Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018

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Written by: Phil Lord; Rodney Rothman

Directed by: Bob Persichetti; Peter Ramsey; Rodney Rothman

A Review from the Perspective of a Spider-Newb

A cornucopia of visual delights that rivals the best of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, two of the giants in the world of animation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has taken Sony Pictures Animation to a whole new level. The combination of painstakingly hand-drawn and slick computer-generated imagery is something you can’t help but marvel at. All of the little stylistic flares — splitting the screen into panels, the employment of thought bubbles and of lightning bolts indicating a Spidey sense tingling, the minutiae of lighting textures — work in concert to make the viewer feel like they have “walked right into a comic book.” And then of course there’s a sense of timeliness. The recent passing of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee adds poignancy to what is already clearly an ode to a legacy. The rich detail and emotional resonance makes Into the Spider-Verse the cinematic equivalent of a mother’s handwoven quilt.

I’ll say it once and I’ll probably say it several more times before we’re done here: I can’t get over how good this movie looks. The visual language contributes so much to the film’s energetic personality and individuality. Yet what’s maybe most surprising about Into the Spider-Verse is how fresh and engaging this yet-again origins story feels. Its self-aware and occasionally self-deprecatory humor, courtesy of Phil Lord — the brilliantly quick-witted writer/producer of high-octane adventures such as The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street — helped me buy back in. This is only like the 167th time we have seen an ordinary kid get bitten by a special spider but only the first in which we have been able to laugh along with those involved at how many big-screen iterations of the web-slinger there have been in recent years. More to the point, this is the first time we have seen someone other than the iconically average Peter Parker become Spider-Man.

Yes, of all those versions that have preceded it Into the Spider-Verse is the most inclusive one yet. The film offers seven Spideys for the price of one and while comics readers will be getting the most value from their dollar as they pluck out all the myriad Easter eggs hidden inside, the story graciously makes room for Spider-Newbs, taking the idea of an ordinary individual gaining unusual abilities and extrapolating that to the general populace. That any one of us holds the potential to become Spider-Man is a conceit juicy with possibility. It also seems a logistical nightmare from a writing standpoint. How will all these characters coexist within one story? Is it even one story? How many and which villains do we go with? How many Mary Janes? (Sorry for the spoiler, but there can only ever be one of those.)

In bringing this ambitious project to life, three different filmmakers are charged with directing, with Peter Ramsey handling the action sequences, Rodney Rothman overseeing the comedic aspects, and Bob Persichetti supplying what Lord describes as the “poetry” of the story. Indeed this is a real team effort, with the writers (Lord, alongside Rothman and a whole host of credited character developers) fixating upon the emotional maturation of a new Spidey-in-the-making, one Miles Morales (Dope‘s very own Shameik Moore), a New York kid of Afro-Puerto Rican descent trying his best to please his cop dad, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and mom, Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez), a nurse. He attends a private boarding school where his parents hope he will aim for great heights. Oh, the irony. He has a close friend in his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) who encourages Miles to keep pursuing his artistic passions, frequently taking him to a subway station where he graffitis beautiful expressions onto the otherwise lifeless walls.

When a ridiculously rotund baddie named Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), attempts to use a particle accelerator to access alternate dimensions for personal reasons that won’t be revealed here, beings from those other worlds are inadvertently thrust into ours. This opens up a quasi-anthological narrative that brings in different Spider-People to inform the central conflict — Miles’ inability to own his newfound . . . well, abilities. Multiple character arcs are provided along the way, each different Spider-Person explaining how they won the mutated-genetics lottery, all while Miles’ internal struggle — that oft-referenced grappling with power and responsibility — remains front-and-center. More impressive is the way all of it unfolds at a breakneck pace without ever becoming convoluted and difficult to keep up with.

What really perpetuates the flow of the narrative is this revolving door of different characters. There is always something new to latch on to, like swinging through the corridors of Manhattan from building to building. Chris Pine is in as the one-and-only Peter Parker, and while the role is small he does something we haven’t seen Peter do in any of the live-action adaptations. Jake Johnson’s Peter B. Parker, by contrast, is an over-the-hill, jaded crime fighter whose sweatpants-and-protruding-gut look suggests he isn’t overly concerned with image these days. He is perfectly charming in all of his 9-5 day job blasé. Then we have Hailee Steinfeld taking up the mantle of Gwen Stacy and while her trust issues are a cliché the actress/singer makes her reservations not only believable but emotionally satisfying when it comes to the main protagonist’s development.

From there it gets a little more obscure, with SNL’s John Mulaney lending his voice to Spider-Ham/Peter Porker (and here is a perfect example of my ignorance; how dare I limit my imagination of what Spider-Man can be to just human beings) while Nicolas Cage, of all people, becomes Spider-Man Noir. Last and most definitely least interesting (again, to me) is Kimiko Glenn’s Peni Parker, a Japanese incarnation who apparently made her Marvel Comics début only a few years ago in Edge of Spider-Verse #5 (2014). She’s got some weird robot-machine thing named SP//dr with which she telepathically communicates and uses to properly engage with the enemy — a device that also apparently links her to the ominous OsCorp.

There are familiar faces and characters scattered throughout as well. The older, more cynical Spider-Man’s Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) has a pretty important part to play as the many Spideys set about trying to find a way back to their own worlds while Miles tries ever more desperately to prevent Kingpin from destroying New York and, on a more personal level, help his father overcome his anti-Spidey bias. Secondary villains appear in the form of Doc Ock/Olivia Octavius (Kathryn Hann adding a female twist on Alfred Molina’s interpretation from Spider-Man 2), and Prowler, whose unmasked identity is best left masked in writing.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is sure to have long legs at the box office, and it deserves them. Whether this is the epitome of what comic book movies should feel like and be about is something that can be debated until the cows come home. For this outsider, this is just one of the most consistently enjoyable and immersive experiences I have had in 2018 and in a year in which I have had to absorb the blows of Infinity War, endure the cold loneliness of being First Man and try to survive the completely unknown in (my personal favorite) Annihilation, that is some accomplishment.

“I think, therefore I am . . . Spider-Man?”

Recommendation: Into the Spider-Verse has it all: an incredible visual spectacle, a streamlined but hardly contrived narrative with a big heart and a great sense of humor, a villain with a compelling motive, a heartbreaking plot-twist and an emotive soundtrack. Best of all, the multiverse doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of what is canonical and what isn’t for you to really get inside it. I don’t know if this is literally “the best Spider-Man movie ever made,” but I am fairly confident it is one of the best movies I have seen this year. Your move, Marvel.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “That’s all it is Miles, a leap of faith.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

 

Free Solo

Release: Friday, September 28, 2018

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Directed by: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi; Jimmy Chin

Alex Honnold is a professional rock climber who occupies a very obscure niche within the rock climbing community. As a free soloist responsible for some of the world’s most death-defying ascents sans a rope and any protective gear, he is most alive when climbing hundreds of feet above the deck and often inches from slipping into the yawning mouth of death. Now, with Free Solo, general audiences get a chance to step into his tightly-laced La Sportivas and see the world from his point of view. The results are surprisingly humanizing.

As a (seriously out-of-form) rock climber, I have had for quite some time a philosophical problem with Alex Honnold and others like him — Dan Osman for example (may he rest in peace) — and what they represent of the climbing community. Not everyone has the interest in learning about all the different styles and nuances to the endeavor, though it should be pretty self-evident anything done several hundred feet above the ground without a rope is automatically classified as extreme. Honnold’s goals are ostensibly the same as any other climber — he just has to “make it to the top.” When it comes to Honnold and his increasingly public profile I fear criticisms of him will become appropriated to the whole — that this degree of thrill is what we all seek; that all those who enjoy climbing might just be as callous towards their own lives as he appears to be.

Of course, I am probably not giving the layperson nearly enough credit. I think the majority understand that traditional climbing is done with a rope and a harness (though those same people are really going to shit when I tell them there is a thing called bouldering, too). After all, even if you don’t climb but saw Free Solo, you got a good idea that what he is attempting isn’t normal. That there is a scale of relativity here. I was prepared to write a scathing review for how Free Solo might give people the wrong impression, but I must applaud it for taking the approach that it does — angling for the psychology that makes Honnold a pure climber, yet one that is clearly different than the rest. This movie humanizes an insane human (who, by the way, and as is revealed in what I thought was one of the film’s best scenes in a medical facility where Honnold is getting a scan of his brain, apparently possesses an unusually difficult-to-impress amygdala, the area of the brain involved with how we experience emotion). Getting to know him on a more personal level makes this adventure so much more compelling.

The basis for Free Solo, daringly shot and co-directed by celebrated climbing photographer Jimmy Chin and his wife, documentarian Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Merú), is actually not about the climb but about the climber and his scruples. For the sake of plot synopsizing, the film finds him in pursuit of arguably the most ambitious undertaking in the history of climbing. He aims to free solo the 3,000-foot-tall granite monstrosity of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, one of the premier destinations for airy multi-pitch, traditional gear (or ‘trad’) climbing. It spends a not inconsiderable chunk of its 97-minute run time teasing the featured climb (“Free Rider”) while easing us into the unusual life he leads. We are formally introduced to the cliché first — a perpetually grubby, scrawny guy eating 90 cent dinners in his home-cum-traveling-van parked indefinitely amidst the tall pines of Yosemite. Then there is the enigma, a rather emotionally detached dude for whom the girlfriend thing doesn’t even appear as a blip on the radar.

Enter: Sanni McCandless. She immediately provides Free Solo an accessibility that Honnold’s esoteric obsessions simply cannot. At the very least, she offers perspective, a contrast between how much importance her boyfriend places on solving a particularly challenging climbing sequence versus the more universal challenges of establishing a healthy work-life balance. For Honnold — and this also has been part of what has made me slower to embrace him as an ambassador for the sport compared to someone like Chris Sharma — to work is to rock climb, and to live is the same. McCandless is something of a savior for a dark, tortured soul, though often her inexperience on the rock is a hindrance to his success. The emotional trajectory Honnold goes on as weeks of preparing for Free Rider turn into months and months into years, is something I absolutely did not expect from a climbing documentary.

No, Free Solo isn’t as we call it in our little corner, “climbing porn” (don’t worry, that link is 100% workplace-appropriate). This is a real human story with honest-to-goodness concern for the well-being of its subject. There is a complicated morality not just to what Honnold proposes to his fellow athletes and camera crew — it is really interesting seeing how uncomfortable world-renowned big-wall conqueror Tommy Caldwell is made by all of this — but as well to the fact that the filmmakers are potentially capturing the end of a life on camera. So they get creative, employing drones to get the shots they want without physically or mentally distracting the subject as he moves deliberately and alarmingly quickly up the face of one of the greatest wonders of the natural world. Free Solo offers much more than scenic vistas and heart-pounding thrills. I appreciated its benevolence in making sure we all know how rare a climber and a person Alex Honnold is, and even more importantly, that he knows he isn’t infallible.

What? He smiles?!

Recommendation: Visually stunning to the point of being vertigo-inducing, Free Solo exposes the world to the joys and the dangers of a very particular form of rock climbing. What the climber achieves is breathtaking, but I can’t get over what this must have been like for those filming it. I love how that ethicality becomes as much a part of the experience as the climb, and ditto that to Sanni McCandless. She really keeps things grounded. Ehem. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Let’s hope this is a low-gravity day.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.indiewire.com

Three Identical Strangers

Release: Friday, June 29, 2018 (limited)

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Directed by: Tim Wardle

Significant spoilers follow.

Documentarian Tim Wardle stunned the Sundance crowd earlier this year when he premiered Three Identical Strangers, the remarkable true story of a set of triplets separated at birth who by sheer chance were reunited at the age of 19. Call it one of life’s greatest plot twists. You might even call it a real-life fairytale. But do all fairytales have a happy ending?

Level One

It all began when a curly-haired Robert “Bobby” Shafran stepped foot back on campus at a community college in upstate New York in the fall of 1980. It was his sophomore year. A day that started as any other quickly turned surreal when seemingly everyone kept mistaking Bobby for some guy named Eddy (last name Galland), a former high school football star who was attending classes there the semester prior but had since transferred. It wasn’t until Bobby met his roommate that he would get an answer as to why girls he had never met before were walking right up to him and kissing him. The roommate, a Michael Domitz, knew Eddy had left the college and yet Bobby was so strikingly similar looking he had to ask a couple personal questions to potentially satisfy a theory. Were the two related in some way?

Turns out, both of Michael’s roommates shared the same birth day and year, and both were adopted — through the same adoption agency, no less. How many instances of coincidence does it take for someone to become convinced they aren’t coincidences? After an eerie phone call to someone whose voice was a perfect echo of his own, Robert took off for Long Island in the middle of the night. He had to meet this Eddy and immediately. Michael tagged along too. Four hours later, Robert found himself staring into a mirror — minus the actual mirror. The two had the same smile, the same bearpaw-like hands, the same curly hair. They spoke with the same cadence and laughed each other’s laugh. They instantly knew they were brothers and they acted like it. It was if those years, all that time spent in ignorance of each other’s existence, never were.

Level Two

Their story quickly gained national attention and the pair toured the country, making appearances on all the major talk shows. Meanwhile, a 19-year-old David Kellman happened upon a picture of the two in a local paper and was struck by their resemblance not just to each other, but to himself. America was already falling in love with this saga about long-lost twins being found. When it was learned there was actually a third, the narrative shifted from heartwarming to truly unbelievable. In this film there are so many things you will try to deny even as the subjects themselves graciously invite you into their lives. And as they explain more, it paradoxically becomes harder to accept.

Three Identical Strangers is a pure joy to behold, a spectacle of families coming together and expanding under the most unlikely of circumstances. It really is like a fairytale, until it isn’t. That isn’t an indictment on the way Wardle handles the material. There is a reason he considers the triplets the “single greatest story” he has ever come across. The structure of the film is critical. The upswing in the first half has a power only matched by the crushing revelations of the second. In that way, there is this bipolar quality to the film’s emotional trajectory, going from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other.

The triplets, along with their respective foster parents (one an upper-class couple, another comfortably middle class and the third blue collar) had more questions than they had answers — the most pressing of which were directed at the adoption center that split them up at birth and irrevocably altered their lives.

Level Three

The jaw-dropping revelations don’t end with the three brothers finally together and taking Manhattan by storm. In fact I’d argue this is where Wardle really goes to work. And where Three Identical Strangers goes from feel-good to “I feel sick.” As it moves into its unforgettable third act, interviews with curious journalists and scientists alike begin steering the narrative in a direction that is altogether surprising and deeply disturbing. What was before a celebration of life and love curdles into a desperate search for the truth and, ultimately, an infuriating ethics debate.

How were the three boys never told by their foster parents they were triplets, separated at birth? Did the parents themselves know? What about their birth mother? Why were they put up for adoption in the first place? I really want to answer some of those questions right here, right now. But you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Believe this though: Three Identical Strangers is one of the most breathtaking documentaries you will ever watch. It exposes an existential crisis the likes of which you and I will never experience, while questioning the nobility of scientific experiments in which the lab rats look alarmingly like us.

the triplets star in a brief cameo in the Madonna film Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Recommendation: Three Identical Strangers is the epitome of a film best experienced going in as cold as possible. Ideally, you’ve read my spoiler warning up top and skipped right down to this section. I guess it doesn’t matter when words don’t really do this story justice. It is just an insane true story and you have to check it out to draw your own conclusions. And please do so before Hollywood botches it by turning it into a narrative feature. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.unz.com

Isle of Dogs

Release: Friday, April 13, 2018

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Written by: Wes Anderson

Directed by: Wes Anderson

When it comes to Wes Anderson, ‘more of the same’ is absolutely a compliment. I don’t find myself saying that about many other filmmakers. Now nine films deep into a career that has netted him an ever-growing, passionate and devoted fanbase it is clear he isn’t changing tacks. On evidence of his latest effort, a visually dense yet lucidly told saga about a young Japanese boy in search of his lost pup, it is clear he doesn’t need to.

With Isle of Dogs, it is more than just a case of absence making the heart grow fonder. (It has been four years, apparently, since The Grand Budapest Hotel.) Isle of Dogs has the distinction of being only the second animated feature film on Anderson’s résumé. Like 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, it is rendered in stop-motion animation, an aesthetic choice that on its own attests to a profound commitment and love for the craft of telling stories in moving pictures. His live action films feel restrictive by comparison in terms of the number of aspects he can control and customize to his completely obsessive liking. This new offering is so meticulously crafted you can easily take its beauty for granted.

Set in the fictitious metropolis of Megasaki City in a near-future Japan, trouble begins when the new, authoritarian, cat-loving mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) orders the exile of all dogs from the city to an off-shore wasteland called Trash Island following an outbreak of “snout fever.” A brief timeline of events is immediately established, tracing the downward trend in the public repute of our canine companions. The relationship has deteriorated from dogs being subjected to harsh verbal treatment from their owners to being flat-out persecuted. So when I say this film is beautiful, I suppose I’m being shallow because if you do a little thematic digging you are sure to find some things that are actually quite ugly. Elements of immigration, of second-class citizenship and racial prejudice, even slavery are touched upon.

In the present/future/future-present/whatever, a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin), who happens to be the nephew and ward of Mayor Kobayashi, flees the city in an attempt to reunite with his best buddy. His dog Spots was the very first to get booted to Trash Island. Upon his crash-landing there several months later Atari meets a group of abandoned mutts — Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum) — who prove surprisingly willing to aid in his quest. After mistakenly identifying the remains of another dog as Spots, they seek the advice of wizened old fools Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and Oracle (Tilda Swinton) who point them to the remote reaches of the island where they might have luck finding him amidst the cannibalistic tribes rumored to be living there.

Luckily, a post-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston isn’t in his first Wes Anderson movie just to give a whimper of a performance. He has real bite here, playing a tough pooch who must break free from his habit of distrusting others, especially he who walks upright. This is his movie more than anyone else’s, and that of course means sacrifices on the part of Anderson regulars in order to elevate his status. Good for fans of Cranston, but perhaps a disappointing revelation for those wanting more Bill Furr-ay.

Isle of Dogs is a very busy place, a fully realized environment bustling with activity and overloaded with imagery that pays tribute to Japanese culture and iconography. To this viewer, that effort comes across as sincere and respectful but that hasn’t been the case for everyone. If your experience was anything like mine you may have spent more time and a frustrating number of scenes trying to figure out which famous actor was voicing which animal rather than all the ways in which this movie appears to reinforce negative stereotypes. My head hurts already from overthinking things.

And then there are those obligatory subplots to contend with as well, which are considerably less interesting this time around. More often than not these asides tend to chop the central conceit up into annoying bits and pieces of doggie chow. One involves the predictable repercussions of Atari’s disappearance as his uncle vows to bring him and his newfound friends to justice. The other, also an attempt to balance perspectives, finds an outspoken animal rights activist (Greta Gerwig with HUGE hair) stumbling upon a potential conspiracy involving the corrupt mayor and a group of scientists featuring Yoko Ono. (Like I said, there’s just a lot going on.)

Much of the ambition pays off. How can it not when you have a filmmaker as uncompromisingly idiosyncratic as Wes Anderson, and especially here, when he is in complete control? Unfortunately not all of it succeeds and a few bells and whistles feel unnecessarily tacked on. Frances McDormand’s inclusion is a shining example of Anderson trying to do too much. The talented actress fulfills this really weird-bordering-on-condescending role as an English translator in select scenes where Japanese is spoken. She more often than not just gets in the way, neither becoming an interesting character nor a necessary plot device. In fact her function is borderline insulting, not simply to the few Japanese characters who actually do get speaking roles, but to those of us who are even decent at reading body language and facial expressions. Never mind the fact that the movie stops dead in its tracks just to explain such superfluity.

Ultimately though, Isle of Dogs does a lot of good. It is as uplifting in its action sequences as it is saddening in its darkest trials, of which there are quite a few. The whimsical spirit of the adventure and the often comical physical renderings — the scrappy dog fights are true highlights — go a long way in making a somber reality more palatable. The film is perhaps the darkest one yet in his filmography, yet it is perpetually buoyed by its fascination with the simple but unconditional love a dog has for his owner. Isle of Dogs may not be Anderson at his narrative best, but its flaws are not enough to stop me from asking for more of the same. Please, just. More.

Dog day afternoon

Recommendation: Isle of Dogs represents only the second time Wes Anderson has gone the way of stop-motion, but it is a welcome return to a form that I find he actually excels even more in. Barring a few niggling detours here and there, Isle of Dogs is consistently entertaining, surprisingly dramatic and a visually enthralling experience. Four barks out of five.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “You’ll meet a bitch named Nutmeg. Tell her Chief says, ‘I’ll see you in Megasaki.'”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Brigsby Bear

Release: Friday, July 28, 2017 (limited) 

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Written by: Kevin Costello; Kyle Mooney

Directed by: Dave McCary 

THIS REVIEW INCLUDES DETAILS THAT COULD BE CONSIDERED SPOILERS

Like last year’s gloriously weird Swiss Army Man, Brigsby Bear is a film guided by its own compass. Granted, not a penis, but rather the element of human empathy and compassion. It’s one of the year’s bona fide feel-good films, one that consistently offers surprises and subverts expectation at almost every turn. Given the times in which we are living, it’s an experience you really shouldn’t miss.

There are a few fleeting moments early in the film during which you feel the heat of a potentially mean-spirited drama beginning to rise. But that discomfort is soon assuaged by the stunning direction taken by Dave McCary, best described as the result of a choice between ostracizing his oddball protagonist and making him the hero of his own story. To that end, Brigsby Bear is a celebration of weirdness and individualism handled with maturity and grace — so much so, it begs the question why more movies can’t set this kind of example.

Brigsby Bear is an educational television show geared towards children, a Barney and Friends featuring a man dressed as a bear instead of a purple dinosaur. It’s a program to which James (Kyle Mooney) is completely dedicated. As a full-grown man he’s the show’s biggest fan. He’s . . . kinda the only one. Living in an underground bunker with his parents Tim (Mark Hamill) and April Mitchum (Jane Adams), the show is the only impression the apparent man-child has of the outside world. When the curtain finally falls on Brigsby, a confused James is challenged to find a way to keep it alive, as well as his sense of identity.

Brainwashing and child abduction aren’t subjects that strike you as comedic material, yet McCary embraces the opportunity to turn a negative into a major positive. Besides, the goal isn’t to seduce audiences into uncontrollable giggling fits. Think Napoleon Dynamite stuck in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room. James’ transition into the real world could have been difficult to endure. I suppose it is at the very least disturbing. Notes of melancholy occasionally bubble to the surface, particularly in scenes featuring his biological parents (played by Matt Walsh in what feels like a long time coming for one of my favorite character actors, with great support from Michaela Watkins).

But why waste time manufacturing more hatred when you can provide audiences this kind of uplift? The comedy is never left untainted by some degree of sadness, but it’s the choice to look beyond the pain that defines McCay’s directorial debut. What’s more surprising than the quality of the material — an original collaboration between Mooney and Kevin Costello, inspired by the former’s fascination with ’80s children’s programming (and VHS tapes) — are the names who have helped nurture its transition from page to screen. Brigsby Bear has the backing of a number of SNL alums, including its director and lead actor (who, by the way, is nothing short of revelatory), as well as the members of American comedy trio The Lonely Island — with Andy Samberg taking a small part as a patient at a psychiatric ward, a cameo that is going to elevate his street cred as an actor not inconsiderably.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when it occurred, but I knew that when it happened I was watching something special. Maybe it was that party scene, a sequence that turns almost every single stereotype associated with hard-partying millennials on their heads and boots them to the curb. What happens to James is never quite what you expect. Yet, morally, it’s not something you should be surprised by. With the events of the last few weeks alone, Brigsby Bear reminds us that the smallest acts of kindness, of supportiveness and cooperation should not go unappreciated or unnoticed. In that way, this feels more than just another Sundance darling familiarly outfitted with a funny name and quirky characters.

Recommendation: Richly emotionally satisfying, morally upstanding and winningly geeky (with hints of hipsterdom and a touch of creep to really spice things up). There are only moments where the film tips over into sentimentality but the trump card is the film’s earnestness. This is a tribute to the creative process insofar as it is an exploration of the people who help make their dreams realities. If you only see one movie a year, choose this one. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Dunkirk

Release: Friday, July 21, 2017

→IMAX

Written by: Christopher Nolan

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

In memory of my late grandfather, John Little.

In his first historical drama, one that gives the acclaimed writer-director an opportunity to fly that British flag high, Christopher Nolan is deeply committed to creating a singular, sensory experience that goes beyond a mere reenactment. Relying on an intimate relationship between its technical elements as well as time as a constant factor, the acutely distressing thrills of the mighty Dunkirk you will feel in your marrow.

As always, Nolan doesn’t just go for style points. Firmly entrenched within the chaos and destruction of this senses-shattering summer blockbuster lies “the Miracle of Dunkirk,” a story of survival and stoicism nearly lost to the sea of newspaper headlines declaring an embarrassing defeat for the good guys. In fairness, much was lost. This was desperation. Even the British Bulldog acknowledged, sprinkling a pinch of salt upon his heaps of praise for his boys: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

June 1940. The Nazi campaign was steamrolling Europe and had pinned a significant number of Allied forces against the grimy waters of the northern French harbor of Dunkirk. An increasingly desperate Luftwaffe, to whom the task of preventing any sort of escape had ultimately fallen (after a significant delay), had been engaging the opposition on the water as well as in the air. Devastation was catastrophic on both sides, though the Germans suffered greater aerial losses — some 240 aircraft over a nine-day span. In that time 200 marine vessels were sacrificed, including a hospital and the famed Medway Queen, a beautiful British paddle steamer. Out of a total Allied strength approximate 400,000, some 30,000 were either killed in action or presumed dead or captured in this violent and pivotal clash.

Because the Brit has built a career around an intellectual yet highly entertaining brand of filmmaking, the bluntly observational Dunkirk feels somewhat like a departure, if for no other reason than it feels gauche to call this entertainment. The material demands a certain intonation, and as a result Nolan has created his most harrowing, his most sobering movie to date. Even more to his credit, his approach consistently shies away from excessive bloodshed, making this, in some ways, the anti-Saving Private Ryan. The anti-Hacksaw Ridge. The anti-any war film that subscribes to the notion that gore and blood are necessary evils if a viewer is to be properly immersed in the action.

In realizing a significantly world-shaping event, Nolan finds himself as a director adapting to the circumstances. Instead of philosophizing and extrapolating, he takes a more back-door approach to accumulating profound emotion. Empathy for the masses doesn’t require an intimate relationship with any one character. The point is to highlight the commonality found within the calamity. To that end, two things tend to strike you about the film: its narrative style, which follows key role players on each of the three fronts, and the sound design, chiefly realized through Oscar-winning composer and six-time collaborator Hans Zimmer (who clearly took the memo to heart when Nolan told him to make a show of force).

The scenery has changed, yet the element of time remains Nolan’s favorite ball of yarn. Once again he demands it be a malleable object, able to be manipulated in order to heighten the sense of all-encompassing, inescapable danger that crashed upon the stranded repeatedly like waves against the beach. His nonlinear triptych spreads the workload of presenting each unique aspect of the Good Fight across an incredibly efficient 107 minutes, resulting in frequently intense and dynamically intersecting perspectives that show all parts working together. It’s the epitome of cinematic, as opposed to the simple trick-fuckery some critics have dismissed the technique as.

Presented first is “The Mole,” so named after the long breakwater pier upon which thousands stood awaiting rescue, and it describes everything that happens on land. This is where we meet a trio of young soldiers, privates Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) and a low-ranking soldier named Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). We follow them through an obstacle course from hell. Nolan brings aboard a few recognizable faces to give weight to the proceedings, like dry-as-a-box-of-saltines Kenneth Branagh, who doesn’t do much as a British commander, but then the role requires that his hands be tied. James D’Arcy is alongside him as an army colonel.

“The Sea” is the second thread introduced and it develops over the course of a single day. It’s characterized by a death-defying crossing of the English Channel. Mark Rylance gets the distinction of representing this stalwart civilian effort, playing a regular old Joe who felt a great sense of duty to answer Churchill’s call. He’s joined by son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young local boy (Barry Keoghan). The purity in this gesture, in their desire to help, is what the movie is all about. Because sometimes actions really do speak louder than words, Nolan keeps dialogue to a minimum in Dunkirk, allowing the actions taken both by the individual and of the collective to drown out even the bombast of Zimmer’s incredible score.

Last but certainly not least is “The Air,” which features all the acrobatics aloft. This segment takes place over the course of just one hour. In it we experience the way Nolan has interpreted the ‘dogfighting’ phenomenon associated with World War II. Needless to say, it’s breathtaking and deeply involving. Bullets ricochet cacophonously. The tin sound is abrasive. Radio comm between the RAF and Farrier screams ’40s simplicity. Some of the most stunning and graceful sequences of combat you will ever see in a war film result from Nolan’s decision to place IMAX cameras on the bodies of actual Spitfires, and returning DP Hoyte Van Hoytema’s ability to create unique, disorienting angles. Don’t blame Nolan for any confusion. If anything, lay it all on Hoytema, who turns cameras sideways as we sink into the water to give the impression ‘the walls are closing in.’

As time ticked away and spirits and ammunition ran out, the thousands — mostly British and French, but among them a smattering of Belgians and Canadians — stared longingly across the Channel, wondering if they’d ever make it back to the familiar shores of their hometowns. Others looked skyward, hoping for a miracle in the form of the Royal Air Force, only to be disheartened by the sight of a Messerschmitt dive-bombing right for them. And the lucky left wondering if they’d ever see (and hear) the end of this unrelenting period of undulating, unbearable stress.

Nolan’s latest test piece is about so much more than an historic military debacle. The pearl that lies inside, the drama that lies underneath the drama as it were, is that Churchill got ten times the number of men that he had hoped would bolster the effort in the inevitable Battle of Britain. The moral victory that resulted from Operation Dynamo’s success, the widespread cooperation, epitomizes why Nolan makes movies. As do the incredibly high stakes. The cumulative effect gives modern audiences a better idea of how close we had actually come to living in a world in which the Nazis had conquered more than Europe.

Recommendation: Relentlessly intense and loud, Dunkirk poses unique problems. As an event film that embraces a wide audience, I saw a number of people exiting the theater with their hands over their ears. Perhaps its ambitions as a senses-throttling experience do have drawbacks. But there is no denying the approach makes this a unique war film, and the epitome of a Christopher Nolan production. It doesn’t get much more profound than this. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I’m on him.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Manchester By the Sea

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Release: Friday, November 18, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Kenneth Lonergan

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan

A good movie offers escapism. A better movie makes us think. But some of the best movies don’t necessarily allow us the luxury of escape. They challenge us to face the world that actually includes us, holding a mirror up to our own realities and daring us to keep looking closer. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is one such movie, a stunningly perceptive drama that’s not only technically impressive but emotionally heavy-hitting as well. Despite almost unrelenting bleakness, it just well may be the year’s most relatable movie.

The titular town is not much more than a small port, a few fishing boats and about as many red lights; a crusty blue-collar town clinging to the Massachusetts coast hardened by more than just brutal winters. It doesn’t announce itself as a happening place, but for one man who once called this harbor home, everything that ever mattered to him happened here. In this most unexpected of places we will, through a series of devastating revelations, be reminded of a few brutal truths about the human experience.

The film pairs its creaky, rundown setting with subtle (but powerful) performances to effect an intentionally mundane aesthetic. It tells of a man named Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) who reluctantly becomes his nephew’s guardian when the boy’s father (Lee’s brother Joe who is, confusingly enough, portrayed by Kyle Chandler) passes away suddenly. The premise may seem simple at first but it is pregnant with complexity and nuance. Lee leads a spectacularly unspectacular life in Boston, making minimum wage as a custodian for an apartment block. It’s perhaps not the most ideal line of work for someone trying to avoid people at all costs, but it’s pretty darn close. Aloof in the extreme and prone to violent outbursts, Lee is not a protagonist we immediately embrace. He’s actually kind of a jackass: spurning women’s advances and getting into bar fights because someone gives him the wrong look.

But there’s a method to the madness. Working from a screenplay he originally intended to be his sole contribution to the production, Lonergan steadily reveals layers to a character in a protracted emotional crisis. Flashbacks play a crucial role in the process. Lee is first evaluated as a worker, as a pee-on to the average white-collar Bostonian. A series of interactions Lee tries not to have with his clients — tenants whose lights have broken, whose toilets have clogged, whose bathtubs need sealant and whose goodwill is eroded by the man’s social awkwardness — gives us the impression Lee kinda just hates his job. But the bitterness runs a bit deeper than that. He seems to have a genuine disdain for the human race.

Manchester By the Sea uses flashbacks both as a gateway to the past and as our exclusive access into the mind of a thoroughly depressed individual. The cutaways occur incredibly naturally, manifesting as a sort of internal response to external stress. A visit with the lawyer to get his brother’s affairs in order proves to be a particularly sensitive trigger. What to do with the family boat, the house and other possessions, funeral arrangements — the whole headache rekindles feelings he would rather not have. This moment sends us on a trip down memory lane and into the drama’s darkest moments. What Lee has apparently been coping with for years — what ultimately drove a wedge between him and his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) — proves bitterly poignant.

On the other side of this flashback we view Lee as a different person. Not that our empathy is garnered in one fell swoop, but looking back, if we were to point to a specific moment when our perception started to evolve, it undoubtedly is this epiphany. It is here where we start to view his world through a much darker, cloudier lens. Back in his hometown and daunted by new, unexpected responsibilities — most notably looking after his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) — Lee is also left with little choice but to confront his demons and try to stake a new path forward. But is he really up to the task? How would we deal with all of this?

Manchester By the Sea evokes its strongest emotional and psychological responses from its characters. The narrative certainly stimulates the mind, but the people are what appeal to the heart. Affleck plays a man who seems tailor-made for the actor’s unusual real-life persona. His controversial behavior in his private life (at least as of late) makes the transition into playing an emotionally unstable anti-hero a less surprising one. Gossip is pretty useless really, but is it not ironic Affleck has allowed a few of his own character defects to become things for public consumption in the run-up to the release of a film featuring a severely flawed character? Gossip is also useless because I am only assuming he’s fired his publicist. He’s probably done that in spite of claims that he “doesn’t care about fame.”

And this is stupid because all of this is just padding my word count. As is this.

Before my ADHD gets the better of me, other names are certainly deserving of what remains of this page space. Hedges and Williams in particular make strong cases for Oscars consideration. The former introduces a compelling new dynamic and the perfect foil for Lee’s anti-socialite. Popular in school, on the hockey team, a member of a garage band and currently juggling two girlfriends, Patrick is the antithesis of his uncle. He makes an effort to connect with others. Aspects of his personality and his attitude are going to feel familiar, but this is far from the archetypal teenage annoyance. Williams, in a limited but unforgettable supporting role as the estranged ex-wife, mines emotional depths equal to her co-star who is given ten times the amount of screen time. That’s not to detract from what Affleck has accomplished. Quite simply the actress achieves something here that’s difficult to put into words.

Manchester By the Sea uses one man and his struggle to speak to the melancholy pervading the lives of millions. The language of the film is pain, so even if the specifics don’t speak to your experience the rollercoaster of emotions, the undulating waves of uncertainty and despair surely will. And yet, for all the sadness in which it trades, Lonergan’s magnum opus finds room for genuinely affecting humor. Hedges often supplies welcomed doses of sarcasm to offset Affleck’s perpetually sullen demeanor. And it is surely welcomed, for if it weren’t for the laughs perhaps it all would have been too much. The best films know when enough is enough.

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5-0Recommendation: Powerfully performed and confidently directed, Manchester By the Sea may on the surface seem like a certain kind of crowd-pleaser — perhaps more the critic-circle variety — but I’d like to think the film’s technical merits and the minutiae of the performances are what has drawn a 97% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The story’s ability to make you empathize is worth recommending to anyone who appreciates a good story about “normal people.” This is a potent, vital film about the human experience and a testament to the indiscriminate yet seemingly random cruelties that life presents. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Loving

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Release: Friday, November 4, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Jeff Nichols

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

One of the most common red marks on my college papers was the criticism ‘Show, don’t tell.’ These notations littered my 300-level Opinion Writing assignments. I recall one particular article in which we had to discuss how a recent environmental disaster in Kingston, Tennessee had been handled by the company and how the media covered it. I did nothing but go around in circles, relying far too heavily on abstraction and flowery language that ultimately offered nothing concrete.

Jeff Nichols doesn’t seem to have my problem. I left Loving with little doubt as to whether Richard and Mildred Loving could be anything other than together. He has made a series of conscious decisions to show rather than tell audiences what the love was like between an interracial couple living in 1950s Virginia. The portrait is so simplistic and earnest it becomes cathartic. Its quiet but undeniable power left me in awe. While the story of the Loving family is set against a backdrop of racial tension and bigotry, this isn’t a political film. It’s purely an ode to a married couple who deeply cared for one another and who would do anything to ensure they could pursue a life of happiness together.

Historical drama details the events that led up to the Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia. The majority of the film centers squarely on the couple as they endure the harsh prejudices of society but the climax, subtle as it may be, shows how their trials — both literal and figurative — set a legal precedent in a nation on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. The ruling struck down nationwide laws that prevented whites and people of color from being legally married. In Loving, the couple make the trek from their quiet country home in Caroline County, Virginia to Washington D.C. to get married.  They return with a marriage license which Richard promptly hangs on their bedroom wall.

One night they are rudely awakened by a pair of officers who have somehow received word about their nuptials. The couple are jailed, but because Richard is white he is bailed out first. Meanwhile his wife must stay the weekend in a holding cell. In court the couple plead guilty to breaking the state’s anti-miscgenation law and now face a one-year sentence. However, the judge offers to suspend the sentence under the condition that they do not return to Virginia for at least 25 years. The Lovings move in with a friend in D.C., but then later return to the countryside for the birthing of their first child. They are arrested again shortly thereafter but are spared further punishment as their lawyer successfully lobbies for leniency, claiming he had misled his clients.

As time passes and after the couple bear two more children, their circumstances begin weighing heavily on Mildred. She eventually seeks help from a Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), a lawyer representing the American Civil Liberties Union. Bernie’s investment in the couple’s plight is not merely a mark of maturity in the actor; the performance confesses the sort of attitude and open-mindedness that restores hope for humanity. He seeks the advice of Constitutional law expert Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass) to help bring the case to the attention of the Supreme Court.

In Nichols’ latest, beauty runs deep. In Loving there is an element of physical attractiveness but that dynamic is subdued in favor of the way souls attract. In fact, skin color is only ever addressed by the outsider — those not directly involved in the affair. Throughout we see how Richard not only maintains a friendly rapport with his extended family, who happen to be black, but how he is truly accepted by them. But even the level-headed aren’t totally devoid of judgment. The couple’s actions have clearly made many of their neighbors uncomfortable and it is this reality that Richard often finds himself battling — not so much because he is white but because of his defiance. Mildred’s sister in particular becomes embittered by Richard’s decisions.

What’s most impressive is how Nichols’ screenplay never resorts to reductive or manipulative techniques. There are no great sacrifices — at least, no one freezes to death in the north Atlantic so their other half could survive the night on a floating door — nor are there any explosive arguments that threaten to rip apart the fabric of love itself. Instead Loving uses a pair of heartfelt performances to demonstrate what love actually is: trusting, patient, unflinching in the face of adversity. Love is an arm gently resting upon your partner’s shoulder or wrapped around their waist; it’s about sharing a moment of silence in the kitchen and being distracted from the discomfiting temporariness of such peace.

Joel Edgerton, who plays Richard in a potentially career-best performance, and the Ethiopian-born Ruth Negga, who is Mildred, are so good together it almost hurts the heart seeing the two in much more casual stances in photos for the accompanying press tour. The last time I had this much trouble reconciling reality with fantasy was when it was revealed that John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer were, in fact, not an item. Why, oh why, can’t these two people really be together? Such is the net effect of this profoundly moving film.

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4-5Recommendation: Such a touching, precious film about real relationships has this reviewer raving! Performances are virtually the whole deal, and yet another strong directorial effort from one of my favorite up-and-coming directors (hell, he’s already here) in Jeff Nichols puts Loving in a position to make at least one of my end-of-year lists. The film paces itself leisurely and at times I found myself getting fidgety but other than that, this is a pretty close to perfect little film. Romantics at heart certainly need to buy a ticket, but Loving will also appeal to those seeking an uplifting, fact-based story that doesn’t resort to melodrama. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “Tell the judge I love my wife.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Moonlight

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Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Barry Jenkins

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

There’s a moment late in Barry Jenkins’ new film featuring a blown-out Naomie Harris desperate for a cigarette, in the way a recovering crack-addict is desperate for a cigarette. Her violently trembling hands fail her, prompting the assistance of her son, for whom she has spent a lifetime erecting an emotional and psychological prison due to her abusive, drug-induced behavior. He lights the tip, mom takes the first blissful drag. The moment seems pretty innocuous in the grand scheme of things but this I promise you: I will never forget this scene. Never.

Quite frankly, it’s one of many such scenes buried in Moonlight, a by turns brutal and beautiful drama inspired by a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. I will never forget that title.

Nor will I ever forget what it has inspired. This is the story of Chiron, by all accounts a normal kid born into some less-than-ideal circumstances in the rough suburbs of Miami. I couldn’t help but weep for him, even when he ultimately becomes something that probably doesn’t want or need my pity. As he endures psychological cruelty at the hands of his mother Paula (Harris, in one of the year’s most stunning supporting turns), and physical torment from his peers who interpret his quiet demeanor as weakness, he also finds himself grappling with his own identity vis-à-vis his sexuality.

The narrative is presented in an inventive three-act structure that details significant events in his life. Chiron is portrayed by different actors in each segment, ranging in age from 8-ish to twenty-something. Each chapter is given a different label (you should bookmark that term) that corresponds to the way the character is referred to in these eras. Nicknames like ‘Little’ and ‘Black’ not only function as reference points in terms of where we are in the narrative but such descriptors reinforce Jenkins’ theory that people are far too complex to be summed up by a simple word or name. These segments also bear their own unique cinematic style, most notably in the way color plays a role in advancing the film’s themes. Blue accents subtly shift while the camera remains fixated squarely upon the flesh and blood of its subject.

Epic saga has the feel of Richard Linklater’s 12-year experimental project Boyhood but whereas that film relied on the literal, actual growth of its main character, Jenkins hires actors who ingeniously play out different phases of life all the while working toward building a congruous portrait of a gay African-American male. Throughout the journey we are challenged to redefine the labels we have, in some way or another, established for ourselves and for others. Moonlight implores us to embrace not only all that makes a person a person, but that which makes a man a man.

While each actor is absolutely committed to the same cause, all three bring a different side of the character to the forefront. From young Chiron’s hesitation to engage with others — most notably a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) — as demonstrated by newcomer Alex R. Hibbert (who plays Chiron in the first segment, ‘Little’), to the seething anger that has accumulated in the teen form (Ashton Sanders), to the post-juvie gangster Chiron “becomes” (now played by Trevante Rhodes) we are afforded a unique perspective on multiple cause-and-effect relationships, be they of parental or environmental influence. The trio of performances complement the moody tableau in such a way that the entire experience manifests as visual poetry.

But unlike poetry, much of the film’s significance is derived from what is literal. Jenkins’ screenplay is more often than not deceptively simple. The genius lies in how he rarely, if ever, resorts to techniques that provide instant gratification. There are no big showy moments that tell us how we should feel. We just feel. More perceptive viewers will be able to sense where all of this is heading before the first chapter even concludes, but it won’t be long before others come to understand that, as is often the case in reality, this person has been conditioned to become something he deep down inside really is not. Rhodes is perhaps the most notable performer not named Naomie Harris, as he is charged with presenting the cumulative effect these external influences have had on his life, and thus the most complex version of the character. Much of Rhodes’ performance is informed by façade — in this case that of a thug.

Beyond well-balanced performances and the sublime yet subtly artistic manner in which the story is presented, Moonlight strikes a tone that is remarkably compassionate. Were it not for the abuse he endures, this would be something of a romantic affair. Perhaps it still is, in some heartbreaking way. Large chunks of the film play out in almost complete silence, the absence of speech substituted by a cerebral score that often tells us more about what’s going on inside Chiron’s head than anything he says or does.

Other factors contribute to Jenkins’ unique vision — a leisurely but consistent pace, motifs like visits to the beach and Juan’s drug-dealing, the running commentary on the relationship between socioeconomics and race, homosexuality as a prominent theme — but the one thing I’ll always return to is the mother-son dynamic. ‘Little’ deftly sums it up as he begins to open up to Juan: “I hate her.” ‘Parent’ is not a label that currently applies to this reviewer, but the sentiment still nearly broke me. But more than anything it moved me — not so much as a lover of cinema, but rather as a human being. What a movie.

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5-0Recommendation: Heartbreaking drama will doubtless appeal to lovers of cinema as well as those searching for something that’s “a little different.” If your experience with Naomie Harris has been limited to her Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig-era Bond films, wow. Have you got a surprise in store for you. Breathtaking work from the Londoner. Breathtaking work from a director I had never heard of before this. The wait was well worth it. It would have been worth the three-hour round-trip drive I almost embarked on in a desperate attempt to see the picture weeks ago. Then my local AMC picked it up. Thank goodness it did. (And guess what else it just got? Loving! Yay!) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “You’re the only man who ever touched me.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

30-for-30: Fantastic Lies

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Release: Sunday, March 13, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Marina Zenovich

Marina Zenovich’s Fantastic Lies establishes one simple truth that cannot be disputed no matter what your feelings are towards Duke University and the air of superiority it cultivates. The scandal that rocked the Durham-based university in March of 2006 and the manner in which it was handled became nothing short of a farce.

Zenovich is primarily linked to her documentaries centered around filmmakers and entertainers, most notably director Roman Polanski and comedian Richard Pryor. She turns to sports in her most recent effort, sorting through the chaos that ensued when three players from a high-profile men’s lacrosse team were implicated in the alleged gang rape of an exotic dancer hired for a team-sponsored party. Fantastic Lies premiered on March 13, 2016, 10 years to the day of the event.

Driving the narrative is the frenzy generated by national media who were convinced the story had but one logical conclusion: Duke was guilty. What had long been feared to be festering below the surface finally had manifested publicly. A culture in which the privileged were given every benefit of the doubt had finally run amok. Along with the media circus, so too descended upon campus countless social activists who had been waiting for something like this to happen to Duke. Fantastic Lies, then, is as much about separating fact from fiction as it is about the media and the role they continue to play in shaping public perception; how, in this case, a “tragic rush to accuse” created such a toxic atmosphere protestors (some even Duke students) called for the castration of the players responsible.

The Blue Devils’ on-field triumphs are shoved so far into the background they almost don’t exist. Fantastic Lies engages in an altogether different and more sobering manner, developing into an often disturbing legal drama that very matter-of-factly presents the investigation and subsequent fall-out as the witch trial it was. In fact the only way in which athleticism factors into Zenovich’s film is in the context of how the team’s reputation had endeared them to the community. Their 2005 campaign is touched upon briefly, a season that unfortunately ended with a loss to rival Johns Hopkins University in the championship round. It’s also made clear only two things are taken more seriously on these hallowed grounds: men’s basketball under the immortal Coach K, and academia.

Yet an interview with a student who once lived next door to some of the players reminds us that not all who have been fortunate enough to be accepted into this prestigious community — Duke infamously rejects something like 75% of all valedictorians who apply — buy into that hype. If you do manage to slip the surly bonds of Ordinariness there’s no compulsion to embrace every aspect of campus life. It’s okay to hate jocks here, too; though you might well be identifying yourself as part of an even more elite group in your refusal to attend a single sporting event. Crucially this perspective is added to impress upon us how seriously the odds were stacked against Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans when they became the players identified as the assailants of Crystal Mangum.

Mangum, an African-American woman struggling to make ends meet, was one of two dancers hired by the team and who had been paid $400 for a two-hour performance. When they refused to continue after five minutes, the mood soured and soon racial epithets and drunken threats were being thrown around. The players felt they had been hustled. Mangum proceeded to dial 9-1-1, claiming she had been sexually assaulted in the bathroom of a house belonging to captains of the Duke lacrosse team. It would take over a year of court battles, the dismissal of the head coach, the surrendering of the entirety of the 2006 season and the disbarring of a district attorney before the truth of what actually transpired in the moments before the call was finally recognized. In April of 2007 all charges were dropped against the players. Not only were there no traces of DNA found on Mangum — none belonging to the players anyway — there was compelling evidence none of the boys named were even in the house at the time of the phone call.

Zenovich does well in laying out the labyrinthian legal process in a way that’s both interesting and digestible for those not familiar with the judicial system. A significant chunk of the narrative focuses on District Attorney Mike Nifong, the man hired to represent Mangum and who was using the case to build a platform for his campaign for a higher public office. Confident the act was a hate crime, Nifong’s crusade, with the help of some corrupt cops, would soon prove to be an egregious example of how human nature can obstruct justice. The probe thus became an immensely flawed process that violated the accused’s fundamental right to due process. As one source puts it, that process would have been a comedy of errors if any of it was funny.

Of course the situation was anything but comical. Mangum’s false accusations bruised Duke’s reputation and irrevocably changed the lives of the three players and their families forever. If you aspire to become a professional athlete one thing you absolutely cannot afford is to become implicated in a rape case. And despite being found innocent, Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans are never going to be able to escape the stigma attached to their days at Duke. There has, however, been a silver lining to their trials and tribulations. These experiences had a transformative power, particularly for Seligmann who ended up transferring to Brown University to finish his undergraduate studies before pursuing a law degree at Emory University. In addition to his plans to pursue a career in law, he also has become an active member in the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization committed to exonerating the wrongfully convicted.

Fantastic Lies is a highly emotional documentary that to some degree feels like a peace-offering to the families of these students. Zenovich’s unbiased approach seems to uphold every major tenet of good journalism. There is truth and accuracy, humanity and fairness in her reporting. That this installment feels less like an ESPN film and more like a particularly twisted episode of Law & Order indicates the director felt no obligation to adhere to a certain formula. This is an independent voice, free of bureaucratic input. This is the bald-faced truth. If it isn’t, she and only she will remain accountable for further muddying the waters. The power of the account proves Zenovich is all too aware of this.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

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Recommendation: Incredibly complex legal case proves to be a consistently absorbing watch. Bolstered by an emotional intensity and featuring an almost overwhelming amount of fact-based evidence to support the notion Duke had been victimized of a vicious smear campaign, Fantastic Lies feels as though it’s in another class when it comes to ESPN films. This is a remarkable work that should be seen by everyone who believes they have the Duke student body completely figured out. A must-see documentary that is as upsetting as it is vital. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 102 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone . . .]

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