when he tries his hand at legit drama that doesn’t need or benefit from special effects.
click here to keep reading Allied »

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

photo What on earth do you do when you run out of Harry Potter movies? Well, fortunately for Warner Bros and for movie fans everywhere, Harry Potter creator and author J.K. Rowling says just because Harry is gone, it doesn’t mean his universe isn’t still alive and well.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first in probably a long line of new Rowling-authored movies that are inspired by Harry Potter’s magical world, sharing a common universe and some common elements and characters, but, basically a whole new franchise. If movies had such things as spin-offs, this would be Harry’s.
click here to keep reading Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them »

Arrival

photo Ever felt small and insignificant? Ever been mesmerized by the enormity of the universe and wondered who and what else is out there? Ever wondered what you would do if you ever had the chance to find out? Apparently, tourist trips to Mars may be possible within a generation or two. If you could, would you go? Generally, we here on Earth are divided into those who are intrigued and infinitely curious about what lies “out there” and those who prefer to keep their thoughts (and feet) more grounded on our tiny planet we call home. But what if “they” come to us? What if they come knocking on our door? How do we answer?

Movies have loved to tell stories about outer space and aliens since, well, the first movie, Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon in 1902. It has been an endless array of spaceship, alien and space travel movies ever since, as the great unknown of what’s out there has inspired more than one creative imagination, from George Lucas to Steven Spielberg to Stanley Kubrick to Tim Burton.
click here to keep reading Arrival »

Doctor Strange

photo And….here we go again. This is the age of superhero/comic book movies and there seems to be no end in sight. I, quite frankly, have lost my taste for “reviewing” these movies, not only because I feel like I’m saying the same thing each time, but also because the movies themselves are losing their appeal for me. I’ve grown cynical and bored, so I’ll make you this promise now: I will keep going to see them, but I’ll only write about them if I see one that offers something different, something unique and/or truly entertaining—and, thusly, truly worth your while. Until then, I’m out.

For the record though, I did see Doctor Strange. In case you are interested in my two cents about it, I’ll give you these two pennies: I had never heard of Doctor Strange before, so I had no preconceived emotions or expectations going in, so the experience of the movie was left strictly on the film’s merits, which, for me, were few. Benedict Cumberbatch is a great actor, but he wasn’t effective in the lead role. The movie seemed to exist purely for the special effects wizardry and I have to say, that’s pretty much all this movie has to offer. I found myself rolling my eyes more than once, prompting my companion to lean over and whisper, “it’s a comic book movie, just go with it.” Well, I tried. I was looking for some escapist entertainment after a long, brutal week in reality, and I’ll at least give it that. Doctor Strange sure is escapist. It’s fantastical and it’s eye-popping. But is it extremely silly and nonsensical too? Well, yes. So you are free to make up your own mind. And, for the record, if you do decide to go, I recommend the 3D. I normally don’t, but, for this movie, the effects were made just for it, so they probably would be really cool. It’s the one time I wished I had sprung for the extra $3.

Other than that, same old, same old. Wake me when superhero season is over.

Loving

photo Every director has a specialty. For writer/ director Jeff Nichols, he seems to be most comfortable telling stories set in the rural South. He’s made 5 movies so far, and they’ve all been just as much about their setting as their characters. But his current movie, Loving, is a perfect blend of setting and character—not to mention history.

Loving tells the true story of the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision, handed down in June of 1967, which overturned all laws that prohibited interracial marriage in this country. The obvious precursor to the gay-marriage decision, the Loving case had been the most significant step towards equality since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

But for Nichols and his film, Loving is not about the great societal impact this ruling would have, nor its place in history, but instead is a tender, intimate and incredibly moving story of the two people behind the history: two quiet people whose lives became forever etched in the lore of the American Civil Rights movement.
click here to keep reading Loving »

Denial

photo One of the foundations of being human is, obviously, awareness. We, as humans, are more than just conscious of our lives and our surroundings, but we are aware of them, capable of understanding nuance and meaning and, thusly, able to question. It is what separates us from, what binds us with, and what uniquely distinguishes us from every other living thing in our known universe.

The flipside of questioning is acceptance. Blindly believing without foundation, following without thought and feeling without introspection, these can be dangerous paths for humanity, as perhaps our biggest weakness as a species is the tendency to let our awareness be capitulated to another. “I think, therefore I am” is not just a philosophical tenet, it should be a way of life.
click here to keep reading Denial »

Moonlight

photo I will never and would never pretend to know anything about the experience of being black in America, but that is why we have movies. Through the visionary and compelling stories that are told on our screens, we can—all of us—move a little closer to a common human understanding of other races and cultures, even in the slightest way.

It would be far too simplistic, however, to paint with one single brush the experience of watching the film Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins. While it is a movie set in and focused on a lower-income black community in Miami, the story is not about socio-economic woes, but a true character study of one boy’s self-discovery and journey to manhood. Moonlight truly transcends socio-political commentary and evolves into a poignant and moving portrait of a three-dimensional human being who is just trying to figure things out. Even more than that, Moonlight is a movie about the connections we make with each other, bad or good, and the long-term significances they can have on our lives.
click here to keep reading Moonlight »

Catching Up...

I fell far behind on movies earlier in the year, so I’ve been trying to catch up. In case you aren’t too interested in what the offerings are at the local multiplex, let me offer some home viewing alternatives. Here are a few of the movies I caught on demand or DVD/blu-ray that would be worth your while:

photo ZOOTOPIA (original release date: March 4)

Zootopia is an absolutely charming and clever animated film in the spirit of the classic Disney movies that inspired it. With fantastic voice work by Jason Bateman, Idris Elba and Ginnifer Godwin, Zootopia is set in a fantastical, bustling, urban metropolis where everyone goes about their everyday lives—work, school, shopping, driving, riding the subway, even petty crime. It just also happens to be a world without humans. Zootopia is inhabited only by animals, all types big and small, and they coexist in a perfectly balanced utopia. One day, however, that perfect balance gets upset and the city’s harmonious existence is threatened until Judy, an energetic rookie cop—who happens to be a teeny, tiny rabbit, hungry to prove herself fit to serve alongside her fellow, much larger, officers—is determined to take down the villains and bring peace back to Zootopia. Along the way, Judy gets help from a wise-cracking con-artist fox and, together, they prove not only that a bunny and a fox can work together, but that anything is possible if you just believe in yourself.

Ok, it may sound a bit much, but if ever there was a package to deliver such smaltzy messages, Zootopia is it. The animation is first-rate, the music is perfect and the voice acting is spot on. But what makes Zootopia so uniquely enjoyable is its cleverness, which is found in every detail of the film. The animators at Disney are never happy just delivering an average film, they have to inject their special magic into every frame, and Zootopia is loaded with subtle humor, sight gags and so many referential jokes it makes repeated viewings essential to catch them all.

Overall, Zootopia is a thoroughly entertaining and impressive film with heart, brains and more cuteness than you might be able to handle. But try, because it is well worth the effort.

photo EYE IN THE SKY (original release date: April 1)

When I first saw the trailers for this movie back in March, I didn’t give it a second thought. It looked like a run-of-the-mill genre picture, yet another morality play dressed up as human drama set against the Mideast conflict. Yawn.

But, after reading bloggers and critics’ pleas for people to give this movie another try (it bombed at the box office…I guess a lot of other people felt the same as I did), I gave it a chance and was happily proved wrong.

Eye in the Sky may be a movie about morality and the ethics of war, but it really goes so much deeper than that. Set mostly in a situation room where military and government minds have to navigate the ins and outs of drone surveillance and the possibility of taking out a wanted terrorist fugitive despite the civilian casualties it may cause, Eye in the Sky is a taut and compelling thriller/drama that tackles every issue from all sides, never coloring in any piece with commentary, providing the viewer the space to come to their own conclusions.

Starring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul and the great Alan Rickman in his last film role, this movie took me by surprise with its thwarting of gender roles and dedicated avoidance of cliché and stereotype. There is a way to make an issue movie without banging the audience over the head, and there is a way to make an action thriller with some real intelligence and calm. Director Gavin Hood establishes himself as a real talent and Rickman goes out the way he always lived: memorably.

photo THE JUNGLE BOOK (original release date: April 15)

What a wonderful surprise this movie was. I was totally uninterested in seeing a live-action remake of the classic Disney animated film, but I was convinced by both the box office and the critics to give it a try and, wow was I wrong. The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, connects on every possible level, it’s hard to overstate its ingenuity and breathtaking likeability.

Through live-action and CGI effects, The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli, a boy who is raised by the animals in the jungle, after having been orphaned as a boy. As he grows older, however, he comes to become more aware of who he is, where he belongs, and the growing threats against him. Mowgli embarks on an adventure, helped along the way by his loyal companions Baloo and Bagheera, traversing the jungle, with all its beauties and dangers, to get where he belongs. It is fantastical, tender, funny, heartbreaking and heartwarming, but, most of all, it is unbelievably endearing. The effects are so seamless, you can’t even see where the reality ends and the special effects start. Most of all, the characters, from Bill Murray’s Baloo to Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera make the movie the charming and timeless family experience that can and should be experienced by everyone.

photo MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (original release date: April 21)

Whenever director/writer Jeff Nichols and actor Michael Shannon come together, great things happen. Midnight Special feels like a continuance of their magnificent collaboration Take Shelter, a movie about a man imagining (or not?) the end of the world coming soon. Midnight Special may not be about a man slowly losing his grip on reality, but it further evolves the Nichols/Shannon theme of outsiders who exist on a different plane from everyone else.

Midnight Special can easily be called science fiction, but its feel is more earthly drama than anything else. Although the thrust of the story involves a child who has special powers and the humans who love and protect him, the movie feels less like E.T. and more like your run-of-the-mill family drama. But there’s never anything run-of-the-mill with a Nichols movie, and Midnight Special will confuse and intrigue you and, ultimately, possibly disappoint you, but the true joy of this movie isn’t how it ends, it’s how it feels during the journey. The performances and the artistry of the filmmaking separate Midnight Special, from the always-impeccable Michael Shannon to the best Joel Edgerton performance I’ve ever seen to a resilient and grounding Adam Driver, Nichols pulls the best and most riveting performances out of his actors, while giving the movie an atmosphere and tense emotionality that I’ll have a hard time letting go of.

If you missed any of these movies in the theatres, I highly recommend catching them in some format—streaming, DVD, blu-ray, or on-demand. You won’t regret it.

Sully

photo All too often, the term “ripped from the headlines” portends a tale that is either tragic or difficult to comprehend…or both. It is rare to see a reality-based story that has a happy ending, so, when we do, we need it to offer some sort of catharsis, and, most of all, hope.

Ask me if I can imagine any other director than Clint Eastwood to direct Sully, the true story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s January, 2009 heroic handling of an US Airways jet that loses both its engines just after takeoff, and I would have said Eastwood was the perfect one to bring us this post-9/11 fairy tale to our screens. As a director, Eastwood is dependable, efficient, excellent and basic. Not at all unlike Sullenberger or his story. But here is where the conundrum of this movie lies: if it seems like Eastwood and Sullenberger are cut from the same cloth, can Eastwood really tell an honest and cathartic story that would be truthful, illuminating AND entertaining? I’m not saying he couldn’t, but, as it turns out, he didn’t.
click here to keep reading Sully »

MY CURRENT SMART PICKS

Top 5 List:

My Five Favorite Courtroom Dramas:

1. In the Name of the Father (1993)
2. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
3. Music Box (1989)
4. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
5. Jagged Edge (1985)

Rental Pick:

In the Bedroom (2001)

Favorite Trailers of the Moment:

Awesome Movie Montages and Lists: