Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

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The Founder (2017)

Yeah, still eating at McDonald’s. Sorry, guys.

Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is just another salesman trying to get by in the world so that he can come home to his wife (Laura Dern), and have something to show for it. While on his travels one day, Ray stumbles upon this new fast-food restaurant in Illinois called McDonald’s. While there’s not much to them at first glance, the fact that they actually have only a few items on the menu and are so quick, automatically strike Ray as something that he needs to work with. So, he hatches a plan with the owners, brothers Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman), in that he’ll help them expand and bring McDonald’s to the rest of the world. But eventually, as time rolls on, he starts to realize that there’s more money to be made in this food-joint, but the only way to do so is in having to back-stab and get rid of everyone in his life, who has loved and supported him all of these years. Also, he’ll have to get rid of Mac and Dick, leading to an all-out legal-battle that will continue to haunt the McDonald’s name until the end of time.

Okay, probably not, but still.

Yeah, this convo's about to get real weird.

Yeah, this convo’s about to get real weird.

The Founder is actually a pretty misleading title, but it works perfectly with what the rest of the movie is trying to get across. This idea that a person who thought of an idea, as smart as it may be, entitles them to some sort of power, fame and fortune, is an interesting one, especially when said person didn’t actually do anything with the idea. In the Founder, we get this sort of conflict – Ray Kroc may forever and ever be known as the one who got McDonald’s name out there to the rest of the entire world, but he didn’t find, or better yet, even invent the place, the art, the craft, and originality that went into it all in the first place.

Which begs the question: Who’s worthy of being considered “the founder”? The guys who made the place, or the guy who brought the place to where it is today?

It’s a bunch of interesting questions that, thankfully, get brought up many of times throughout the always entertaining, compelling and rather insightful tale about McDonald’s, how it got started, and how it got to be the fast-food juggernaut that it currently is today. Say what you will about McDonald’s, their crappy, fast and easy food, and even the people who work there, but it’s a place that is everywhere you look and will probably stay that way until the person is left breathing. So yes, it’s very interesting to see where it all came from and how it came to be, especially since there’s darker-beings at play surrounding this tale.

For one, director John Lee Hancock approaches Robert D. Siegel’s script in a smart way; he never allows for us to think that this is going to be some quick, fast-paced and glossy biopic about this one smart businessman who hatched this plan to become one of the richest men in the world. There’s always this idea of a darker, more sinister undercurrent here, which makes all of the ups and constantly colorful montages, in a way, seem eerie; we know that Kroc is going to eventually turn the other cheek, lose that winning-smile of his, and start to, as they love to say in the entertainment world, “break bad”, but when, where, and how it all goes down is always left in the air, making this tale a rather unpredictable one at times.

Then again, it’s also a smart and honest tale about what can happen when one person sees money-bags in their eyes and doesn’t really care about the people around them. The Founder makes us wonder whether it was all worth it for Kroc and everyone else involved with the restaurant; can you be a rich, successful and live a rather comfortable life by sticking to your principles and not letting your image get away from you? Or, do you have to get a little down in the dirt at times, hitting elbows and yeah, making some uncomfortable compromises? The Founder asks these questions, never quite comes up with a clear-cut, obvious answer and for that and that alone, it’s a very good movie.

It doesn’t ask whether or not you should go out there and support McDonald’s (which yeah, you probably shouldn’t), but it does ask whether or not someone can stay true to themselves when they want to make some money for themselves.

Sorry, guys. Should have stuck with Burger King.

Sorry, guys. Should have stuck with Burger King.

That, to me, has stayed in my head ever since.

Regardless, as Kroc, Michael Keaton gives us an amazing performance because Keaton, like the man he’s playing, always seems to have something brewing underneath the surface. On the surface, Kroc seems like a rather nice, almost squeaky-clean guy, but the more and more time we get to spend with him, the more realize that there may just be a small screw loose in his head that has him ticking like a bomb, ready to explode and lose all control. Keaton constantly has us guessing just where he’s going to go next with this person and constantly surprises us with his portrayal; while this is no doubt a person we’re supposed to have hard feelings towards, it’s kind of hard because Keaton is just so damn charming. The movie doesn’t let Kroc off the hook, though, and in today’s day and age, that’s something definitely needed.

Everyone else is pretty great, too. Laura Dern doesn’t get a whole lot to do as Kroc’s first wife, but she brings enough warmth and sympathy when is necessary; John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman are perfectly as the two brothers who came up with McDonald’s and are slowly, but surely, starting to see that dream slip away from them; Linda Cardellini shows up in a under-written role as Kroc’s second wife, but tries; B.J. Novak is perfectly slimy as the one who hits Kroc’s head the hardest with opportunities and business ideas; and Patrick Wilson, as brief as he’s here, does a solid job at seeming like a guy who may be a little smarmy, but also may just be something of a good guy, trying to make a quick buck, and oh yeah, loses his wife for it.

Chew on that, people.

Consensus: With an absolutely terrific lead performance from Michael Keaton, the Founder not only makes us question the meaning of its tale, but many others, while still giving us a smart, rather haunting portrait of a business man, with an idea, an agenda, and of course, a shady moral compass.

8.5 / 10

What an empire of morbidly obese customers.

What an empire of soon-to-be morbidly obese customers.

Photos Courtesy of: Kenwood Theatre

I’m So Excited! (2013)

Trains are so much lamer.

A plane setting off for some sort of destination runs through all sorts of problems while up in the air. It all starts when a technical failure endangers the lives of everyone aboard the Peninsula Flight 2549. The pilots are in constant communication with the Control Tower to figure out just how to fix the issue; the flight attendants and the chief steward are, even in the face of danger, try to put on a happy face for the passengers, forget their own personal problems and devote themselves body and soul to the task of making the flight as enjoyable as possible for the passengers; and basically, yeah, everyone sits around as they wait for a solution. But it’s not all that bad, boring and miserable because first class is tended to by Joserra (Javier Cámara), Fajardo (Carlos Areces), and Ulloa (Raúl Arévalo), three fellows who know how to throw a good party, even if they’re up in the air and probably, most likely going to die by the time the plane hits the ground.

Hey, just be happy there's no snakes and Samuel L.

Hey, just be happy there’s no snakes and Samuel L.

The most interesting aspect surrounding Pedro Almodóvar and his movies is that there is, essentially, two beasts to him that he’ll play around with from time-to-time. There’s eccentric, rather crazy, unpredictable side that takes these whack-o stories that he’s thinking up and just get as insane as he wants with them. Then, there’s the other beast that’s far more reserved, emotional and sensitive, with the occasional burst of craziness thrown in for good mix. Almodóvar has made a career of this and while the results aren’t always perfect, needless to say, they prove that Almodóvar, no matter how old he gets, no matter how movies he makes, and no matter how long he stays around, he’s always finding something fun and fresh to keep himself going.

And that all goes away by the time you I’m So Excited, perhaps his most wacky, wild and silly movie, but probably his least compelling.

Which for some, may be all that’s needed; there’s nothing wrong with a seasoned writer/director taking some time away from the heavy, emotionally-gripping tales that they usually create and laying back, popping-up a bottle and letting the good times roll. Almodóvar himself has done this on quite a couple of occasions, for sure, but here, it feels like it gets away from him a tad bit too much. For one, I’m So Excited is, essentially, one-joke spread very far and wide for a premise that’s already too thin in the first place.

It also doesn’t help that Almodóvar’s sense of humor seemed to have gone away this time around, with him making some very lazy and obvious jokes about sex, drugs, women, men, gays, race, and even blow-jobs. In fact, there’s maybe a few too many blow-job jokes, which isn’t bad to have around, but they’re just not funny. It’s as if Almodóvar actually sat himself down and watched an Adam Sandler comedy, tried to reenact some of what goes on in those movies, make his own little twist, and see what happened.

Well, I’m So Excited happened and unfortunately, for everyone’s case, let’s just hope and pray that Almodóvar stays away from the Sandler filmography.

Is it too soon to be making cracks about pilots being messed-with in a live plane?

Is it too soon to be making cracks about pilots being messed-with in a live plane? Still?

That said, there are bits and pieces of I’m So Excited to enjoy, but they’re very few and far between. There’s a quite a few dance-and-music numbers that work well to keep the momentum going and the usual cast of characters that we all know, love and associate with Almodóvar are all here and having a very good time, but still, there’s something missing. Almodóvar, you can sort of tell, seems to know this about halfway through, when he’s gone too far with the possibility that all of these characters may die and doesn’t even try to have us sympathize with them.

Instead, we sit around and watch as if they act crazy, say silly things, do drugs, get drunk, have sex, and yeah, cry a whole lot. The movie does try to get across some idea that on this plane, there’s a real issue of classes that needs to be addressed, but in all honesty, it’s a bit underwhelming and feels thrown in there. Almodóvar tries and because of that, it’s really hard to attack a movie, because it seems like he always knows what he’s doing, even when he’s not, but yeah, sometimes, it’s not too hard to realize when a movie just isn’t quite coming together, so you decide to stick around, see what happens next, and, if worse comes to worse, join in on the escapades a tad bit.

After all, the movie’s done in barely 85 minutes, so what kind of harm could be done.

Consensus: Not necessarily “bad”, as much as it’s just “off”, I’m So Excited shows the fun and wacky side to Almodóvar, but without the stellar results we know and usually expect from him.

4 / 10

First class must be a blast. Too bad I'm not a millionaire.

First class must be a blast. Too bad I’m not a millionaire.

Photos Courtesy of: Reel Talk Online

Volver (2006)

It’s like Paranormal Activity, but you know, actually good.

Revolving around an eccentric family of women from a wind-swept region south of Madrid, Penélope Cruz plays Raimunda, a working-class woman forced to go to great lengths to protect her 14-year-old daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). To top off the family crisis, her mother Irene (Carmen Maura) comes back from the dead to tie up loose ends. But is this just Raimunda’s mind going a little out-of-whack, or is her late mother actually alive, well, and not actually dead?

Surely, something that sounds so simple and straightforward cannot be the work of crazy, envelope-pushing director Pedro Almodóvar. Over his long and storied career, he’s tackled subjects like pedophilia, sexual-awakening, incest, crime, murder, homosexuality, and HIV, among many others, so how the hell can a guy who likes to talk about stuff like that, be tackling a flick that seems like it came straight-from-TV? Well, it’s easy, he’s Pedro Almodóvar and he can do whatever he wants and thank the lord that he can.

It's an Almodóvar flick, so of course people have to smoke when they get stressed.

It’s an Almodóvar flick, so of course people have to smoke when they get stressed.

Even though this easy subject may not seem like a piece of Almodóvar’s work, in a way, it still is. The attention to color and detail is absolutely beautiful (as if that poster didn’t already tell you), and his way of capturing the life and beauty throughout the streets of Madrid is eye-catching and makes you feel at home. I heard that Almodóvar decided to film this movie around the area of where he grew up and you can really tell. There’s a sort of love and fondness for this area and it shines through each and every frame.

So yeah, it’s pretty, but there’s also more to it than just that.

Volver is very different though, because it’s not fully entrapped in its own plot conceits, like some of his other work can be/get. Though there’s a few nifty twists here and there, Volver‘s still a pretty straight-forward family-drama that hits the right notes because we spend time with these characters and get to know them. And in doing that, we also get to understand them and see them for all that they are, and who they are. Meaning, not everybody here has a halo around their head, but that’s what makes it more interesting to watch, because they’re real people.

Just a lot whole lot more attractive and emotional, it seems.

It’s also one of those films where everybody talks so interestingly, that you always want to hear them chat about whatever is on their mind. Whether they’re talking about food, family, life, sex, money, death, or ghosts, I was always hooked and listening and payed close enough attention to what they all were saying because they even give us hints about certain plot-points that pop-up later in the movie. Almodóvar’s always done that with his flicks and while it’s definitely a neat little trick of his, it doesn’t, in any way whatsoever, get in the way of his actual movie.

Definitely not ketchup.

Definitely not ketchup.

Another thing that Almodóvar does best, is also be able to assemble an awesome cast and that is exactly what he has done once again here. Penélope Cruz stars Raimunda and is radiant and as believable as she’s ever been seen before. Yes, Cruz is beautiful, gorgeous, sexy, vivacious, and as perfect of a looker as you can get, but beauty aside, she can still act and especially in an Almodóvar flick, someone who seems to know exactly what her strengths are. Anyway, what makes Cruz so great here as Raimunda is that she feels like a real woman that’s going through a lot of problems that gets to her and ends up taking a lot of that anger and frustration out on the others around her, but yet, also has this sweet and kind side to her that shows she cares for the ones around her, even if her character doesn’t always show it. Cruz is a beauty to watch because she commands the screen every single time she shows up, and also shows that she can bring out any emotions in her act and make it all seem believable.

There are others here, too, so I guess I’ll chat about them, too, although it should be stated one more time that Cruz is great here, as she usually is.

It’s been a long, long time since I saw Carmen Maura in anything, let alone a Almodóvar film, and shows that she’s still got the chops and makes her old-lady character a lot more lovable and understandable than you’d expect. Lola Dueñas plays Cruz’s sister and is very funny, but also very realistic in how she seems a bit more grounded in reality and happier with her life than Cruz may be. This provides a great contrast between the two ladies but in the end, you can still that they are sisters that love each other and care for each other no matter what. These three work well together and show that even though they may have some problems here and there, they are still a family and they still love each other no matter what happens to them in their own, respective lives. It’s a nice message to understand and see on-screen, especially when it comes from the guy who’s most known for making a movie about a priest who touches little boys.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a change of pace, I guess you could say.

Consensus: Considering this is Almodóvar’s way of “playing it cool”, Volver definitely does seem a bit held-back from the explosiveness of a story it could have been, but still has enough heart, emotion, beauty, and well-acted performances to make it an easy-going experience that will probably make you want to hug your mommy or sister. As for your brother and daddy? Tell them to hug themselves!

8.5 / 10

"Hello, agent? Yeah, just keep scheduling me in Almodóvar's flicks."

“Hello, agent? Yeah, just keep scheduling me in Almodóvar’s flicks.”

Photos Courtesy of: The Red List

Paterson (2016)

There’s a poet in all of us.

Paterson (Adam Driver) is a hardworking bus driver in Paterson, N.J., who follows probably the same routine each and every day of his life, with the exception of a few changes here and there. He wakes up for work bright and early in the morning, eats his cereal out of a small cup, packs a lunch, goes to work, listens to the people’s conversations, observes the city around him, has lunch in front of a lovely, relatively soothing waterfall, comes home to his somewhat quirky wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), walks his dog Marvin (Minnie), around the town late at night, stops by the local bar, has a beer, talks to people, comes home, goes to sleep in the arms of his wife, and wakes up the next day to do it all again. However, the one thing that Paterson seems to really care most about in his life is his poetry and the hopes of one day making it big, so that the whole world can see what he’s jotting down in that notebook of his.

Paterson is perhaps the most relaxing and calming movie that I’ve ever seen. It barely follows a plot, there doesn’t seem to be much of any development found whatsoever, there’s no conflict, and there’s no real narrative driving the movie from one scene to the next. If anything, the movie just wanders around, following a familiar pattern that we get used to after the first ten minutes or so, taking its time to tell itself, and barely ever cranking up the energy a single bit. Normally, this would piss me off to high heavens, especially for an indie flick, and not to mention, one by Jim Jarmusch.

Public-transportation employees unfortunately don't all look like Adam Driver.

Public-transportation employees unfortunately don’t all look like Adam Driver.

But for some reason, I came close to kind of loving it for that reason alone.

Jarmusch’s movies, despite them not all being great, all clearly come from a very interesting mind who has a knack for telling stories the way he wants to tell them, regardless of if they actually work in the shown final product, or if they even make sense (the Limits of Control). But no matter what, it’s hard not to watch his movies and think long and hard about what must have been going on through his mind during the creative-process’ of making these movies and with Paterson, I’m probably the most interested in, because while most of his movies are slow, meandering pieces about goofy characters, this one’s a slow, meandering piece about relatively normal characters, with the pace feeling more deliberate and mannered, than just, well, boring.

And I think that’s what separates Paterson from a lot of these other slow-as-molasses indie flicks I see nowadays, especially those from Jarmusch – the feeling, the tone and the aspect that sticks inside of this town known as Paterson, is so calmed-down, that it only makes sense a movie about said town would play-out the same way. There are some brief, fleeting moments in which it seems like Jarmusch is going to step things up a bit, but nope, they go away the next second, and the movie moves on to whatever it wants to do next.

And you know what? That’s perfectly fine with me, because it worked here.

Normally, it doesn’t and can just feel like a director trying something new and it not working a bit, having them come-off as pretentious. Jarmusch has had this problem before, but here, it works in his favor, as he never really gets in the way of the characters, the story, or the mood. It’s just simple, non-stylish and show-offy storytelling that, quite frankly, needs to be done more in the world of indies. So often, film makers working in these independent frame of minds, no matter how seasoned or young they may be, often feel the need to show-off all their skills, talents and ideas into one piece, and actually get in the way of what could have been a very effective, smart story. Jarmusch, like I’ve said before, has done this before and may do it again, but he doesn’t with Paterson and that’s why it deserves to be cherished.

And the Oscar goes to..

And the Oscar goes to..

That, and because Adam Driver’s quite great in the lead role, too. Without sounding too much like Buzzfeed here, Driver is definitely having a moment in today’s pop-culture landscape, but you wouldn’t quite know it. He’s been in a lot of movies over the past few years, some big, some small, but regardless of the size of them, he’s always good in them, trying out something new and interesting, each and every time. As Paterson, Driver dials down a lot of that free-wheeling energy we so often know and sometimes adore him for like when he’s on Girls, but it works for the character and for the rest of the movie. Due to Paterson himself being an actual observer of the world around him, it makes sense that he wouldn’t take over every scene he’s in, but instead, allow others to talk, express themselves, and get us, as well as Paterson himself, a better chance to know them.

It’s sort of like a poem, right?

Anyway, as his wife, Golshifteh Farahani is an interesting choice and one that pays off, because not only is she charming as all hell, but she actually makes his scene’s better. Her character treads this very fine line between being annoyingly quirky and charming, but most of the time, it’s hard not to be charmed by her. The movie doesn’t know how to treat her, which is actually okay, because it just gives Farahani more opportunities to light the screen up and show us not just why Paterson loves her the way his eyes show, but us, the audience, as well.

It’s been awhile since my last screen crush has hit me, but I think that may be about to change.

Consensus: Incredibly slow and melodic, Paterson may drive most people away from its downtrodden pace, but will bring in those more thoughtful and attentive viewers, with an eye for clever detail and interesting storytelling, that never once feels showy.

8.5 / 10

Who isn't in need of a good spot to chow down on their bagged-lunch?

Who isn’t in need of a good spot to chow down on their bagged-lunch?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

20th Century Women (2016)

Women rule. Boys don’t drool, but they don’t rule, either.

It’s 1979 and Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is going through some growing pains. Now that he’s growing up more and more, he’s starting to see the world for the sort of ugly, sometimes evil place that it can be, but he’s also realizing some beautiful things about it, too. This is mostly through the women that surround him, day in and day out. His mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), stands by him every step of the way, smothering and protecting him from the outside world; Abbie (Greta Gerwig), when she isn’t dealing with her own problems, takes him out to rad-as-hell, incredibly violent and crazy punk shows; and Julie (Elle Fanning), while admittedly a friend, also gives him that idea that they could be together, forever, but she’s also a little too busy having sex with random a-holes who don’t care about her nearly as much as Jamie. There’s also William (Billy Crudup), who tries to be something of a father-figure to Jamie, even if he’s got his own problems with growing up, too. Altogether, they create an imperfect, dysfunctional family of sorts that all love and respect one another, but also find it very hard to get by in day-to-day life.

Beach makes everyone better.

Beach makes everything and everyone a little bit better.

20th Century Women is, thankfully, Mike Mills’ least stylish movie. It also happens to be perhaps his most heartfelt, with fully-realized, smart and honest characters that aren’t hiding behind a behind a bunch of twee style-points and narrative-conceits. Due to this, it often feels like the typical indie we’d expect from one Wes Anderson, however, it doesn’t quite reach those great, emotional highs – if anything, it’s a movie that stays so put in the lows of life, that it’s actually more realistic.

And yet, there’s still a style to this that can sometimes actually get in the way of the story itself.

For instance, we never quite know where the story’s going to go, end up, or even what sort of flow it’s going to follow through with for the whole two hours or so. It’s actually somewhat refreshing to get a movie that doesn’t have any need for such silly things like formula, or convention, but like I’ve stated many times with stylish movies, clearly trying to make their mark, they also can come close to ruining any sort of emotional power that they may have otherwise built on. 20th Century Women is an odd movie in that it constantly interrupts its own flow, but in doing that, it’s constantly telling us more about these characters, their lives, their relationships with one another, and just where America was at the time.

In all honesty, it’s hard to really hold much against 20th Century Women, because even when it does come close to being downright irritating, it still gives something else to chew on, so to speak. It’s not a slow movie and it’s definitely taking its time for unknown reasons – it’s just telling a story, the way it can only be told, shedding light on each and every person we see. It not only makes us feel closer to these characters, but makes us gain a sense of emotional attachment to them, as well as their surroundings.

Because if anything, the movie’s plots a little funky and doesn’t really seem to be all that focused, but a part of me thinks that was the point of what Mike Mills was doing. In life, there’s no clear objective, no one set standard or rules, and there’s sure as hell no just one obstacle to overcome and everything in life is all okay. Life is a constant stream of series of events, happenings and moments that you can’t predict and never quite see coming, which is actually the beauty about life in and of itself.

How many decades is Greta going to conquer next?

How many decades is Greta going to conquer next?

The same kind of beauty that, in its brightest, shining moments, 20th Century Women really harps on.

But Mills is a smart director in that he doesn’t always get in front of camera and let everyone know it’s his show and that’s it – he’s got such a good cast that it would almost be sacrilege to get in their way and not allow them to do what they do best. Annette Bening turns in another great performance as a mother-figure, who may not be a total hippie, but also may not be a pushover, either. It’s an interesting narrative that she constantly plays with this character and shows us that Bening can play all sides to a character, no matter how big, or limited her role may be.

Greta Gerwig also shows up and is quite good as the rather punk-ish gal going through all sorts of issues and problems, yet, isn’t a total sap that ruins every scene she’s in; Elle Fanning continues to get better and better and shows it here as the apple of Jamie’s eyes, who may love him like he does, or may be simply just using him as a total friend and that’s about it; Billy Crudup gives one of his better performances in recent-memory as the bro-y super of the building they’re all living in and feels like he could have had his own movie, but because he’s here, he’s just another one of the great, highly interesting stories; and as Jamie, Lucas Jade Zumann, despite having a lot of talent to battle, more than holds his own and makes it very clear that he’s going to have a bright and shining future in movies.

Especially if he can hold his own in a movie filled with as many heavyweights as there are here.

Consensus: 20th Century Women may bounce around a tad too much with its style, but mostly gets by on the sheer strength and warmth of its cast and message.

8 / 10

Nothing like a slightly over-bearing mother's love.

Nothing like a slightly over-bearing mother’s love.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Live By Night (2016)

Alcohol kills. Literally.

It’s the 1920’s in Boston and Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) wants to make a name for himself, and get out of the shadow of his father (Brendan Gleeson), a Boston police captain. By doing that, he starts robbing banks and taking out local gangsters, getting his name more known, of course, but also putting him on a lot of people’s radars. Eventually though, once Joe does his time in the slammer and gets out, it’s the 1930’s and more people want to get drunker than ever before. What ends up happening is that Joe gets sent to Tampa, where he and his best buddy (Chris Messina), will watch over rum-business, make sure people are drinking it, buying it, and not trying to start any scuffles. However, when you’re a bootlegger, things aren’t always going to go as planned and when you’re with a lovely lady, like Graciella (Zoe Saldana), you’re going to continue to have issues – not just with racist locals, but sometimes, even with your own bosses. This is something that Joe realizes right away and has to start acting quickly, or else he, as well as everyone else that he loves, may soon be killed.

Oh, the hot and stirring possibility of chemistry!

Oh, the hot and stirring possibility of chemistry!

Live By Night isn’t nearly the disaster, or awful train-wreck, so many have been calling it. If anything, it’s just a sure sign that Ben Affleck, like many other great directors/actors/writers/artists/human beings before him, is capable of giving up, admitting defeat, and being a disappointment. Sure, say what you want about his acting resume, as a director, Affleck has rallied-up an impressive roster behind the camera; Gone Baby Gone, the Town, and Argo are all pretty great movies, highlighting that Affleck knows what it takes to make a solid, exciting and compelling piece of film. Are they all perfect? Nope, of course not, but they get a lot more right, than they don’t.

And there’s the ugly stepchild known as Live By Night, that shows Affleck’s directing skills that he continuously building on and on as the years and projects have gone by, perhaps, came back to stab him in the back a little bit. But what’s odd about Live By Night is that it’s not a bad movie because of what Affleck does, it’s more of what he doesn’t do, or better yet, include.

For instance, Denis Lehane’s book could probably be adapted into some sort of miniseries, let alone, its own show altogether.

There’s a lot of subplots, relationships, characters, ideas, and messages toggled around with here, some of which are very interesting to watch and see how they play-out, but unfortunately, they’re all packaged within a movie that’s just a little over two hours, not allowing for there to be enough time and attention devoted to ensuring that each and everyone of these points gets the eyes that they deserve. Don’t believe me? Well, take for example, halfway through the flick, our lead protagonist, Joe Coughlin, goes to prison for what seems like a pretty heavy sentence and then, in the next scene, he’s out and ready to continue on with the rest of his life.

But there’s more of that going on here. Certain characters pop in and out, who are supposed to have some sort of overall meaning to Coughlin, his life, and his work, but for some reason, they are harped on for about ten to fifteen minutes, forgotten about and never to be heard from again. It’s odd, because it seems like Affleck himself knows that he’s got a lot on his plate and seems like he has an eye for this period’s detail and style, but it never quite translates to the story. It feels too jumbled, messy and sporadic, as if it’s not ever safe to get too attached or involved with one major plot-point or character, because they next scene, it/they could all be gone.

What a preacher's daughter!

What a preacher’s daughter!

Which isn’t to get past the fact that Live By Night is an entertaining movie, it’s just sometimes too random for its own good.

It’s a shame, too, because Affleck shows that he can still direct a somewhat compelling movie, all obvious issues aside. There’s a few gun-battles that are tense and fun, there’s a car-chase sequence that’s well-staged, and yeah, there’s even some compelling moments involved with Coughlin and how exactly he runs this rum-business. But like I said, there’s probably six or seven hours worth of material, all cut-up, jumbled and put together in a two-hour piece, that also feels like it’s trying hard to get everything out there, but doesn’t know how to package it correctly.

Even the ensemble, as talented as some of these people may be, don’t always get-off quite easy. Affleck is fine as our lead, although never quite as magnetic as he should have been; Zoe Saldana and Sienna Miller are sultry and sexy, but that’s about it; Elle Fanning’s character has an interesting complex, but it ends on such a silly note that it’s easy to forget about her; a porky and relatively plump Chris Messina shows up as Coughlin’s cousin/go-to man who feels like he deserved so much more attention than he got; Brendan Gleeson shows up as Coughlin’s very Irish dad and feels like he wandered off the set of Assassin’s Creed and thought about collecting a nice paycheck; and Chris Cooper, despite trying very hard as the town’s preacher, oddly enough, gets a whole lot to do, then leave in such a manner that feels rushed and a total betrayal of the character himself.

Oh well. At least Miguel’s in it for about five minutes.

Consensus: With so much going on and to explore, Live By Night can’t help but feel like a jumbled-up mess, albeit, one with a great look and feel to it, that occasionally stirs some sort of emotion resembling excitement.

6 / 10

Walk away from it, Ben. You'll be okay.

Walk away from it, Ben. You’ll be okay.

Photos Courtesy of: GQ, Are You Screening, Metro

Down by Law (1986)

lawposterSome of your best friend’s are found in prison. Not high school.

Zack (Tom Waits) is driving out late one night on the town when all of a sudden, he gets pulled over by the cops and brought in on a bunch of drugs. They weren’t his, but the cops don’t want to hear it, so they book him and now he’s forced to spend a certain amount of time in the clink. Same goes for Jack (John Lurie), who was also set-up by someone he thought he could trust. Now, he’s sharing a cell with Zack and while it takes some time for them to get used to one another, they eventually become good cell-buddies, joking around, relating and whatnot. Then, in walks foreigner Roberto (Roberto Benigni), who got arrested for a way different charge: Murder. However, Zack and Jack eventually take to Roberto and altogether, they forge a plan to get the hell out of jail and hopefully, on with the rest of their lives. The only issue is that getting out of jail is the easy part – it’s not getting caught and thrown back in the slammer that’s the hardest.

"Sing something."

“Sing something.”

What’s perhaps so interesting about Down by Law is that while it’s definitely a movie about a bunch of inmates, in prison, and trying to escape, the movie is actually not all that about the escape itself. There’s not all that much planning of where someone has to be at an exact point, who’s going to help out on the inside, the outside, and just how every part of the plan is going to go down. Most movies dealing with inmates breaking out detail this at great-length, but for writer/director Jim Jarmusch, it doesn’t really seem to matter.

In fact, it’s the inmates themselves who provide the most interesting story in the first place and it’s through them, that we get to learn a little bit more about the way Jarmusch sees the world. The one thing that there’s no denying about most of Jarmusch’s movies, is that they’re definitely quirky, sometimes, to a fault, but here, he seems to have dumbed that down a bit; Roberto can get a little silly at times, but that’s mostly because Benigni is such a clown, it’s hard not to, at the very least, chuckle at this character. Nope, interestingly enough, Jarmusch gives us a smart, compelling and sensitive character-study about three odd-balls, meeting up in the worst places of them all, and yeah, making something out of it.

In a way, ensuring to us, the rest of the world, that there is some hope for those inmates out there.

Still though, the movie isn’t trying to preach in the slightest; if anything, it’s just giving us a better glimpse into lives of three individuals, who we either don’t always see get their stories told, or when we do, they’re usually filled with drugs, violence and a whole lot of rape. Down by Law is a very different beast in the subgenre of prison movies, but it’s still a compelling one, even if the movie never does take us out of the one single cell that these guys live in. It’s not suffocating, though and it easily could have been – Jarmusch is working with some larger-than-life characters and cast-members that it helps make his movie pop and excite, rather than just drown in its sorrow and misery.

We get it, Roberto. You love your wife.

We get it, Roberto. You love your wife.

Something that Jarmusch will do in the future for sure, but thankfully, not here.

And yes, with Waits, Lurie, and Benigni, Jarmusch showed his knack for assembling a very odd cast, putting them together, and seeing what sort of odd magic happened. Luckily for him, and especially us, the three all have great chemistry and are more than willing to have us believe in some sort of budding relationship between the three of them. Aside from being together, they’re all very good, too – Waits is cool and bluesy, Lurie is a bit brooding, and Benigni’s as vibrant and wacky as you’d expect him to be, but he is still grounded, so that you do believe in him, as a person, not just another one of his characters.

That said, Down by Law does take a sort of different turn in the last-act and it works, and sort of doesn’t. The movie doesn’t go the conventional route out in ending itself, but by doing that, may have been too subtle for its own good. Jarmusch’s films always seem to have this problem, in that he himself seems to afraid to show any real, big emotion with his characters, that when it comes time for the emotional-button pushing, he backs away. He’d much rather take a hand-shake or high-five, than a hug or kiss, and honestly, sometimes we need that hug or kiss.

Only sometimes.

Consensus: With a talented ensemble and some of Jarmusch’s snappiest writing, Down by Law is a smart take on the prison movie subgenre, aiming more for character-development, than plot-mechanics.

8 / 10

Nowhere to go but East. Or East? Or, well, I don't know.

Nowhere to go but East. Or East? Or, well, I don’t know.

Photos Courtesy of: Generation Film!

Breakdown (1997)

Truck-drivers act as if they own the road and well, sometimes, they do.

A married-couple, Jeff and Amy Taylor (Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan), are leaving their regular lives from Boston, and moving to San Diego. Why? Well, I guess to get a fresh new start, but that all begins to change when they break down on the side of the road. Thinking that they’re going to be fine as long as Amy goes with a truck-driver (J.T. Walsh) to the local diner where she can call up for help and some movement, Jeff begins to get suspicious when she doesn’t come back for awhile. Now, Jeff who is all alone and without a clue in the world of what to do, decides to go out and look for her, and hopefully uncover clues and hints as to where she might be, and why the hell this kidnapping even occurred in the first place.

Sounds like a pretty standard thriller-plot, doesn’t it? Well, that’s because it is. Nothing really flashy here in terms of writing, directing, or even the plot – just a normal and average thriller that actually happens to be pretty damn tense as well. It starts off with a mystery that we’re totally left in the dark with and for awhile, there’s a lot of questions surrounding what’s going to happen with this plot.

Yeah, it don't look pretty, now does it, Kurt?

Yeah, it don’t look pretty, now does it, Kurt?

Director Jonathan Mastow knows what he’s doing to craft this sometimes very tense thriller, but he puts us in the same exact position as our lead character, Jeff. Everything that Jeff sees, hears, feels, or even thinks, we see, hear, feel, and think along with him. It gives us a better way of feeling for this dude, but also get into his head a bit, as he continues to look down each and every alley-way, river, and desert for Amy, wondering just what the heck truly happened to her. Mastow’s interested more in making us wait, rather than throwing each and every plot twist or reveal at us and making us feel like we know what to expect next. But rather than taking that latter, lower-road, Mastow keeps us confused, puzzled, a bit worried, and altogether, very tense.

However, it works well for about a good hour or so, and then it all begins to fall apart once more and more ideas come to our attention. I don’t know if that’s more of Mastow’s fault, or just our own. Since we know what to expect from thrillers such as these, it becomes pretty clear just where this flick is going to go and how, which sets it more and more out of the realm of actual possibility, unlike the rest of the flick that seemed to make plenty of sense, as if it could happen to either you or me, on a good day at that. Once the plot gets going and we figure out what’s really brewing underneath the surface here, the movie begins to answer questions and show us situations that could only happen in a movie, rather than in real-life.

Gone way too soon. Seriously. There were so many more psychos to be portrayed!

Gone way too soon. Seriously. There were so many more psychos to be portrayed!

Then again, I’m cynical and it’s kind of hard not to be in certain situations such as these.

At least Kurt Russell was around to save the day and keep things more and more interesting, as more and more of his true colors began to come out. Russell is good at playing these bad-ass characters that take no names, no prisoners, and sure as hell do not let-up for anyone, and is still able to show that, even with the yuppie-act he’s given here. It is a tad hard to believe that somebody as rugged and tough-looking as Russell could be this soft, wimp-of-a-man that all of a sudden has a change of heart once the love of his life is captured, but he at least milks it for all that he can, without ever resorting to the usual, snarling one-liners we tend to hear with his characters. He’s less of an action-hero, and more of a regular-dude who’s been pushed a little bit too far off the edge and it’s time for someone to pay.

In one of his last film roles ever, J.T. Walsh shows exactly why he was the go-to guy you needed when you needed somebody to play a evil and psychotic villain here as the truck driver that captures Amy. Walsh is good at the beginning because he gives you this wholesome, likable feel that you could only get with the country buck, but then changes things up once the going gets good and the devil horns begin to grow. The character Walsh plays is very one-note, but at least Walsh keeps him interesting and entertaining to watch, making us expect that he’s going to fully come out of his shell and show off a real person, underneath all of the cheating, lying, murdering, and stealing. However, we don’t get that and at the end of the day, the guy’s just another bad dude, who lives in the middle of nowhere, and does bad things because he can, and I guess that’s scary enough as it is.

But still, I wanted more. Is that so much to ask for?

Consensus: Breakdown starts off with enough juice and gas to keep it moving at a steady-pace for it’s hour-and-a-half run-time, but eventually hits the breaks by the end when it gets too silly, too goofy, and way too conventional for it’s own good.

7 / 10

Is this the part of the movie where they turn around and are absolutely horrified by what's coming at them?

Is this the part of the movie where they turn around and are absolutely horrified by what’s coming at them?

Photos Courtesy of: JMount’s Written in Blood

Tower (2016)

They have guns in Texas?

It was a bright and sunny day on Aug. 1, 1966, at the University of Texas. Plenty of students were all hanging around and about, going to class, cuttin’ class, drinking, eating, talking and just enjoying their lives. And then, people start hearing gun-shots. Then, they start to see people, bleeding and laying down on the ground. Soon, people start to realize that the shots are coming from the huge tower that literally hovers the whole campus and surrounding town. Eventually, more and more people begin to get shot and die, which leads many more people to not just save those who may be on the verge of death, but most importantly, stop the madman up in the tower from shooting/killing anymore people.

A lot like Waltz with Bashir did nearly a decade ago, Tower tells a harrowing, deeply disturbing, bloody and violent tale in the most colorful and bright way imaginable: Animation. It’s an interesting approach to such a deadly event in our nation’s history, mostly because it breaks down any sort of convention or idea that you’ve had about animation in the first place – it’s as if the animation on some of Adult Swim’s weirdest shows got a whole lot darker, forgot they were supposed to be funny, and instead, went right out to shock the hell out of you.

Just another lovely little couple on this fine day.

Just another lovely little couple on this fine day.

But I don’t mean for that to take away from Tower, a truly horrifying and compelling documentary that sets out to tell this story as vividly and as detailed as possible, with whoever was there, is still alive, and is willing to tell the story. Still though, the movie has another trick up its sleeve in that it doesn’t really show us who is talking, or better yet, even give us the idea that these people who are talking and letting us know of what’s happening, second-by-second, are even actually alive and telling us this. The movie gives us the voices of young people and the presentations of these animated characters, as they would have looked at the time and it’s an odd mystery that hits you very, very hard around the time it’s revealed to us what’s really going on.

That said, there’s still some problems with this format and this isn’t the only movie that’s bothered me with this issue.

Due to the movie’s dialogue and lines being literally read to us by a bunch of voice actors, who were hired and paid to say these lines, often times, it can sound grating and clearly rehearsed. Alex Gibney has tooled around with this mechanism a few times in his documentaries and it makes sense to do this; sometimes, you can’t have the actual person talking, have their voices heard, so you have to hire an actor to say these lines as if they were an interview subject. Tower, just like Gibney’s movies, don’t hide this fact that these are actors speaking to us, but it still does take away from the fact that a lot of what we’re hearing, is supposed to be off-the-cuff, shocking and emotional.

That’s the problem Tower seems to sometimes have with itself. A few of the voice-actors are good and clearly seem like they came ready to envision whoever they were speaking for, but other ones seem as if they literally just reading off of a piece of paper and not even attempting to make it sound realistic, as if we are literally listening to them air their feelings out to us in the most raw, gritty manner imaginable. It not just took me out of the movie, but made me sometimes laugh, where certain moments were supposed to be very emotional and just sounded, I hate to say it, a little cheesy.

"Yeah, it's a pretty messed-up situation here. Maybe someone should get involved and kill that shooter. Just a thought. Maybe."

“Yeah, it’s a pretty messed-up situation here. Maybe someone should get involved and kill that shooter. Just a thought. Maybe.”

However, I realize that this is a problem with me, but it’s a problem that perhaps director Keith Maitland could have gotten around, had he paid a little extra attention.

Then again, I get it. You can’t please everyone, especially those cynical and picky a-holes out there like me. Whatever. So be it.

Anyway, none of this is to really take away from the stories we hear because Tower tells its story, without holding back. We hear gun-shots, we see dead people, we see blood and we see people acting out how they normally would in these sorts of situations. Most movies such as this would lionize each and every person involved, because they were, after all, involved in a very traumatic situation, but the subjects themselves don’t hold back from letting us, the audience, know that yeah, they were definitely cowards.

Then again, how could they not? Tower doesn’t try so hard to really reach out to the souls within each and everyone of us, but it still connects on an emotional level. It’s sad to hear so many of these heartbreaking and rough takes on this one story and puts into consideration that while those died lost their lives, those who lived were still impacted and in ways, are still hurting. The real life events were obviously very upsetting, but listening to some of these testimonies, really drives it home. It not only makes you wish that there’d be more gun-reform so that something like this never happens, but that we, as a society, are able to handle it better than some did back in August ’66.

Not trying to point any fingers, but yeah, some things need to change. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.

Consensus: Despite some technical issues, Tower still gets by with a brutally colorful and detailed animation-presentation, to give us an even better understanding on what happened during those ugly, disgusting and downright evil 96 minutes.

7.5 / 10

Yup. Towers would continue to get a pretty terrible reputation.

Yup. Towers would continue to get a pretty terrible reputation.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, PBS, Truth on Cinema 

A Monster Calls (2016)

Hug the trees. Just not too hard.

At his age of 12 years old, Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is dealing with a lot. For one, his mom (Felicity Jones) is sick with cancer and slowly, but surely, dying. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), while meaning well, is also a bit of a stuck-up meanie who doesn’t let Conor have any fun, when at his age, that’s all he should be caring about. His dad (Toby Kebbell) is barely in the picture, now living in the States and occasionally coming back across the pond to visit and check-up on things. And oh yeah, there’s that talking tree in his backyard (voiced by Liam Neeson). The Monster may cause a lot of imaginary destruction and chaos, but mostly what he wants to do is tell Conor stories about life, death and love, making him think longer and harder about his own life, his family, and his whole grieving process. Of course, this makes Conor dream more than he should, wondering what’s real and what isn’t.

A Monster Calls is one of those movies that’s so emotionally draining and dour, that after awhile, you start to think whether or not it’s actually a good movie. Because while it’s definitely good at making it so that every person seeing it has at least one tear in their eye during the two-hour run-time, there’s other elements it seems to be lacking in, like an actual plot development, or meaning to it all. And sure, you could say that A Monster Calls is one, long movie about the grieving process and learning that it’s okay to be sad, but still, does that make it a better movie?

"God? Or, tree?"

“God? Or, tree?”

Not really, but I will say that director J.A. Bayona is a very talented fella who knows how to make a story about a woman slowly dying from cancer, pretty compelling.

That said, it is a pretty sad movie and at times, feels like it’s doing incessantly, to the point of where it seems like it’s got no other card to play. The only moments of actual fun and spirit seem to come through the talking-tree bits, but that’s only because listening to Liam Neeson tell folk tales is like a warm cup of coffee on a cold, winters day. Bayona definitely knows how to set a mood, as he’s done with the Orphanage and the Impossible, but he doesn’t quite know how to go from the mood-setting; to just make people feel sad and depressed is one thing, but to actually do something with that sadness and depression is a whole other thing and I’m still not sure Bayona’s been able to work that out perfectly.

However, this may be Bayona’s best movie in that it does move at a solid pace, all things considered. Being a nearly two-hour movie about a woman dying, could have been a total and complete slug of a flick, but Bayona knows that in order for a story like this to work and actually matter, there has to be something driving the movie along. And sure, while he doesn’t always seem to have it going for him in the story-department, he more than makes up for it in his characters.

As Conor, Lewis MacDougall has got a whole lot to do, but he handles it all well; there are times when he seems a bit too smart for his own good, but there are others where it seems like he’s just a kid, who has no clue of what’s really going on in the world out there, and most of all, hasn’t come to terms with the fact that his mom’s about to die and his life as he’s known it, is about to go through a total and complete change. It’s a weighty role and the kind that could definitely make or break a child actor (see Thomas Horn in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), but MacDougall’s very good here. He plays a kid very well and when the movie really starts hitting the hard stuff, he’s even more compelling to watch.

"It's okay, son. Life goes on. Just without me in it."

“It’s okay, son. Life goes on. Just without me in it.”

Felicity Jones has impressed me before, but for some reason, she doesn’t quite work here, but it may not be her fault. Due to her character literally dying the whole entire movie, we don’t really get many shades to her and instead, only see her sick and in constant agony. It’s a one-note role and unfortunately, Jones just isn’t able to do much with it. Sigourney Weaver shows up as Conor’s strict grand-mom, who may seem like the typically evil mom-mom, but has certain shadings to her that make her probably the most compelling character in the bunch. Toby Kebbell, despite getting maybe one or two scenes, does a nice job as Conor’s estranged daddy and a longer movie would have probably focused on this relationship more.

But nope, of course, we get a talking-tree and dreams.

Not that I’m complaining, because I cried. Then again, how could you not? A Monster Calls seems to have one sole objective on its mind from the very beginning and it’s hard not to let go and just allow for the movie to rip the tears right out of you. The movie’s not perfect, but hey, at least it gets its job done.

Consensus: Pretty sad and emotional, A Monster Calls is an interesting fantasy flick that deals with grief and death, yet, is still somewhat compelling.

8 / 10

Uh oh. Look out evil-doers.

Uh oh. Look out evil-doers.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Cape Fear (1991)

Criminals never forget.

When attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) knowingly withholds evidence that would acquit violent sex offender Max Cady (Robert De Niro) of rape charges, Max spends the next 14 years of his life in prison. And of course, while in the clink, Max has been thinking about that decision each and every day of his sentence, while on the other side of the bars, Sam has been living life with his wife (Jessica Lange) and young daughter (Juliette Lewis), who seems to be getting more and more rebellious as the years go by. But now that the 14 years are up, Max is ready to extract some revenge right from the get-go. However, rather than just beating the hell out of, or better yet, killing Sam, what Max does is spend every waking moment of his life and dedicating it all to stalking Sam, his family, and especially his friends. To Max, no one is safe and after awhile, Sam starts to realize that he’s going to have to come to some pretty drastic decisions if he’s going to protect the lives of those that he loves and wants to keep alive.

Bad lawyer.

Bad lawyer.

There’s nothing like watching an insanely talented director have the absolute time of their lives. It’s like watching a little kid in a Toys R Us, but rather that kid being limited to only buying a few items, the kid’s allowed to have the whole store. They can do whatever they want, however they want, and with all of these wonderful, fabulous and great toys.

That’s what it’s like watching Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear; the kind of movie where a master of his craft knows exactly what it is that he’s doing, having a lovely time with it all, and is barely ever going to let-up. And honestly, when you’re doing a remake on an already-great movie, that’s sort of the way you’ve got to go – you can’t follow the same, beat-for-beat, note-for-note, track-for-track, but instead, amp things up a bit differently. You can focus on a different plot-point altogether, bring out more interesting ideas of the story that may not have been discovered originally, and basically do whatever else you want with the story, so long as you stay true to heart and soul of the original. So few remakes actually abide by this rule, but despite the changes in story and style that Scorsese goes through here, he still sticks true to the original with an eerie tone humming all throughout.

But what’s interesting is that it’s different this time around.

Scorsese approaches the material as if it was an over-the-top, wild, wacky, crazy and unpredictable adventure into one man’s psychotic psyche – someone who doesn’t seem to have a moral compass anywhere to be found and because of that, is taking out the nice, somewhat innocent people. The original touched on this idea, obviously, but Scorsese really hammers it in, allowing for the character of Max to be as depraved and as sickening as humanly imaginable. Sure, it’s campy, it’s wildly insane, and it’s really schlocky, but you know what? It actually kind of works.

A good portion of that has to do with Scorsese’s quick pace, but another portion of that definitely has to do with De Niro’s committed-as-ever performance. Of course, working with Scorsese brings out the best in De Niro, but here, it’s unlike how we’ve ever seen him before – he’s definitely flirted with the idea of being a villain in other flicks before and after this, but never to the supreme extent that he goes with Max. The movie does try some avenues to have us, in the very least, sympathize with him and his stance, but for the most part, the movie knows that he is a monster, and so does De Niro, which makes every scene in which he’s just acting like the creepiest, most erratic person around, so damn entertaining.

It almost makes you wonder where all of the inspiration’s gone in the past few or so years.

Bad housewife.

Bad housewife.

Regardless, Scorsese doesn’t shy away from letting the rest of the cast have their moments, too, especially since they also get to have some development and not just become a typical white, suburban, upper-class family who plays golf and tennis. Nolte’s Sam has got some dark issues to work with, Lange’s Leigh seems to be struggling in her own ways, Lewis’ Danielle, while most definitely a teen, is also a little bit smarter than we’re used to seeing with this kind of character, making her one key scene with De Niro all the more creepy, and Illeana Douglas, in a couple or so scenes, shows true fun and spirit for a movie that seems to enjoy her presence, yet, at the same time, remind us that there’s something dark and grueling really behind all of this fun we’re having.

In fact, where Cape Fear works less is probably in the last-half, when Scorsese really loses his cool here. In a way, Scorsese wants us to see Max as a sort of Christ-like figure which, for a short while, is fine and all, but by the end, becomes such a major plot-point, that it’s almost unbearable to sit and listen through. We get the point as soon as it’s mentioned, yet being that this is a Scorsese movie, faith must be driven into the ground and because of that, the final-act of Cape Fear feels more like wild and over-the-top symbolism, on top of symbolism, and less of a thrilling, compelling and wholly satisfying to a wild ride of thrills, shrills, and shocks.

Still though, it’s one of the rare remakes that rivals the original and how many times can you say that?

Consensus: Wild, a little insane, well-acted, and always exciting, Cape Fear is the rare remake that works just as much as its legendary original does, especially what with Scorsese seeming to have the time of his life behind the camera.

8 / 10

Bad criminal. Or is that sort of obvious?

Bad criminal. Or is that sort of obvious?

Photos Courtesy of: the ace black blog

New York, New York (1977)

Frankie should have sued somebody.

It’s the end of WWII and the nation wants to keep on celebrating like there’s no tomorrow. One person in particular is Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro), an aspiring saxophone player, who meets a band singer by the name of Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) during V-J Day celebrations. While she initially doesn’t appreciate his constant nagging, eventually, she gives in, realizing that the guy may not mean all that much harm and, in the end, may just want to become the greatest musical duo the world has ever seen. And the two do band together, set out on the road and tour with a band, picking up gigs left and right, as well as attention from those who can make both of their careers pretty big. However, what does end up happening, too, is that the two start to fall in love, leaving the important decisions of their careers to become even more serious and passionate than ever before.

Generally, when people think of New York, New York, they either never bring it up, because they don’t know it even exists, or they think of it as a failure because it’s a Martin Scorsese movie that barely anyone talks about, remembers, and absolutely bombed at the box-office when it came out. However, there’s something to be said about a movie that, nearly 40 years later, we as a society, are still trying to make sense of and answer. For one, what was the experiment Scorsese was trying to go with for here? Not to mention, what made him want to tell this story in the first place? Did it have to be a musical? Did it have to be over two-and-a-half-hours (in its original-cut and not the 136-minute version that was re-released into theaters)?

Close, but no Cabaret.

Close, but no Cabaret.

Honestly, there doesn’t seem to be many answers for those questions, but that’s sort of what’s interesting about New York, New York: It’s the kind of movie where you can tell that there’s a lot of inspiration and thought behind it, that even when it doesn’t quite work itself out together perfectly well, there’s still something compelling about. You could almost make that same argument about a lot of Scorsese’s other movies, but for New York, New York feels exactly like a director testing himself and his limits, seeing where he can go next, figuring out what works, what doesn’t, and what could possibly be worked on in the future to-come.

Does that make it a bad movie? Not really, but it can make it sometimes seem like a uneven mess of one.

Or basically, the only kind that Scorsese knows how to make.

For one, what it seems like Scorsese tries to do here is take the bombastic, colorful, glitzy and glamorous musicals of the 40’s and 50’s, and cross them with a down-to-Earth, raw and understated story of two people falling in love through each other’s own creative talents. The later is something we’re used to seeing from Scorsese, but the former isn’t, which makes this experiment all the more interesting to watch and see how it plays out; while a lot of the musical-numbers are fun and exciting, they do come in at random times, when it literally seems like no one’s saying anything and maybe, just maybe, Scorsese himself got bored. And it’s not like Scorsese favors one idea over the other – he genuinely respects the music, as well as the dramatic emotion, but at times, the two do combat one another.

A perfect example of this is the final-act, in which all of a sudden, the movie becomes an absolute, unabashed, without-a-doubt musical, channeling the likes of Singin’ in the Rain and Cabaret, among others. The number goes on for nearly 20 minutes, in which we sit and watch Liza Minnelli change up styles with the drop of a hat, which is all great and exciting to watch, but it feels odd and misplaced. It’s as if Scorsese finally found some time to really let loose on the music and did so, but chose to do so so late in the game that we mostly all forgot this movie was supposed to be a musical in the first place.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

In fact, the movie would probably be better had it not been classified as that at all. Because with New York, New York, we really get a small, yet lovely love story about two people finding one another at the end of the war, realizing that anything’s possible, and both having a shared affection for music. In a way, it’s probably Scorsese’s most romantic movie, even if it does dive into the predictable areas where violence, drug-abuse and gangsters seem to pop-up, but it still works. If anything, Scorsese seems to be showing us that these beautiful and magical worlds that these musicals paint, don’t quite exist and instead, are a lot harsher than they attend to appear to be.

Or, something like that.

Once again, still not sure I’ve got all the answers here.

Still, if there is one thing I definitely know, it’s that Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli are quite great here and surprised the heck out of me, what with the chemistry they’ve got going on here. Of course, both are very much playing in their wheelhouse, but together, they bring out the best in one another; De Niro shows a much more softer, more vulnerable side than we’re used to seeing from him, whereas with Minnelli, we see someone who is sweet, but also not going to take any crap, either. Their characters may feel thinly-written, but because the performances are so good, it hardly matters. It makes you wish that the two worked together again, whether in another Scorsese movie, or just in general.

But yeah, definitely a Scorsese movie for sure.

Consensus: Clearly more of an experiment than a full-fledged, thought-out feature-flick, New York, New York finds Scorsese trying to mesh intimate-drama with musical-numbers, and while the results don’t always click, the performances do.

7 / 10

Love? Between these two?

Love? Between these two?

Photos Courtesy of: The Red List

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Sometimes, you just need to start anew five times straight.

After her husband dies, Alice (Ellen Burstyn) and her son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), leave their small New Mexico town for California. There, Alice is hopeful that she’ll be able to make it big there achieving her one true dream: Singing. However, the town is so small and dry, that there’s hardly any work for a bartender, let alone for a singer. So eventually, Alice and Tommy end up settling for Arizona instead, where she takes a job as waitress in a small diner and Tommy is left to make friends with some mischievous locals. She intends to stay in Arizona just long enough to make the money needed to head back out on the road, but her plans change when she begins to fall for a rancher named David (Kris Kristofferson), someone she can’t help but be drawn to, even if he’s got his own problems going for him as well.

Seeing Martin Scorsese’s name attached to this flick may seem odd, until you actually see the movie and totally get it. For one, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore has the same type of free-spirit, wild and rather chaotic energy that all of Scorsese’s movies seem to have, not to mention that the movie itself hardly ever seems to let-up. It’s part road movie, part romantic-comedy, but altogether, it’s an entertaining piece that would soon show the world what Scorsese could do out of wheelhouse.

alice1

Look out, world! Here’s Alice!

Which isn’t to say that this movie’s perfect, but it’s the first sure sign of Scorsese taking a risk and seeing it pay-off quite well. While I’m most definitely in the minority of feeling like Mean Streets is incredibly overrated, it’s still an enjoyable movie, considering that it’s showing-off what Scorsese could do with a story about crooks, gangsters, cops and all sorts of hectic violence – something that we would see him continue to make movies about for the next many decades. That’s why a movie like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, while seeming like an unabashed and boring chick-flick on paper, moves like a fast-paced thriller, but still doesn’t forget that characters do matter here and they are what make the bulk of the flick so damn good.

That is to say that Ellen Burstyn, in her Oscar-winning role of course, is great.

Then again, when isn’t the gal?

Burstyn’s great here, but it does help that she has such a meaty character to work and play around with; Alice is a very challenging character because she doesn’t always make the right decisions, nor does she seem to apologize for them, either. Scorsese and Burstyn both present this woman as someone who knows that whatever move she makes next, probably won’t be ideal, but she’s constantly thinking about what’s best for her and her son, meaning that every once and awhile, she’s got to make a sacrifice and suck up the stupidity. Even the smart decisions that Alice seems to make, still end-up biting her in the rump by the end, making you wonder whether or not this woman should be trusted with the care of a pre-adolescent boy in the first place. But still, there’s something compelling about this woman, flaws, warts and all that junk, as well as Burstyn’s performance that make it all the more watchable.

The happiest diner in the world it seems.

The happiest diner in the world it seems.

And it’s actually very interesting to see this movie and think about it in retrospect, as we’ve come to see Scorsese’s career grow further and further away from female-led stories, making us wonder one simple thing, “Why?” After all, he handles this story with such delicate care, never shying away from showing this woman for all of who she is, that he not just respects her as much as we do, but he loves her, even. It’s a rare sign that even though Scorsese’s movies tend to gain all sorts of controversy for their violence, drugs and crime, mostly all involving and/or against women, there’s still this small glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, he was curious of taking this road even further.

It makes you wonder, really.

Regardless, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, all things considered, may be a bit too long for its own good, but in a way, that’s okay. We get to see and learn about more characters throughout Alice’s journey, some of whom are really fun and exciting to watch. Harvey Keitel shows up as a slimy dude Alice starts hooking up with; Kris Kristofferson’s is interesting enough of a dramatic-lead to make you want to see more of him around; Jodi Foster shows up in a very early role as one of Tommy’s friends and is very good; Diane Ladd steals just about every scene she’s in as Alice’s co-worker/best friend; and even as a young kid here, Alfred Lutter does a nice job as Tommy, mostly due to the fact that the kid’s not annoyingly written. He’s a little too smart for his britches at certain points, but that’s mostly because his mom makes him that way; there’s quite a few scenes where the two have heart-to-heart conversations about all things in life and while they may seem a little tacked-on, the chemistry between Lutter and Burstyn is so good, that you sort of believe in it.

Consensus: Not his best by any means, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore still presents a very bright and entertaining picture for the whole cast, especially Burstyn, and Scorsese, and the many years to come.

8 / 10

Keep on smiling, Ellen. You'll get that Oscar.

Keep on smiling, Ellen. You’ll get that Oscar.

Photos Courtesy of: The Soul of the Plot

Patriots Day (2016)

We could be heroes, just for a few solid hours.

It’s Monday, April 15, 2013 in Boston and man oh man, what a lovely day. The Boston Marathon is set to happen, with tons and tons of people all involved and excited to run for a good cause. But of course, things don’t go down this way. In the final stretch of the run, bombs start going off, injuring and killing some. This leads the Boston Police Department, as well as the FBI to get involved as best as they can. Eventually, they find out who is responsible and limit their search to two people: Brothers Tamerlan And Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff). Of course, it’s now up to everyone to get together, stand strong and find these guys before they cause even more damage to the city of Boston and put an even greater shadow over what was supposed to be a very lovely, carefree day.

The term “too soon” is normally used with a negative connotation and well, there’s good reason behind it. People, the fragile beings that we are, find it hard to connect or accept tragedy or heartbreak, that talking about it immediately or even a little time after, seems to be too much to handle; nobody can really talk about something sad, because well, that just brings on more sadness. I point this out, not to just ramble on and on for no reason, but to point out why a movie like Patriots Day, while immediate, exciting, tense, and well-done, also feels like it may have been done way too soon.

Marky Mahk thinks he hears something fizzlin'.

Marky Mahk thinks he hears something fizzlin’.

But not in the way you’d expect.

When United 93 came out over a decade ago, it was four years and a few months after the events of 9/11, and considering how emotionally jarring that movie was, it makes sense that people would get up in arms, wondering whether or not this tale needed to be told, so suddenly, so soon, and so in-our-faces. After all, we as a nation still have yet to get over 9/11, 15 years after the fact, so you could only imagine how those in the mid-aughts must have felt when they saw a documentary-like film based on one of the hijacked planes. That said, director Peter Berg approaches the Boston Marathon Bombings with the same sort of tenacity; it’s the kind of movie that takes awhile to get going, but is setting up so many pieces of the story, that just watching and seeing how they connect in the long run is really interesting.

And then the movie does get going and eventually, it becomes something along the lines of a typical action-thriller, except with very real-life circumstances. Just like he showed with Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, Berg has a knack for telling these fact-based stories where we probably know the ending and certain details, but there’s still a thrill and a certain energy behind it that’s hard not to get compelled by. Even when it seems like he’s manipulating certain elements of the story a bit, there’s still a feeling that Berg is giving it all that he’s got to make us feel as if we are there, while the action is all happening, trying our own hardest to put together this sometimes convoluted and crazy pie.

But then again, there’s that issue of being “too soon” and I think that’s where Patriots Day really runs into problems.

For one, it’s been a little over three years since the attack, meaning, that a lot of old wounds still have yet to heal. Due to that, it seems like there’s not enough appropriate room, space, or time to really think about the hard, thought-provoking questions that need to be asked in order for us, a society, to gather a better understanding of what happened. Sure, Berg does a nice job of sticking straight to the facts and giving us what is, essentially, a play-by-play analysis of what’s happenin’ and shakin’, but for a movie such as this to really resonate and hit hard, it also needs to be more than just that.

At its heart, Patriots Day is definitely a tribute to those who lost their lives and those who worked day and night on that one, fateful afternoon, and there’s nothing wrong with that – these are all stories that deserve to be told and given the type of treatment that Berg is more than happy to give them. At the same time though, there’s not enough introspection that makes us think longer and harder about this event – it’s just sort of the standard, bad guys did something bad, now good guys must go and find them. It is, for lack of a better term, a procedural.

An entertaining one at that, but still, a procedural.

"I told ya, it was paked down by da riva."

“I told ya, it was paked down by da riva.”

The bits and pieces of the movie where it seems like Berg really wants to dive in further to this event, is through the portrayals of both Tamerlan And Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Surprisingly, the movie does go the extra mile to try and develop them, show them for what they were, and most importantly, give us a better look into what the hell was going through their heads, which is admirable, on the part of Berg’s. He’s telling the whole story for what it is and considering that a good portion of what happens can only happen from their point-of-view, it makes sense that we get some time spent with them and try whatever we can to understand them for their actions. The movie doesn’t hold back on showing us their terrible actions, but it also doesn’t shy away from showing that, well, they were human beings. As troubled and as ill-conceived as they may be, they are still human beings and sometimes, it’s interesting to see their side of the story, regardless of whether or not you sympathize with them or what they did.

Which is interesting here, because while the movie boasts a big, starry and shiny cast with the likes of Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Kevin Bacon, Rachel Brosnahan, and plenty others, really, the movie’s more concerned with Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff’s portrayals of the brothers. It shows that Berg was at least trying to go somewhere more interesting with this material, but of course, also realized who he was doing this movie for and didn’t want to offend anyone. There’s nothing wrong with that, either, however, it does leave that feeling of wondering maybe it was too soon and maybe something else will come down the pipeline.

Like, I don’t know, say a movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Malsany?

Oh, well there we go.

Consensus: Compelling, thrilling and well-paced, Patriots Day works as an exciting take on the events, as well as a nice tribute to those who lost their lives and responded quickly, even if there’s still some material left to be covered.

7.5 / 10

Marky Mak is da best cop awound dese paks.

Marky Mak is da best cop awound dese paks.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Postcards from the Edge

Life’s pretty bad. And then there’s your mom.

Hollywood actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) seemed to, at one point in her career, have it all, but now, it seems like she’s about to lose it all. Now that she’s out of rehab and recovering from a very public drug-addiction, she hopes to get better so that she can continue to work and make all sorts of money again like she’s used to doing. But it is recommended by those who know best that she stay with her mother, famed actress Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine), who has become a somewhat champion drinker herself. Now, more than ever, not only does Suzanne struggle with her sobriety, but she’s also got to struggle with getting along with her mom and accepting her for all the flaws and faults that she is, underneath the whole glitz and glamour of the career she once had and still receives praise for.

So yeah, if you don’t know, Postcards from the Edge is an adaptation of Carrie Fisher’s autobiography, which is about her own battle with drugs, stardom, booze and yes, her famous mother, Debbie Reynolds. Knowing that, the movie definitely takes on a more interesting and darker spin; after all, watching someone famous, play another famous person who is literally telling their heartfelt, mostly true story, seems a little odd. It makes you wonder why they didn’t just hire Fisher and Reynolds in the first place and call the thing a day, right? After all, they seemed to get along so well in the first place, so why wouldn’t they be up to the task to begin with?

I know, moms, right?

I know, moms, right?

Regardless, the movie still works.

Oddly enough, Postcards from the Edge actually works best in the performances, mainly, those of Streep’s and MacLaine’s. Streep is especially great here because you get the sense that she’s not trying to get us to love her, or better yet, sympathize with her – the movie doesn’t ever seem to get as dark, or as mean as it should, but the very few instances of actual rawness comes through Streep’s portrayal of Vale/Fisher. Just by watching how she interacts with those around her and seeing as how she’s practically pushed to the side of everywhere she goes, all because of a troubled and checkered past, well, is pretty sad to watch. Streep plays it well though, never demanding sympathy and makes this person all the more realistic.

And then there’s MacLaine who seems very much in her element here. Playing an aging dame of an actress, MacLaine gets to enjoy herself, occasionally vamping it up, but always coming back down to reality, reminding us that she’s a grade-A actress who can go head-to-head with Streep any day of the week. Together, they’re the perfect mother-daughter combination, and it almost makes you wish the movie was a smaller, much more contained piece and just focused on them, their relationship, and where exactly they’re going to go from here.

Of course, though, we don’t get that movie.

Don't trust Gene.

Don’t trust Gene.

The movie we do get, in fact, seems awfully concerned with so much else. Mike Nichols always seems to have a general idea of what he’s doing with the material he’s working with and you’d expect from him, a much more emotional, rewarding experience, but the movie doesn’t seem to get all that close to the true emotions that an autobiographical story such as this could evoke. Most of this has to do with the fact that the movie seems to take on a whole lot more than it can actually chew, let alone, swallow; there’s Vale’s career, her relationship with her mom, her mom’s career, her experiences on movie-sets, her trying to nail parts in major Hollywood productions, her trying to maintain a steady relationship, her trying to stay sober, her trying to stay alive, etc.

Eventually, you get the picture and unfortunately, that’s why a good portion of Postcards feels muddled. It takes on a lot, seems to have so much to say, but when all is said and done, it’s just too much. The Hollywood stuff is funny, but it’s not really new or groundbreaking; the relationship stuff with the mother gets developed enough; all of Vale’s career plots sort of work; her drug-addiction never gets nearly as descriptive or as eye-opening as it should; and although it’s always great to see Dennis Quaid, you take him out of this movie and guess what? It keeps on going.

Still, though, there’s a part of me that’s glad a movie like Postcards exists, because it does paint a cynical portrait of Hollywood that we do see often, but still need to be reminded of. The idea that Vale’s career was already dying because of her age, and maybe less about her drug/alcohol addiction, is interesting as we still see it in today’s day and age of film. Of course, having Street play the role is interesting, considering the woman probably gets every role she ever shows any interest in, but still, there’s something to be said about a business that openly discriminates, gets away with it, and continues to live long and prosper.

Maybe something needs to change, eh?

Consensus: With two very good performances in the leads, Postcards from the Edge is an interesting tale of family, but never goes any deeper than it probably should have beyond that.

7 / 10

RIP, kind of.

RIP, kind of.

Photos Courtesy of: Sony Pictures, Bobby Rivers TV, Film Experience

The Rundown (2003)

Stay at home. It’s less violent.

Beck (Dwayne Johnson) may be, in certain words, a “retrieval expert”, but really what he is, is a very trained, very specialized and when push comes to shove, very violent assassin who is always and capable of getting the job done without a scratch. However, while these jobs do bring in the dough, what Beck really aspires to be is an owner of his own restaruant, where he can tangle with all sorts of lovely and exotic food, where he doesn’t have to answer to anyone else, except for himself. But until then, Beck’s going to have to put up with a lot of garbage from those he works for, like for instance, his latest mission where he has to go looking for the son (Seann William Scott) of an underworld kingpin, after he disappears in the Amazon looking for a priceless artifact. While Beck does find the guy right away, the two soon realize that they’ll both have to fight their way through the Brazilian jungle, running into all sorts of dangerous characters, one of whom is a wealthy mine owner (Christopher Walken), who doesn’t take kindly to outsiders.

The Rundown looks a lot like every lame action-comedy from the early-aughts that tried so hard to relive the charm and fun of the 90’s and 80’s, but sadly, doesn’t come even close. Heck, it was even one of the first films WWE Studios ever produced, so if that doesn’t already tell you what to expect, then lord knows what will.

Who needs a Rose?

Who needs a Rose?

But surprisingly, it’s a tad bit smarter than what it appears to be and sometimes, that creates the best action and comedy.

For the most part, the Rundown gets by solely on the fact that it never seems to take itself all that seriously. From the very beginning, we get to hear the inner-monologue of Johnson’s character and realize that, “Oh, this is going to be a silly movie.” However, it’s not that kind of faux-silliness we see most of these movies try to get by with, but just seem so phony and fake, it doesn’t quite connect. Peter Berg has definitely made a name for himself taking on hard-hitting, emotionally complex true life events for the big-screen, but back before all of that, he got his start directing a pretty goofy action-comedy that feels like a product of the era it’s trying to emulate, as opposed to the one that it came out of.

Of course, this is something that perhaps only true action-nerds will care about, but it’s what matters most as it gives a little something more to all of the violence, bloodshed, guns, action, explosions, and cursing going on. Not that there’s anything wrong with having all of those elements in the first place, but sometimes, it’s best to have a little something more going on underneath it all to make it seem like you’re not just going for all of the action and intensity, but also trying to tell something of a story, with good characters and a nice, simple message about friends, family, and love.

Or then again, maybe not.

In the case of the Rundown, it doesn’t quite matter, because the movie does get the small things right. Even though the movie itself had to go through some re-edits to secure something of a PG-13 rating, it doesn’t quite show; some blood and gore may have been digitally taken out and oh yeah, cursing has definitely been dubbed over, but regardless, it doesn’t feel like the heart and soul of this movie has been taken from it. It seems like it was always meant to just be a fun movie, regardless of how much viciousness there originally was within it and sometimes, that’s all you need for your action movie to succeed at what it’s doing. It doesn’t matter how formulaic, or silly you can get, but how well you can keep the action moving and sustaining each and every person’s attention-span for the time being.

Which yes, the Rundown does a very fine job with doing, formula and convention aside.

When you've got a Scott? Seann William, to be exact?

When you’ve got a Scott? Seann William, to be exact?

Like I said with Berg, though, can be said about Johnson – while he’s definitely seen as the biggest star in the world we’ve got, there was, at one point in time, when studios were trying their absolute hardest to pass him off as anything but the Rock. In fact, the Rundown feels like a nice little piece of history, seeing how all the charisma and spunk that he shows just about every single second, of every single day, wasn’t quite worked-out just yet; Beck is a sympathetic and silly character, but he’s also got a little bit of a heart to him that Johnson tries to take on, but can’t quite nail. It’s a good performance from Johnson, but as we all know, he would continue to toy away and away at it, eventually nailing that screen-persona we all know and love nowadays.

Same goes with Seann William Scott who has, unfortunately, seems nowhere to be found. Regardless, he’s good here and has a very good chemistry with Johnson, playing off the fact that he’s smaller and less chiseled than his co-star, but without making it seem too gimmick-y. Christopher Walken also shows up and seems to be having a very joyous time playing a bad guy for once and Rosario Dawson’s here, too, who is, unfortunately, not very good. However, it seems to be the case that her character wasn’t quite there to begin with, but because producers probably got worried by the idea of having a whole movie dedicated to two, sweaty and dirty dudes in the jungle together, there needed to be a romantic love-interest thrown in there somewhere for good keeping. Dawson tries with what she’s got, but yeah, the movie may have been able to live on without her.

Sorry, Rose. You still rock.

Consensus: Without taking itself too seriously, the Rundown can be a very fun and charming action-comedy that showcases what was to come of Dwayne Johnson.

7 / 10

Oh yeah, and you've got a Rock, too.

Oh yeah, and you’ve got a Rock, too.

Photos Courtesy of: Roger Ebert, Explosions Are Rad, This or That Edition

Hidden Figures (2016)

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be a racist.

Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are names that you probably haven’t heard of before, but you definitely should. Back in the early-60’s, when NASA was trying their absolute hardest to beat-out the Russians by getting a person on the moon, they needed all of the power and smarts that were capable of figuring this thing out. These three women ended-up becoming a part of that think-system, however, it wasn’t always a pretty one. When they weren’t facing all sorts of racial prejudices at home, or on the streets, they had to go into work, where they were supposed to be respected for their brains and free-thinking, but instead, were forced to deal with the same trials and tribulations that so many other African-American men and women were facing around the same time. Still though, all three women kept their eyes on the prize and made it their mission to complete U.S.A’s mission and that was to get a person on the moon, as soon as, and as safe as, possible.

Eh. I've seen bigger.

Eh. I’ve seen bigger.

Hidden Figures is your typical, conventional, formulaic, and run-of-the-mill story of historical prejudice and racism that we so often see around awards season, that it’s hardly the kind of movie to get all that excited about, regardless of what, or who it may be about. And the story’s of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson all deserve being told and better yet, their own star-studded, somewhat Oscar-baity movie where we get to see them face all sorts of adversity for the color of their skin, constantly work their rumps off, and at the end of the day, get a slap on the back for the good job that they did, even if it’s not nearly enough to justify all of the pain and punishment they had to go through. It’s a sad and awfully way-too-relevant story which is why, above all else, Hidden Figures is a good movie to see.

Does that make it a great movie? No, not really. But it’s the kind that feels like it’s appealing to each and every person on the face of the planet, without trying to offend a single person imaginable, and yet, still tell us a little bit more about this slice of life in country’s history. Everyone knows how we go to the moon and who did it, but do we really know all of the surrounding pieces? Quite possibly, no, and that’s why a movie like Hidden Figures is nice to have around – it not only shows us that our nation still has some growing up to do, but there was such a thing as a moon-landing that made each and every citizen want to lay down their issues for a second and come together on this momentous occasion.

It’s a little tear-inducing, until you realize that the movie is also a very conventional piece that doesn’t quite set the world on fire.

However, it doesn’t seem like it needs to, either. All it really needed to do was tell these three stories, of these three, miraculous women, who not just used their brains and their math-skills to get their jobs done, but did so in some very unwelcoming areas. Like I said though, it’s a conventional movie where a lot of racism is highlighted, but also plenty of comedy and a little bit of romance – not all of it works, but a solid portion of it does and helps us see these characters a little more than just the actresses playing them.

The white man always has to get involved somehow, right?

The white man always has to get involved somehow, right?

Then again, it does help having Spencer, Henson and especially Monae in these roles, as they not only bring out a certain vibrancy about them, but continue to help us believe that these are some incredibly smart mathematicians, who are capable of figuring these problems out. So often do movies get mathematicians/nerds so terribly wrong in movies, where they are so wild and crazy that they’re practically autistic, or that they’re just a bunch of really good-looking people struggling to make it sound like they know what two plus two is. Here though, it works – not only are these three women beautiful, but they do seem as if they know their jobs, making it seem clear that the movie isn’t just about getting the best face for the poster, but the best gal for the job.

Of course though, Hidden Figures does help itself out by not displaying everyone else surrounding these three women as terrible and awful specimens, but in ways, idiotic and products of the time in which they were raised in. Kirsten Dunst’s characters is probably the most perfect example of this, as no matter how hard she tries, she can never help but come off as racist and rude, even when it does seem like she’s doing her job; the movie likes to make and poke fun at her, but this issue is still prevalent in today’s society and it makes you think of how many things have changed, or how many of them may have seemed like they did, only to go back to their old, ignorant ways.

Oh well. Time will tell.

Consensus: Even as conventional as it may be, Hidden Figures is an interesting look into a piece of America’s history that some may not all that much about and will continue to want to study for years and years to come.

6.5 / 10

You go girls! Don't forget to do your math homework, though!

You go girls! Don’t forget to do your math homework, though!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Fences (2016)

Man, dads can be a drag.

Troy Maxon (Denzel Washington) could have had it all. He was a great baseball player who could have made it in the pros, but considering he was black and this was America during the 30’s and 40’s, black people just weren’t allowed in professional sports. So of course, he didn’t get to live out his dream and is now working as a trash man in Pittsburgh, with his lovely wife Rose (Viola Davis), his talented son Cory (Jovan Adepo), his freeloading son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), and his special brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson). For Troy, though, everything’s all good – he’s working on putting up a fence around his place and is enjoying time he spends with his wife. However, Troy’s also got a bit of a temper and a bit of a drinking problem, which means that with a combo like that, he tends to get in people’s faces about stuff that he shouldn’t be. But because Troy is very antagonistic, he chooses fights that he sometimes can’t win and due to this, he begins to push those away from him more and more, leaving him to make even worse mistakes.

In case you didn’t know, or better yet, never had to suffer through Intro to Theater, Fences is actually a play by August Wilson. If you didn’t know this and saw the movie version of Fences, you’d probably get the picture real soon and think this immediately. Why?

Uh oh. Denzel mad. Look out.

Uh oh. Denzel mad. Look out.

Because like so many other adaptations of plays before it, Fences feels very stagey.

Which okay, may not be the worst thing, but at times, can still be awfully distracting, especially when the person who is adapting it to the screen, isn’t really trying everything that they can to make it more than just a bunch of people standing in the same room for roughly a half-hour, talking about something that was said nearly ten minutes prior. And Denzel Washington, while a good director, for some reason, doesn’t feel the need to actually get out in the world, live a little, and get this material going elsewhere. Sure, you can call this adaptation “faithful”, but does that mean it was a smart move to be that way?

Probably not and that’s why a good portion of Fences, while compelling, can still feel like it’s stuck inside of itself. It’s the kind of movie where people talk a whole lot and while a lot of it can be interesting to watch and listen to, a lot of it also does feel like filler. Washington, as well as everyone else here, has actually performed this play countless of times, so it makes sense that he would feel such a love and affection for it as to not change a single thing about it, but by the same token, there are bits and pieces that need to be updated.

For instance, there’s a whole other character that we hear so much about and eventually factors into the plot quite a great deal, and yet, we never see said person. Same goes with a few other events that take place off-screen, leaving whatever happened to either never come up again, or come up in conversation in perhaps the most obvious manner imaginable. Once again, it’s understandable that Washington himself would want to be as faithful to this material as humanly possible, but there does come a point when you have to realize that you’re making a film, and because of that, you have to make sure everything works. And also, because you’re making a film, you’re able to do so much more that actually matters.

Uh oh. Viola sad.

Uh oh. Viola sad.

Washington just never seems to realize this and unfortunately, Fences does suffer because of it.

But honestly, a good portion of what I said doesn’t even matter, because what Fences truly is, despite what August Wilson may have originally intended for it to come-off as, is an actor’s workshop and man, they clean house here. Even though his directing skills aren’t quite great here, Washington, the actor, is terrific; he’s able to go big, loud and bombastic, as if he was in the theater, playing to the nosebleeds, but he can also be small, quiet and subtle and makes this challenging Troy fella, all the more complex and interesting to watch. Washington knows what he’s working with here and because of that, his performance comes off strong and it’s hard to take your eyes off of him.

But Washington isn’t stingy and doesn’t forget about everyone else here, either. Everyone here, like Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby, and the always underrated Stephen Henderson are all quite good, but it’s really the one performance that makes this movie shake the most. Viola Davis, as Rose, is very good because she gets to do the same thing that Washington does – she gets to play it big and loud, but also short, sweet and subtle. She’s great at both sides and together, they create quite the couple that actually makes me want to see them do something else, where they aren’t so confined to just one room, or one backyard, or one topic of conversation the whole, entire time.

Still though, as Fences goes on, it eventually comes together and Washington begins to make more and more sense of his material.

There’s a final-act that’s downplayed and quiet, which is definitely different from the rest of the movie, yet, it still works. In fact, it actually feels like a reward to all of those who sat by, watched and listened to all of these characters hooting and hollering at one another. In a way, it’s a lot more melancholy than the rest of the movie, where it seems like everyone has chilled-out, had a few beers and realized that life is beautiful, so why fret so much? Due to this, the movie may just bring a tear to your eye and make you realize that Washington is a good director.

It’s just a shame that he felt so damn confined.

Consensus: Fences feels exactly like a play, with great performances from everyone, but also a very limited scope in which it lives in.

7 / 10

But it's okay, they're both happy. Let's hope it stays.

But it’s okay, they’re both happy. Let’s hope it stays.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

La La Land (2016)

Tap dance the pain away.

Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress living in Hollywood waiting for that one big break. She constantly goes to auditions, but never seems to get the part. The closest she ever gets to achieving actual stardom is by serving celebrities coffee at the place she works at on a studio film-lot. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who dreams of one day owning and running his own club where everyone can listen to and play whatever jazz that they want to. However, the times have changed and unfortunately for Sebastian, who spends most of his time playing conventional tunes at a local restaurant for tips, nobody really cares for that old school version of jazz. Late one night, though, Sebastian catches the eyes and ears of Mia and the two suddenly fall for one another, dancing, singing and acting more creatively than they ever had before. But both Mia and Sebastian long and live for something bigger and brighter than what they have now, and the longer they stay together, the more and more their careers begin to go in separate directions.

Though I never got around to reviewing it (tragic, right?), writer/director Damien Chazzelle’s debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, feels like every person’s first movie. It’s scrappy, it looks cheap, it’s brimming with ideas, and yet, the execution doesn’t entirely work. It’s the kind of movie where you can tell that Chazzelle was just so damn happy that he got together just enough money to make a movie and do his musical-thing, that he didn’t care too much about certain important elements that matter to a movie, like plot, or character-development, or other things like that. It’s a movie that features a handful of lovely, dizzy song-and-dance numbers, that are more than able to get you smiling, but whenever they are over and we’re forced to actually listen to these characters talk to one another and well, just be, it starts to lose all sorts of fun and excitement.

"Is this love that I'm feeling?"

“Is this love that I’m feeling?”

That’s why La La Land is such a huge, dramatic leap forward and feels like the movie Chazzelle may have been trying to make after all.

It just feels like seven years late.

That’s all fine, though, because La La Land is one of the best movies of the year. It’s the kind of musical that has great, swirly, fun, exciting, and memorable song-and-dance numbers, but when the music stops and the people start talking, guess what? It’s still just as exciting and interesting! So often do we get musicals where it feels like all of the music was written first, and everything else came second – imagine a landscape painting where all of the shapes and sizes were finished, but not the actual colors and objects themselves.

However, La La Land gets all of that right, and then some. Chazzelle’s script is smart, though, because while he does get wrapped-up in his love and admiration for jazz, what it represents, and what it does for those sorts of people who will never let it go, he also doesn’t forget that jazz is definitely a dying form. And in its death, lies a new form of jazz that’s poppy, mass-produced and more mechanical-sounding than a Marvel fight scene, as illustrated by John Legend and his character’s band (who are believably bad). Chazzelle does see this changing form and is sad, admittedly, but he also realizes that the movie’s not just about jazz, as much as it’s about art and artists, and what the later can do when they are inspired, happy and ready to show the world what they can do.

But it’s not nearly as nauseating as I may make it sound.

Despite all of its doe-eyed wisdom and love about the arts, about L.A. and about the Hollywood business, it’s also smart and understanding that sometimes, the world doesn’t quite work out the way you want it, especially for artists. Through Mia and Sebastain, Chazzelle shows that providing art and entertainment for the world around you, sometimes, isn’t enough – what really matters most is being able to actually wake up each and every day, happy with what you do, and feeling as if you’re ready to take on the world around you. This isn’t just for artists, or people involved with the entertainment-industry – this is for anyone, with any sort of trade. What La La Land shows is that when you have the ambition and you feel inspired, you can make wonders happen – not just for those around, but for your own self.

Look out, Hollywood! Here come your starlets!

Look out, Hollywood! Here come your starlets!

Once again, I know this sounds so melodramatic and cheesy, but La La Land stays so far away from any of that, that it’s absolutely magical, even when people aren’t singing, and dancing, and emoting. In fact, the song-and-dance numbers, oddly enough, feel as if they were written second to the actual story and character-development, as opposed to it being the other way around; it doesn’t mean that the songs themselves are weak in the slightest, but it does show that more care and effort was put into giving the audience a good, emotional and relevant story, rather than just a dog-and-pony show that seems to only fulfill the needs and desires of the creators themselves.

That said, La La Land will make you feel all sorts of happy, pleasant and joy-filled thoughts and emotions, but it’s still kind of raw, sad and emotional.

How?

Well, Chazzelle does a perfect job in casting both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in his lead roles, because not only do they share a perfect chemistry, but they are also so beautiful to watch on the screen, that it’s actually kind of hard to take your eyes off of them. Stone’s Mia, when the camera isn’t molesting her face, is actually a very depressed character who wants to make a name for herself, but keeps on flubbing it at auditions and not getting the roles that she wants, whereas Gosling’s Sebastian wants to preserve jazz by opening-up his own club, but by doing so, he still has to be successful and possibly “sell-out”. Sure, attacking this idea of being true to yourself, while still bringing in tons of bucks, isn’t exactly anything new or ground-breaking, but La Land Land does it in such a smart, believable way, that it still feels fresh.

The movie shows us that these two don’t just come together and fall in love because they’re the two most attractive people they know (even though it’s definitely one of the reasons), it’s because they both have a love and appreciation for the arts and what it is that they do. It’s interesting, too, because Mia doesn’t even like jazz, making her and Sebastian’s connection stronger – something that so few couples in real life like to admit to keeping them together for so long. But together, they feel like the kind of tragic couple at the center of a fable like Beauty and the Beast, or Romeo & Juliet – they may be perfect for one another, but there’s still something holding them back from fully giving it their all and staying as dedicated as they can be.

Regardless of all this mumbo jumbo, yeah, La La Land is a terrific movie.

It will probably get nominated for heaps of Oscars and it might win them all. Will it be deserved wins? Does it really matter? Not really, but please, whatever you do, see it. You’ll be walking out with a smile on your face and in desperate need of wanting to sing and dance with every person you see.

And if you don’t, I’m sorry, but cheer up.

Consensus: Sweet, delicate, magical and downright beautiful, La La Land is the rare musical in which every song-and-dance number is exciting and lovely, but everything else surrounding it, works even better.

9.5 / 10

Man, why can't we just watch them have sex?

Watching them sing, dance and love one another is fine and all, but man, why can’t we just watch them bang? Talk about a true gift for the holidays.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Lion (2016)

Wow. Google really does have it all.

When he was just a little boy living in India, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) accidentally got on a train that took him nearly thousands and thousands of kilometers away from his brother and his mother. Without any idea of where he came from, how he got there, and just who to contact to get home, Saroo ends up spending a great deal of his childhood in shady orphanages, all until a rich Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) decide to adopt him. Now, many years later, Saroo (Dev Patel) is a chiseled, handsomely-grown man who wants to study hotel management. While there, he meets a very interesting gal (Rooney Mara), who he takes a liking to immediately. However, one night, while hanging out with friends, people begin to question Saroo about his childhood home, his family, where exactly he came from, and how he got here, leading him to think long and hard about the same things. And then he discovers Google Earth and for years, does whatever he can to not just locate where he came from, but try to get back to his birthplace.

Everything about Lion leads up to the final act. In said final act, there are so many emotions, so much heartbreak, so much joy, and so much swooping music, that it’s hard not to get wrapped-up in it all. If you don’t shed even the tiniest, bittiest tear, you, my friend, may just have a heart of stone, or no heart at all.

Aw, such a cute little boy.

Aw, such a cute little boy.

That said, the movie does feel a tad incomplete.

One reason has to do with director Garth Davis’ way of telling Saroo’s story, but leaving out certain key-elements. For instance, we spend roughly an hour with him as a little kid, when he’s nearly five or so, and it’s quite compelling. The movie sort of feels a lot like bits and pieces of Slumdog Millionaire, but it still works well because Davis knows how to create an aura of sadness just by a single shot and give us an even greater idea of the brutal, harsh realities of being a little boy, alone and without a clue in the world of where you may be. Luke Davies’ script is also smart, too, in that it takes its time in developing just how far Saroo’s story as a child goes, with certain twists and turns coming out of nowhere, yet, still feeling brutally honest and expected.

But then, more than a quarter through the flick, everything changes. We’re introduced to Saroo when he’s an older, hunkier guy, with long, flowing locks and facial-hear to die for and it just feels way too sudden. While we still get to know a little bit more about him, his family, and the struggles they are inducing, just trying to get by, it still feels like we’re missing certain pieces to the puzzle.

Like, for example, why does Saroo want to find out about his birthplace at all?

The movie tries to clarify it with a heartbreaking image of a food-item that I won’t spoil, shows him sad, distracted and obviously out-of-place, but why? Is it because he misses home? Is it because he’s starting to despise his adopted parents and the adopted brother that seems to be a little crazy? Why oh why? I’m sure the real Saroo, of whom this movie is made about, had a great reason justifying it, other than just simply being sad, but I can’t seem to find it here.

That’s why once the movie gets to the final act – of which happens quite quickly – it feels a little rushed. It’s almost as if Davis and Davies knew exactly how they wanted their first and final act to go down, but in by doing so, they forgot to think of a second one, or better yet, a more substantial second one that doesn’t just feel like filler to get to the more emotional moments. Then again, it is refreshing to get a movie that shows us its character’s journey back home in the most simplified, uneventful manner imaginable – after all, it’s the 21st century and if you want to get somewhere in the world, all you have to do is go on your phone and you’ll get where you need most definitely right away.

Wow. That escalated quickly.

Wow. That escalated quickly.

But like I’ve said before, Lion packs a powerful punch and it’s hard not to get wrapped-up in all the swirling emotions by the end. Which is interesting, because it isn’t manipulative; through Saroo’s story and his experiences, we get a sense that this homecoming is a very emotional thing and because of that, it’s hard not to shed a tear. Some of it may be overly sentimental, but hey, it’s the kind of sentimentalism that so rarely works, so I’ll give it credit where credit is due.

And the performances are quite good, too.

In what seems like his best performance since Slumdog a little over eight years ago, Dev Patel finally gets the role worthy of his enigmatic charm. While he’s most definitely grown into a handsome, rather hunky man, he’s also turned into a much better actor that doesn’t get on his boyish charms, but raw emotions where there’s a certain a pain in his eyes. It’s also worth pointing out that the younger-version of Saroo, as played by Sunny Pawar, does a great job even though, yeah a solid portion of the role may just be reaction-shots.

But still, he makes those reaction shots count, man.

David Wenham and Nicole Kidman are also pretty good as Saroo’s adoptive parents, who both seem to understand and sympathize with Saroo’s quest. Kidman’s performance is especially the best, with a few strong, emotional scenes that could have gone incredibly overboard and melodramatic, but somehow, she plays it all so perfectly, like the pro that she is. The only one who feels out of place, in a way, is Rooney Mara. She shows up about halfway through to be a sort of romantic love-interest for Saroo, meant to push him harder and harder into this life-fulfilling adventure of sorts, but she just comes off like a device, as opposed to an actual, real life character in a movie. I’m still not sure if this person exists in real life, but if so, I’d be a little ticked by how dull I was.

That’s just me, though.

Consensus: Though it’s missing a fully-developed structure (something only us annoying critics care about, I know), Lion also packs a very emotional punch, with solid performances and a heartwarming message, even if it does still come off like a Google Earth commercial.

8 / 10

And now he's got a girlfriend? What is happening? Go back to being a kid, Saroo!

And now he’s got a girlfriend? What is happening? Go back to being a kid, Saroo!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire