Three Films, One Night

I watched three excellent movies last night on some of the streaming services (Amazon Prime and iTunes).  I want to give a mini-review over these three.

Image result for the autopsy of jane doeThe Autopsy of Jane Doe.  Another great horror film from 2016.  This was unexpected and chilling.  A body of a woman is found in the basement of a house where everyone else was slaughtered.  The woman had no marks on her.  So the police took her to the morgue, hoping their local M.E. could find a cause of death.  Brian Cox played the medical examiner and Emile Hirsch played the M.E.’s assistant, who also happened to be his son.  This was really creepy and scary.  It is also excellent because it is treated like a mystery, with some really intriguing work with the autopsy.  You’ll be seeing this on the list of best horror films of 2016 coming soon here at EYG

4 stars

 

De Palma.  The great director sits down and discusses his career.  This documentary is Brian De Palma sitting down with directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow and answering questions about all his movies, diving into insights about choices he made, thoughts on the movies he created, and ways he navigated the waters of Hollywood.  This was an entertaining look at a director who has been influential and engaging.

3.6 stars

 

Tickled.  This was the biggest surprise of the night and probably my favorite documentary of the year.  Tickled is a documentary created by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve. The doc started harmlessly as Farrier, a local news reporter, was looking for a two-minute fluff piece story to end the news.  Friends of his told him about a bizarre “competitive endurance tickling” video online and Farrier emailed the company behind the video to ask about the “tickling.”  The company Jane O’Brien Media responded with an email filled with homophobic insults directed toward Farrier.  This only served to inspire him to look into the story more, and he discovered a deeply dark and disturbing world behind the competitive tickling.

The film does a brilliant job of investigative journalism, discovering the secrets behind Jane O’Brien, an online bully who went out of “her” way to damage the lives of the people who went against her.

The film is about more than just tickling.  It is about online predators.  It is about online harassment and cyber bullying.  It is about the dark corridors of the internet and how people can get themselves caught in a web of deceit and lies.

You will not believe everything that happens in Tickled.  It really plays more like a thriller or a great mystery story.   It is an astonishing documentary.

5 stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lion

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Lion is the tale of two movies contained within one.  One half that I really liked, and one that I could have done without.

This is the true story about a five-year old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) who is separated from his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and accidentally finds himself on a train traveling across the country of India.  He finally escapes from the train in Calcutta with no idea how to find his way back home.  Saroo has to struggle with language barriers, dangerous individuals, and deadly circumstances.

However, he winds up being adopted by a family in Australia, John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley.  Twenty five years later, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) is in a relationship with Lucy (Rooney Mara) and he remembered important details about his past and began a search for his mum and brother.

I really enjoyed the first half of this story, with young Saroo trying to survive and avoid the dangers that are clearly everywhere in India for a young child.  Sunny Pawar was outstanding in this film.  You never knew what was going to happen next.  You knew he was going to make it to Australia, but I have to admit that I just had no idea how he was going to get there.  Plus, Pawar spent most of his screen time running like the wind.

However, the second half of the movie really came down to earth (Google earth, maybe?).  At this point, Saroo became whiny and downright deuschy.  He mistreated his girlfriend, froze out his mother and mouthed-off to his emotionally damaged adopted brother (Divian Ladwa).  All of this because of the guilt he felt over leaving behind his brother Guddu and his mum.

The film also became too emotionally manipulative with several flashbacks and visions of Guddu, most of which were taking place in the head of Saroo.  This all felt like Oscar baiting, taking a story of determination and a person overcoming the odds and started tugging on the heart strings in a false-hearted way.

Sure the true story is cool.  That’s why I do not think they needed all the bells and whistles that they threw into the third act of this movie, just to try and get attention of the Oscar voters.

The first half of this film was really compelling.  The second half was not so much.  It is an interesting true story.  I just did not appreciate the “very, special episode” feel of this.

3 stars

Fences

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As I was watching Fences, it really had the flavor of a theater play.

Of course, there was a reason for that.  Fences was a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play written by August Wilson.

Troy (Denzel Washington) was the protagonist of the film.  A 53-year old former Negro League baseball player who was now a garbage man.  His second wife, Rose (Viola Davis) did everything she could do be the perfect wife for Troy.  She asked him to build a fence around their property.

The movie really does not have much of a story.  In fact, I would venture to say that it has no story.  This movie is a character piece where, in place of a story, there are events that happen to the characters and we see how they react to them.

Since this is a character study without a really set plot, you had better have some great characters.  Fences has characters in spades.  This movie have two brilliant performances from its lead actors.  Denzel Washington and Viola Davis give a tour de force acting class in this film, displaying the amazingly sharp and constantly entertaining dialogue by August Wilson.  There are some of the best monologues in Fences of the year.  And this dialogue could not be delivered better, as Washington and Davis are at the top of their game.

Washington and Davis were not the only strong performances in Fences.  Stephen Henderson was very understated and believable as Troy’s best friend Bono.  Grimm’s Russell Hornsby played Troy’s first son Lyons, trying to get by on his music.  Jovan Adepo played Troy and Rose’s son Cory, who wants to play football, but Troy has certain rules to allow it.  All of these actors do a wonderful job here.

However, the biggest selling point of Fences is the chance to see Denzel Washington and Viola Davis perform their craft at a level you don’t often see.  I would not be surprised if both Washington and Davis are not only nominated, but actually win the Academy Awards this year. Their performances are understated, complex and layered.  Every word, every glance meant something.  They were remarkably human, bringing these characters to life.

Without the performances of Washington and Davis, Fences would have failed dramatically.  This was an example of a movie where the performances were greater than the sum of its parts.  Judging the movie as a whole, there are problems here.  It feels like a play, lacking much of the plot needed for a feature length film.  Some of the pacing of the film was troublesome as time jumped forward several times and it was a long film.  The fact was the performances were so electric that any other detriments Fences may have had can be cast aside.  I would not want to see Fences in the nominated list of Best Films but Denzel Washington and Viola Davis might be the favorites in the individual categories.

3.75 stars

Why Him?

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I hated this first trailer.  This looked completely stupid and I wondered why an actor the quality of Bryan Cranston would lower himself to be in this film.

And then I saw it, and I actually enjoyed it very much.

Is it predictable?  Of course.  Are these characters pretty basic?  Yes.  But the one thing that this movie is that many movies of the same ilk are not…

It is funny.

Ned (Bryan Cranston) and Barb (Megan Mullally) Fleming head out to California on the bequest of their daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) so they can meet her boyfriend Laird (James Franco).  This caught them off guard, particularly Ned, who could not believe that his daughter would have been capable of keeping this kind of secret from him.

When they arrived at Laird’s house, they realize that he is extremely eccentric, foul-mouthed and socially awkward.  They also realize that he is a video game creator and is worth millions of dollars.

Laird tried his best to get off on the right foot, but his lack of a filter inside his head only served to show Ned that this man was not right for his little girl.  Then, Laird surprised Ned by asking his permission to purpose to Stephanie.  When he was rebutted, Laird became determined to earn Ned’s respect and his blessing by Christmas.

Jame Franco does what James Franco does best.  He has played this character several times, in several other movies, but I really liked him here.  I don’t know the difference, but Franco’s portrayal of Laird seemed more childlike than other times he has played this character.  Plus, he had the incomparable Bryan Cranston to work with.

Keegan-Michael Key appeared in the film as Gustav, Laird’s personal trainer and guru, and he is remarkably funny, stealing every scene he is in.  If he is not spouting wisdom, he is trying to keep Laird’s reflexes ready by launching surprise attacks on the multimillionaire.  Key is easily the best part of the movie.

Megan Mullally (formerly of Will and Grace) is hilarious here as well.  She has some really fun comedic moments sprinkled in the story.  We also have a cameo of sorts for the voice of Kaley Cuoco, who played a “Siri” kind of character named Justine that has a run of Laird’s house.

The end of the movie does take some twists that are over-the-top (particularly a cameo from Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS), but there are also some good moments to counterbalance the problems.

I cannot argue that the story is not predictable.  It is obviously predictable.  I actually thought to myself about a third of the way through how this was going to end up, and I came up with two possible endings.  And strangely enough, they were both there.  Still, there are a lot of things that make why Him? into more than just another dumb comedy, especially the actors and their enjoyable chemistry with one another.  And it is funny, which many of today’s comedies cannot claim to be.

3.5 stars

Passengers

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I heard all kinds of negative reviews about Passengers.  Honestly, I thought it was pretty good.

Now, I think this is the issue.  There is something that happened in the early part of the film that is somewhat different than what the trailers indicated and that “twist” has caused the fervor over this movie.

Yes, I do not think that this movie takes advantage of the possibilities that it raised.  I think this could have been a real science fiction film with an issue that could split the viewers.  The problem is that the issue is not developed enough and eventually discarded completely for a more typical, big budget third act filled with set pieces and action.  This film could have been as thought provoking or as brave as Arrival was earlier this year, but it decided to stick to the safe path,

Having said that, it may not be fair judging a film on what it is not or what it could have been.  Passengers is an entertaining film as is, though there are flaws in it.

Because of technical difficulties on the space ship, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakes from his hibernation 90 years early.  Jim was one of 5000 passengers on a trip off earth and on their way to a colony on another planet.  Problem:  it takes 120 years to arrive.  So everyone spends time in a hibernation chamber that never malfunctions.

Until it did.

Jim spent a year alone aboard the ship with only an android Arthur (Michael Sheen) to talk to.

I cannot talk any more plot without spoiling the story, so I will not say any more except that Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) also awakens and the two of them start a romance as the only two conscious people on the ship.  However, the ship is continuing to malfunction and they must race against time to prevent the ship from being destroyed.

The ending itself I thought was pretty weak.  There are things that happen that stretch credibility so much that it hurt the overall film.  I would have liked them to have gone in a different direction, but I understand the decision.  The action at the end was just problematic for this film.  Honestly, it felt out of place because the movie was trying to be something different than it ended as.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are engaging and gorgeous throughout the film and make a solid pair.  Their chemistry is good, and they have some fine scenes with them together.  The issue with them floats over the story too much though without sufficient result at the end.

The film looked great. There really is no excuse for bad CGI any more.  In a world where we can travel dimensions with Dr. Strange and see what looks like real apes riding horse in Planet of the Apes, poor CGI is inexcusable.  Passengers looks beautiful, in particular the shots of outer space.

This film certainly is better than 32% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I can only assume that the biggest issues people have is the problem at the moral center of the film.  Yes, that problem is not sufficiently handled, but it is not completely ignored either.  Passengers could have been considerably better than what it is, but that does not make this a bad film.  My lowered expectations probably helped as I was entertained through most of the movie’s run time, but the ending did strain that entertainment some.

3.1 stars

La La Land

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Musicals are hit and miss for me, but a well done movie musical can be glorious.  La La Land certainly fits that bill.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling jazz pianist who is trying to live out his dream of owning and running a jazz club.  Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress who is working at a coffee shop to pay the bills while trying to audition for that big break in Hollywood.  These two characters’ stories intersect and we have a great, old-time love story with music.

It is not just music where the characters burst into songs (although there are examples of that as well), but the score and background music really is amazing in this film.  The dance numbers are spectacular and the story is in perfect tune.

Others have said this, but it is an apt statement so I will say it as well.  La La Land is like a love letter to the old time musicals of the 1930s and 1940s.  You could almost imagine Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the lead roles of La La Land instead of Gosling and Stone.

Emma Stone is revolutionary here.  This is here best performance ever, and while Ryan Gosling is awesome too, Stone stands out so much with the emotion of the story and the doubt that creeps into her mind that she is definitely the highlight of this film for me.

The film’s ending is extraordinary to me.  I do not want to spoil it, but I love how they took this in a different, unexpected direction, and it really brought out the emotional feels.

The film is set in present day, but there is a feel of an old time film.  If you had told me that the film was set in the 40s, I wouldn’t have any issues believing you.  That tone is definitely a choice by director Damien Chazelle.  Chazelle also directed Whiplash and used music in a remarkably original way there as well.  Not only is the music grade A, but the film is beautifully shot.  Scene after scene Chazelle provided a visual masterpiece.  Even something so simple as Gosling dancing with an older black woman on a bridge was just jaw dropping in beauty.

The story is exceptional.  There is not just the love story here, but it is a tale of two people who want to follow their dreams, but have to come back to reality.  That struggle to not give up on your heart’s desire is at the center of La La Land, and might actually get more service than the love story itself.

It is a lot of fun and full of great music.  The dance routines are mesmerizing.  Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone deserve Oscar nominations for their performances and La La Land should be considered on the best musicals we have had in many years.

4.6 stars

Assassin’s Creed

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One of these years there will be a movie based on a video game product that is good.  However, Assassin’s Creed is not that movie.

And it was a shame, because I really thought this could have been the one.  After Warcraft earlier this year was not very good, we turned our attention to Assassin’s Creed, starring the excellent Michael Fassbender.  Trailers looked entertaining.  The question about if this would be the movie that finally broke the trend of crappy video game movies was raised.

Then, we saw the film.

Assassin’s Creed was poorly written, boring, and wasted that opportunity to be a trend setting film to bring the genre of video game movies into respectability.

Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) was on death row and was executed for some crime involving a pimp (apparently).  However, he was brought back to life by a company led by Sofia (Marian Cotillard).  How did they do that?  Well, you know, by doing it.  That was a detail that was not important here.  Instead, what they wanted was to hook Cal up to a machine that could send him back into the past (15th Century Spain to be exact) where he would be inside an ancestor of his named Aguilar, a member of the group known as The Assassins.  Through Aguilar’s eyes, Cal would try and find a MacGuffin called the Apple of Eden.  The Apple apparently held the power to cure the human race of free will or some kind of crap.  Sofia was backed by the Templars, an organization that has always been fighting the Assassins and who wanted the Apple for their own nefarious and underdeveloped reasons.

Plus, when hooked up to the machine, not only did Cal get sent back into the body of Aguilar, but his present day body did all the same actions and movements of the body from the 15th Century.

Oh, and Jeremy Irons was here too.  He played Jeremy Irons as the father of Sofia.

I was sorry to be watching this movie ten minutes into it.  I was bored and wishing it was done almost immediately.  As soon as the movie showed us young Cal (Angus Brown) seeing his mother dead by his father’s hand, things began going downhill.

By the way, Christopher Columbus appears in this movie (played by Gabriel Andreu).

This film had a lot of potential but it squandered it away with a rotten and needlessly convoluted story, dull characters with muddied motivations, and some full out dumbness.  Even the action, which was okay, was hard to follow since the camera was constantly cutting form one scene to another.  It was impossible to see any of the potentially good action scenes.

The film was filled with cliches as well.  At one point, a runaway wagon pulled by horses rushed toward a cliff.  Seriously, haven’t we seen this a hundred times?

This film tried to be two different films and, by doing that, really damaged both.  It made little sense and was dull, dull, dull.

Assassin’s Creed, with its great cast, could have been the movie that made the video game movie genre not be the butt of the jokes any longer.  Unfortunately, this is not even close to being as good as Warcraft.  That is a really sad thing to say.

1 star

Sing

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Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

The newest animated film, Sing, is nothing groundbreaking or wildly original.  It is just a good time with great music and a lot of fun.

We meet our main character Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) as a young koala as he is being enthralled by the theater.  Young Buster decided right there that the life of the theater would be the life for him.  Unfortunately, it had not worked out quite as well as he hoped.  Wracked with money problems and several shows that failed, Buster needed to come up with something amazing to save the theater from repossession.

He decided to throw a singing contest.  He was going to offer a prize of $1,000, but an error in printing led to the prize being advertised as $100,000 instead.  Buster was having to scrape together everything he had to make the $1,000, so $100,000 wasn’t going to work.  The problem was Buster did not realize it until it was too late, and he had cast his show.

The list of amateur performers who were looking to cash in on the non-existent grand prize included ape Johnny (Taron Egerton), who was supposed to drive getaway car for his father’s big robbery, Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a porcupine who is selected over her boyfriend in the contest, mouse Mike (Seth MacFarlane) who crooned like Sinatra, Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the housewife pig who with her 25 piglets and unobservant husband was being beaten down by life and Meena (Tori Kelly) the beautifully voiced but painfully shy elephant.

The animation was okay, but hardly anything that could be compared to Pixar or Laika, but the cast of voices here is fantastic, and, along with the fabulous music, is easily the standout aspect of Sing.  There are all kinds of great songs performed by these characters as well as wonderful songs played in the background.  The soundtrack of Sing kept my toes tapping the entire time.  Sure there are some songs that you would absolutely expect to show up here (“Hallelujah” anyone?), but that is not a negative.  There is a reason why these songs are included.  They are beloved.

I really liked Buster Moon as well.  McConaughey brought a great voice to the character who was part huckster, part inspirational speaker.  He was Kermit the Frog from the Muppet Show mixed with PT Barnum.  You always knew where Buster’s heart was found and, even when he would lie about the money, you could understand what he was trying to accomplish.

Sure, the story is simple, but that is not a bad thing.  This is not the complex Zootopia with its cultural commentary, or Kubo and the Five Strings with its grand epic narrative.  Sing finds its groove early and sticks to what it does best.  These musical performances were excellent and took a simple story and filled the theater with entertainment.  Plus, there were some feels as we had several characters complete their arcs successfully.  Predictable, perhaps.  Yet, fully engaging and enjoyable.

The whole family can enjoy Sing and parents will not be bored.  The music energizes the film and elevates the material to another level.  Jukebox musicals do not always work, but Sing is one that does.

4.1 stars

I Am Not A Serial Killer

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In the year of the horror movie, I found another one.

According to Rotten Tomatoes, this film was released limited in August.  It never came anywhere near here.  However, I found it on Netflix and decided to give it a try.

And this is another horror winner for 2016.

Teenager John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) is seeing a therapist.  The reason?  He has homicidal tendencies.  He shares many of the same traits as other serial killers, yet, he is not one.  Or at least, he seems to be trying to avoid becoming one.  So he has rules.  When he has the feeling that he wants to hurt someone, he makes himself give them a compliment.  John keeps himself in check this way.

Of course, his own family life is out of control.  He works with his mother at the local funeral parlor, while his sisters fight with her.  His father can’t be bothered.  It tends to make a sociopath upset.

With a local murder taking place, John suddenly discovers that his neighbor, the nice old man Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) is not only the murderer, but that he is more than what he seems.

This is a very creatively original movie that had me sucked into its tale early on.  John is such an interesting protagonist because, being a clinically diagnosed sociopath, his choices and decisions are pulled into question.  He struggles with his own internal strife while also trying to figure out exactly what is going on with Mr. Crowley.

Christopher Lloyd is wonderful here.  He gives a riveting performance as the old man with a dark secret.  The fact that he really loved his wife (Dee Noah) gives this creature humanity.  Everything he has done is for her.  How many times can you relate to the monster involved in a horror movie?  This is certainly one of the times.  Heck, there are moments when you wonder if John is the actual monster here instead of Crowley.

This avoids most of the horror genre tropes and really creates something original.  It is one more horror winner for 2016.

4.4 stars

Manchester By the Sea

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Casey Affleck really knocks this one out of the park.

Manchester By the Sea could be considered a downer of a movie, and, to be fair, there are plenty of parts of this film that are depressing, but when the pieces are all brought together, this is a real somber tale of damaged people and their struggles to survive the pain of their past.

When word reached Boston handyman/janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) had died, Lee headed back to his hometown of Manchester, a town that held devastating memories of loss for him.  Discovering that Joe had left Lee as the guardian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), his son, Lee does not know what he can do.

As he tries to get by, Lee continues to be haunted by the memories of his past, and the reason why he moved away from Manchester in the first place.  He has to see his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), Patrick’s alcoholic mother Elsie (Gretchen Mol) and his brother’s friend and partner George (CJ Wilson).

This story is a real human story.  There are none of the manipulative emotional notes like those that are crammed in your face like in Collateral Beauty.  The subtlety in this film is perfect and real and hits the audience hard.

Director Kenneth Lonergan is quite the storyteller as Manchester By the Sea spends much of the time using flashbacks to reveal the history of Lee and why he is acting as he is.  The tragic circumstances really make you understand why Lee is the unlikable jerk that the film seems to be showing.  These flashbacks are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the narrative beautifully, creating a very original feeling story.

Casey Affleck will gain many awards and nominations for his amazingly layered and complex performance in this movie.  He could easily have been over the top but his acting choices creates such a rich character that he carries this film.  Michelle Williams is also wonderful in a smaller role.  Every time Williams is on the screen, you know something powerful is going to happen.  And the connection between Lee and Patrick is strong despite actions by both characters that could damage that connection.  Lucas Hedges is remarkable here, spending most of his time opposite the stellar Affleck and holding his own.

The dialogue of the film is so true that if you told me that they just filmed real people talking, I would believe it.  There are no weak points in the writing of the dialogue or any other aspects of the script.

Manchester By the Sea can be a tough movie to watch because it takes you on such a roller coaster ride of emotions but it also challenges an audience to take that trip naturally, without the manipulations that many tear-jerkers try to use.  It is a wonderfully performed film, with realistic dialogue and flawed characters.

4.2 stars