January 30, 2017

Loving (2016)

Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton

Movies come in many forms: mindless entertainment, thought-provoking, escapism fantasy, and educational. The last, while an important contribution to film, is not necessarily the most exciting to watch in a cinematic sense. This movie falls into that category.

Based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose interracial marriage in 1958 challenged the anti-miscegenation in Virginia, the movie is a slow, deliberate look at the challenges they personally faced in their fight to be legally recognized as a couple. It's a highly relevant story, considering this ban on interracial couples existed only a few decades ago, and the same bigotry that allowed such laws to exist in the first place is now being directed at same sex couples.

Though filmmakers often reduce a larger movement to a story about one particular person to generate additional impact, this movie is unique in that it never addresses a scope larger than the Loving's personal experience. There are no marches, no violence, no desire to participate in the larger civil rights movement. It is just the two of them, trying to live their lives together. The simplicity of it I'm sure holds an appeal for a lot of people.

Personally, I wasn't totally captivated by it. It is certainly a remarkable story and it's well done, but it was *so* realistic that it sort of felt like I was just watching two regular people in their everyday lives. I'm sure that's how it was meant to feel, but it's also what keeps the movie from feeling like entertainment.

It's hard to criticize a movie about such an important event, especially in light of current events, but just because a movie is important and well done doesn't mean everyone has to enjoy it. But if I were still teaching, I would make my students watch the hell out of this movie, because it puts racism in amazing perspective.

Final word: Watching this is a time-out from being angry at the world to being sad for the people in it. Which isn't really a consolation.

January 23, 2017

Eye in the Sky (2016)

Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul

On the night before the beginning of the end of the world the inauguration, it seemed only fitting I watch something that encapsulates so many of our recent issues: balancing military action with political diplomacy, maddening bureaucracy, the ethics of drone usage and the war on terror, and to top it off, a reminder that Alan Rickman, like so many other celebrities, died this past year.

The movie reminds me a bit of Zero Dark Thirty in its singular focus on one target and the overall pace of the movie. It's just fast enough to keep viewer interested, but with surprisingly little action. Instead, we are treated to a nightmarish game of telephone through various government agencies while everyone decides whether or not they're really ok with giving the order to kill someone. I get the dilemma, but it becomes a little annoying after awhile. Then again, maybe it's because I'm American and my first reaction was of course you should kill them. So there's that.

I think this is one of those movies that's really only so-so while watching it, but definitely stays in your mind later. Because though the set-up is just a little too perfect, it really forces you to grapple with the ethics of warfare in the modern age. And it will make you hate politicians even more, if that's possible.

Final word: Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman can make any movie worth watching, no matter the plot.

January 17, 2017

Manchester By The Sea (2016)

Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams

The rumors are true -- this movie is depressing. But not in a satisfying way.

Let me explain: this movie, which deals with loss on a number of levels, is inherently depressing. It centers on a depressing premise, has depressing characters, a depressing score throughout, and even a gloomy and depressing landscape. It is also oppressively slow, making the sadness of everyone in the movie really linger.

But unlike my go-to references for the "Saddest Movie Ever" title -- Amour and Revolutionary Road--this movie lacked a purpose. Revolutionary Road was a brilliant commentary on the lives and choices of women in the 1950's; Amour, while far less entertaining, was a searing look at commitment and what it really means to love someone. Manchester By The Sea is simply a look inside the depressing life of a single character. If there was supposed to be a larger lesson in learning to cope with loss or maintaining familial ties, I missed clearly missed it.

Michelle is amazing. Minus her wig. That's distracting.
It's not a terrible watch, it just lacks climax and closure, which are two fairly desirable traits in a movie. Michelle Williams, though rarely seen in the film, provides probably the most powerful performance, which is both impressive and a testament to how much of the movie drags along with a "sameness." Casey Affleck is convincing as a depressed and tortured soul, but isn't necessarily entertaining to watch as such. He looks like crap throughout, to be sure, but I'm a little surprised he won the Golden Globe for his performance.

This story may resonate with viewers who have experienced loss on the scale that Casey Affleck's character does -- clearly I have not. But from where I sit, it seems like a sad movie that lacks purpose.

Final word: It's certainly sad.

January 12, 2017

Lion (2016)

Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, and the cutest kid in recent memory, Sunny Pawar

If Manchester By The Sea is as depressing as everyone says it is, I'm not going to make it through this Oscars season because I blubbered pretty much all the way through this movie. I'm not exaggerating. It started about 10 minutes in and didn't stop until the end.

It wasn't a panicked, soul-crushing cry like last year's top tearjerker, Room, but more like the horrified, soul-numbing cry I had during parts of Philomena. Perhaps because this movie also centered around the adoption of a child who was not, in fact, willingly given up. Also, for me, because the impossibly adorable Sunny Pawar who plays five-year-old Saroo looks so much like my similarly-aged son that I felt like my heart was being ripped out every time I watched him suffer. Which was a lot.

This movie is not for the faint of heart. It's a tale about suffering; about trying to find your identity when you don't know who you are. It is also a tale about survival, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and harrowing poverty. It is a fairly straightforward story, with minimal twists and turns, that manages to stay engaging for the entirety of a full-length movie. It's a testament to the acting, the cinematography, and most importantly, the score. I have yet to see La La Land, but I'm going to be hard pressed to change my opinion that this movie should have been honored in that department. This movie would be far less impactful without the dramatic score that highlighted the emotions of an often speechless five-year-old.

The movie is not perfect, which I suppose is it to be expected considering it's based on a real story. But it is split into two distinct halves, with the first half of Saroo's journey much more compelling than him as a grown-up. Dev Patel does a commendable job, but a large portion of his role is reduced to sad silence and anxiously running his hands through his inexplicably mangy hair. It's not just that I am in love with Sunny Pawar (except I am), but seeing the juxtaposition of this humble little boy against the backdrop of the chaotic city of Calcutta is instantly memorable. On the other side, Saroo's adult life in Australia is dotted with appearances by Nicole Kidman, who plays his mother, and Rooney Mara as his girlfriend. While Kidman is obviously important to the story, I didn't think her performance deserved a mention, let alone an award nomination. And though Mara's character, Lucy, was obviously a real person in Saroo's life, her role didn't feel entirely necessary or integral to the plot. Luckily, the adult half of the movie had frequent flashbacks to Saroo's memories in India, which also served to remind the audience exactly what was at stake for him.

This movie represents exactly what I love about awards season: the highlighting of movies that might not otherwise be on my radar, or movies I may not otherwise ever get the courage to watch. There's never a good time to sit down and depress yourself with a story that is both extraordinary and completely commonplace. But these are the types of stories that need to be told, because they are real. And that beats a Hollywood blockbuster any day in my book.

Final word: The first thing I did after watching this movie was go hug my kids. A lot.

January 9, 2017

Kubo And The Two Strings (2016)

Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey

Despite those cheesy Lincoln car commercials, his refusal to wear deodorant, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, I still like Matthew McConaughey. I think he's a good actor.

On-screen acting, however, does not necessarily translate into voice acting, which is a completely different skill all together. I'm not sure why studios think listing big acting names on an animated movie will somehow automatically draw people to the movie. Like, "yeah! I can't wait to go watch a Japanese movie and listen to Matthew McConaughey's voice!"

That being said, his voice actually bothered me far less than Charlize Theron's. Probably because McConaughey's character brought comic relief and had far less lines, but nevertheless... I know can be persnickety about voice acting, but I think it's safe to say that if your voice is annoying me more than Matthew McConaughey's, you've got a real problem.

It's not just that it's a Japanese movie voiced by non-Japanese actors, though that does bother me (I mean, would it be that difficult? Here's a list of alternatives I Googled in 5 seconds). It's also the fact that the voices they chose are so recognizable that instead of enjoying what is otherwise a fantastic movie, I'm trying to block out visions of Matthew McConaughey as a giant beetle. And Charlize Theron brought so little to the role I just can't believe her name alone convinced the studio that she was a worthwhile hire for this. [I will admit the voice of Kubo, while also not Japanese, did not bother me nearly as much Also, he did a better job than the adults.]

But voices aside (4 paragraphs later...), I was very impressed by this movie. Mimicking the dark tones and themes of other Laika productions like ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, Kubo deals with weighty topics like death, ghosts, and abandonment with a lot of overall creepiness. And while this is actually an original story, the magical elements and sequencing remind me a lot of some of the Chinese folk tales I grew up on. It has a feeling of authenticity about it, all the while being completely fiction. But the discrepancy in the voices used did take away some of that, similar to how the use of modern music kept The Book of Life from feeling quite as authentically Mexican.

I've never been a big fan of stop motion animation, mostly because it never lives up to my favorites in that category, Wallace and Gromit. But it worked great here, showcasing everything from the extended fight sequences to the delicate origami Kubo folds with the help of his magic shamisen. Maybe my opinion of the method is changing. And considering the founder's staunch opposition to sequels, I might just need to devote more time to Laika's offerings.

Final word: It's a shame it came out in such a blockbuster year for Disney, but this has been the best studio Laika offering yet.

January 5, 2017

Hunt For the Wilderpeople (2016)

Sam Neill, Julian Dennison

I watch so many movies a year, it's hard to recall all of them. This one stands out.

Quirky in mostly a WTF kind of way, this indie film out of New Zealand centers on a boy and his foster father who lead authorities on a months-long national manhunt through the bush. It is a completely absurd plot, spurred on by an unrealistic villain that reminds me of Ms. Trumbull from Matilda, but it works. I don't know how, but it works.

Ricky, who is a bit of a troublemaker, refuses to go back into the foster system when his current foster mom dies. Instead, he sets off to live in the bush and reluctantly, his foster father follows him to ensure Ricky's safety. Along the way, they meet a slate of wacky characters and gain self-discovery, blah, blah, blah. It sounds formulaic, but the offbeat humor of it keeps the film from becoming too cheesy. It's like a cross between Bad Santa and About A Boy. But with guns. And some badass scenery.

Frankly, there's not much too to say about the movie because it's fairly straightforward. It's a simple plot, no special effects, and few characters. But it's also fun and easy to watch. And you can feel good about supporting a a movie with what appears to be a really low budget. Like small business shopping, but for film!

Final word: I think I just got my hipster card after watching this.