Review: “Kong: Skull Island”


One of the smartest choices in monster movie history was made out of sheer necessity. In 1974, Steven Spielberg decided to shoot his film Jaws on the open ocean rather than in a tank on Universal’s lot. The filmmakers dragged three robotic sharks (collectively named ‘Bruce’) out into the Atlantic to proceed with a shoot that went 100 days over schedule. The production was a mess for several reasons, but one big problem was that the salt water began to distort and corrode the mechanical carcharodons. This posed a big problem for a movie that hinged entirely upon its ability to make audiences believe the shark was real.

So Spielberg made a decision that must have frustrated the engineers behind his aquatic animatronics: he would have to shoot the shark as little as possible. Thus, in many sequences Jaws is seen just below the surface or not at all, while John William’s iconic musical theme is constantly used as a stand-in for the benevolent fish’s physical presence. Though the simple result of unfortunate circumstances, keeping the shark hidden proved extremely beneficial. It forced Spielberg to adhere to an essential horror truism: a monster is much more frightening when left to the imagination. Instead of a waterlogged action-adventure film, a truly terrifying horror classic was born.


The restrictions that plagued special effects-centric movies in the 1970s have since been eradicated and it’s fitting that Spielberg himself had a hand in it. After the Jaws ordeal, he must have felt absolutely liberated by the ability to use sophisticated computer graphics for Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds, later cementing CGI’s staying power by producing 2007’s Transformers. These days, blockbuster filmmakers are free to imagine fearsome foes of any size or complexity, and display them however they choose. This poses an important conundrum for Hollywood monster movies: should they show off their convincing effects as much as possible, or do they stick with the effective techniques Spielberg perfected by keeping the monster obscured… on purpose this time?

For instance, Cloverfield purposefully kept its monster mostly under wraps until the end in order to better reflect the disorienting, incomprehensible anxiety of the 9/11 attacks. And say what you will about 2014’s Godzilla (I will, it’s overrated), its insistence on keeping the titular lizard marginalized added immensely to the impact of its impressive third-act rampage. In stark contrast, Warner Brothers’s Kong: Skull Island goes the Michael Bay route. This movie is a toy chest and director Jason Vogt Roberts just wants to show off his toys. We see the big monkey in all its glory early on, not to mention a handful of other insane, imaginative species that live on his island domain. This bombastic approach turns out to be at once a breath of fresh air and a case of sensory overload.


But it’s important to give some context first. Vogt-Roberts is the latest filmmaker to be handed a huge blockbuster after directing only a single indie feature (in his case 2013’s low-key coming-of-age comedy The Kings of Summer). This practice worked out for Warner when they hired up-and-comer Gareth Edwards, straight off of his low budget debut Monsters, to direct their Godzilla reboot despite his lack of experience. The massive box office success of that film earned him a job helming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and convinced Warner to set up an interconnected giant monster universe that contains Skull Island, a 2019 Godzilla sequel, and mash-up Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020.

So who can blame the studio for once again entrusting a young (and cheap) whippersnapper like Vogt-Roberts to create a sleek, modern King Kong story? At the very least the youthful energy he brings is on full display, reflected in an extreme visual dynamism. His camera spins, swoops and careens across the screen, jumping from character to character and location to location at a rapid pace. The production design is infused with dazzling colors and though the CGI doesn’t reach the industry high bar, Kong and the other huge beasts (including stilt-legged spiders, skeletal lizards and stone-horned buffalo) are inventive and evocative in their designs.


Vogt-Roberts seemingly aspires to be a Quentin Tarantino for a new age, drawing from an eclectic range of pop culture from his childhood: instead of exploitation and westerns, it’s anime and video games. These aesthetic sources are clearly responsible for his decision to keep the monsters in the spotlight. Video games rely on having the enemies in sight as often as possible, while the freedom of 2D animation has lent anime a long history of gigantic monstrosities. It’s exciting to see the rise of a new generation with distinctive influences, but Vogt-Roberts is no Tarantino (at least not yet). At times it appears he’s more interested in paying homage to his influences than creating a coherent vision, and while this leads to an astonishing kaleidoscope of style, there’s so little substance it hurts.

For all the differences between this film and 2014’s Godzilla, both suffer from terrible scripts that both commit the same major sin: too many characters with no space to flesh them out or take advantage of the actors’ skills. The first half hour of Kong introduces a horde of characters played by an insane amount of talent including Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Kebbell, and both Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins from Straight Outta Compton (two actors who deserve the blockbuster break). Everyone is given at least one moment in the spotlight, but one is not enough. Much of the focus ends up going to John C. Reilly (as a WWII vet stranded on the island for decades), whose wacky delivery fits the tone but steals everyone else’s screen time.


For a surprisingly long while, it’s possible to overlook the vaporous relationships and awkward dialogue because the visual bombast is strong enough to carry the movie on gonzo B-movie fumes alone. But the whole narrative crumbles hard in the final act, once it tries to ‘pay off’ emotional arcs that were barely even established in the first place. Suddenly, we’re asked to care about the well-being of these people, despite the fact that by this point half of them have died in abrupt and often hilarious ways. Certain characters are paired off by this point, but if you blinked at any point, you probably missed when and how these relationships happened.This awful storytelling manages to dull a terrifically badass climactic fight sequence with Kong at center stage because it constantly cuts to the dumb humans in the middle of the action.

Kong: Skull Island demonstrates the positives and negatives behind the Transformers approach to monster movies. CGI allows for a greater focus on the look and scale of whatever vivid creatures one can imagine, but it also encourages blunt storytelling that runs contrary to the genre’s suspenseful, legitimately frightening legacy. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t embrace its own insane frivolousness and jettison our attention on the human characters altogether, instead opting to emulate every other blockbuster by the second half. Vogt-Roberts leaks potential all over the screen (this is the clear result of a guy who’s been handed $185 million) and it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here, but his Kong is another modern monster mishap. His successor would be wise to look to Spielberg for the answers.

Score: 2.5 out of 5



Review: “Logan”


Logan is a film at war with its own blood.

As with every prior venture starring Hugh Jackman as the vicious, tortured, self-healing mutant Wolverine/Logan, it is a superhero movie down to its very DNA. This is clear from the opening sequence, in which Logan murders several men meddling with the vehicle that is his office and home. Of course, this introduction is meant to show off the film’s R-rating, which for the first time allows for an anatomically accurate demonstration of what would happen if Wolverine’s adamantium claws tore through actual human flesh. But on a narrative level the brutality serves no purpose. The cynical truth is that these movies simply need violence. Death and destruction are studio mandates. And it’s the filmmakers’ clear desire to escape from these conventions and from the genre’s innate cruelty that is reflected beautifully in Wolverine’s struggle.

Amidst sequences of nihilistic savagery and grit there is a warmth that handily demarcates Logan from its contemporaries and from every other X-Men film over the last seventeen years (yes, it’s been that long). The narrative begins in 2029 with few mutants left besides Logan, Charles Xavier (again played by Patrick Stewart) and vampire-like Caliban (Stephen Merchant). The three of them remain hidden in Mexico, believing themselves finally rid of the endless fighting that has long characterized their existence. By this point, though, the characters themselves are no less privy than the audience to the fact this will never actually be the case. Sure enough, conflict arises yet again with the arrival of the sadistic Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), who’s after Laura (Daphne Keen), a mute little girl with far more importance to Wolverine than he’d like to believe.


What follows is a classic road movie that borrows the look and heart of a western. Wolverine, Laura and a Professor X (quickly slipping into senility) flee from Pierce and his small army through the southern United States in search of a rumored save haven, a promise of peace that may or may not actually exist. As Logan deals with his own deteriorating state caused by poisoned blood from his steel claws (in effect, his body is eating away at itself), Laura’s presence forces him to face the inner demons he has spent his whole life running from. The refreshing focus on the character’s emotional state is perhaps only possible because audiences have spent so long in the company of Jackman’s mutant. The same goes for the iconic Xavier whom Stewart has portrayed for just as long.

The leisurely pace, moody atmosphere and near-episodic plotting can sometimes cause the film to drag, but this is easier to swallow knowing it’s a sendoff of characters (and actors) who deserve the rest. Whereas most comic book adaptations consist of long strings of action punctuated with slower moments meant to build character, Logan is the exact opposite: it’s a quiet tone poem punctuated by bursts of violence, often shocking and novel in their goriness. The blood-soaked presentation not only works as a gimmick but as a tool to confront audiences with a hard truth: every blockbuster contains this level of violence, but the blood is often conveniently left out. By finally seeing an honest depiction of the carnage that Wolverine (and many other Marvel heroes) would realistically cause, it’s much easier to understand his pain and guilt.


Last year’s Deadpool was another X-Men spinoff hailed by audiences and critics alike as a refreshing departure from the comic book norm. Yet it didn’t take long for many (myself included) to point out that while the movie gleefully mocked genre tropes, in essence it was as much a slave to convention as the latest Avengers bonanza. Making fun of how predictable and repetitive superhero blockbusters are makes for a hollow, hypocritical gesture when the parody maintains those same predictable, repetitive elements (although with admirable energy). A year after its release, Deadpool still drips with palpable frustration over a system that’s perpetually lacking in innovation, but the movie’s smug, snarky approach only emphasizes the futility of change.

Tellingly released in the aftermath of Fox’s own X-Men: Apocalypse (an ‘assembly line’ iteration in every sense), Logan is just as much a self-aware reaction piece to genre fatigue as Deadpool ever was, posing the same broad question: why do we keep consuming the same stories over and over, and why these violent, destructive stories in particular? The difference comes from the tools each film utilizes. If Deadpool’s weapon of choice is wit, Logan’s is soul. Instead of self-righteous sarcasm, director James Mangold goes the opposite route with a probing and contemplative approach, while retaining an unflinching impulse to shake up a tired system. After all, few in Hollywood know the constraints and pitfalls of making a big-budget comic book blockbuster more intimately than Mangold.


The same goes for Jackman. There are few actors who have portrayed the same character over so many years and so many films, let alone one that has been imposed upon time and time again to pesky studio meddling, always adjusting the character to fit a perceived audience rather than staying true to a singular vision. Jackman has been a supremely good sport considering his starring ventures have ranged from excellent (his fierce original performance and recently X-Men: Day of Future Past) to abysmal (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but it’s clear that he, along with those behind the camera, have always had to dull his claws muzzle the unstoppable rage he embodies to keep things PG-13. This is no longer a problem. The claws are out, and Wolverine is finally unleashed.

Mangold’s attempt to understand the character, and to simultaneously make sense of the vexing Hollywood system ultimately turns out to be one and the same, resulting in a brilliant meta-narrative in which Logan acts as the walking, bleeding, self-loathing manifestation of the superhero genre as a whole. Though disillusioned, Wolverine seeks an answer to the same question posed earlier: why do we keep consuming the same stories over and over, and why violent, destructive stories in particular? His life is the definition of insanity, fighting the same battles over and over (seriously, read some plot summaries of X-Men movies to see how repetitive it gets), yet always hoping it will finally end. Still, conflict follows him everywhere. There is seemingly no end to the vicious cycle that pains him, just as there’s seemingly no end to studio executives recruiting him (or perhaps someone younger) for yet another round of senseless violence and suffering.


Yet the movie tries anyway, and so do its heroes. The plot sees Wolverine literally fleeing from the genre’s worst and most inevitable impulses: convoluted/convenient plotting, mindless action sequences full of blaring chaos, an un-intimidating antagonist (Halbrook’s Pierce is as bland as it gets), and the promise of a sequel or ten. All of these familiar drawbacks encroach on the film itself, leading to certain moments that fall back on traditional, dull storytelling techniques in a very disappointing way. Yet unlike Deadpool, Mangold at least valiantly questions why a movie like Logan apparently can’t exist without these flaws. Without spoiling anything, a couple of plot points in the second half demonstrate the only logical conclusion for what should, and perhaps one day will, happen to today’s most thriving genre. The ending is not only poignant – it feels correct.

If the suggestion that Logan is actually a commentary on the superhero phenomena seems far-fetched, Mangold doubles down on the idea by drawing a (sometimes too) clear parallel between his film and the Western. The setting, lighting, and narrative structure make this apparent enough, as does a recurring, overt reference to 1953’s classical Western Shane, a major influence on Mangold’s work. But the darker tone and a deep reckoning with the consequences of its genre more accurately aligns Logan not with the patriotic, violent ’40s and ’50s classics of John Wayne and co., but with ‘revisionist westerns’, later entries that question the values earlier westerns had perpetuated in the American cultural psyche.


One of the most famous revisionist westerns is 1992’s Unforgiven, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood (one of the most recognizable figures of the genre) as weathered cowboy Will Munny, who must face all the terrible things he (and the western mindset) has done in the past. It’s hard not see Jackman’s Logan in relation to Eastwood’s Munny, attempting some sort of retribution on behalf of a system of Hollywood films that may just reflect the worst of their contemporary societies. It’s not completely fair to compare the woefully racist and ultra-aggressive classical western to the increasingly diverse superhero movie, but at least in terms of massive popularity, repetitive content and a penchant for violence, there are striking similarities that have not gone unnoticed. What the CGI-fueled, mass destruction-obsessed, and globally set exploits of Marvel’s cinematic universe says about today’s society will be up to future film theorists to debate.

That Logan is more insightful and inquisitive than most superhero movies isn’t to say that it doesn’t work simply as crowd-pleasing action spectacle with a suitably unique vibe. The action is well choreographed, the score is fantastic, the performances are formidable, the dialogue draws real emotion and much of the shot composition is excellent. But it’s the acute self-awareness that makes this a special film that rises with the best of the genre. It isn’t as deep and nuanced an experience as The Dark Knight (still the gold standard) but the desire to be more than its DNA is strikingly sincere. Logan is thoughtful, artfully made entertainment that acts as a touching tribute to a character and franchise that helped start a filmmaking revolution, as well as a visionary look into what the future may hold for comic book adaptations in the right hands.

Review Score: 4 out of 5


Exploring The Deceptive Brainlessness of ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’

[Note: this article was originally posted on]


John Wick: Chapter 2 would like us to believe it has nothing to say. It’s a breathless, trashy descent into ultra-violence set in an assassin underworld where murder is as natural as breathing. Following another year of high-profile shootings, surely a film of such unrepentant brutality is bound to leave a bad taste in the mouth. Yet, it never does. That’s because, even more so than its fiercely frivolous predecessor, Chapter 2 is actually a remarkably stealthy satire that, through its inventive world-building and crazy characters, holds a mirror to society’s shameful, near-religious fetishization of violence. In reality, this film has plenty to say, but the effectiveness of its message hinges on its ability to disguise itself as nothing more than shallow escapism.

The film’s mindless exterior is so skillfully crafted that it’s easy to get caught up in its vicious whirlwind. Director Chad Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad expand on all the best elements of the first John Wick film without losing its tight focus. The action sequences are larger, weightier and more over-the-top, mixing in old-school slapstick that laces the carnage with dissonant humor. Whereas the original took its time before revealing exactly what Wick was capable of, the sequel doesn’t have the element of surprise and the filmmakers smartly chose to begin, quite literally, at full throttle. From there, each new set piece escalates in scale while shifting the stakes and introducing new absurdities all the way to its eye-popping climax. Stahelski’s background in stunt work is apparent in the immense physicality and attention to detail within every frame, while Kolstad ensures each action scene forwards the plot rather than distract from it.


Part of the first film’s charm was how easy it was to explain (they kill John Wick’s dog, John Wick kills everybody), the plot was never more than an excuse to offer a tantalizing glimpse into an intriguing fantasy world. I don’t mean “fantasy” as in wands and muggles, but much like a certain Wizarding World, the assassin community that Wick belongs to has its own peculiar rules and traditions, well-respected (or feared) figures and complex institutions tucked secretly within our own. The first film dropped audiences into this shadowy world with little explanation, leaving it up to viewers to imagine just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Though Wick 2 opens the scope of the order far beyond New York’s Continental Hotel, for the most part it still obscures just as much as it reveals, continuing to revel in its own mysteries.

All of this results in an immersive, beautiful bloodbath ballet, where we’re asked to smile and laugh as the body count rises. In that respect, the movie doesn’t seem different than any other mindless Hollywood blockbuster, save for an excess in style. Many reviews have inevitably chalked Chapter 2 up as a “guilty-pleasure” action flick, and the filmmakers themselves don’t appear to want fans to read any farther into it than that. However, good storytellers know that a story doesn’t resonate as deeply as Wick’s does without something deeper going on under the surface. Some may note that one element fans gravitate towards is the cavalcade of peculiar characters that Wick meets on his blood-soaked quest. It’s not their peculiarities that are the key to the film’s effectiveness — it’s what they all share in common.


Some of the figures Wick meets are nefarious, such as central antagonist Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio). Some are oddly cordial, like bodyguard Cassian (Common), even when he’s out for John’s head. Then there are the in-between oddballs like the indeterminate Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, perhaps the most tonally out-of-place performance in the film, but a welcome extended cameo nonetheless). Despite their differences in demeanor and motivation, all are bound by a single, unalterable code. The absolutism of this complex system is unmistakably similar in form and function to any organized religion, made clear through constant nods to Catholic imagery (especially during the Rome-set middle stretch). The assassin order is carefully illustrated as an overtly absurd belief system, and that gives it a relatability that’s as effective as it is hard to pick out amidst all the blaring gunfire.

As with any faith, the followers of the assassin order walk among us every day; they’re the baristas, the bouncers, the businessmen and the buskers. They look, speak and present themselves as anyone else. Internally however, their entire lives are built around a strict adherence to a rule system that is assumed honorable and moral, and thus can not be defied under any circumstance. If this were a religion, though, their God would be death. The order’s way of life revolves around killing and little else. Murdering others for money is as simple a tenant as prayer or a matter of etiquette, like washing one’s hands before eating. As one can deduce, this leaves almost every character in John Wick: Chapter 2 completely desensitized to violence, which has its own adverse effects on them. Because death is clearly not desirable but is nonetheless a necessary part of their lifestyle, they might as well enjoy the process. Thus, killing people is frequently referred to as “business” and weaponry is savored like fine wine.


We only meet one character in the film who has successfully “broken free” of this order: John Wick. Keanu Reeves seemingly plays Wick with this idea in mind. His face is constantly pained as he carries the unmistakable weight of religious guilt on his shoulders. He doesn’t want to enjoy the process because he’s seen that the order generates copious harm and hypocrisy to be swept under the rug. After all, nobody can question an absolute. However, as Wick learns the hard way, you can never truly leave a closed system without the specter of hellfire looming over your shoulder. Part of him wants to atone, but atonement in this world means death. So he must sin. He must break rules. Anyone who has experienced a crisis of faith can relate to and find a release through John Wick’s plight, as can anyone who’s ever questioned a large, powerful institution and felt the fire as a result. Wick is a secular Jesus for any and all.

Except he kills for our sins.

While the film’s religious metaphor is deceptively nuanced, the connection made between organized religion and violence should not be mistaken as an attack on religion. Rather, it’s an attack on humanity’s morbid fascination with blood and guts, and specifically America’s disproportionate obsession guns and gun rights. The film does not claim that religion will necessarily lead to corruption and danger, but instead warns that an increasing desensitization to — and interest in — violence could blossom into an almost religious fervor; that is, if our society does not become self-aware as to how ridiculous it is to fetishize death and destruction — as most blockbusters seem to encourage. That’s what makes John Wick: Chapter 2 and its predecessor so different.

The insane amount of mass murder that takes place on screen is not at all ridiculous to its characters. It’s just business. But it is ridiculous to us, the audience, who react with laughter at the absurd indecency playing out, as though it were a Buster Keaton comedy. By letting us in on the joke while the characters play it straight, the movie goes beyond being just another violent romp and becomes a timely, self-reflexive tool for audiences to mock their own savage tendencies and hopefully reflect on them on some subconscious level. That the final action sequence takes place in a hall of mirrors is not merely a great source of spectacle — it’s a symbol of the filmmakers’ intention to confront the audience’s depravity while allowing them to delight in it, to see the image and our reflection at once. In less pretentious terms: To have our cake and eat it too.


Had any of its messages been more clearly spelled out, John Wick: Chapter 2 would have lost the narrative simplicity of its predecessor and could have fallen into preachy territory, or even garner accusations of sacrilege. It’s Stahelski’s skillful grasp over filmmaking as a celebration of the surface image that allows him to distract so masterfully from the important messages Kolstad imparts, working on the psyche from within. All the longwinded analysis in the world doesn’t matter, as the movie is meant to be enjoyed without a second thought. It only works when it’s working in secret. So enjoy John Wick: Chapter 2 for its mindless action, for its debaucherous excess, for its shallow, fleeting joys. But remember that not all guilty pleasures are equally guilty.

Review Score: 4 out of 5


Review: “Patriots Day”


By dramatizing the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt that followed, Patriots Day serves as a prime example of Hollywood’s willingness to play with fire when it comes to depicting recent history. The film visually harnesses the dismemberment and murder of U.S. citizens not just as a depiction of endurance in the face of terror, but as a catalyst for star-studded popcorn entertainment. The resulting movie is an undeniably effective and poignant one, but troublingly so. While it may be the most suspenseful true-life thriller since 2013’s Captain Phillips, the way it utilizes a national tragedy to facilitate a patriotic blockbuster rife with gunfire and explosions keeps the specter of exploitation firmly on the film’s tail. Its fundamental tactlessness may not detract from the gripping filmmaking on display, but it does leave a disconcerting aftertaste in its wake.

Patriots Day is directed by Peter Berg and, like his previous two films Deepwater Horizon and Lone Survivor, stars Mark Wahlberg in a story that attempts to tow the line between serving as a respectful tribute to brave, real-life U.S. citizens, and providing flashy and often questionably violent entertainment. While Horizon had a strong first half by establishing believable characters, only to devolve into a mindless survival slog with dark and sometimes incoherent action, Patriots has the opposite issue: The set-up (taking place in the hours leading up to the marathon) is all-around atrocious, jumping around its large mostly-male ensemble to introduce banal relationships with wives, girlfriends or crushes. This is one of the most tried-and-true tearjerking tricks in the book, but it’s also one of the most lazy and cliched, especially when used as shamelessly and repetitively as it is here. What’s worse is that these dull, cheesy scenes are shot in the same shaky, quick-zoom camera style used in the action scenes. The first fifteen minutes seem to suggest the film is both a technical and narrative dud.

The bigger issue is the film’s immaculate recreation of the marathon itself. From a production design perspective, this section is undeniably impressive in its authenticity, but it’s hard to see the many shots of gushing blood and severed limbs as anything other than exploitation, pure and simple. It’s not the way the aftermath is depicted that’s the problem. In fact it’s quite well edited with quick, jarring flashes that are structured like vivid traumatic memory, and the slick use of real news footage helps ground the on-the-ground camera work in a real sense of space. Rather, the fact the filmmakers went through the effort to fully build these sets, populate it with these actors and spend millions of dollars on explosion effects, fake blood and screaming extras makes this sequence feel so… maybe insensitive is the wrong word, but certainly imprudent. It’s especially disconcerting since the whole scene exists solely to add emotional weight to the more traditional thriller narrative that follows, turning real terror that real people went through into just another convenient plot point.


There are other ways to convey the anguish and pain of a traumatic event than to stage a meticulous reenactment. Take 2010’s Zero Dark Thirty, which also followed a high-profile manhunt for a terrorist, in that case Osama bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow ingeniously opened the film with a black screen, over which played a haunting audio montage of actual panicked phone calls from within the Twin Towers during the September 11th attacks. Without a single image, without a single shred of fiction, she effortlessly established the deep, almost indescribable human emotions that drives the entire film forward. Had Bigelow gone the Patriots Day route, Zero Dark Thirty would have opened with a thirty minute recreation of the towers’ destruction. But she understands the importance of restraint, whereas Berg takes a ‘whatever works’ approach to manipulating audiences, more concerned with keeping audiences from getting bored.

The objectionable nature of the movie’s first half is complicated by the fact that the rest of the film, a mixture of well-written procedural problem-solving and bombastic action, is pure cinematic bliss. I remember watching live helicopter footage as police amassed around a tarp-covered boat in an inconspicuous suburban backyard. I knew that this dramatic standoff and the series of events that lead to it would make its way to theaters eventually. Maybe not this soon, and maybe with not quite so many big names, but it was inevitable. What I didn’t expect was something this visceral, especially when it was announced that the director of Hancock and Battleship was hired for the job. Yet Berg has proven himself a formidable action director over the past few years and has outdone himself here. Every scene is efficiently paced and there’s a great oscillation between white knuckle suspense and breakneck action. In its more intense moments, the camerawork and editing become intentionally disorienting while remaining coherent in terms of being able to read the space.

It’s abundantly clear from the start that there are too many characters in the movie, and this ultimately means there’s not enough screen time for any of them in particular. Heavy hitters such as John Goodman, JK Simmons, Kevin Bacon and Michelle Monaghan put in good work in wasted roles, while Mark Wahlberg is an uninspired choice who gives an equally uninspired – though serviceable – performance. Certainly, Marky Mark did a much better job in Deepwater Horizon, and the fact that his police officer character Tommy Saunders isn’t based on any actual human being is a crucial breach of the supposed authenticity on which the movie stands. Luckily, the film’s misuse of its big stars ends up something of a blessing in disguise, as it allows less well-known performers such as Khandi Alexander and especially Jimmy O. Yang to shine in pivotal moments that end up being the film’s most memorable.


But nothing in the film is as fascinating or unique as Alex Wolff’s portrayal of young terrorist Dzhokar Tsarnaev, masterfully illustrating the nature of modern terrorism by emphasizing its horrifying relatability. I knew people like Dzhokar all throughout college and, no, I’m not referring to ethnicity or religion at all (the film is mercifully void of xenophobia). Dzhokar is a normal American college kid, living in a dorm and smoking weed with friends… the only difference between him and them is that he’s been secretly radicalized by his older brother. Their extreme ideology is familiar as well, visible not just in the many senseless attacks that strike the globe per year, but in the average internet comment section that seems to attract scared, vulnerable, angry individuals of all cultures and creeds. The fact that anyone you know could potentially be so consumed by hate that they’d kill innocent people is scarier than any stereotypical image of a terrorist, and the script takes brilliant advantage of this, especially in one exceptional scene in which the two brothers discuss ‘the truth’ behind 9/11 with a hostage.

It’s perhaps thanks to the strength of these stand-out moments and performances that the film manages to end on legitimately rousing note, despite how blunt and manipulative everything is up to that point. As with Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, Berg concludes with a respectful and legitimately moving tribute to the real heroes and victims of the story. It’s odd that he felt it appropriate to shift so quickly from explosive action set pieces (with some humor that is as effective as it is wholly misguided) to an emotionally raw salute to men and women who experienced the horrors that he depicts as entertainment, but what’s even stranger is that it actually sort of works. The more exciting Patriots Day becomes, the more magnified its troubling real-world implications seem, but Berg seems to demonstrate that there’s value in using pop culture escapism as a unification tool, even if it means forgoing a certain amount of sensitivity in the process.

Score: 4 out of 5



Sam’s Top Ten Movies of 2016


There are two ways we can choose to frame 2016 now that it’s in the rear view mirror: as a year of relentless struggle, heartbreak, political strife and social unrest, or as a year that tested our endurance and reinforced our resolve to always see the best in humanity and work towards putting out best selves out into the world. As with most trials and tribulations, that’s the overarching choice – to let our hardships define us, or to use those hardships to shape our own, stronger definitions of ourselves. If all of this seems terribly overblown and melodramatic just you wait, as I will now attempt to explain what should be the least important real-life issue of the year, the film industry, in this exact context:

As many of my reviews have noted since January, this had been a decidedly bad year for cinema in many respects. This summer, executives were rocked by a string of flops. Many of these were sequels or reboots to established franchises, or at least hefty moneymakers in their time, yet these sure bets such as Zoolander 2, Allegiant, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Neighbors 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence, The BFG, Ghostbusters, Ben-Hur, Inferno and Bad Santa 2 all managed to either flat-out bomb or disappoint financially. It’s a dismal picture, especially considering how unnecessary or just plain bad many of these movies were in the first place. Many of those that did manage to succeed critically and commercially weren’t much better from a quality perspective. There were gems here and there (as my list will reflect), but overall this has been the most depressing lineup of the decade, both for Hollywood and the independent sector.

Even the start of the last quarter was ominous, with anticipated Oscar hopefuls like Sully, The Birth of a Nation, Snowden, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and promising studio films like The Girl on the Train and The Accountant failing to gain any traction. To follow the common consensus for 2016 would be to simply conclude, “this was a terrible year for movies just like it was a terrible year for everything else, so let’s move on and hope next year is better.” That was my position going into the final stretch as well. But something unexpected happened: great movies started pouring out on almost a weekly basis. Many were smaller indies, ones that you had to actively seek out, but film distributors were truly saving the best for the last… and cutting it closer than most years. So, do we define a year by the disappointment and cynicism of the majority, or by the surprise success and genuine spirit of a minority unwilling to be engulfed by negativity and doubt? I choose to celebrate 2016, both in and out of cinema, for the little victories, the small nuggets of hope and the perseverance of the few. And may that perseverance pay off on 2017.

Here are my top ten movies of 2016:

10. Manchester by the Sea


Themes of grief are easy to come by on this list, but no film conveyed such a strong sense of lingering misery than Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful drama about a depressed Boston handyman (Casey Affleck) and his suddenly parentless teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). A revolving door of heartbreaking flashbacks emphasizes the futility of trying to escape from the painful memories of the past, demonstrating in a natural and vivid way how those traumatic experiences can consciously and subconsciously continue to effect one’s ability to move forward with their lives. This is rendered all the more effective thanks to Affleck’s immensely understated performance. He’s one of the rare talents who can sum up a scene’s worth of dialogue in one move of an eyebrow, or an empty stare into space. While the measured pacing and intentionally unresolved ending may rub some the wrong way, they ultimately serve to construct the year’s most true-to-life depiction of the intangible and immeasurable cost of trauma.

So how is it then that Manchester, such an expertly constructed downer, also manages to be one of the funniest movies of the year? That might be the true key to the film’s genius. While Affleck’s cold isolation (befitting the film’s frigid winter setting) seeps off the screen in every sequence where he’s by himself, or at least trying to be, there’s an unavoidable warmth every time he’s engaged in conversation with just about everyone he meets, especially Hedges’ cocky but charming high schooler. Laugh out loud humor comes all the more easily because, by all accounts, nothing should be funny about the situations any of these characters are in. Lonergan seems to be saying that, while it may be impossible to forget one’s painful memories or to restart one’s broken relationships, it’s equally fruitless to evade one’s happy memories or to restart one’s loving relationships. It’s an unexpectedly positive message, one everyone should take with them into the new year.

9. Certain Women


This year has been an undeniably embattled one for women. Many saw the defeat of Hillary Clinton not just as the literal expression of a host of national ailments, but as a symbolic loss for gender equality in America. A less high-stakes, but no less indicative controversy occurred earlier this year with the hostile online reaction to the all-female Ghostbusters reboot, which carried with it the unmistakable whiff of misogyny (though it’s debatable just how much of a factor that was). On the other side, there’s been vocal backlash, mostly from the conservative sphere, against what some perceive as the hyperbolic and equally hostile rhetoric of fervent feminist circles derogatorily referred to as ‘Social Justice Warriors’. The point is that, whichever side you stand on, loud voices and vitriolic language was the name of the game for gender politics in 2016. Maybe in hindsight, we can all agree that what we needed wasn’t to out-yell our adversaries, but to find more subdued methods for expressing our viewpoints and airing our grievances.

This is what makes Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women such essential viewing, and so different from all other depictions of women on screen this year. It’s the slowest, quietest and most ambiguous masterpiece of 2016, but it is also one of the most confident. The first secret ingredient is patience, as Reichardt utilizes long, static shots, minimalistic dialogue and hushed ambient noise to emphasize the interminable wait her four female characters must endure to claim their deserved independence and self-worth. The second ingredient is trust: trust in her characters who may never get what they’re looking for but never lose their will to keep searching, trust in her actors who with the most minuscule of looks and subtlest of line delivery turn themselves into sympathetic, full-bodied heroines, and trust in her audience, who she believes can understand and empathize with these women’s struggles without having it laid out or even fully resolved for them. Perhaps it’s these two qualities -patience and trust – which bring these specifically female issues to such vivid life, is what ongoing identity debates could use more of in the coming months and years.

8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


The highly-celebrated Star Wars: The Force Awakens didn’t make my Top 10 list last year, so it comes as a genuine surprise that I enjoyed this newest entry as much as I did. This is mainly a product of director Gareth Edwards’ top class world building skills. The diverse array of planets are so intelligently and meticulously detailed, illustrated with the most impressive visual effects to date. More impressive still is that the film manages to be the grittiest Star Wars yet, without sacrificing the franchise’s penchant for bright colors, quirky creatures and imaginative environments (try it some time, Fantastic Beasts). Unlike the freewheeling, optimistic spirit of past Star Wars films, this is a brutal war story and that tone sets itself apart, while connecting to and expanding on established lore in fascinating ways. As someone who doesn’t really consider himself a Star Wars fan (I hadn’t seen the original three films until I was well into college), the fact that I was so invested not just in this standalone story but in its implications on the series as a whole is a testament to how deeply the franchise has seeped into popular culture, as well as just how consistent and passionate Disney managed to be with its rejuvenation of the brand.

While a mindless action flick at heart, the writers also went out of their way to explore themes of moral grayness and responsibility that one would expect from any high-minded war movie. Most telling, droid K2SO seem at first nothing more than the traditional scene-stealing comic relief, an Imperial droid who’s been reprogrammed to fight for the Rebel Alliance and has lost his filter in the process. But there’s something to be said about the ease in which he is able to switch sides with a simple circuitry adjustment, compared to the complex moral conundrums that continuously haunt the humans heroes. Meanwhile, one of the main criticisms I’ve heard is that those humans aren’t nearly as memorable as Rey or Finn. While I won’t deny that, the relatively flimsy character arcs and relationships didn’t bother me much, since this particular story is focused more on the struggles of one collective versus another, and is only concerned with individuals in how they come to terms with the side they’ve chosen. Once that happens, the movie culminates in a stunning final battle, undoubtedly the most exhilarating, explosive spectacle of the year.

7. The Handmaiden


The less said about this spoilerific South Korean gem, other than every open-minded person should give it a shot, the better. It’s a gloriously manic mindf*ck in the tradition of twisty Hitchcockian classics, where director Chan-wook Park (of Oldboy fame) takes just as much obvious joy in playing with his audience as the audience does in getting played with. This intriguing erotic thriller makes use of Park’s greatest strengths with incredibly stylish, dynamic visuals, enigmatic characters, impeccably placed plot reveals and dark, envelope-pushing content, in an outrageous package that will appeal to fans of fellow master provocateurs like Quentin Tarantino. The Handmaiden is one of those rare ‘pure cinema’ experiences that never, not for one second, settles for being anything other than hypnotically engaging. Park assaults the senses with rampant bursts of intrigue, deception, violence and sexuality, demonstrating all of those elements in unique and edgy ways that will boggle the mind, first to consider how anyone could have thought of it, and then to consider how they were crazy enough to actually follow through.

This oddball work of art also contains one of the strongest and most distinctive romantic relationships in cinema history, certainly a surprise coming from a filmmaker who is commonly known for emotionally detached, socially isolated characters. There’s always more than meets the eye to the evolving bond between Korean Sook-hee (the eponymous handmaiden with mysterious ulterior motives) and Japanese Hideko (the heiress she serves), no matter how many times you are tricked into believing you’ve figured it all out. The way in which their connection grows is depicted via an onslaught of the most bizarre, outrageous and inexplicably beautiful scenes I can recall. It becomes neigh impossible to pick out a ‘most memorable’ moment from among the dazzling pageant of insanity that just keeps one-upping itself. It’s a modern masterpiece so cutting-edge that I would struggle to recommend it to those of a certain age or disposition, but for fans of the weirder and darker side of cinema, The Handmaiden is a must-watch of the highest order.

6. Nocturnal Animals


Similar to The Handmaiden, fashion designer-turned master director Tom Ford’s second film is so delightfully devious in its construction that its own inherently flawed nature, including jarring tonal shifts and ludicrously gaudy presentation, becomes a godsend in an era when movies are often either too afraid to take themselves seriously or too afraid to break their own illusion. Nocturnal Animals is afraid of neither. In fact, it hinges on the ability to enable and disrupt audience immersion with equal fluidity. It is a bold film, impeccably acted and cleverly arranged so that fantasy and reality don’t so much blur together as they do embrace each other with knowing grins. It’s ‘story within a story narrative’ is not a revolutionary technique, but Ford weaponizes the device to force viewers to reconsider how they engage with fiction and how it shades their perception of the real world. It presents a world in which fiction is both more believable and more diabolical than truth, and (in addition to being useful tool for understanding the spread of ‘fake news’) that messaging serves as empowerment for audiences as much as it does for the filmmakers who get to manipulate their willing servants.

While the complex themes and playful manipulation of structure and genre tropes are what will allow the film to thrive as a subject of film theory and criticism for decades to come, it’s also worth noting that the film’s pulpy, lurid story is just plain entertaining on a surface level. Much of the credit can be placed on the remarkably tight editing, immaculate pacing, crackling dialogue and some of the year’s greatest performances. Jake Gyllenhaal plays two very different types of characters in the film, an intentionally confusing but inherently fascinating choice that only an actor of his caliber could pull off with such success. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, an actor whose work I have despised in the past, gives a career-best turn as the slimy, sadistic main antagonist, while Michael Shannon steals the entire film in a role that is simultaneously hilarious and tragic. These three in particular are responsible for Animals’ handful of stand-out scenes, which become almost transgressively tense and gripping. It all makes for a stunningly idiosyncratic tale built to make people talk and think about it for days or weeks, whether they want to or not.

5. Swiss Army Man


You know how I said The Handmaiden had one of the most distinctive romantic relationships in cinema history? By default, Swiss Army Man must be up there as well, as Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe star respectively as an insecure loner and a dead gaseous corpse, who learn to love each other in order to survive in the wilderness. It may sound like I just threw a bunch of random words together to form that last sentence, but that is indeed the premise of this absurd debut movie from a pair of commercial directors who simply call themselves ‘The Daniels’. It’s the year’s wildest ride, unflinchingly it’s own thing in the tradition of post-modern oddities such as Being John Malkovich. What makes this one special isn’t simply that it’s weird but that it openly explores what it means to be ‘weird’, and why that’s often seen as an ostracizing quality, both in art and in real life. That earnest self-awareness allows the film to speak directly to its audience, forming a connection between screen and viewer that is a rare and special thing.

The Daniels also continuously find inventive ways to expand on its premise, of a dead body with enough survival applications that it could put Bear Grylls out of business. The film is strangely moving and downright hilarious in equal measure, thanks especially to Radcliffe’s commendable commitment to the role of an innocent corpse with a heart of gold. It somehow manages to be his best performance to date, and definitely a wise choice as he continues to distance himself further from his most famous role. The erratic nature of the plot is reflected in all other aspects of the movie as well, from the infectious acapella score by Andy Hull & Robert McDowell, to the makeshift, childlike design of the sets, props and costumes. The result is a production that may be inane, but it is at the very least incredibly consistent, singular and heartwarming in its inanity. It presents a vision so unique and captivating that it forces you to forget everything you know about conventional film narrative and then invites you to have fun in the chaos that remains.

4. Everybody Wants Some!!


Though it came and went from theaters without much notice from general audiences, this year saw the release of director Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to his teen classic, Dazed and Confused. While it appears it won’t gain a level of popularity near that of its 1993 predecessor, Everybody Wants Some!! easily matches that film in terms of raw transportive power and youthful optimism, qualities that continue to mark Linklater as one of the most vital filmmakers alive today. This is a light and mostly plotless comedy taking place in the collegiate world of the 1980s (whereas Dazed took place in a ’70s high school), revolving around a house full of knuckle-headed baseball players in the golden days before classes begin. The experience of watching the movie is akin to hanging out with a bunch of new friends, and as they make tiny realizations about themselves and their place in the world, you learn it right along with them. It’s a movie with the rare ability to trigger the epiphanies of a developing mind in those who have already developed. In other words, this is a powerful form of emotional, developmental time travel that takes you to a physical and mental time and place you thought was long gone.

The movie has come under fair criticism for its treatment of women, being that it centers around a group of bros (née jocks) who care more about getting laid than everything else… other than maybe baseball, which in turn they care about mostly because it will get them laid. That many of the characters (though notably not protagonist Jake, played by Blake Jenner) constantly objectify women is not up for debate – they do. But the claim that Linklater himself is condoning or encouraging this is just plain wrong, especially by the time Beverly (Zoey Deutch) becomes a major presence in the story and reveals herself as the smartest, most self-assured person in the entire film. To not depict the rampant misogyny of the time period (which is not much better on current day campuses) would do a disservice to the ability of storytellers to paint an authentic picture, and to these young characters who feel all the more human for their flaws.

3. Sing Street


While everyone is going gaga over La La Land, few realize that a much more honest, charming and inspiring musical came out much earlier in the year. That movie is Sing Street, an instant classic that would certainly be recognized as such if not for the lamentable decision to release it back in April when Disney’s The Jungle Book juggernaut was decimating the box office and eating up moviegoers’ attention. Directed by John Carney (Once and Begin Again), this ’80s set coming-of-age dramedy focuses on young Dublinite (Dubliner? Dubloon?) Conor, who is forced into a Catholic high school and decides to start a rock band in a classic bid to win the affection of a girl (Lucy Boynton, one of the year’s most under the radar acting revelations). Luckily for those tired of this cliched set up, the girl ultimately becomes less important than Conor’s blooming sense of self, his newfound appreciation of friends and family, and his burgeoning musical abilities. In the bargain, we get a string of infectious songs, hilarious scenarios that reek of teenage awkwardness, and a warm and authentic illustration of how the people who influence us in turn lead us to influence others in an unknowably wide, unconscious chain of shared self-expression.

Carney has become known for conveying these kinds of sophisticated, ineffable themes through the use of music, and this time he pulls it off with more nuance and skill than ever. By seamlessly blending classic ’80s rock songs with his own original compositions, he perfectly captures how artists take what resonates with them and then twists them into something wholly their own. It may be the most accurate and impassioned portrayal of youthful creativity ever put to film, but Carney’s secret weapon is the bond between Conor and his MTV-loving older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), who serves as a classic Obi-Wan mentor character for most of the film, until their relationship suddenly explodes into something far more complex, heartbreaking but ultimately inspirational. By the time the credits roll, what started out as a standard (but impeccably made) teen movie has become one of the world’s most sincere and indispensable demonstrations of the binding powers of art. Works of art never exist in a vacuum; they are psychic collaborations between the artist, everyone the artist has ever known, and everywhere the artist has ever been.

2. Moonlight


An extraordinary vision of human compassion, Barry Jenkins’ soul-rending masterpiece needs no introduction. It’s a decades-spanning portrait of an individual with a cracked understanding of his own legacy and sexuality, with three talented actors cast to play Chiron as a child, a teenager and an adult. Of course, this was a choice made out of logistical necessity, yet it perfectly emphasizes the fluidity of human experience, how one can look at him or herself in the mirror and not recognize themselves as the person they used to see. Still, the three performers (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) meld into one singular being so seamlessly that the result is nothing short of miraculous. Without any hint of distraction this casting could have caused, we’re allowed full immersion into a poetic narrative with sparse but potent dialogue that lets the movie do what movies do best: show. Exquisite cinematography from James Laxton providing ethereal colors, intimate closeups and long, bravura tracking shots make for astounding visual spectacle that allows the emotional intensity to bore deep into the mind.

However, much of the film’s incredible poignancy comes not from Chiron but from those who help or hinder him on his path to becoming himself. There are negative influencers like his drug-addicted, verbally abusive mother played by Naomi Harris, who lends Chiron’s earlier years tragic weight as the boy absorbs feelings of self-loathing into his malleable young mind. But then there’s Juan, an almost clairvoyantly understanding father figure played by Mahershala Ali in what is without a doubt the finest supporting performance of the year, even with a relatively limited amount of screen time. Juan understands how important it is to feed Chiron self-worth at an early age, so that when he eventually leaves the picture, his caring and warmth continues to echo throughout the rest of Chiron’s life. Juan is the rare fictional character that is so well-realized and inherently complex that he follows you out of the theater, so that we may carry his words of infinite wisdom wherever we need it most. That pretty much sums up the movie as a whole. It’s a film that manages in spite of its specificity, to speak to each viewer directly.

1. Arrival


Arrival is science fiction filmmaking at its very best, employing a combination of evocative imagery, modern special effects and contemplative hypothetical scenarios to confront real-life issues on scales both small (personal loss and regret) and large (political instability and the fear of planetary destruction). It’s a movie about communication, both how we transfer our ideologies and emotions from one person or group to another, and how we communicate our own complicated feelings to ourselves. But first and foremost, it’s a highly suspenseful and beautifully eerie thriller that sticks out by downplaying those moments of spectacle that most directors would play up, masterfully withholding visual information to build maximum tension and a sense of dread. It isn’t afraid to dive deep into complex ideas about language, and probes existential themes without an ounce of pretension, but that it manages to juggle all that high-minded content and still remain so totally gripping is the mark of a true masterwork, and a must-see for any and all audiences.

As with previous films from director Denis Villeneuve (he just keeps getting better and better), the atmosphere is thoroughly dour and oppressive, with a dark and muddy color palette and Johann Johannson’s foreboding, ethereal score. And then there’s the script, which takes frequent right turns to linger on Amy Adam’s traumatic loss of a child, suddenly breaking the focus away from the aliens – again, most studios would never allow such an untraditional, anti-blockbuster approach. What’s most astonishing is that despite all this dreariness, at the end the film unexpectedly morphs into something unexpectedly joyous and inspirational. How this happens is for you to experience for yourself (and it is an experience) but let’s just say this is one of the rare, transcendent movies that has the power to recalibrate your brain and change how you view the world long after the movie is over. It serves as a potential tool for living a better life and diffusing conflict, and as a reminder that all the hardship and grief you may face, in 2016 and beyond, can look a lot like hope if you just adjust your perspective.

As always, there are far too many great movies for me to leave it at 10, so I would like to leave you with the following honorable mentions that I would recommend to just about anyone: Patriots Day by Peter Berg, Life, Animated by Roger Ross Williams, Weiner by Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg, The Neon Demon by Nicolas Winding Refn, The Witch by Robert Eggers, Loving by Jeff Nichols, Don’t Think Twice by Mike Birbiglia, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years by Ron Howard, Hunt for the Wilderpeople by Taika Waititi, and Fences by Denzel Washington.

Additionally, you can check out my full ranked list of all the movies I’ve seen that came out in 2016, as well as my own personal ‘awards’ by clicking this link.

See you in 2017!


Reviews: “Moonlight” & “Manchester by the Sea”

As the shit-snowball that is 2016 barrels rapidly towards the end of its downhill journey, the film industry is making one final attempt to insure that, at the very least, the year in cinema ends on a high-note… and by God, they’ve done it. After Hollywood’s most depressing slate of the decade, the prestige season is offering up Awards-worthy contenders in bulk. There have been a fair share of Oscar-baiting busts since fall (The Birth of a Nation, Snowden, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Rules Don’t Apply among them), but the last few weeks have seen the gradual expansion of a handful top-tier movies that will make 2016 one to remember, and not just for all the wrong reasons. Here are two especially powerful ones to look out for:



Grand in ambition yet intimate in execution, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a immensely compassionate, intensely honest drama that deserves every heap of praise it has received. The film follows young Chiron in three distinct chapters, as he grows from boy to teen to man in a rough, African-American neighborhood, put-upon not just by his peers but by his drug addicted mother (Naomi Harris, displaying admirable range). Across all three chapters, Chiron struggles with notions of masculinity and sexuality, especially as it relates to his racial identity. The specificity of the character and setting lends the movie a vitality that most coming of age movies could never hope to match, but it’s the emotionally universal qualities that allow audiences to so effortlessly enter into this world. This is not a simple guided tour of an environment and culture rarely seen on screen. Rather, it is a portal into the global human condition that works due to its vivid details. It is a story about human differences, but reveals that the truth lies within the sameness of all people. This is film at its most noble and curative.

A movie that similarly tries to tell a single story over many years try is likely to emphasize its time breaks, either by playing around with the format and/or aspect ratio (China’s Mountains May Depart is an example from earlier this year), or through radical gimmicks (the most obvious example being Boyhood‘s twelve year production). Jenkins takes a far less showy route by relying solely on his astonishing directorial instincts – and James Laxton’s lush cinematography – to highlight the sensation of being a small boy in a big world and a big man in a small world. It’s good old fashioned camera angles and close-ups that make Moonlight sing. That’s as far from gimmickry as a movie can get, and exactly the tight, confident treatment this particular story deserves. Chiron is played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), and while the results may be less mind-boggling than Boyhood, all three performers merge seamlessly into one complex, thoroughly believable human being. The real star, though, is Mahershala Ali. He’s the Mufasa of this picture, an infinitely wise father figure whose absences are as profound as his presence.

My gripes are small until placed into context. The middle section is, for the most part, a rather derivative and on-the-nose teen movie wedged between two exceptionally subversive bookends. The familiar tropes that fill this chapter do no favors for Sanders, who plays a monotone Chiron in his awkward teenage years with an emotional despondence that is appropriate yet drab. It is just as meticulously crafted at the rest of the film, but compared to the uniqueness of the other two parts, this stretch feels uncharacteristically ordinary. That said, the terse, flimsy dialogue that is most obvious in this chapter but presents itself throughout eventually melts into something more resembling poetry, especially when brought to life by such magnificent performers. Compounded further by the lyrical quality of the visuals (the use of color is an underrated strength of the film) and the gorgeous score, Jenkins has created something that burrows deep in the mind and the heart. It is an instant classic that will undoubtedly be remembered as one of 2016’s most important works of art.

Score: 4.5 out of 5


Manchester by the Sea

Elusive writer/director Kenneth Lonergan takes the well-worn idea that tragedy plus time equals comedy to new heights in Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck stars as Lee, a depressed, self-abandoned handyman who is unceremoniously saddled with caring for his teenaged nephew after his brother’s sudden death. The man can’t escape grief no matter how hard he tries – he is always quick to turn down dinner invitations and spends his free time alone at the bar or sitting motionless on the couch in his one-room basement apartment. He’s a well-meaning guy but occasionally, when he’s reminded of all the things he no longer has (not the least of which is his former wife, played by Michelle Williams), he unleashes bursts of verbal and physical rage on unsuspecting residents of his town and on himself. He is not a happy person to be around, which makes it nigh miraculous that this drama about loss and regret manages to be one of the funniest movies of the year.

It starts with the impeccably astute script by Lonergan, who understands that laughter is as unavoidable as death, and so are loved ones. Terrible things happen that can never be undone or forgotten, but joyous moments and cheerful memories are just as persistent, and at times just as frustrating. The unpredictability of memory is a facet that guides the very structure of the narrative, which flows seamlessly between Lee’s attempts to balance his own needs with those of his nephew, and his recollections of how he got there, emotionally, in the first place. At a certain point, it becomes clear that without Lonergan’s non-chronological approach, the result would be a familiar and sometimes manipulative story. But even more quickly comes the realization that this is not a slight against the film. Arranging scenes in such a way that memories complicate and build upon the present moment is not a cheap trick. It’s true to life. Adding to that authenticity is a resistance against the urge to bend the subject matter into a gaudy tearjerker. The movie is less like an emotional rollercoaster and more like an emotional boat ride, with steady waves of poignancy that rise and fall over time. Like life, there are peaks and troughs. But grand, life-altering epiphanies don’t happen to most, and they certainly don’t happen to Lee.

Casey Affleck launches himself into the upper-echelons of acting as Lee. The sad-sack schtick is an easy one to get wrong, but Affleck provides enough subtlety and depth through his sly glances and intricate line delivery to keep peeling off layers of complexity, even as Lee tries harder and harder to remain guarded. Lucas Hedges holds his own as Lee’s nephew Patrick, even if the dialogue between him, his high school friends, and his multiple girlfriends is a noticeable low point; forced teen speak and some wooden performances from the supporting kids (including Hedges’ Moonrise Kingdom costar Kara Hayward) threatens to break the impressive immersion. Unfortunately, Michelle Williams fans such as myself will be disappointed that, much like in Certain Women, her role is surprisingly small, offering her only a couple opportunities to work her inimitable magic. That’s ultimately enough, as the movie’s all about making the most out of the smallest moments while the biggest ones try their hardest to haunt you.

Score: 4 out of 5

Reviews: ‘Fantastic Beasts’ and ‘Moana’

The last few weeks have seen the release of two highly-anticipated blockbusters, both vying for your money over Thanksgiving weekend. Over that time, both movies far proven powerhouses at the box office and have been generally well-regarded by critics. However, talking to friends and family seems to suggest that both the newest entry into J.K. Rowling’s beloved ‘Wizarding World’ and Disney’s first ‘princess’ project since Frozen took over the world,  are proving divisive among audiences. Where do I stand? Where do you?

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


I walked into the theater knowing I’d be watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them with two minds: one belonging to the overly-analytical wannabe film critic, the other to the lifelong Harry Potter fan who regards the franchise as one of his most significant influences. In terms of film craft, I did not expect much from director David Yates. His track record is spotty, having delivered both my favorite and least favorite Potter movies. And indeed, this is not his best work (yet not as bad as his last film, the horrible The Legend of Tarzan). Beasts is riddled with narrative no-nos like bland characters with muddled motivations and plotting that is in turns flimsy and incoherent. There are a bevy of technical and aesthetic issues including terrible editing, unconvincing green screen work and wildly uneven special effects (especially disappointing for a movie that focuses so heavily on its CGI beasts) Most unfortunately, Yates drowns every scene in his usual, drab color palette of grays and browns. Besides for one eye-popping sequence in a magical animal sanctuary, the movie’s dreary, gritty rendition of 1920s New York City is void of the colorful sense of awe, whimsy or grandeur the franchise was built on.

What surprised me most is how little fight the Harry Potter fan in me put up.  I may be a sucker for all the little Easter Eggs and can appreciate how the script expands on some of the more interesting concepts of the wizarding world, but this movie is so damn concerned with hitting all the loud, obnoxious blockbuster beats that I seriously question whether Rowling’s ‘written by’ credit is more of a marketing ploy to lend the movie much-needed legitimacy to prevent potential rage from Potter purists. No, this has all the hallmarks of a generic blockbuster written, or at the very least tampered with, by a committee of executives worried about the bottom line. This is always apparent, from the Pokemon-esque parade of cute, marketable creatures to the preposterous destruct-a-thon climax, and the horrendously mishandled twist ending that serves only to set up for a sequel. To be fair, there are a handful of moments that crackle with the series’ ample wit and inspired world-building. Don’t be fooled – it’s a mere echo of the kind of quality one would expect from something so vigorously touted as a canonized extension of the brand.

The eponymous fantastic beasts are often more interesting than the human characters, even if the actors try their hardest to make meals out of the crumbs they’ve been handed. The clear stand-out is Dan Fogler (he’s like a less-shrill Josh Gad), as a likable window into this world. The other protagonists (Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol) milk all the charisma they can out of thankless parts, while Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller visibly and painfully struggle to draw any sort of life from their boring antagonist roles. Defenders might claim that, despite all of these drawbacks, simply spending time in this universe is enough of a treat. Yet even the innate escapism provided by Rowling’s extensive world has been blunted by the unsubtle, inescapable intrusions of real world issues and aggressive moralizing. The books were always rich in metaphor, but never so on the surface that you couldn’t also enjoy them as pure fantasy. Though important, the persistent allusions to everything from terrorism to homophobia and even the death penalty are so heavy-handed that it becomes nigh impossible to just sit back and take it in as a fantastical wizarding getaway. It hurts to say it, but Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them proves to be both a poorly-made movie and a poorly-made Harry Potter story.

Score: 2 out of 5



In 1989, John Musker & Ron Clements directed The Little Mermaid, a charming and beautiful film that kicked off the Disney Renaissance, one of the most lauded runs in cinema history (with the likes of AladdinBeauty and the Beast and The Lion King). Looking back, Mermaid is problematic for a couple reasons, mainly its grotesquely outdated gender politics: it’s the story of a young woman who wishes to be independent, but immediately proves she can’t handle independence by relinquishing her voice to a nasty octopus woman. Ariel effectively sidelines herself in her own story and only succeeds by becoming passive to the whims of the secondary, male characters. The lesson seems to be: girls should dream big, but only if they have men around to guide and protect them. Twenty-seven years later, Musker & Clements provide a clear apology in the form of Moana, another animated, ocean-set musical. This time, the hero character is everything Ariel was not: Strong-willed, whip smart and unwilling to let male characters (including love interests – you won’t find one here) steer her from her dreams of exploration. Whereas Frozen was self-aware in its revisions to the Disney princess rulebook, Moana is free to do its thing without the need for winking or nudging.

Moana is also perhaps the most beautiful computer-animated film ever made. Walt Disney Animation Studios has gradually mastered the power of 3D animation to form a hybrid of the exquisite detail of Pixar movies and the timeless, picture-book artistry and impeccable framing of Disney’s 2D classics. The water effects are especially incredible, even beating out this summer’s eye-popping Finding Dory for the CGI-H20 crown. The visual expertise is almost (but not quite) matched by the surprisingly eclectic music, which combines traditional musical numbers, Disney-fied pop and powerful, authentic South Pacific tunes. There’s nothing on the soundtrack as infectious as ‘Let it Go’, but it’s got the kind of tunes that stealthily bury their way into the brain, its catchiness catching audiences off guard. The already-underrated track ‘Shiny’ (performed by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement), begins like a classic Disney villain song in the vein of Lion King‘s ‘Be Prepared’ only to abruptly morph into what sounds like a Blur track with echoes of Bowie. The tune is emblematic of the admirably diverse, unflinchingly oddball and ultimately successful musical stylings, even if none of it is likely to match Idina Menzel’s modern classic.

Sadly, the movie’s narrative can’t quite keep up with its superficial excellence. After Moana (Auli’i Cravalho, wonderful in her debut) teams up with legendary, egotistical demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson, as charismatic as ever), the differing motivations and multiple goals of each character can become hard to follow, and their relationship develops in inorganic, unconvincing fits-and-starts. Additionally, the script can’t seem to focus on a singular theme, or even on a couple. From common ‘be yourself’ and ‘fight for what you believe in’ tropes to lessons about being humble, connecting with nature and respecting your heritage, it tries to say too much and ends up meaning little; certainly a far cry from the essential, sophisticated message of March’s Zootopia. What it loses in emotional substance, Moana largely makes up for with some of the best comedy of the year (mainly in the form of dim-witted stowaway chicken HeiHei), and colorful, high-energy action sequences, including one particularly stunning and inventive Mad Max: Fury Road-inspired chase sequence. In all, this is a vibrant, swashbuckling crowdpleaser that doesn’t quite live up to some of Disney’s other recent movies like Frozen or Tangled, but provides enough charm though its visuals, music and characters to be well worth the voyage.

Score: 3.5 out of 5