The Girl With all the Gifts

One girl is the cure for the zombie epidemic, in ‘The Girl With All The Gifts’. The near future humanity has been all but destroyed by a mutated fungal disease that eradicates free will and turns its victims into flesh-eating “hungries”. Only a small group of children seem immune to its effects. At an army base in rural England, this group of unique children are being studied, subjected to cruel experiments by biologist Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close). Despite having been infected with the zombie pathogen that has decimated the world, these children retain normal thoughts and emotions. The children attend school lessons daily, guarded by the ever watchful Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine). But one little girl, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), stands out from the rest. Melanie is special. She excels in the classroom, is inquisitive, imaginative and loves her favorite teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton). When the base falls, Melanie escapes along with Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks and Dr. Caldwell. Against the backdrop of a blighted Britain, Melanie must discover what she is and ultimately decide both her own future and that of the human race. ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ is directed by Colm McCarthy, and is rated R for disturbing violence/bloody imagery, as well as adult language.

In 2017, it’s obvious that the zombie genre has run amock. At this point, fresh ideas to stimulate and energize this subgenre are few and far between, but occasionally an injection of pure adrenaline is injected, and we remember what was once great about these kind of movies. Out of the smoke comes ‘The Girl With all the Gifts’, a European horror offering lifted from the pages of the book by the same name. Perhaps literature still inhabits all of the fresh and unused in ways that film is truly lacking on these days, because this movie was dreary, yet inspiring. It’s a reminder that the best and truly most frightening angles in horror are the ones that we find great fear in within our own psyches, and this post-apocalyptic wasteland where youth reigns supreme is a call-back to the days of ‘Children of the Corn’, as well as ‘Pet Cemetery’. While paying homage in essence to some of those classic pictures, ‘Gifts’ is a movie that carves its own reputation by changing the perception in and around European horror.

First of all is the appreciation of a story that doesn’t overcomplicate itself by giving a typical narration intro describing how we got to this bleak disposition. There’s a lot of mystery and cryptic bypassing that surrounds the first act of this McCarthy’s film, and I dig that because his method of storytelling never requires the audience to be spoon-fed that important story arcs. This is a director who has more than enough faith in his viewers, so he lets them paint the pieces, and this is by no means a difficult picture to paint. The film is to be applauded by slow-peeling the layer of exposition. We know by the title that the younger cast maintain this constant level of importance to the overall story, but through the eyes of this teenage girl, we learn step-by-step why she is so important. I commend any film that invests in the capability of child actors, especially ones that are good at captivating audiences, but this film does all of that without needing the tired, cliche scripts that plague the young adult point of view. The film continuously built to a crescendo of pulse-setting scintilation, concluding with a finale that constantly reminds us that hope waived goodbye to this set of characters long ago. A message that the audience has to endure over-and-over through some ever-changing landscapes and backdrops.

If there is some weakness to this story, it’s more so in that defining of the rules from these infected children, who seem to turn it on whenever the plot deems it convenient. There were many examples during the movie of these kids snapping when they can smell the scent of their adult prey nearby, but then there are other points when these adults run and sweat, further engulfing themselves in fatigue that accelerates said smell, and there’s not even a flirt with such suspense. Other than this, the only other problem that I had with the movie was some slight obvious foreshadowing in the opening twenty minutes that one can read through the lines on to see where the film is headed. If you manage to watch this film in one continuous setting, these subplots that stick out like a sore thumb will constantly ring in the back of your mind near the end of the movie, and it suddenly becomes obvious how the dots connect. Small issues in the otherwise grander picture that is this frightening takeover that uniquely relays how adults are the new minority.

Leaps and bounds above the rest though, my favorite aspect to the film is a bittersweet fragile composition by Cristol Tapia De Veer. If one thing is certain, it’s that Cristol has definitely done his studying on the genre of zombie classics like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and the George Romero offering of zombie introductions. On those movies, ‘Gifts’ too uses the same few notes to repetition, slowly varying them with each passing second. This allows audiences to fully soak in and embrace the dread that envelopes our cast of characters in a dense fog. In addition to this, the overall sound mixing and editing justify a couple of jump scares in the script that constantly keep the viewer guessing. I’m a difficult person to rattle when it comes to timely jump scares, but ‘Gifts’ hit me hard during a second act reveal that came opposite from the side that you weren’t expecting. It overall makes for a grade-A experience if you watch this in a theater or a stacked surround sound experience.

The acting too brings to light a combination of reputable actors with relative unknowns that blended positively in a well-balanced cast. Gemma Arterton is someone who I’ve always felt needed the right script to shine appropriately, and as Justineau we get the lone character who understands and holds onto the importance of that dying age of positivity for the concept of a child being a child. Arterton and Melanie’s friendship weighs heavily in importance for the direction of the movie, and thankfully it inherits loads of heart to keep the protagonist angles working overtime against the remainder of adults who have their own selfish agendas. Such a character is Glenn Close’s Dr. Caldwell character. There’s so much menace and plotting going on underneath the surface of Close’s outstanding work here, and that attention to detail had me often times searching for the grand scheme beneath her stone cold exterior. Close and Atterton lead the way for adult leads, but it’s in the introduction of Sennia Nanua in her first feature film. As Melanie, Nanua triumphs soundly, balancing equal parts human and monster that never feels riddled in gimmicks or underplayed in emotional response. For a 14-year-old, she is leaps and bounds above her age with how she plays the movie, and silently she commits theft on the stealing of this screenplay, a ‘girl with all of the gifts’, if you will.

By finding an original take on the zombie epidemic, as well as blazing through a circumference of well-timed scares and dreary backdrops, ‘The Girl With all the Gifts’ re-ignites an antidote of adrenaline deep within the heart of this aging subgenre. Poignant, atmospheric, and brutally hungry, this adaptation from Colm McCarthy will leave you reeling long after the ending that delivers on a solid payoff. This one takes a bite and keeps on chewing.

8/10

Logan

The last remaining X-Men faces a resistance that sees him seeking the alliance of a little girl with a secret gift. In Logan, It’s 2029. Mutants are gone, or very nearly so. An isolated, despondent Logan (Hugh Jackman) is drinking his days away in a hideout on a remote stretch of the Mexican border, picking up petty cash as a driver for hire. His companions in exile are the outcast Caliban (Stephen Merchant) and an ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart), whose singular mind is plagued by worsening seizures. But Logan’s attempts to hide from the world and his legacy abruptly end when a mysterious woman appears with an urgent request; that Logan shepherd an extraordinary young girl (Dafne Keen) to safety. Soon, the claws come out as Logan must face off against dark forces and a villain from his own past on a live-or-die mission, one that will set the time-worn warrior on a path toward fulfilling his destiny. Logan is directed by James Mangold, and is rated R for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity.

For seventeen years, fans of the Wolverine character have waited patiently for a spin-off worthy of arguably one of the greatest comic book heroes of all time. With ‘Logan’, that time has carefully been plucked, and during the most appropriate of times for its charismatic cast. Speculation has been that this will be the final time that Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart will don the roles of their respective characters, and if that is the case, they have done us proud with an R-rated gash-fest sure to satisfy the gore hound in all of us. ‘Logan’ quite often than not feels like the adult side of X-Men movies that has always been teased, but never fully committed to for fear of the risky R-rating that rarely proves possible for comic book movies. If one thing is clear, it’s that Mangold fruitfully resonates themes like weathering and vulnerability to show-off a side of Logan that has never been seen in eight previous films. Because of Mangold’s attention to style over adaptation, we get a presentation that very much feels like a nod to 70’s westerns and road trip flicks to bond and present a wild ride that responsibly depicts the very cause and effects that come with such power.

With zero restrictions on what this character can do, it feels like this film can prosper in ways that other films haven’t, most ideally in that of adult language and fight sequences that drag the audience kicking and screaming through every unsettling jab. The concept of claws feels like it is accurately being told for the first time, as Logan and his youthful passenger leap and attack through an army of endless antagonists who feel the barbaric wrath of their ill intentions. What works is that the new rating doesn’t feel like it’s being used at desperate lengths. The fight scenes are very carefully separated from one to the next, giving the movie an anti-superhero film of sorts. In fact, ‘Logan’ likens itself more to a dramatic western genre film that has decided to pluck a character from comics just to see how he would do in this environment and picture. He prospers wonderfully, and even in his ninth film, Wolverine feels like he is seeing the world through new eyes given to him by the ambitious Mangold who paints the true torture and isolation from what comes from being different. All of this time we’ve heard about it, but never witnessed it, and it presents a somber and melancholic side to these heroes we grew up admiring, and knowing that their best days are clearly behind them.

Aside from this mysterious little girl and her purpose, ‘Logan’ surprisingly packs a wide range of well-attentive subplots that constantly keeps the movie moving well past the two hour mark. For the first act of this film, it practically breezed by, and I found myself very immersed in this world where Logan exists as someone just trying to get by. He’s kind of pathetic, revealing a nightly ritual of abusive drinking, as well as bickering back-and-forth with the one relative in mutation who he has left, Charles Xavier. The relationship between them feels like father and son, and plays even more importantly in the backdrop of the developing relationship between Logan and the little girl. This embraces a hearty side to the script that is usually steered clear of in comic book films, but it works here being the last chance that Logan has to live a somewhat normal life. The only time that the film felt like it was living up to its paper origins was in the final showdown that enthusiastically reminds audiences of who this title character is, and gives him one more day of Summer as we catch one final glimpse into the prime of the toughest S.O.B that Marvel ever illustrated. ‘Logan’ lightly touches on the graphic novel ‘Old Man Logan’, but leaves the pages of its script to original territory, relying more on gripping performances rather than action sequences in which we’ve been there and done that.

On the subject of those performances, I can confidently say that this is some of Jackman’s best stuff. I’ve always thought that the best kind of story with superheroes are in the ones when age and deterioration have caught up to them. As Logan, Jackman endures a world where X-Men no longer exist, emoting a kind of harrowing reality to just how lonely he is in this new world. Even after nine movies though, Jackman continues to be the single greatest casting decision that Marvel has ever succeeded at. To find an actor who can appropriately channel his rage, as well as dramatic depth when it comes time to harness the goosebumps, is one of great difficulty. Logan feels like his own greatest detractor, denying a hint of hope, despite the fact that a little taste of it still burns strong in his veins. I don’t know if Marvel will cast another Wolverine, but I would be happy without this character ever seeing the light of day in the film world, the effects of Jackman portraying a character so well that he will never escape it, long after he shuffles off. Patrick Stewart was also hilariously delightful, once again portraying Xavier. The deterioration of Charles and a mind once powerful, reminded me that there comes a time for all of us when the easiest task becomes the longest climb, and Stewart emotes that difficulty with much disdain, as well as a taste of that wise-ass humor that lives to tug at the sanity of Logan. These two have felt like father and son from the start, so it’s not even slightly a suspense of disbelief when Mangold illustrates this metaphor vibrantly in a world where the other is the only person who understands what they’re going through. Leaps and bounds however, I was greatly impressed with the work of Dafne Keen as (No reason to hide it) X-23 herself. Dafne kicks ass and does it with the most paralyzing of stares to weaken not only her antagonists, but that of the audience that she peers into on more than one occasion. For a majority of the film, Keen is kept quiet, and that felt like the appropriate call to channel the isolation and fragility of such a character who has never experienced a normal life, let alone a mutant one thanks to her history. Kid actors is a difficult thing to cast, but Dafne Keen’s chilling range will permanently keep her atop the list of youthful actors who you will see frequently for years to come.

As for problems, there were two small critiques that occasionally soured my otherwise amazing experience. The first is with the pacing of the second act feeling slightly off from the rest of the picture. It’s during this time when some of the setups to the final confrontation either drag on too long, or reach an overabundance in offering. For my money, some of these could’ve been condensed into one single confrontation, instead of a series of setups that feel somewhat repetitive by the third one. My second and much more important problem came with the predictability of some of the subplots that I referred to earlier. I won’t spoil anything, but a friend of mine can faithfully vouch for the fact that I successfully predicted the outcomes of more than a few of these conflicts, and I blame this on a flimsy setup that was easily transparent. If this wasn’t enough, the trailers once again spoil some visuals spoilers in the movie that would’ve been nice to be surprised on. One such scene involves a burial that is all over the trailers like it’s no big deal. My thought process soon will be to stop watching trailers, as the best in surprises for cinema are being ruined one-by-one by thoughtless teasers that do more harm than good to the creativity of a script as strong as this one.

‘Logan’ aggressively charges its way through a somber, yet sterile offering of brutal engagements. With some deliciously violent exchanges, as well as some emotionally gripping material that constantly tugs at the heart, Mangold’s goodbye to the beholder of claws is one that Wolverine fans will be gushing over for its pulled back approach to re-defining the superhero genre. Proving that even after nearly two decades, the claws are as sharp as ever to inject into the audiences looking for an articulate conclusion to Jackman and Stewart, who satisfy in spades.

8/10

Get Out

An uncomfortable meeting between two different racial classes, urges the minority in the house to Get Out. College student Rose (Allison Williams) is in love with Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), and at the point in their relationship when they should meet each other’s parents. Chris is apprehensive, as Rose, who is white, has apparently not told her parents Missy and Dean (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) that Chris is black. Once there, Chris is unable to relax and is uncomfortable around Rose’s parents, which causes him to refuse an offer of hypnosis from Missy. Over the course of an uncomfortably awkward weekend, Chris learns that the upscale suburban area has a sinister history of young black men disappearing. Get Out is written and directed by Jordan Peele, and is rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references.

Considering Peele is pulling double duty for his directing debut, there’s much to be dissected and mostly praised about the kind of feat that Get Out presents us, during a month that is usually anything but gratifying. If one thing is clear, it’s that Jordan is definitely a student of the horror game, mimicking the most notorious of horror movie cliches in the most satisfying and beneficial manor. Nothing that he displays ever feels overused or exhausting, instead he grants us a visual 99 minute word find of these familiar troupes that push an original script like this even further. What a movie like Get Out does so astoundingly is that it takes a real life natural fear in the minds of minorities and brings it to life to display those very fears to the white audience who might otherwise see this as a comedy. From Peele’s standpoint, he’s offering material that is equal parts thought-provoking for the very race relations that so many interracial couples deal with, but also terrifying in reveals when slapped with a kind of Twilight Zone feel to the way the events of this weekend away play out. This is something that Peele hits a home run with, and I for one would love to see more attempts at horror by a man who clearly understands suspense in all of its articulate uses.

From a directing standpoint, there’s plenty to praise about the way he shoots the most important of exchanges here, leaving a scene running a bit longer to soak in the true awkwardness of these two groups of people who couldn’t be any different in social standing. It is important for the audience to read and define every kind of facial feature being played out in front of them, and it’s in those underlying emotions that tells us everything that we need and know about the multitude of characters throughout this picture. One scene in particular that really impressed me was the opening scene that relays that Get Out is anything but typical. Leaving the camera running on the same scene without any cuts for what feels like close to five minutes, Peele captivates the audiences, silencing any doubters who thought that this film was going to be your typical in twisted humor. I also greatly enjoyed the cinematography of the hypnotism scenes that display wonderfully a sinking mentally and physically for our main protagonist. The visuals for Peele to showcase this as a kind of twilight of stars radiating around Chris falling deeper and deeper is not only transfixing for how beautifully rendering the backdrop is, but also very traumatic for we feel the familiarity of our leading man fading further and further with each breath. Peele tackles it all beautifully, giving horror a highlight of artistic direction that has been sadly missing from the scene over the past decade.

However, it was the writing of Jordan that I felt was the strong point of his work, tackling the most important in how white people view minorities. I was very thankful that Peele doesn’t settle for desperation here, instead choosing to let the awkwardness rattle and even clench his audience into balls of anxiety as each scene revealing more and more about the true intentions of this family. There’s plenty to commend for dialogue that slowly builds that elevated tension with underlying subtext in power move vocal exchanges, most notably between Chris and Rose’s brother Jeremy (Played by Caleb Landry Jones) in a test of physical strength. Chris’s will is definitely being tested here, and it’s clear that this is foreshadowing for the next twenty-four hours of hell that they plan to put this poor guy through. Another strong suit that I commend Peele for is how little he needs or uses the typical overabundance of violence and gore to push his horror film further. It’s clear early on that the social commentary is the true chilling tool being used in this movie, but I found myself perplexed by how little we have actually seen 80 minutes into the movie, and yet how it didn’t sacrifice how truly terrifying this situational horror played out. Peele’s dry stance on gore tells us that what is most frightening is always what is true, and the seclusion among a family of racists is something that is easily understandable in a 2017 world where these problems very much exist.

I did have two problems with the film, but nothing truly dramatic to take away more than a point on my final grade. The first, deals with Chris’s attempted escape towards the end of the movie. I won’t give away much, but there’s an action in movement that happens with him that is truly impossible based on the disposition of his character only seconds prior, and it felt like a bit of a convenient bone thrown to the audience for patiently waiting. My second problem will definitely place me in the minority of this opinion, but I’m going to say it; Chris’s best friend Rod (Played by LilRel Howery) is totally unnecessary to this movie. Not only does Rod come off as a desperate shoe-horned in comedic subplot, but he also doesn’t serve as any kind of importance to the power-packed finale that does just fine. On the former, his comedy is fine, but I felt like it took away and hindered the suspense that was being slowly triggered bit-by-bit from a true student of the game. Many people will definitely disagree with me, as I have heard he was already many people’s favorite aspect to the movie, but let me ask you a question. Can you honestly disagree with me that the movie would be fine if his character was completely wiped from it? There in lies how truly frail his character really is, and just how his material overall feels like more of a speedbump to where the film needs to go creatively.

Whether you like or dislike scary movies, one thing is for certain; all races of life should GET OUT and see Peele’s initial slice of horror homage that pushes him amongst the ranks of 2017’s most versatile triple threats. Get Out is a smoothly-paced, artistically-crafted, and even thought-provoking attack on the social stigmas that many of us are afraid to dig into in our current day and age. It’s daring in its approaches to racial subtext, as well as refreshingly upscale for anything that Blumhouse Entertainment usually wraps its claws into.

8/10

The Lego Batman Movie

The streets of Gotham and its famed superhero get an updated and pixelated look courtesy of Warner Brothers Animation. In The Lego Batman Movie, In the irreverent spirit of fun that made “The LEGO Movie” a worldwide phenomenon, the self-described leading man of that ensemble, LEGO Batman, stars in his own big-screen adventure. After feeling the effects of loneliness in his jaded daily routine, Bruce Wayne (Will Arnett) adopts Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) to fill the void of a cold and fierce existence. But there are big changes brewing in Gotham, and if he wants to save the city from The Joker’s (Zach Galifanakis) hostile takeover, Batman may have to drop the lone vigilante thing, try to work with others and maybe, just maybe, learn to lighten up. The Lego Batman Movie is directed by Chris McKay, and is rated PG for rude humor and some action.

Warner Animation Group hits another ambitiously imaginative home run, this time with The Dark Knight himself at the forefront of the big screen treatment. The Lego Batman Movie, for all of its far-stretching material and vast array of characters both in and out of the Gotham Universe, is first and foremost the definitive Batman movie for every generation of this 70-plus year character. When you consider all of the many flavors and styles of Batman, there’s so much to get immersed into, and never once does this movie letdown fans of any decade by providing fan service that Bob Kane would gladly give a standing ovation too. And why shouldn’t he? He is after all the prime executive producer on this set. By its own comedic merits, this movie would be fine flying on its own two wings, but the impressive and detailed approaches not only to set pieces and overall color scheme, but also to diving deeper into the soul and personality of Bruce Wayne as a character is what gives this movie that seal of must-watch approval for fans longtime and new to share in one collective embrace. Batman hasn’t been fairing so well on the silver screen lately, but Chris McKay appeases the desire to please once again by giving us not only the story that we want, but the one that we deserve.

Through the many Easter eggs and surprises behind every corner of this movie, is a surprisingly light-hearted centerpiece that attempts to dissect the psyche of this army of one, and how pivotal the lack of relationships has played dearly to his life when the lights and cameras die down. What I commend is this movie’s desire to give kids something more than just the ability to laugh, it gives them something memorably somber on teaching the importance of family and how nobody can do anything alone. It feels like for the first time we are being given very valuably precious minutes dedicated to Bruce himself, and through the exterior of a community soldier who became the ultimate dream in orphan fantasies, we find a conflicted egomaniac who gets caught up in himself clearly far too often. It felt very surreal to finally watch a character embrace what so many people and media outlets are saying about him, and see the negative effects that resonate because of such praise. As the film goes on, it becomes less about the villains and more about the fight inside from that orphaned boy, screaming out to be heard and loved again. This heart weighs heavily on the presentation, and proves that teaching our youths is every bit as valuable even in a comedy.

On the subject of that humor, the Lego franchise once again goes above and beyond in ejecting several gut-busting laughs to my experience with it. From the very unorthodox intro that bares Wayne commentating over the studio screenshots, I knew I was in for a feel-good time that rarely ever let me down. The first act is paced so incredibly well, and it’s clear that this is the peak for comedic material for the entirety of the film because the introduction of Wayne and his nemesis alike set the tone for the kind of attitude that this movie is non-chalantly winking to its audience. There’s so much to mention in terms of praise, but some of my favorite moments were the rundown of this massive army of villains, the well-crafted usage of fourth wall breaking in poking fun at the very cliches of superhero films alike, and most importantly a rap by Batman that will require many rewinds to fully embrace every joke planted within its lyrics. The only time when the film lagged for me was during the second act when the transition from comedy to family film felt slightly jarring in the telegraphing. During this time, what few jokes there are felt repetitive and even long-winded in their setups, so a lot of them fall flat before the big climax finale, which produced so many surprises in character reveals that no one could ever see coming. The likeness price alone has me perplexed at how much this movie may or may not have had to spend in producing a big-budget feature for a children’s presentation.

Even though the comedy is intelligent and cerebral, the very designs and imaginative concepts for the movie reign supreme. I saw this movie in 2D, but I never felt like my showing lacked any of the definitive artistic qualities that you have to pay extra for. Gotham is beautifully crafted, embracing that kind of comic book animation with stop-motion practicality that creates a marriage of colorful candy. The hardest part of staying immersed within this story was that my mind constantly wandered to the many backdrops and details that constantly kept raising the bar on creativity. The Joker carnival alone blows anything out of the water that Zach Snyder has conjured up for this caped crusader, and the amazement that I was watching live action played out with tweaks and touches of CG appeal really has me thirsty for more offerings from this prosperous studio. The very movements and shadow work feels so in-sync with one another, and it’s those kind of little things that make something so simple so appealing when you see these decorative figurines coming to life before our very eyes. The best kind of animation is the ones that you can lose yourself in and forget that it isn’t live action, and The Lego Batman Movie took this feat to new heights in some truly breathtaking cinematography.

The casting for the movie works, even if I wasn’t fully pleased with all of the acting work in their vocal range. Will Arnett was born to voice Batman. The beautiful thing with animation is that you can forget the visual appearances for 100 minutes, and believe that he is this character because of this raspy delivery that throws back to Christopher Nolan’s days at the helm of this character. Arnett is a comedic actor, so his timing never flakes or misfires, despite the rollercoaster of dialogue pacing that they take his character on. Michael Cera was also very memorable, despite the movie being anything but a favor to Robin fans everywhere. The chemistry between Cera and Arnett is a callback to their days on Arrested Development, and this reunion packed many awkward tension-breaking scenarios for the duo that I just couldn’t get enough of. My lone disappointment for vocal work was that of Galifanakis as the Joker. It’s not that Joker isn’t written or designed well, but I feel like Zack never made the character his own, lacking a stamp like the work of Mark Hamill, who is arguably the best Joker of all time. Galifanakis isn’t disguised in the least, and feels like he phones home a lot of his performance. My laughs for the Joker character was mostly in his visual reactions, and less about his material, and it’s easy to see why he kind of gets lost in the fray of evolving backdrops and pop culture villains checklists that pick up the slack around him.

Warner Animation Group dips itself once again in imaginative waters for The Lego Batman Movie that serves as the perfect trivia to Batman fans thirsty for the fun to be put back into their favorite superhero. With a visual palate that bends and breaks the surrealism of animation, as well an irresistable arrogance from Arnett protecting Gotham, this one is that rare occasion where a family member from every age group will gladly embrace this awe-inspiring feature that refuses to ever slow, building a foundation for a saga of films to come one block at a time.

8/10

Paterson

The long and twisting roads of a quiet poet take him everyday through a town of inspiration, in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. Jarmusch himself writes this unorthodox story about Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver in the city of Paterson, New Jersey, a town known for some famous people whom time seems to have forgotten. Every day, Paterson adheres to a simple routine: he drives his daily route, he writes poetry into a notebook; he stops in a bar and drinks exactly one beer; and he goes home to his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). By contrast, Laura’s world is ever changing. New dreams and aspirations come to her almost daily, humbling Paterson to keep his own secret ambition close to the chest, away from wandering eyes. The film quietly observes the triumphs and defeats of daily life, along with the poetry inspiration evident in its smallest details. Paterson is rated R for some adult language.

Paterson is a strange bird all together. It’s a movie that thrives on being different, from a man whose creativity in the methods and concepts of storytelling always offer something fresh and invigorating for an audience that frequent his kind of movies. Born in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, it’s quite interesting to see a man like Jim acheive such success and greatness from his origins of no more than ten minutes up the road from where I currently watch and review movies nightly. To that degree, this is a movie that feels like it radiates that feeling of art imitating life, and relaying the struggles of trying to make it in a place where many others have already thrived. Whether you’re into poetry or not, this ideal in struggle is something familiar in all of us, and Jarmusch’s humble stroke brings to life a feeling that we could all be doing something better with our lives, even when the balance of routine feels comfortable on our daily happenings. Jarmusch succeeds once again at offering honest characters who clash with the backdrop of a town that seems too small for their wondrous ambitions. There certainly is a Paterson in and around all of us.

From a directing standpoint, few do it as well or better than Jarmusch’s soft and subtle lighting against framing work that is well-represented of the kind of environments and set pieces that come in and out of focus during the near two hour effort. For moments at a time, Paterson feels like a stage play that takes place in this bus that is frequented by some off-the-wall characters unaware of their lack of privacy amongst listening ears. It feels humorous without ever really trying, displaying that familiar message of life being funnier than anything that make believe can ever conjure up. To his passengers, Paterson feels like a void of a man. A shadow who is there to fulfill an obligation and nothing more, but to us his audience, we get a visual sampling of some of his purest words and thoughts in some visual on-screen text that carefully constructs an artistic merit to the film’s production. The words themselves are metaphors for the very thoughts and expressions burning a hole of passion through our central protagonist, and it’s clear that one viewing of this movie simply will not be enough when distinguishing everything that this lyrical lion-heart is trying to spill out on paper.

The narration hits and misses for anyone who is looking for something more enticing in conflict from this story that virtually has a minimalist plot. My problem with this aspect wasn’t so much that rarely anything happened, but in the misdirection of many possibilities in character direction along the way that just went unfulfilled. There’s certainly a setup to everything there, most notably in a communication problem in the relationship of Driver and Farahani, as well as a dog subplot that never goes anywhere past initial threats. Jarmusch does however thrive with a pen by depicting some surreal aspects to the concepts of repetition in routine, as well as the importance of getting your words out before it’s too late. Certainly everyone who sees Paterson is going to relate on a level of working a job that is anything but what we see ourselves doing, and a dreamer’s tale that is usually presented with such optimism in other films, is presented with a kind of humbling honesty once we become a product of our environments. Pictures of Paterson celebrities hang on the wall of Paterson’s favorite bar, and suddenly the desperation of obscurity becomes evident in the urgency of Driver’s character to be another face on that wall. Jarmusch tucks everything very closely to his lyrical prowess, and it’s clear that Jim has been to Paterson, even if he hasn’t BEEN to Paterson.

The cast? Stellar. This is leaps and bounds Adam Driver’s single best performance to date. As Paterson, Driver’s passion for words comes out fruitfully without this ever feeling like a cliche underdog story. What I found so enthralling about his character is that Driver plays it with a sprinkle of adolescence just screaming to get out, despite the fact that Paterson himself is a thirty-something career man who is miles from a dreamer’s paradise. When his girlfriend shuffles off dream after dream, you get a sense of real anger just below the surface of Adam’s quiet exterior, a feeling of desperation for his own passion always being put on the back burner of importance for a woman who is still searching for emotional growth within her. For this reason alone the duo of Driver and Farahani really thrived together on-screen, and their chemistry will ring true for any couple who sees this movie and feels the gentle breeze of clarity ring true in their surreal situational humor. This is the first time that I have ever seen Farahani in action, and while this is clearly Driver’s one man show, there’s plenty of room for someone who gauges the most intimate of reactions from her significant other. She can’t see what we do as an audience, and Farahani is the tight-fitting key that is molded perfectly to unlock the mystery of this fire burning deep.

Jarmusch triumphs once again, this time with a charming, patient, and observant depiction into the life of the mundane. Paterson is poetic in its simplistic approach to the procedural of the creative art of writing, and how our greatest inspirations come from the people and places around us who figuratively and lifterally drive us down the road of clarity. Like poetry, it isn’t confined to one style of structure, instead opting to drive home its meaning with intellectual words that are straight from the heart. Paterson is uneventful, but at the same time mesmerizing for its thick slice of life and provocative performance by Driver who leaves all of his best work on paper.

8/10

20th Century Women

Does a youthful male need a father figure to deal with life in 1970’s Americana? With “20th Century Women,” acclaimed filmmaker Mike Mills brings us a multilayered, funny, heart-stirring celebration of the complexities of women, family, time, and the connections we search for our whole lives. Set in Santa Barbara, the film follows Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion. Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women in Jamie’s upbringing, via Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the Fields’ home, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a savvy and provocative teenage neighbor. 20th Century Women is written and directed by Mike Mills, and is rated R for sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use.

Mike Mills latest picture is certainly an intimate and revealing look into the adolescence of one parent kids everywhere that rings very close to home for Mills himself. Growing up in a home where his Mother was also the father, 20th Century Women feels like a love letter to the women of Mills generation who stepped up and filled the noticeable gap in the post-flower power generation. One could construe this idea as feminist propaganda, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with that stance professionally, that isn’t exactly what I would classify this movie as. Being a gifted screenwriter for projects like 2005’s Thumbsucker and 2010’s Beginners, means that Mills can articulately envelope both sides of the gender coin when it comes to parenting a challenging youth. Ultimately, there’s plenty of misdirection and education for both sides to learn, as neither side ever feels truly right or definitive. Parenting is a lot like envisioning your life’s future, you can think it will go one way, but the backlash in opposites that the road takes is one that constantly keeps a man and a woman guessing.

There’s not a lot of long-term plot to the movie. Mostly it’s in dealing with the ever-changing situations of these five characters who sort of become a family of socially inept misfits, but come together in the common goal of raising this fatherless boy. Despite this flaw in long-term building creatively, Mills does something very unique with his storytelling, in that his characters narrate not only through the generations that are being discussed orally, but also in the past, present and futures of each of his charming cast. This might not sound like anything revolutionary, but the way he reveals key details about the future midway through the movie would normally puzzle or cloud a film’s current progression, but not here. Instead, Mills pulling back of the curtain at various points throughout the movie adds more of a sense of urgency and empathy for the characters whose decisions before us are constantly shaping the adults that they grow up to be. In narrating through world events, it helps us as an audience understand the decisions (like our cast) that our political figures have made to produce the 70’s environment that we see so fruitfully in this movie. This gave me a strong respect for Mills as a writer because to understand what’s going on inside of this household, you must also understand what is going on around it. A rare commodity among exposition in 2017 cinema.

Not to be outdone by his typewriter however, Mills artistically dazzles in more ways than one that add a true beauty to experimental tapestries in expression. Some of the transitional scenes have a fast-forwarded motion detection to them to signify how fast the world outside is moving. It’s never distracting nor void of documentation for what is transpiring during the effect, but rather feels like pushing FF 1 on your DVD remote. Just fast enough to notice it, but not quick enough to do damage to the very idea of its existence. Car scenes also omit a beautiful radiance of technicolor splash that shadows the very movements of the car. While I can’t exactly say why Mills decided to add this effect, I can say that it screams the 70’s in all of its trippy and tye-dye delight. The wide angle scenic displays are also very fresh and full of a California suburbia that extend as far as the eye can see. Props to Mills for also editing in archive footage that brings out the best in every decade that is brought up for discussion. This movie has a very editorial feel to its visual presentation, so it’s a positive to reap something more in showing us rather than just telling us. 20th Century Women may be an early 2017 favorite in glossy cinematography that constantly keeps raising the bar throughout a music video sheek that highlighted the production of this film.

The performances have garnered some national attention, with Benning and Gerwig receiving Golden Globe nominations for their respective performances, and after seeing this movie, it’s easy to see that these nominations could be inter-changeable with the refreshing trio of Zumann, Fanning and even Billy Crudup as an aging hipster who rents a room in the house. Benning is fantastic. Shouldn’t be anything new to anyone who knows her, but I felt a sincere empathy for her character and the inevitability of eventually handing her son over to society one day. It’s clear that this is a woman who is clutching for anything solid to hold onto in her life, even so far as neglecting her own romantic offerings. Benning warms her way into our hearts with an unorthodox style of parenting sure to relate to the modernist in the audience. Gerwig’s transformation into this gritty, raging young adult is one that made her unrecognizable to this critic. Greta has been stealing the show in one indie comedy after another, but it’s in 20th Century Women where her performance offers a refreshing side of angst that Gerwig has bottled up thus far in her career. Crudup too delivers wonderfully as the soft spoken William. In the role, Billy’s character feels like the last stand of solid men from a past era that time is slowly forgetting. He’s adaptable to this new world, even if it doesn’t always need his opinion. The chemistry between Crudup and Benning explodes off of the screen, and for a brief moment we question if they are the missing piece to the other’s life.

20th Century Women is an immersive and stylishly sleek presentation that cements Mills among the great artistic expressionist directors of the early 21st century. It’s another side to the revolution that helped many Mothers make the next step forward in holding down the reigns of a household through several profoundly humorous obstacles. Time moves fast, but it’s the people in our lives who helped shape us to be the people we become who are the most memorable, and Mills personal touch never stumbles over its immense responsibilities.

8/10

Silence

The dangerous side of religion leads two priests on a journey across the world. Martin Scorsese’s newest feature film tells the story of two Portuguese Christian missionaries Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) will face the ultimate test of faith when they travel to Japan in search of their missing mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson), at a time when Christianity was outlawed and their presence forbidden. Soon, the duo find themselves facing violence and persecution against a hostile crowd with their own religious stances. Scorsese not only directs this movie, but also co-writes with Jay Cocks. Silence is rated R for some disturbing violent content and brief adult language.

Silence is perhaps the perfect film for the perfect time in our own society. While modern times can’t even hold up to 1% of the horrors that lie in this picture, our own Christians and religious followers alike are at persecuting times for their beliefs in praying to silence, and it’s in that perspective for what makes Scorsese a genius at telling this story. This isn’t a religious movie that feels manipulative or judgemental to one side or the other of the coin, instead it just paints a twisted portrait of a time when religious will was a dangerous, and sometimes degrading benefactor to some cultures and civilizations. What makes this movie so uncomfortable and at often times haunting is that loss of faith and beliefs for the traumatic road that someone goes through to undo everything that they have known to that point, and the people who believe in them. This is very much a story that cements the theory that once everything else has been weeded out, money, living, hunger, clothing, there’s only faith that remains as the beacon of light to those seeking comfort in change. Their roads are already one of arduous struggle, but Silence proves that it’s everything that you do hear that makes the biggest change in one choice over the other.

For a title as brilliant as this one, there’s three meanings behind the word Silence in itself that corresponds to the story. The first is obvious; Christians are praying to a god who responds in silence. This is a measure of the plot that tests the iron wills of our protagonists on plenty of occasions along the way, and begs the question of how long can one stay strong and firm in their position without an oral answer to show for it. The second is contrasting to the first, and it’s that our characters religious stances are being silenced from infecting those of the Japanese population and culture. Scorsese uses the better part of three hours to hammer home the message of religious teachings and the symbolism literally and figuratively of these two priests being locked away like some dirty secret. In the beginning, it’s by the kind-hearted citizens who seek their teachings, but by the end of the movie, it’s by the authority figures that want them to suffer for the epidemic that they have introduced to their people. The effortless displays of the darkness surrounding the priests in more than one surrounding is certainly always there, most notably with Jesus imagery somewhere in the framing of each beautifully mastered shot that Scorsese crafts. The final signal to the title comes in the theory that the loudest impact comes from the sounds that are magnified around us, and for that we must dig deeper.

Perhaps Scorsese’s most merited artistic touch in this movie is the work between he and sound mixer Greg Crawford. The film has basically no musical submission for its entirety, and this would usually be a huge risk for any movie that depends on the auditory senses to tell the story in more ways than just dialogue. Why it works here is because we as an audience listen and endure each and every single cry of help from the sufferers, and nothing is ever in the distance or muted by its proximity. Because there’s never any music to get in the way or take away from what we’re hearing, Scorsese educates us on devoting 100% percent of this sense to hearing more, and the contrast in creativity made for my XD sitting to be one that peaked on nearly every auditory level that my body could handle. From the opening shot of the movie, we don’t see, and instead only hear the chirping of crickets somewhere around us, giving off an education lesson from Martin that bases the importance of hearing before you can see, or I was once blind but now I can see, as it says in the good book.

What’s truly remarkable about Scorsese is that even at 74 years old he is still evolving as a revolutionary filmmaker, and transcending himself as much more than an American stylist. For the movie, Martin practically washes every lesson from fifty-plus years in the business to craft an original dose of visual pizazz that never fails to pay homage to Japanese style of cinematography. There’s plenty of quick-cuts and edits behind every corner, but the most intriguing aspect of his camera style to me, was borrowing a page from Kung Fu movies to present the quick-pan in all of its gimmick glory. This may sound like I’m poking fun at this decision in artistic integrity, but it’s quite the opposite. I feel like to make a film that takes place in Japan, you better make damn sure that you live up to the traditions and stylings for what goes into their artistic senses, and it proves that Martin isn’t just suspending disbelief for the cast and crew of this particular film, but that too of the audience at home who have now fully engulfed themselves in this epic narrative that looks and feels like something from another time and place of visual delight.

Andrew Garfield is mesmerizing, dazzling us with his most emotionally gripping and haunting performance of the young actor’s career. I have seen Garfield in some solid films before, but until Silence, I never felt like I got a performance to equal those feats. As Rodriguez, Garfield dedicates his body and soul to a performance that showcased him losing forty pounds for the role, giving way to a physical performance that never fails to relate the true suffering of this character. What Rodriguez goes through in this movie isn’t inspiring in the least. It’s a ruthless gut-punch that never relents, and Garfield finally transforms in front of us to the leading man that he was destined to be. His performance is Oscar worthy. Liam Neeson is also great in the movie, despite only appearing for twenty total minutes in the film. As Ferrara, Neeson feels like the equal to what Rodriguez is now going through with this unwelcoming greeting, and through Neeson’s storied eyes, we can conjure that this man has been humbled and defeated in ways that we will only know by seeing what Garfield goes through. What’s interesting about this comparison is that by following Rodriguez throughout the movie, we in turn grasp the kind of tragic feats that Ferrara entailed by the unnerving finale of this movie.

I did have two problems with the movie, and one shouldn’t be a shocker to any fan of Scorsese. If the man does have one weakness, it’s in these near three hour movies that sometimes overstay their welcome in sound pacing. I’m not saying that I was ever bored by Silence, but there is about twenty minutes in here (Particularly in an ending that carries on A little too far) that can easily be shaved off to make this cut something of a masterpiece. Scorsese films like The Wolf of Wall Street or Gangs of New York earned that three hour sampling by producing stories that constantly kept moving without reminding the audience of the rest periods in their scripts. In Silence, these moments happen far too often, and will offer more than one bathroom break to anyone thinking they will miss anything through repetition in structure late in the second act. I also didn’t care much for Rodriguez narrating most of the movie. Once you’ve seen the movie, you’ll understand why this doesn’t make sense from a logic standpoint, but what bothered me more than that is when a movie will do this to review everything in a scene that just happened, and that is what we have here. The film doesn’t have faith in its audience to understand everything that they’ve just seen, and that’s a shame because there was rarely a moment when Silence didn’t have me on the edge of my seat and immersed in what was transpiring.

Sometimes the loudest pitch does come in the form of Silence, and Scorsese’s newest masterpiece is a technical work of wonder even when the obese run time does sometimes slow his momentum. Even said, Martin continues to be the pinnacle of American filmmaking, even when he offers a respectable and impassioned look into foreign cultures. Silence is a reminder about the importances and cautions of faith, and how sometimes our own beliefs can be questioned in an adversity far greater than opposition; ourselves.

8/10

A Monster Calls

Heroes come in the unlikeliest of places when “A Monster Calls”. Based on the popular novel of the same name, and directed by J.A Bayona, the movie is about Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a young boy who tries to deal with the terminal illness of his mother (Felicity Jones), as well as the attacks by local school bully Harry (James Melville). Through tireless repetition of the sadness that has overtaken his life, One night, Conor encounters a “monster” (Liam Neeson) in the form of a giant humanoid yew tree who has come to tell him stories and soon begins to help Conor fix his unhappy life by encountering the two aspects of his life that have clouded his otherwise sunny existence. “A Monster Calls” is rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary imagery.

J.A Bayona’s newest feature film is an artistically expressive direction for grief and the importance of release when it comes to losing someone important to you, and being a doer instead of A thinker. These reflective themes are apparent throughout the entirety of this movie, most of which are delivered in cryptic offerings. Besides this style of refusing to force-feed the audience, Bayona’s somber, yet harrowing feature feels like a callback to the days of “James and the Giant Peach” or “The Iron Giant”, when kids movies made you dig a little deeper for the answer or intended purpose of a particular scene or saying. A Monster Calls joins those movies and so much more by presenting the unapologetic and haunting side of death, a theme that many children genre movies struggle with in today’s society. To treat the little audience like the big audience who will also undoubtedly comprehend and adore these visions, Bayona restores faith back to a genre that doesn’t need comedy to intrigue or speak to its youth, and that is what I found perhaps the most respectable with this movie and the numerous display of positives that it entails.

Considering this is a live action movie, I was pleasantly surprised at some of the beautifully illustrated water-color animation present for two sequences in the movie. These are used to illustrate the actions of tales being told to us by the monster, but we always know that something deeper is lying just beneath the surface of practicality. The art here reflects not only that of the drawings that the artistically gifted Mother and Son share alike, but also that of our own experiences with the real life novel, being readers of this material. It was breathtaking to see these splattering of ink-blots coming to life before our eyes, radiating a color scheme of dreary rainbows that only seem possible in the land of make believe. Not to be outdone by his animation, Bayona also aims and directs this movie with beautifully emotive backdrops that resemble the very theme and mood of this particular story. This is one of those places where it feels like the sun never shines, but anyone who told you there isn’t beauty in death is sadly mistaken, as J.A’s touches bring to life a forty-foot giant that feels very authentic and lively when compared side-by-side to the live action surroundings that he inhabits. This is solid structure in CGI performance, and the very details that goes into the monster with his roots and leaves left me spellbound when compared to the still tree he sprouts from.

The story takes us through a visual nightmare of sensible clarity seen through the eyes of a child far too young to fully grasp the immense consequences of inevitability that lies before him. I mentioned earlier that the movie uses metaphors to teach lessons one-by-one to Conor, and while we see the big picture far ahead of him, there is something constructively satisfying to him growing before our very eyes when saddled with this traumatic experience. Sometimes the themes do take slightly too long to reach, most notably in the three stories by Neeson’s monster, but it’s only a slight tap of the brake pedal on the fast road with coming-of-age. At 100 minutes, the story is soundly paced, and only has these slight bumps that sometimes take the long road in every lesson to halt momentum. Other than that though, I felt very invested and intrigued by the complexities of this youthful character and how his past came into play with shaping him into his actionary responses today. Nothing is too practical or obvious with the exposition, and there’s something tolerably charming for playing this with a wave of honest melancholy at face value every step of the way.

Something did off-set me during my experience with the movie, and that was in the musical editing of the film’s score. Early on in the movie, I noticed that there were very few accompanying tones to play off of the characters and their tragically changing scenarios. I took this as a negative until the final act when it all came clear and the volume of the music was pushed to coherent depths for the first time. This is just a critic’s interpretation and nothing more, so don’t take this as intentional on the part of composer Fernando Velazquez, but I believe this is intentional for two reasons. The first is more obvious. This was played to maximize the release of emotions not only with Conor, but also in the audience who finally have an audio hand on their backs telling them it’s Ok to finally let go. This certainly feels in-sync with Conor and his grasping of the importance on grieving before it’s too late. The second theory is that the lack of music during the first hour of the movie signals the mentality and absence of happiness in Conor’s psyche with each passing day. It’s clear that cancer is a slow process, so to hear these sounds off in the distance relates to that of his memory saying goodbye to everything he knew. Because of that, we understand the importance of the monster even further, for it is the one last wave to the person he knew and loved the most.

The cast is stacked with five top-notch actors giving it their all. Liam Neeson as the monster sounds menacing, yet protective over the boy he comes for, and there’s something endearing about Liam’s voice that while not does offer a side to his dramatic acting that we would only know if we shut out vision and just listened. Felicity Jones certainly proves that her 2016 roles in “Rogue One” and “Inferno” were just footnotes to proving once again that she is a dramatic force to be reckoned with. Considering she is in the movie for no more than thirty minutes, Jones emotes a range of mental strength and loving parent to combat her daily decreasing physical sense. Felicity facial features drive the dagger home for anyone thinking they would escape the theater with dry eyes. Sigourney Weaver was also great, despite it being hard at this stage to think of her as a grandmother. Initially, she is the antagonist to Conor’s life, but as we go on we learn from the monster that there are no good guys or bad guys in this story, only people, and that theme begins to break down the walls and boundaries of the relationship between she and Conor. She’s a character who has had more than enough loss in her life, and this isn’t just a change for Conor, it’s also one for her. Speaking of Conor, fourteen-year-old Lewis MacDougall is the perfect choice to lift the enigmatic emotions of Conor straight from the pages of the novel. In Conor, we feel the torture and the agony of his world psychologically and literally crumbling around him, and it’s in the chemistry with only a voice that comforts us through some of his more trying times. For barely a teenager, MacDougall is years above his age in dramatic depth and delivery, and I felt great empathy for his character despite some terrible things that he does along the way. The biggest surprise however was Toby Kebbell finally getting his chance to shine after the duds that were Fantastic Four and Ben-Hur. Kebbell provides so much more as Conor’s dad than just another two-dimensional throw-away character, and through his uncertainty on trying to deal with a child he barely knows, we suffer the lump-in-the-throat reality that Conor might be more alone than we thought. Toby proves that he can hang with the big boys, and his next role will be very important to my overall judgement on him.

There are many stages to the game of grief. Through traits of denial, anger, and release, J.A Bayona artistically crafts a children’s tearjerker with adult tendencies, balancing dark themes and fantastical environments that never shies away from the center of the pain. It’s an inspirational voice to the often times forgotten mouths of youths, and that in every burning fire A Monster Calls.

8/10

Jackie

The promise for an American revolution on the rise change for the worse when John F Kennedy is assassinated on the streets of Dallas, Texas, leaving his wife “Jackie” shattered from the aftermath. The immersive depiction of the post events by Pablo Larrain is a searing and intimate portrait of one of the most important and tragic moments in American history, seen through the eyes of the iconic First Lady, then Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman). The film places us in her world during the days immediately following her husband’s assassination. Known for her extraordinary dignity and poise, here we see a psychological portrait of the First Lady as she struggles to maintain her husband’s legacy and the world of “Camelot” that they created and loved so well, while quite literally watching her power and influence disappear overnight. “Jackie” is rated R for brief strong violence, involving sequences of gore, and some adult language.

Pablo Larrain’s portrait of one of the darkest days in U.S history is examined thoroughly through the eyes of one of its most polarizing figures; the first lady. In “Jackie” we get a depiction of the woman and how important that dreaded day in Dallas was, that actually saw the end of two lives. The movie weaves itself in and out of time periods that dealt with Kennedy’s brief tenure as president, but Larrain’s focus is more on the centerpiece of U.S families during that era, and Jackie was certainly not just another pageant girl. Through this examination, it’s clear just how much detail and focus went into being the first lady, a job that came with living in front of the camera every day for the rest of her life, and putting on a show for all to admire. Jackie’s whole life changed when she became a Kennedy, and suddenly her life wasn’t about her anymore, and instead about the focus of the most powerful man in the free world. What Larrain does in solid direction here is channel that essence of what this woman will eventually be left with long after the tragedy happens. This is as much about her psychological disposition as it about anything else, and that isolation and abandonment from the rest of the world sent chills down my spine in the kind of details that went into this presentation.

Larrain’s framing is so masterful and symbolic to the kind of establishing shots in every scene for mood or tempo. During the interview scenes, the characters are framed dead center, giving off a dual appreciation for two multi-purposes. The first, is to put the audience in the shoes of the opposition playing off of the person talking straight at us. This gives us the authentic feel of emotional delivery since it feels like we too are feeling the cold and anger from this woman. The second is to relate the kind of scenery that is around our leading lady. What this does is offers the audience a chance to take a step back and see everything not only Jackie sees everything, but also how her closest confidants see her. During the interview scenes, she’s alone and isolated, so Larrain’s focus around her shows endless land as far as the eye can see, establishing Jackie’s newfound emptiness after losing what mattered most. In the reflection scenes in the White House, it’s opposite of that because it’s everybody watching and discussing every aspect of her life without even giving her the slightest voice, and you certainly understand the kind of tremendous pressure that this puts on a woman who is literally being rushed out of the door with the new president just minutes away from being sworn in. Larrain’s direction feels very intimate, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him nominated for Best Direction this March at the Oscars.

As for the material here, I felt positives and negatives from the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim. Where the film succeeds the most is granting the audience a view into the aspects of a prestigious passing that you don’t often think about. Jackie’s reaction to the same people she thought were friends who are now rushing her out, was a crushing blow to this government puppet who they taught to sing and dance in front of the cameras. It’s easy to feel what Jackie is feeling for the very absurdity and insensitivity of what now adorns the White House halls, and her range of emotional distraught feels puzzling, yet understandable to what she has taken on. Everybody deals with death in their own ways, but in Kennedy’s death we see that Jackie lost a man she might have barely known, and that haunting afterthought is where the entirety of the movie’s emotional register lies. Despite a brief 94 minute run time, “Jackie” is difficult because there’s not a lot of complexity within the story. This is a movie that rests on the shoulders of Portman’s performance, leaving very little wiggle room or transformation in story to really inspire us. The script is enjoyable at times, but it never picks us up from hammering the same point home repeatedly, and that repetition gets old midway through the movie when you realize the best bits of this script are minutes behind you.

Another problem I had was the musical score which was inappropriate at times and annoying at others. On the latter, there were many times during the film that the same two chords are repeated in ominous deliveries changed up slightly to try to make them different. This was obvious on more than one occasion to this critic, and I had enough about a half hour in. A great musical score will accompany a movie, never override it, and that is exactly what happens here. The vibrant blasts of tone feel very manipulative instead of soothing to what the audience can conjure in tone, and I would rather a composer work with me than against me in any delivery. As far as inappropriate goes, there were a couple of scenes in the movie that I wish would’ve been played with no musical score, to feel the weight and significance of that particular scene. These imposing blasts felt like a distraction on many occasions, and were made even more puzzling when the movie catches on midway through and settles down on their jarring deliveries. I feel like the composer understood the feelings of the character midway through, and finally decided enough was enough. Thank God.

If I didn’t talk about anything else however, I have to commend Portman for her flawless performance as the title character. The best kind of biopic performances are those in which the actor becomes the character and doesn’t feel like just another impression. Natalie had no problems with this concept, as her delivery for Jackie is every bit as authentic as it is complex. Never once was there any point where she breaks that continuous vibe of Jackie Kennedy moving before our very eyes, and Portman’s transformation defines the term actor in all of its many definitions. Portman has to cover so many ends of the emotional spectrum, it’s kind of silly to see her nail every single one with flawless effort. Anger, sadness, delirium, loving, and brash all are nailed with such careful precision. This is a very tight rope that this kind of character can walk, but someone like Natalie never misses the mark and dismisses any doubt that we didn’t get the right woman for the role. Even something as miniscule as Jackie’s accent is a triumph by Portman, as she not only visually impressed in similarity, but also audibly in sound. There are some solid supporting cast in the movie like Peter Saarsgaard and Greta Gerwig, but it’s clear that this is a one woman show, so the focus never drifts from Portman. That point is made even more clearly when I recollect that she is in every single scene in this movie, never slowing down or resting on her single greatest performance to date.

Portman’s mesmerizing performance pushes the Oscar race with “Jackie” in prestigious form. The movie is a haunted glimpse into the mind and heart of tragedy, and how we let that tragedy define who we are as lasting memories. Larrain’s informative and revealing angle plays well to make his movie slightly more entertaining than it probably should be, but the legacy of Kennedy is something simply too engaging not to indulge in.

8/10

Rogue One

The newest chapter in the Star Wars saga is in the hands of a rebellious group of soldiers who revolt against the dark side. From Lucasfilm comes the first of the Star Wars standalone films, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” an all-new epic adventure. In a time of conflict, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a Rebellion soldier and criminal, is about to experience her grandest ambition yet when Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’ Reilly) sets her out on a mission to steal the plans for the mighty Death Star. In tow are a group of unlikely heroes banding together on a mission to rise above the establishment and give the power back to the citizens. This key event in the Star Wars timeline brings together ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary things, and in doing so, become part of something greater than themselves. “Rogue One” is directed by Gareth Edwards, and is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence, action and peril.

The Star Wars Saga’s first dabble into the anthology genre successfully reaches its potential force in “Rogue One”. For the first time in this series, it was nice to branch out from the big family angle of this story and take the faithful fans into a different angle and landscape that offered something fresh and original for this aging legend. And offer something new it does, with taking us on the ground of the ensuing war that is being fought for the fate of the galaxy. There have been attempts at the strategies and ground game of what goes into the concept of war before in this series, but none as detailed as this movie. One could make the argument that all Star Wars films are war genre movies, but this one actually stays faithful to the rules of that concept by not pulling the wool over the eyes of its audience. To me, “Rogue One” feels like the first adult Star Wars movie, and that’s because of that urgency in fighting against the clock to save the people from The Dark Side’s newest acquisition, as well as the inevitability of impending doom that Edwards channels brilliantly in our against-the-numbers game for our protagonists. The consequences feel real here, and it’s in that kind of a movie that I have waited decades for.

The best kind of prequels to me are the ones that fill in all of the gaps left by previous installments, while not ruining or decreasing the value of those creative efforts. “Rogue One” further hammers home the idea of just how demented and abusive Darth Vader’s methods were, and adds further emphasis on the rebellion’s eventual triumph over him that made it that much sweeter. A solid movie like this can make movies like “Return of the Jedi” even more elated, but it’s in the desire to go back and watch “A New Hope” where this film offers the strongest gift in value. The story here is used accordingly, presenting us with Erso, a girl who lost everything she ever loved at the hands of Imperial Army, so that likeability and empathy for that character is very strong for the movie. Unfortunately, the rest of the characters are presented as take it or leave it. I certainly understood the idea to not spend much time on characters who weren’t the strongest in moral integrity. For the first time, our protagonists are anything but the heroes we’ve grown old with in other films, but my problem is in the lack of characterization that feels virtually non-existent in introductions. This diminishes the ability for these characters to grow with the audience, and never feel as valuable as Rey or Finn from “The Force Awakens”. That is one of the few flaws that “Rogue One” has for its otherwise clean suit of armor.

While I had a problem with the character building, I can say that the performances more-than reached their desired mark. Oscar nominee Felicity Jones has already established herself as a versatile actress, but as Urso we get a portrait of a female heroine that is every bit as cunning as she is intelligent. This new series of Star Wars films seem intent on conjuring up some strong female leads that the female demographic can get behind, and Erso may be the most dangerous of that relatability. Her speeches are inspiring, and her methods are very methodical, bringing out the best in a lead who more than holds her own against a male dominated cast. Ben Mendelsohn was also enjoyable as Krennic, the imperial sergeant responsible for Erso’s grief. Ben never overcomplicates things with his delivery. What’s scary about him is the quiet and what is brewing underneath that layer of uncertainty. Mendelsohn has always been among my favorite Hollywood secret weapons, and it’s about time he was given a role to peel back another layer to his mayhem. Other strong deliveries came from Diego Luna, Forrest Whittaker and even Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones. Since he was in the trailers, I’m not giving anything away with Vader, and his scenes reminded you why this guy is as evil as it comes with cinematic villains who you utterly despise.

The presentation here is impeccable, with every aspect of the technical game going above and beyond my expectations. The landscapes are gorgeous, and continuously change up the backdrops in each scene. There really is a variety in offering to the kind of beauty within the immense endless worlds in these stories, and “Rogue One” allows us one more chance to immerse ourselves in such beautiful green-screen detail that you can almost touch it. That green screen work goes miles because Lucas Film Studios continues to outdo itself by setting the bar in CGI authenticity. It’s beginning to get really difficult for even a movie lover like me to spot what is real and what’s is slightly tweaked by Computer, and that uncertainty only makes for stronger returns in cheaper costs, as well as cutting risks of injury during dangerous stunt work. The sound mixing is explosive, giving fans a genuine feel to the fast-paced action being delivered before our eyes. While I don’t recommend a 3D viewing for the movie, I do recommend and XD or IMAX sitting for the very onslaught of what ears were meant to handle with top-notch audio effects work.

The action sequences offer a satisfying compromise of in-the-air space attack, as well as ground game strategy that satisfy the best of past and present within this series. The laser ammunition is as gorgeous and impactful as ever, and some of the newer designed aircraft feel like a dream to the kinds of things we could only dream of in the 70’s and 80’s. The final fifty minutes of this film reach the emotional and physical climax for the audience, and I couldn’t be more satisfied with how everything played out, pitting every kind of emotional response against one another to really make you grasp the immensity of what is at stake here. For a movie that plays everything as grounded as it ever has been, this movie knows when to flip the switch and remind you that it isn’t shy against splashing the cash if need be. Evidence of that is in several ground-shaking sequences that adorn the picture, sparing no expense at relating the capability in power that The Dark Side’s new toy can viciously do.

The pacing could’ve been slightly tighter during the second act. It’s nothing terrible or deciding in the final verdict of this movie, but it feels very inconsistent with how fast and smooth the first forty minutes or so really kept the audience’s expectations and kept the scenery moving at a continuous pace. The second act stalls a couple of times, and feels desperate when it throws a couple of big surprise cameos in the way to tie us over before the action starts up again. Some of those cameos are justified, but others seem like a waste of time to give fan service to the people who might not be as touched with “Rogue One” as they are with efforts that came before it. Overall, the first and third acts are brilliant, but the second act felt like the right time to establish some of those secondary characters more, and that lack to detail hinders the continuous flow of what could be one of the most emotionally engaging intros to a Star Wars movie ever.

Edwards triumphs with a space and land opera that triggers the very force and consequences of war, giving way to a presentation that is sure to please every kind of Star Wars fan. The newest installments keep the momentum moving with the series most unapologetically vicious offering to date, while giving us a technical gem that peaks every single sense within the audience who adore it. The characters and pacing could be slightly sharpened, but the gut-wrenching finale shows us that with a little hope the war is never over.

8/10

Nocturnal Animals

The game of love takes many strange and haunting turns, in the psychological thriller written and directed by Tom Ford, called “Nocturnal Animals”. The film is a “story inside a story,” in which the first part follows a woman named Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who receives a book manuscript from her ex-husband  (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man whom she left 20 years earlier after a rocky marriage of disappointing results, asking for her opinion. The second element of the film follows the actual manuscript, called “Nocturnal Animals,” which revolves around a man whose family vacation turns violent and some savage types who hold them hostage after encountering. It also continues to follow the story of Susan, who finds herself recalling her first marriage and confronting some dark truths about herself and her past, blurring the realities of both stories while recounting where everything went wrong with her marriage along the way. “Nocturnal Animals” is rated R for violence, menace, graphic nudity, and adult language.

Tom Ford has always been the kind of visionary director who puts style first above anything else in his productions. It’s not that he has very little to say in material, but this is a director whose soul intention is to present the themes of his movies in the lavish and seductive visuals that his creative visuals entail. In “Nocturnal Animals”, not only does Ford have his most accomplished triumph visually of his entire career, but he also presents a portrait of love and the very long and punishing road that it takes through the dips of regret. That is first and foremost what this movie is all about; regret, and it’s done so in such a creative method of storytelling that clearly isn’t for everyone. If you’ve ever seen an art-house film, you know what I’m talking about. The story arcs aren’t always as obvious or satisfying as a mainstream big studio production will present to you, and it’s always a bit more of a struggle of the mind to piece together what the director was going for, much like when you’re staring at a painting or any kind of art piece.

The creativity here comes front-and-center for a story that constantly keeps you guessing because of its unorthodox method of telling. This is known as a scattered narrative. A story that is told in entirety, but not always in the correct order chronologically of how they happened. On top of this intelligent layer of laying out all of the events, Ford’s movie is also running two stories simultaneously at the same time. We get the present day, in which Amy Adams character struggles through a passion-less life with a stranger she currently calls husband, as well as a disappointing art career with very little energy inflicted into it. The other story is actually her ex-husband’s book that he sent to her, and those events are being played out in her head for us the audience. I enjoyed this take on the past because it really does become a crime detective story of sorts for the viewer to figure out and piece together. I’m not a fan of having everything force-fed to me, and Ford’s story never disappoints or drifts to settle for that kind of disappointment. It’s a plot that constantly kept me guessing, and rarely ever slowed down to take everything in. Much like life, it keeps moving in many different directions, and for a movie whose trailer I saw many times, I didn’t correctly predict one thing in this movie, making it the most unpredictable of sits that I had this year. The scattered style does become problematic in sorts late in the second act when the story really does throw a lot at us at once, presenting very little time to let things fully register. This does give the movie tons of re-watchability, but for a first showing this might alienate some audience members who missed an arc or two along the way to what I felt was a quite satisfying poetic ending in the backlash game of love. I also didn’t get the idea to cast different actresses in Gyllenhaal’s character’s story because if Adams is reading the story and we are seeing things through her eyes, wouldn’t she picture her own personal appearance in that likeness?

I want to talk about the art direction here because it is simply vibrant and echoing of the themes present in the movie. What Ford does in symbolism never feels obvious or forced to the audience, settling on a color palate that tells the story for us. A repeated color scheme in the film is between red or white, essentially the clashing of love versus void, and that ideal is very rampant during the movie, reacting very much to the step-by-step events that take place for this once prosperous couple. When their love blossoms, we see the color of red paint its way into our backgrounds. When their love is against the rocks, the absence of color plays symbolically to the kinds of emptiness that our two protagonists are encountering, and it is such a contrasting feeling to the former that it’s evident in the transformations that each character entails from start to finish. Amy Adams character in particular wears a lot of makeup in the current day story arc, to relate the emotionless charge that now haunts her because of the choices in her life she has made for herself. In the flashback scenes, through less makeup, it’s clear that this is to relate the shot of life that overcomes her when she runs into and falls for Gyllenhaal’s character. It’s something so subtle, but so endearing to play against performances that were absolutely out of this world.

Before I get to those performances, I wanted to tip my hat to the casting in this movie, and how articulate it is at casting the people they did for these certain roles. Whether intentional or not, the main four cast members of the movie are playing roles that are completely against what they’re typecast as, and each offer something refreshing and original to their method acting. In Adams, we see a tortured soul forced to live with the regret she wears like a scarf, but what works about Amy’s performance is her subtle timing in how she executes so much emotion almost effortlessly. To go from “Arrival” to “Nocturnal Animals” is quite the spin, but Adams proves she is one of the best actresses in modern film by emoting so much without needing the long diatribes or Oscar worthy moments. Her range feels human, and it’s in that where nearly every actor gets the concept of acting wrong. Gyllenhaal perhaps has the biggest transformation throughout the movie. He’s forced to play a weakling of sorts, but as the film progressed, I saw the wheel start to move inside of the eyes full of rage and agony for this character, and Gyllenhaal captivates in a world where he searches for a reason to live. The magic between he and Adams is so apparent and true. They really are the heartbeat of the movie because they are two people we believe are better because of the other, and it’s through their eyes where the audience must go through the same consequences that they did. Leaps and bounds however, Michael Shannon stole the movie for me as a brash veteran detective assigned to help Gyllenhaal. Shannon is already one of my favorite actors, but here he gives his most versatile of performances because we’re simply not used to seeing him as an admiring protagonist. Some of his dialogue is a little cringe-worthy, but Michael makes it work through and through. His character represented revenge to me. Another re-occurring theme throughout the film, and that theme is one that struts at the same speed that Michael does in this movie. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is also nearly unrecognizable as the central antagonist in the movie. For the guy who played heroes like Kick-Ass and Quicksilver, there’s something truly grungy and repulsing to how he plays his character. We feel like Aaron is always winking at us the audience, and his cocky demeanor is agonizing throughout the movie, giving us one of the more detestable characters of Oscar season.

“Nocturnal Animals” is a different animal all together in dramatic anatomy. Through Tom Ford’s layered artistic integrity and some truly gripping performances, this is a story that reminds us how our pasts haunt us, and define us in the best and worst of times. A lovers tale in a David Lynch world full of eye candy whose sweet taste never wore off on me the more I indulged in it.

8/10

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

The world of a fictional Harry Potter novel comes to life in this extension of the world pushed even further than Hogwarts. In “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne stars in the central role of wizarding world magizoologist Newt Scamander, under the direction of David Yates, who helmed the last four “Harry Potter” blockbusters. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” opens in 1926 as Newt Scamander (Redmayne) has just completed a global excursion to find and document an extraordinary array of magical creatures. Arriving in New York for a brief stopover, he might have come and gone without incident…were it not for a No-Maj (American for Muggle) named Jacob (Dan Fogler), a misplaced magical case, and the escape of some of Newt’s fantastic beasts across the imposing city, which could spell trouble for both the wizarding and No-Maj worlds. “Fantastic Beasts” is directed by David Yates, and is rated PG-13 for fantasy action violence.

Because eight films certainly weren’t enough for Harry Potter fans, “Fantastic Beasts” allows them a new series of films to dip their feet in imaginative waters. For someone like myself who isn’t the world’s biggest Harry Potter fan, I found this movie to be surprisingly rich in its entire package for crafting a world where to dream it is for it to be possible. The film is a side project of sorts, considering Scamander does technically exist in the Potter world, and this movie proves that his story has just as much to offer on the forefront of intrigue and inspiration that elevates the film to levels just as high as their fantasy creatures can fly. Will it hit the same notes of dedication that its former universe accomplished? That’s not quite for me to say. If I comment on one thing however, it’s that the biggest tragedy in this world is the fact that these kinds of things doesn’t exist beyond the silver screen that many will flock to this weekend. It’s a film that requires its audience young and old to dream, and will serve as that full circle moment when adults who were kids during the original series, will now take their children to embark on an adventure that will leave them feeling levitated.

I checked out this movie in 3D, and the overall presentation is one that was very warranted to spend the extra couple of bucks to engage in the bigger picture quite figuratively and literally. This is one of, if not the best 3D effects that I have seen on-screen this year, and there’s plenty to justify the choice to go big on this opportunity. As with any 3D presentation, the in-your-face effects radiate mesmerizingly to make you feel every impact. There’s also perfectly applied shading and outlining here to give the characters an eye-popping trait to their physical appearances that many might miss while paying attention to everything that is going on in the dreamy backgrounds. As for some of those set pieces and landscapes, the movie’s 3D breathes perfectly with the 1920’s New York setting. The very existence of one with the other makes for something truly ironic, but the crispness of a third-dimensional aspect really pops in making this throwback something much more timeless. If I had one problem with the 3D, it was in the cinematography that originally does feel a little mundane and dreary. I certainly understand the choice to stay faithful to the almost colorless backdrop that was the era during The Great Depression, but when coupled with 3D glasses that darken every picture, it does make for some difficult transitions during night time scenes. It’s enough to sacrifice for the overall better effects work, but beware of the absence of light that will sometimes have you seeking out any kind of bodily frame to grasp what is going on.

This is also a very top-notch cast that carries the reigns of the magic in chemistry that Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint each mastered in three decades together. Eddie Redmayne is usually an actor who I am hit or miss with, but he seems to strike the perfect mastery that captures the innocence behind Scamander. There are times when his character is a tad over the top or corny in dialogue delivery, but Redmayne works here because there’s always that tick of genius that is evident behind his shy exterior. Eddie envelopes this character because of the air of care and concern that he presents for these creatures. There’s very much a feeling of parent/child relationship being played off here, and it’s in Scamander’s urgency where we feel something more than just the thrill of magic here. Katherine Waterson is also a breath of fresh air, giving the film a female influence who we can embrace for a personality that is equal parts law and free will for the citizens of her city. Waterson and Redmayne’s relationship doesn’t quite hit all of the strides that it could, but lets leave some room to breathe for four more films still to come in the series. Without question the person who stole the film for me was Dan Fogler as Jacob the No-Mag. Fogler reminds Hollywood once again that he is one of the very best in expressive acting going today, and his childlike expressions are a nod to gentle giants like John Candy, John Belushi and of course Chris Farley. With Fogler, I embraced the opportunity to laugh on more than one occasion, and it’s in that light hearted humor where I feel the movie resonated the most with my investment and patience well beyond the two hour mark.

The script is captivating, but does have its problems on the storytelling forefront. There’s a battle going on here between three different characters for on-screen antagonist, and every time the film tends to drift away from Scamander and company it feels against the grain in tone and fluidity for the direction the story is headed. I appreciate a film that isn’t afraid to get dark in material with a child’s story, but it doesn’t feel necessary this early in the series, especially when played against a dreamy first act that is every bit as light-hearted as it is whimsical. When it does settle on an chosen antagonist with a half hour left, there isn’t enough backstory in exposition to understand the motivations for this character and why they have decided to oppose Scamander. What I did enjoy about the story is the attempt to Americanize the Potter universe considering the other movies were set in Europe. The very American traditions good and bad are emphasized here, and serve as a reminder to some of the decisions that shaped the country that you see today. All is documented finely enough, and it proves that screenwriter J.K Rowling can dazzle on more than just one continent.

James Newton Howard offers another brilliant musical score that captures the imagination and big-league feel to the responsibility that comes with magic. The best scores to me are the ones that capture the personality in feel of every emotion being displayed on-screen, and James can do this without ever coming off as manipulative in forcing his audience to feel a certain way. Through an arrangement of orchestral tones that strike the perfect chord both enthusiastically and monotonously, Newton Howard proves that even at sixty-five he is still one of the most respected and downloaded names in cinematic score.

The Fantastic in “Fantastic Beasts” isn’t just an adjective, it’s a stamp by this critic on a journey of surprises and colorful creatures that dares to carry on the Potter legacy. There’s some storytelling aspects that deserved another draft, but Yates’s film is something that is simply too fun not to embrace. The reflection of a life for many fans of the series who have stood by the power of the wand through each changing face. This one has me excited for future installments, and this Beast packs quite the roar.

8/10