Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018

→Theater

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

 

Wind River

Release: Friday, August 18, 2017

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Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Taylor Sheridan

Wind River is a haunting little crime thriller that creeps into your soul and nestles there. It’s brought to you by the writer of Sicario and last year’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, which may tell you everything you need to know about this movie, based on true events about a tracker working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services who teams up with a rookie FBI agent to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding the death of a young Native American woman.

The journeyman actor-turned-screenwriter trades the scorching temperatures of the southern U.S. for the bitter chill of wintry Wyoming. Tumbleweeds for evergreens; cowboy hats for furry down jackets. The harsh terrain changes but Sheridan, who has proven his worth in a very limited amount of time, fortunately does not. He remains committed to the same gritty, humanistic perspective that has helped identify him as among the most powerful emergent voices in Hollywood.

As we have come to be spoiled by the writer-director, certain things are givens: impeccable acting, complex morality, sympathetic tonality. Wind River operates most apparently as a straightforward police procedural but that’s just the part of the iceberg that’s visible. What the screenplay hides beneath the surface is where the film is at its most affecting, not just as a deeply nuanced exploration of personal grief but as damning evidence of the marginalization of Native Americans.

Wind River tells a story about fictional people; however, as a title card at the end of the film suggests, this could be the story of any one of the thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of women who have disappeared from Indian reservations across the country. As of today, it is not known how many Native American women go missing or what even becomes of them, as they remain the only demographic for which the U.S. Department of Justice does not compile that data.

While Kelsey Asbille as the victim — a teenaged resident named Natalie — provides a face to these unknowns, Jeremy Renner proves once again to be a major comfort. He injects warmth into an environment characterized by precisely the opposite. His Cory Lambert has earned the trust and respect of many of the residents of Wind River, a plot of land in central-western Wyoming home to members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. Cory’s dedicated years to protecting them and their livestock from the predatory animals that roam this yawning expanse of pillowy hills and knife-edge ridges. Of course, he has done this at the expense of his own family, a familiar but still effective flaw of character that grafts perfectly with the film’s thematic explorations.

Cory’s commitment to the community deepens when FBI Special Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) shows up on the scene, determined to take control of what appears to her to be a sexual assault case. Her woeful unpreparedness for the conditions, though initially played off as broadly humorous, ultimately proves to be the first of many obstacles that will truly test her resolve. Gender dynamics come into play as Banner has something to prove as an outsider in this world. Olsen plays her hand perfectly, her sizable ego soon humbled by taking bullets in subzero temperatures and by listening to the stories of the people who call this frozen hell home.

Renner is reliable and Olsen makes for interesting company, but you cannot overlook Gil Birmingham, who re-teams with Sheridan after playing the butt of every Jeff Bridges joke in Hell or High Water. That’s in stark contrast to his brief but dramatically hefty role here, in which he portrays the victim’s father as a man consumed by grief. An early scene in which Banner is cringingly unaware of her aggressive style confesses to the delicate nature of her assignment. It’s a traumatic moment, with Birmingham’s not-so-quiet sobbing memorably given privacy by remaining just out of shot.

The locals call Wind River the “land of you’re on your own.” That’s a harsh lesson for Banner to have to take back with her to Las Vegas, but for everyone else it’s just a fact of life. As a boy who grew up on a ranch before his family lost it to the economic downturn of the 1990s, Sheridan has a pretty firm grasp on man’s relationship with mother nature and how tenuous a relationship it is. That manifests powerfully here as well, but Wind River evolves into something much more personal and even profound than a tale of survival. That old Darwinian theory is a byproduct of the story, but it’s not the story.

Wind River is about being found, being recognized. Being heard. And the heavy sigh in which the film ends echoes back decades of silence. The kind of silence that kills, by madness or by wolf, by pulmonary edema or just plain-old ignorance.

Recommendation: Taylor Sheridan rewards viewers once again with an absorbing, emotionally stirring and deeply disturbing crime drama based on real events. Both a tribute to the untold number of victims as well as a culture that has had indignity upon indignity heaped upon it since the appearance of Anglo-American settlers, Wind River feels especially timely if you take into consideration recent headlines, such as those involving the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their continued battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. If there’s a comfort, you get used to the pain if you let yourself. I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Don’t know why, just . . it hurt so much, I was searching for anything that could make it go away. That’s what I wanted this seminar to do, make it go away. The instructor comes up to me after the seminar was over, sat beside me and said, ‘I got good news and bad news. Bad news is you’ll never be the same. You’ll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can’t be replaced. Your daughter’s gone. Now the good news: as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve, you’ll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. Right now, you don’t even have that, do you?’ He said, ‘that’s what not accepting this will rob from you.’ If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain. Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you.”

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

Brigsby Bear

Release: Friday, July 28, 2017 (limited) 

→Theater

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 

Get Out

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Release: Friday, February 24, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Jordan Peele

Directed by: Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele announces himself as a talent to keep an eye on with his surprisingly enlightening and even more entertaining directorial debut, the horror-comedy Get Out. His first try proves an early candidate for sleeper hit of the year, a film that manages to balance provocative themes, an interesting premise and a handful of solid performances in a way that’s rare even for seasoned filmmakers.

Get Out centers around a young mixed-race couple, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) and Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who visit the former’s parents for a weekend. While Rose feels they’ve reached that point in their relationship, Chris isn’t sure how her parents are going to respond to him being black. She hasn’t told them because she’s adamant the only thing he needs to worry about is how uncool they are.

When the two arrive, awkwardness wastes no time setting in. Rose’s father Dean (played by a nearly unrecognizable Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon who immediately sets out on a crusade to impress Chris with aggressive politeness and generally overcompensatory behavior. He takes “[his] man” on a tour of the house, making sure to let Chris know he’s not one of those ignorant types. After all, he has great appreciation for Jesse Owens and if he could, he would have voted for a third term for former President Obama.

His wife Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist whose hypnotherapy may not come free of charge but it sometimes does without patient consent. I’ve never really liked Catherine Keener, even while acknowledging the knack she has for portraying emotionally unstable weirdos. In Get Out her eccentricity functions as more than a character trait. Missy is actually more a plot device than a character, which isn’t nearly as disappointing as it sounds. Rose has a younger brother too, Caleb Landry Jones’ wild card Jeremy, whose domineering albeit brief presence threatens to undermine the film’s subtle strategizing. He’s a bit harder to take seriously.

As are the numerous black servants on the premises. They’re all so goofy they inadvertently become beacons of comedic relief rather than legitimate concerns. And this is the issue I have with the hybrid genre: knowing which reaction is appropriate can prove frustrating at best. Even if their behavior is intended to be funny, it’s not quite funny enough to be convincing in that way either. I chuckled at a couple of the interactions, particularly with maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel), but felt bad when I did. It was awkward. Luckily there are other instances where the humor succeeds and actually enhances the experience — see Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ security guard friend, for example.

As Chris wanders the grounds snapping photos and asking seemingly innocuous questions of the staff, wafts of institutionalized racism become stronger. It has become evident Chris’ discomfort isn’t just personal. There’s a larger, more sinister dynamic at play, suggested by the servants’ unnatural mannerisms and body language. And the discomfort only grows as more of Rose’s family unexpectedly show up for the reunion she forgot to tell Chris about.

Peele, no stranger to skewering the politically correct in his successful and often controversial Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele (and whose co-host you can find starring alongside him in 2016’s hit action-comedy Keanu), has found a way to expand his observations about the American society in which we live today into a full-length feature presentation. And he does so without falling back on a blueprint that has treated him very well thus far. He also avoids overtly politicizing his message.

Get Out could have manifested as a series of skits all building toward some unifying theme. It could have been, like Logan to some degree, a specific jab at a specific American president putting into effect specific policies. Instead the fiction is broader, more immune to current political trends. Peele legitimizes his cause with insightful commentary and an effortlessly likable lead — a seriousness of purpose only moderately undercut by a few emotionally confused cues and a truth-revealing climax that doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by the movie that preceded it.

Recommendation: Get Out is a movie that has gotten people talking. It’s going to be one of the surprise hits of the year and the hype is pretty much justified as Jordan Peele very clearly has his finger on the pulse of what not only the typical moviegoer wants to see in their movies, but that of film critics and skeptics as well.

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Man, I told you not to go in that house.”

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 

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.” 

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 

Paul G — #11

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Last time we were here, Paul was having to contend with an illusionist in Ed Norton’s brilliant(ly elusive) Eisenheim. Paul has certainly played a variety of interesting characters over his career. He has enjoyed perhaps a most unlikely of career trajectories, going from a relative unknown to a highly sought-after talent for both prominent supporting and notable leads in a span of time many (admittedly much better-looking) actors only wish they could find for themselves. And now, somehow, we find ourselves at the end of 2016 and the end of Paul G. It’s with a note of bittersweetness I get to send him off in style, featuring one last lead performance from the man, the myth, the legend — but mostly just him being the man. Fittingly, this is a role in a four-time Oscar-nominated film, a buddy-comedy adventure that took home the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2005. The two lead actors, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, appropriately received accolades of their own.

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Paul Giamatti as Miles Raymond in Alexander Payne’s Sideways

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Comedy/drama/romance

Plot Synopsis: Two men reaching middle age with not much to show but disappointment embark on a week-long road trip through California’s wine country, just as one is about to take a trip down the aisle.

Character Profile: Miles Raymond, a depressed English teacher and unsuccessful writer, is shuffling through his forties with not much to show for it. He has been trying for what seems like forever to get his novel published but to no avail and has become slave to his own mental conditioning that life and everything about it kind of just sucks. Except wine. Crushed grapes are his collective savior and vintage vino his second language. As his college roommate Jack Cole is set to be married in a week’s time, the pair set off on a tour of the California wine country, with Miles intent on enjoying a week of golfing, wine-tasting, good food and relaxation. His TV-actor friend and former college roommate has different plans, and wants to get Miles laid. When they visit Miles’ favorite restaurant, they encounter Maya, an intelligent and attractive waitress that Miles has become acquainted with from his routine trips to Santa Ynez Valley but his self-loathing tendencies have always held him back from taking the next step. When he begins to take notice of the genuine bond he and Maya seem to share he starts to realize that there is never a better time to start enjoying the finer things in life.

Why he’s the man: I’m not sure if there is a better actor for the role of Miles Raymond than the man, the myth and the legend. Paul Giamatti utterly owns it in Alexander Payne’s beautiful but often painful exploration of searching for satisfaction in a world full of disappointments. Payne likes to work with troubled, fully fleshed-out characters and he has found a gem in Giamatti’s interpretation of a man nearing a catastrophic meltdown. The writing is excellent, but when it comes to demonstrating the pain a man who has suffered a series of personal setbacks is concerned, his star absolutely sells it. And while I could care less about wine snobs, I was fully buying into Miles’ obsession with the culture. So much so that I could picture the actor himself having an extensive knowledge of vintage Merlots . . . er, excuse me — pinots. Paul Giamatti’s face is riddled with hopelessness in this picture, and it’s his charisma buried deep underneath all the hurt that ultimately makes him a character that’s still worth rooting for. A class performance from a class actor.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):

5-0


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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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Arrival

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Release: Friday, November 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

I’m just going to say it: Arrival is magnificent. It’s also: 1) another grand gesture from the visionary Québécois Denis Villeneuve that’s both sophisticated and stylish; 2) a film that really “makes you think;” 3) the antidote to the last several days in which the world has been watching and weighing in as the “United” States of America may or may not have been tearing itself apart when Donald Trump went from real estate mogul to president-elect.

Of course, the film has no interest in making a political statement but it is interested in bringing us closer together as a global society. The one thing it is really good at is reminding us of our ability to empathize and cooperate with one another in times of hardship, even when there are competing interests, values and perspectives at play; that the way we communicate is as important as what we are communicating. Arrival, based upon the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, promotes language as the ultimate tool and weapon mankind has and will ever have. It’s both our currency for clarifying all that is foreign and unfamiliar but just as easily it can create barriers if in no other way than when we use it to obscure what we really feel.

In some sense Arrival feels allegorical for a modern society wherein the furor of social media tends to bring out the worst in people. It uses an alien encounter to elucidate both the simplicity of the act of communicating and the infinitely more complex process of understanding and interpreting. The chronicle centers around an expert linguist, a Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited by the U.S. military to decipher alien code they’ve received from a massive egg-shaped monolith in Montana, one of an apparent dozen that have suddenly appeared at seemingly random locations across the globe. The end game of course is to find out just what they are doing here, on this planet, but along the way we become privy to an altogether unexpected series of revelations.

Villeneuve’s latest is not merely a message film fitted into a pretty frame (although it very much is that). It offers a thrilling and profoundly personal adventure, one that more or less hits the ground running and remains comfortably paced throughout. An ambitious narrative is met with an appropriate sense of scale: Bradford Young’s panning cameras hint at the crippling notion that we may be alone in the universe, brilliantly reinforced by how deserted the college campus looks when it’s evacuated. Then there are the ships themselves — empyreal in their gently curving architecture. We call them ‘shells’ because labels are easier and they somehow feel comforting. Finally, news reports of mass riots and looting in poorer nations set the narrative against a backdrop of fear and panic. These bits serve as the most indicting evidence of what happens when we misconstrue things that are said, done or merely suggested.

Arrival feels grandiose even if the story sticks close to Dr. Banks as she is awoken from another troubled sleep by the surly Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling her the world needs her help. On the way to Montana, the sole American sighting, she meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who will prove a calming presence in an otherwise chaotic and prejudiced environment. It is these characters, plus a few faceless soldiers, with whom Dr. Banks will enter the ship in an attempt to open a line of communication. Arrival might be at its most compelling when that first contact is established, when we are formally introduced to the Heptapods — serious out-of-towners with seven tentacle-like appendages from which they shoot a black inky substance. After a failed first trip, nerves eventually calm and Dr. Banks’ intuition proves extremely valuable as work begins in earnest.

Several weeks of sleepless nights and haunting visions of her deceased daughter begin weighing heavily on our ambassador. Making matters worse, China is demanding an ultimatum from our squid-like visitors after one particular translation (‘Use weapon’) incites worldwide panic. In a race against time, Dr. Banks must determine what connection, if any, her visions of Hannah has to what she is doing here in the present. The results prove to be both heartbreaking and galvanizing, the drama culminating in an Interstellar-esque reveal that’s altogether satisfying insofar as it is surprisingly coherent. And almost 100% convincing. Arrival risks devolving into abstraction but the genius lies within the screenplay, courtesy of Eric Heisserer [Lights Out; The Thing (2011)]. It engages intellectually while structurally providing enough of the tangibles — flashbacks become a motif — to support its lofty ambitions. And all-around terrific performances, most notably Adams and Renner, send us out of the theater on a major high.

In a way this film isn’t about an alien encounter at all — it’s certainly not an invasion, per se; rather, this is a forward-thinking, socially responsible drama that celebrates the best of humanity.

Recommendation: A movie for the thinking-man, undoubtedly, Arrival continues the ascension of one Denis Villenueve as it captures him working comfortably within the realm of psychobiological science fiction. It features stellar performances and a great alien presence. Regular collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson is on hand to bolster the atmospheric feel of the film with a cerebral and moody score, so if you’re needing any other reason to go see this you might see it for that, too. This is one of my favorites of 2016, absolutely. A very exciting film. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Now that’s a proper introduction.”

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Paul G — #9

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Last time we were here, Paul was brought in as a psychological consultant on a top-secret government project involving an artificially intelligent being named Morgan. All two of us who saw that movie know how that turned out. Now this month we’re going to find out what happens when you take Paul and shove him into a movie about comic books, and no, we’re not going to be talking his contribution to the spectacle of disappointment that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2. This month we’re going to be discussing a role with a little bit more substance and nuance than his admittedly terrible Aleksei Sytsevich.

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Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor.

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Biopic/comedy/drama

Plot Synopsis: An original mix of fiction and reality illuminates the life of comic book hero everyman Harvey Pekar.

Character Profile: Harvey Pekar was an underground comic book writer who developed a unique style and voice by creating the ‘American Splendor’ comics, stories that were autobiographical in nature and that seemed to elevate his everyman status to that of a quasi-hero as he set about dealing with his mundane struggles in a harsh, unforgiving world.  But if you asked him, Harvey was just another guy, another depressed fellow living in a depressing city working a depressing job. Naturally his work reflected a rather dim outlook on life. Born of Polish immigrants, Harvey was one of the few white kids to grow up on his block in a Cleveland suburb and as a result, found himself often being beaten up and without friends. An unhappy childhood seemed to bleed into adulthood. He attended college for a year before dropping out, enlisted in the armed forces but was soon discharged — allegedly for personal hygiene-related reasons. After shuffling through a series of miserable jobs he finally became a file clerk at Cleveland’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital. His friends circle was limited to those with whom he worked, and his romantic life was defined by a series of hastily made decisions that ended in two divorces, though in 1984 he met Joyce Brabner, a writer and comic book shop owner from Delaware. She had written a letter to him seeking a way to obtain a single copy of his latest comic since her store had already sold out. The 2003 film American Splendor divulges much of this, as well as the time the two spent collaborating on ‘Our Cancer Year,’ a graphic novel based upon Harvey’s diagnosis and survival of lymphoma, employing a thoroughly unique format — a hybrid of documentary and dramatic/comedic elements — to bring his personal tales to life. And Harvey may have staked a reputation through his ability to convey mundane struggles in comic form but he never quit his job as a file clerk until he retired. He was also a prolific record collector and dabbled in music and literary critiques. He passed away in Cleveland Heights in 2010 at the age of 73 after an accidental overdose on anti-depression medication having been diagnosed a third time with cancer.

Why he’s the man: Paul Giamatti very well could be at a career-best with this fascinating character, one who teeters on the edge of being sympathetic due to his relentless pessimism and iconoclastic tendencies. There’s something that Giamatti does that seems very small but that which very nearly ultimately defines the creator of American Splendor as a person. Apparently Harvey had a tendency to yell whenever he became frustrated or upset, and Giamatti milks it for all its worth, sounding in some early scenes as though he’s just rubbed his vocal chords against sandpaper for an hour. A memorable (read: hilarious) scene in a diner when he receives the good news that a fellow comic would be willing to illustrate his creations finds the actor shouting out with glee, causing a scene. His voice cracks like a high schooler going through The Puberty. His vocal issues come into play a couple of other times, and while they’re certainly not the only thing to take away from this performance, these moments are excellent touches. The tenor of his voice, when not breaking, is mildly saddening,  Giamatti powerfully channeling a sense of hopelessness and fatigue. Rest assured, though, the actor manages to effect a spectrum of emotions on his journey from a nobody to a relatively obscure somebody. In spite of himself, Harvey remains a compelling presence, a certifiable Average Joe with an unusual gift for creating. This is outstanding work from the actor and quite possibly my favorite role of his.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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Queen of Katwe

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Release: Friday, September 23, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: William Wheeler

Directed by: Mira Nair

Despite the illusion of diversity and the notion that films are now being tailor-made for niched audiences, director Mira Nair’s latest feels like a rarity, one that’s not only good for the soul, but good for Disney. Here is a work of substance that is going to satisfy, dare I say move, those seeking a more refreshing point of view. Better yet, themes of poverty and desperation are never overwrought, the drama working comfortably within the PG rating to effect one of the year’s feel-great experiences.

The film was shot entirely on location in Uganda and in Johannesburg, South Africa, and it features a Ugandan director in Nair, who was born in India but presently lives in the country and it is her vision and her choice cast that earns the film a refreshingly authentic African vibe. Though it does visit some dark places, the narrative chooses to forego any sort of political commentary in favor of celebrating what makes African culture so distinct; rich in personality and heart, warm in spirit and color — much of which is reflected in the stunning wardrobe courtesy of Mobolaji Dawodu.

With Disney of course you’re never short of a few doses of cloying sentimentality but in Queen of Katwe the feel-goodness feels really good and it feels earned. It’s also not that simple, as you’ll likely feel on more than one occasion, really, really bad.  It doesn’t hurt that the picture features two of the year’s finest performances and a star-making turn from Ugandan newcomer Madina Nalwanga. Incidentally, Nalwanga has experienced considerable changes of fortune in her own life having afforded an education subsidized by the dance company she performs with. When the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, it was the second time she had ever seen a film in a theater, and this time she was the star.

The story tells of Phiona Mutesi, a 10-year-old chess prodigy from the slum village of Katwe — a region within Kampala, Uganda’s capital — who manages to transform her life by competing in major chess tournaments. The movie traces her rise to prominence while delineating the tension between the gifted Phiona and her mother, who doesn’t want to see her daughter’s dreams crushed. Phiona comes from an especially impoverished family of five — she has two younger brothers and an older sister. Her widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), is the glue that holds everything together, working tirelessly to keep the family under a roof and to keep her children fed. She often goes hungry and works long hours selling vegetables on the streets. Life’s desperate and Phiona’s sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) has already had enough, having become infatuated with the city life after meeting a man of some wealth.

One day she comes across a group of kids playing chess in a tent. They’re being mentored by a man named Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) who also happens to be working for the town ministry. After quickly learning the basics, Phiona shows promise as a player, often beating her fellow competitors, which stirs up quite the fuss as no girl should be allowed to beat a boy. It’s not long before Katende realizes her quick wit and intellect separates her and he finds himself jumping through hoops to encourage her mother to allow Phiona to pursue this. There are cash prizes awarded at these tournaments, he says. But Nakku pushes back, concerned that exposure to an altogether unattainable life will ruin Phiona.

Queen of Katwe falls upon familiar underdog story constructs but Nair employs them such that they’re necessary plot propellants. The most familiar of the obstacles manifest themselves in the competition scenes. When the youngsters travel to their first competition nerves are high, the opponents are well-dressed and contemptuous. Perceptions of inferiority and illegitimacy can be traced back to the moment Katende advocates for Phiona’s inclusion in competitive chess to members of the Katwe school council. Bureaucrats tell him bluntly that those from the slum should not intermix with people of another class. Additionally, the constant degradation on the home front as the family find themselves temporarily evicted isn’t anything we haven’t experienced before but there’s a rawness to these developments that just can’t be ignored.

The resolution is far from unpredictable, even given the oppressive circumstances into which this bright young girl has been born. Phiona is obviously an anomaly. We know she’s going all the way to the top, and we know she’s going to ultimately succeed. It’s the journey getting there, and getting to experience her family’s struggles and their perseverance that ultimately rewards. And when the film is so handsomely mounted and beautifully acted, particularly by Nyong’o and Oyelowo who offer powerful resilience and unwavering support respectively, that makes the culmination of all things positive and predictable that much more acceptable. Queen of Katwe is a Disney film that reminds us of the power of perseverance and the importance of intellect, one that creatively parallels the complexities of chess with the decisions one has to make in life, whether the end game is elevating one’s social standing or finding a way just to make ends meet. This is a born winner.

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Recommendation: Powerful performances allow Queen of Katwe to transcend cliché and they also help the film speak to a larger human experience of rising above circumstance and overcoming serious odds. It’s nice that the film focuses on a part of the world that doesn’t get the big screen treatment very often. And as to the sport that lies at the heart of the film — I concede I don’t find chess altogether exciting but the way the director and the screenplay works it in to the story actually makes it pretty compelling. I personally have no idea what’s going on on a chess board but I had no problem believing that this brilliant girl did. That’s the mark of a good actor.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong. You belong where you believe you belong. Where is that for you?”

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