Baby Driver

The assistance of a driver simply known as ‘Baby’ is the best case scenario for the criminal underworld, looking for the fastest route out. In “Baby Driver”, the newest from critically acclaimed writer/director Edgar Wright, A young and talented getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) relies on the personal beat of his preferred soundtrack, to be the best in the world of crime, as music heightens his focus and reflexes to extreme levels. A car accident as a child killed both his parents, and left him with permanent tinnitus, which he blocks out using music. He is preferred as a driver by Doc (Kevin Spacey), a mastermind organizer of bank robberies and other high-earning heists. During the biggest mission of Baby’s career, he finds himself and his loving girlfriend Debora (Lily James) in grave danger at the hands of some rough customers who want him dead when Baby decides to flee town. “Baby Driver” is rated R for adult language and violence throughout.

Edgar Wright, take a bow. After nearly twenty years of directing both feature length films and brilliant cinematic shorts, the master of satirical modern comedy dons his absolute best film to date, in the adrenaline powder-keg known as “Baby Driver”. As far as cinematic experiences go, this is easily the most fun thus far that I have had in a movie in 2017, and is only really matched or topped in my six year critic career by that of “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Wright is the kind of director who always seems to pull one over on his audiences, advertising and marketing a movie one way and then completely peeling it back to show you the never-ending multitude of layers that his stories boost for themselves. To define “Baby Driver” as just a satirical comedy on 70’s speed flicks, or smash-em, crash-em big budget carnage films of modern day, is doing this movie the greatest disservice that I could possibly muster up. It’s a play on a magnitude of genres, never settling for constant direction, and this gives the movie a kind of playground where all of these tonal shifts can meet and play as one, an aspect nearly impossible without suffering compromising damage to the film’s integrity. But it serves as a testament to Wright for not only being a name that makes us perk up when we hear he’s got a new film coming out, but also one that proves his versatility is only getting started.

Even after seeing trailer after trailer for this film, it still manages to have a strong ambiguity quality about its plot that makes it feel like nothing has been spoiled. In the first act of the movie, Wright kind of just introduces all of the essential chess pieces on the board and has them play up to their moral fiber safely, and for a second you feel like you are typically getting the story you were promised. In Baby, we meet a young man who feels stuck in a job that he knows is wrong, but he keeps doing it to pay off a debt to a crime lord boss who took a chance on him. This is probably the lone critique of the movie that you will hear from me, because unfortunately we never really hear much else about this expositional past between Elgort and Spacey’s characters that maximizes the importance of this crossroads that the title character is on. Thankfully, the second half of the movie did more than enough to make me forget about such miniscule negatives. It’s in the second act when you start to understand the evolution of this story and how little you truly know about where it’s headed. With some surprising brutality twists along the way, this one constantly kept my eyes glued to the screen, pacing itself out accordingly across 108 minutes that felt about half of that. The ending itself might sour some audiences, but I found it to be responsible with the dark and twisted alleys that the film’s third act took us down. In Edgar Wright’s world, it’s understood that there are consequences for every action, unlike other crime films that make the existence of cops feel like a joke.

What Wright does with a pen and a pad is impressive, but I would say takes a silver medal to that of his mesmerizing scope behind the camera. This movie doesn’t just play safely to the genre’s standards, it completely re-defines them in how each and every little shot maximizes the potential of each sequence even further. The editing here is textbook, garnering a quality about it that illustrates and combines the importance of quick-cut jabs to reflect the modern age, and a forceful close-up occasionally to reflect that of 70’s chase flicks like “Duel”. This gives the action sequences a monitor for us to tell that it’s fully beating and increasing in pumps with each passing dodge. On top of this, there are some impressive long take shots during character confrontations that proved Wright has a lot of faith in his star-studded cast. Because our view is with the camera’s, we often get to immerse ourselves in each ever-passing environment that has engulfed these unpredictable situations. A credit to this camera work is that we never once see one robbery in the movie, but we feel like we’re with these characters through every bullet fired. The sound mixing is also quite impressive for the kind of tricks that it plays on our own ears, making us feel Baby’s situation front-and-center. Music will occasionally drop out in volume if a shot is taking place outside of the car, and this is respectable because it would otherwise feel fake if we hear the same kind of volume outside that the characters do inside of the car. Edgar also pays attention to Baby’s peculiarity because we get several examples of the muddled “Hum-in-the-drum” that has left him somewhat impared, and it’s in that stance where we feel more personal with a protagonist than other films can get. We’re hearing what he hears, so when the music hits, it sounds so much sweeter.

On the subject of that music, “Baby Driver” boosts a collection of mostly classic ballads and toe-tapper funk grooves that is sure to have you fighting back the urge to mouth the words to some of your favorite jams. The cleverness comes out of how each song shapes not only the tone, but the editing of each and every scene. If there’s a drum beat that is constant in the song Baby is jamming out to, it becomes evident that we too will be treated with the riddling of bullets richocheting to the bass of such a powerful audio level. There’s also some clever Easter eggs along the way that add lyrics to the song that is being listened to at any given moment. For instance, during the scene where Baby walks to the diner for his first meeting with Debora, we see scattered lyrics all around the sidewalk, windows, and street signs that he passes by. This gives the movie some quality re-watches to see just what in the backdrop you may have missed upon initial watches.

But a film this impactful would be nothing without a charismatic cast that guides it through these often entertaining waters, and thankfully this collection of heralded A-listers know a valuable chance when they see one. For anyone who thought Ansel Elgort’s most memorable role would be Augustus Waters in 2014’s “The Fault In Our Stars”, you have no idea the oral crime you just committed. As Baby, Elgort unlocks a mystery wrapped inside of an enigma, and because there’s so much personality to his character, it’s the spunk and likeability of a leading man that he lends his talents to marvelously. Elgort proves he can hang with the big names by giving us a character who constantly evolves into being a product of his environment, and when the tough get going, Baby is no infant. Two other members who I want to praise are Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm for completely stealing the show. Not that either of them need help in their careers, but their roles in this movie are the shot of adrenaline that both need from being typecast into the safe roles that have plagued their careers. Foxx dominates the first half of the movie as a menacing robber who always has his finger on the pulse of everyone involved. Because of such, he’s kind of a leader who always likes to stir the pot, and I found him to be authentic in his push for greed. Hamm too is a worthy opposition, but not until later in the movie do we see his truest of colors. In fact, the movie tells us all we need to know about Hamm’s character when he’s not living up to that immense shadow, but treat this as a warning because you will never look at Don Draper the same way again.

THE VERDICT – “Baby Driver’s” tank never runs close to being empty, taking us on a fast-paced thrill-ride that will have you holding onto your seat, afraid to take that breath of release for fear you might miss a delightful peak on auditory capabilities. There’s enough firepower and unpredictability in the mastery of Edgar Wright’s closely-guided touch to keep it from ever stalling, and the personalities from some of Hollywood’s finest make this one impossible not to want to strap in. Even if you just seek a movie to shut your brain off, “Baby Driver” will take the challenge one step further by astonishing you at every feat of the technical specter. Mister Wright can do no wrong.

9/10

Lady Macbeth

Rural England 1865 is the place and time for this sizzling spin on the classic tale of “Lady Macbeth”. Catherine (Florence Pugh), a young woman locked in a loveless arranged marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), begins a passionate affair with one of the servants on the estate named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Alexander and his father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank) attempt to put an end to the lovers infidelity, but the couple are willing to go to great lengths in order to keep their relationship alive. The situation becomes increasingly complicated, and Catherine is forced to make a difficult decision to save her reputation and her privileged life. “Lady Macbeth” is directed by first time helming, William Oldroyd, and is rated R for sexual situations involving nudity, violent material involving gore, adult language, scenes of drug use, and frightening scenes of intensity.

Movies centering around the kind of coming into power storylines are often depicted in such a way that feels inspiring or at the very least beneficial to the audience at home in propelling a character who they can get behind regardless of their morals. Cue “Lady Macbeth”, an hour-and-a-half of greed and seduction for what could essentially be considered the dawn of the modern age woman, and her rise to power that comes at such a cost. For such a brief film that flies by like a jet engine, this movie filled me with a vast array of emotions that left me reeling for hours after I saw the film. The movie’s screenplay is loosely based on the book “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov, and while the movie hangs tight with the general outline of its literary counterpart, there’s so much about it that screenwriter Alice Birch updates to infuse its often times dull page-turner into a millennial twist that leaves its audience on the edge of its seat through each and every transpiring event that polarizes our central protagonist.

The very style of this picture goes a long way not only in defining human response and atmosphere, but also in the very isolated depiction that this film focuses on for treatment of the female specimen during such a long and forgotten age. The shot selection is gorgeous, focusing on shot framing that singles out Catherine and makes us focus solely on the pain surrounding her dreary routine. She stands front and center at every scene that plays out before her, and often times is our voice of digestion for the life that tends to move on without her consent. It’s true that this movie is focused almost entirely on one character, and kind of leaves everyone else to steer their own course, but I think it’s important to frame Catherine while these unspeakable acts are happening around her, so as to inform and incite the curiosity of the viewer who takes it all in. The film has a refreshing way of not commending the concepts of infidelity, nor singling out Catherine for the decisions that she makes, and I find that impartial direction to be one of great taste for Oldroyd, who feels like he has accomplished so much in only his first time behind the lens. I was flabbergasted to discover that a man directed this movie, as there’s such an overwhelming feeling of female revolutionary that encapsulates the picture, a sign that we’re headed in the right direction for both sides of the polished human gender coin.

As I mentioned earlier, the film flies by, and constantly keeps us moving through ambitious mountain that Catherine must climb to seize the life that she wants. If I have one weakness for the movie, it’s in the first act when everything feels like it zooms through far too quickly, neglecting to soak in the undesired marriage of Catherine and Alexander to its truly barbaric potential. The affair happens quite early on in the movie, and keeps happening, reaching four times of sexual intimacy at only a half hour into the movie to relate how rushed this opening feels, limiting anything to reach its true developmental purpose. Thankfully, it does slow down in the next act, when we truly start to see this woman blossoming into the wolf of sorts who she was destined to become. The final thirty minutes throw a couple of wrenches into the mix, and reminded me that no matter where I thought this film was headed, my guessing was often premature for the pulse-setting finale that left me tingling in speechless release. Because of such, “Lady Macbeth” surely isn’t going to show up on anyone’s feel good films of the year list, but it is one that speaks volumes to the lesson of people not being allowed to love who they love, a stance that even more than two hundred years later still troubles our own society.

Much of that has to do with the performance of Florence Pugh, who is an early favorite for this critic in the Best Actress category. This woman is a force to be reckoned with, and anyone in the way of Catherine will be run over by this steaming bull who fears no man or force of God. Pugh’s portrayal at times feels like we took a woman in 2017 and placed her in the 1800’s to answer the age old question of what these two opposing eras would feel like, to our chagrin it’s everything that you could want in a leading lady who balks at the rules. It takes no time for Catherine to understand the undesirable situation that she has been forced into, so immediately she takes matters into her own hands and spits back what life has presented her with. Florence stays quite stone-faced throughout the movie, but this character direction speaks volumes to her lack of empathy and her cold disdain, which she unleashes with no remorse. I would go further with the cast, but there’s no point. It’s not that the supporting cast are particularly terrible, it’s just that Florence Pugh acts in and constructs the stage for her to shine on. A one woman tour de force who slips under your skin to conjure up more than just one translation.

THE VERDICT – Through bold and dark twists that hold the hands of the audience and press it right up to feel the power, “Lady Macbeth” is an unnerving and often times insinuating intensive from William Oldroyd, who depicts the consequences of privilege and power with such heart-shattering volume to leave all who embrace it devastated within its wake. Pugh herself commands Catherine with the kind of impeccable precision for that silent fire burning within, and it’s when she reaches her boiling point that we know a star has been born. This movie could use about fifteen more minutes to digest some of the rapid fire first act movements, but its unclenching second half of the picture has enough shock-and-awe to make us (like Catherine) forget about meaningless measures in the past.

9/10

Lion

One train ride for a male youth turns into a life-altering event, in Garth Davis’s newest Oscar bait, Lion. Adapted from the non-fiction book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley. Five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) gets lost on a train which takes him thousands of kilometers across India, away from home and family. Saroo must learn to survive alone in Kolkata, before ultimately being adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Twenty five years later, armed with only a handful of memories, Saroo’s (Dev Patel) unwavering determination, and assist from a revolutionary technology known as Google Earth, he sets out to find his lost family and finally return to his first home. Lion is rated PG-13 for thematic materials and some sensuality.

For my first feature film experience in Garth Davis’s career, I have to say that he not only grasps the material, but swings the artistic pendulum effortlessly throughout the emotional roller-coaster that is Lion. This is very much a director who I believe will have a promising career because he delves into the psyche and the disposition of the central character here, shooting things faithfully from their respective point of views. This is a movie that is broken up into two age groups in the life of this lost youth, one being a five year old child, and the other being a grown man in his late 20’s. What I found so appealing and so rewarding to Davis’s style is that as a child, we see things from Saroo’s height level, complete with low-to-the-ground aiming and pointing, and what this does is offer situations that are that much easier to grasp for the audience. Something this tragic and even scary needs to be seen through the eyes of a child, and the direction that Garth yields transforms us back to that age when the world was immense and uncertain. This really is as rough of a coming-of-age story as it gets because Saroo is stepping outside of his backyard alone for the first time in his life, and that fear never leaves the overall attitude of this film. The second age bracket for the movie shoots everything like movies we’re used to. This is where everything feels as steady and assuring in Saroo’s confident demeanor, and it’s refreshing to see what kind of adult he has grown into.

Kudos also goes to Luke Davies and the actual Saroo Brierley himself for writing an efficient and harrowing story through the themes of finding your own place in the world. Because this is a real life story, and because Brierley offers his side of things, we are not only able to embark on a great adventure, but also able to step into the mind of the protagonist for those authentic telling’s that only he can do. Lion had me wrapped around the many fingers of its dramatic pulse throughout this movie, and never during the two hour sit did I ever feel poor pacing or dragging. The movie always keeps moving, and that’s a credit to the traumatic experience that this quiet little boy goes through. I do wish his romantic subplot with Rooney Mara was left off of the table in favor of more exposition on some of the brief time periods of his progression in his new home that felt really skimmed over. It’s not a major problem, and the movie’s changing themes do more than enough to bridge the gap in this barely obvious negative. As a kid, Saroo’s emotional release feels very reserved and hushed, but as an adult we get to see how one event can trigger a psychological backlash to everything that this man has been holding in about his past. I loved the feeling of Saroo’s dive into the internet being used as a kind of detective style of memory, complete with a new piece of the puzzle being revealed the further his foggy past becomes clearer. The finale even offered some unexpected surprises in past events that I wasn’t expecting, reminding people first and foremost that time isn’t always forgiving. To me, the best kind of dramas are the ones that might not always go your way in ideal climaxes, but yet you still demand future watches, and that is the case with this movie, as I can’t wait to see it again.

The sound editing and mixing is also precise, especially during some of the earlier scenes that embrace the volcanic panic going through everything being ripped from Saroo’s life. Composers Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran push the tension one step at a time, slowly lifting the sound to stronger levels that elevate just as our conflict becomes obvious to the realization of Saroo. The duo compose one riveting composition here that is there every step of the way through Saroo’s tortured past, and the musical numbers while he is out on the streets alone felt haunting and dismal to the kind of outlook that we’re feeling for this adorable little boy, while the adult themes felt warm and welcoming as you’re intrigued and embracing the complexity of a man who remembers literally very little about his home.

I’m hoping that this movie garners a lot of Oscar attention, and a lot of that comes from a cast too good to be ignored. Nicole Kidman makes the most out of minimal screen time with long-winded dialogue deliveries that chilled me to the bone in the dispositions of her character. As an adoptive Mother, movies tend to always skip over their side of the story, but I’m glad that Kidman’s Sue flourishes under confined circumstances. Because of Kidman, Sue is very much a woman who is generous and appealing, while holding on to a life that never truly feels ideal to her original plans. Nicole’s trajectory for tears never disappoints, and her somber delivery reminds us that the race for Best Supporting Actress just got A lot more interesting. Dev Patel is also brilliant as the adult version of Saroo. Patel has always been in these grand scale movies, but for the first time in the young actor’s career I genuinely feel like this is a performance that he gave his all for. Patel offers a candid look into the psyche of a child-turned-adult who has been through so much, yet progresses to try to save some semblance of a life for himself in Australia. Through painful flashbacks, Patel’s watery doors to the soul open vibrantly to offer pain and happiness in one instant, an attribute very difficult to accomplish. Without question though, stealing the show is Eight-year-old Sunny Pawar in his theatrical debut. Sunny’s precision with emotional delivery is well beyond his years, and the boy wonder offers as much in guarded fear as he does in admirable innocence. Last year Jacob Tremblay was my child pick for the Oscars, and this year Pawar should lead the youth class in Academy voting.

Lion is an uplifting tale of resiliency and determination that never falters under the pressure of obvious genre cliches. Garth Davis’s close up on the importance of home and family never feels forced or corny, settling instead for worthwhile performances from every age of the acting spectrum. Not many movies make this critic tear-up, but Lion stuck its somber paws into my heart, roaring with undeterred sincerity.

9/10

Manchester By the Sea

The life of an un-ambitious adult man gets thrown for a loop when he receives some terrible news that will change his life forever. In “Manchester By the Sea”, the latest film from award-winning writer and director Kenneth Lonergan, the life of a solitary Boston janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is transformed when he returns to his hometown to take care of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after receiving news of a fatal accident that claimed the life of his loving brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). Joe has left his brother with the responsibility of raising his son, and dealing with the past that cost him the relationship of his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). With his newfound responsibility in tow, Lee must turn his life and priorities around to not only keep his brother’s legacy alive, but to also find clarity within himself to be the man he always had the potential to be. “Manchester By the Sea” is rated R for adult language and some sexuality.

Kenneth Longergan’s newest sure-fire Oscar-worthy effort “Manchester By the Sea” channels the three stages of grief within all of us when it comes to haunting loss. The themes of anger, regret and humor are a continuing stance when it comes to his depiction of loss within this movie, and the hollow void that everyone must fill following impactful change. The writing here is superior to anything that Kenneth has done up to this point, and his relationship with loss feels more human than anything I have seen in recent memory. This isn’t a story for the heroism in all of us, or the transition into being something that you’re not. This is very much a devastating and moving portrayal of many lives being changed for the bitter by the loss of a singular person that binds them together. The backdrop of a frozen tundra of Massachusetts Winters is certainly a poetic stance, not only on durability of our characters, but also on the ideal that loss is endearing, it’s chilling and it’s a slippery slope of after effects that forces us to take an inevitable look at our own lives and the things that we could’ve changed.

That examination comes in the form of Lee, and two sides to this unorthodox narrative that tells us everything from his past, present and future that we seek to understand. Longergan’s method of storytelling shouldn’t be undersold here. He is very much telling two stories for the price of one, and both are equally as engaging as they are riveting. It’s rare to find an example where I was as equally invested in past and present day films like I was in this one, and I think a lot of that has to do with the abundance in questions that we have for our main protagonist to shape the man we see transforming literally before our very eyes. The film reaches its dramatic peak midway through the second act, and it’s in that moment when we begin to understand not only why Lee finds great difficulty on accepting his newfound responsibility, but why this important loss in current day hasn’t leveled him to crippling anger. The answers were very satisfying along the way, but I realized after that important and revealing scene, we have reached the emotional peak for the entirety of the film, and that’s something that I had minor disappointment with. I will get to the performances later, but the movie walks on pins and needles accordingly to mimic our character’s awkward position, but never gives us that moment of explosion that burns forever in the loins of a man searching for reason. With that said, the movie’s pacing was outstanding, and very leveled with how much it had to tell over 132 minutes. There were never any moments when I wasn’t glued to the screen and its dramatic black hole that sucked me into its resonating agony every single time. This is a movie for the grievers, and that crowd will feel comfort in the very honest and moving approach to the way Lonergan views these events.

What’s refreshing about this sit is that Lonergan displays a wide range of comedic material to counterbalance the roller-coaster of emotions that he puts his audience through. I mentioned earlier that humor is one of the many methods of dealing with loss, and this movie’s daring but rewarding approach to laughing through some of these painful moments is something that I applauded in great detail. Normally, this kind of direction would put the film’s dramatic effect in great danger, but I think Kenneth understands the timing and importance of a good laugh between the showers of melancholy. The material is well-timed, and even slightly audacious, but I respect any director who can play against cliche layering in any kind of drama and give the audience something more satisfying during the appropriate times. There’s no shortage of awkward scenes in the movie, and Kenneth’s approach to startling humor is a welcome raft to the otherwise therapeutic dip in deep dramatic waters. It’s something that should at least earn him an Oscar nomination this March.

This is also a beautifully shot film, with lots of endless scenic shots of the harbor and the Manchester seaside that plays a great deal of importance to the script. The cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes is tinted slightly grey to further enhance the decay of the greying Winters. This shading is symbolic later on when the greens of grass and plants start to enhance in the very same way that our characters find love in their own fledging relationships. Accompanied by a beautifully stirring operatic musical score by the great Lesley Barber, and you have the perfect setting that will undoubtedly open many people’s ears to the world of opera when played against so many swinging emotions. Both of these choices weigh heavily on artistic direction for the movie, and it never feels less-superior or limited by the script that is front and center, giving us visuals that are every bit as appealing as the twisting roads that our taking place in front of us.

With any Oscar contending drama, you get no shortage of noteworthy performances, and “Manchester” is certainly no different. Casey Affleck, where have you been all our lives? Affleck has certainly made a name for himself in dramatic turns like “Gone Baby Gone” and his Oscar nomination for “The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford”, but in “Manchester” he is asked to carry more of the load both in screen time and emotional response. Affleck is a mumbling rock at first, but as the film carries more weight on his torturous past, the hands start to move in a ticking time-bomb. Casey plays this role very reserved, but I don’t think it took away from his lasting impression. There isn’t a moment of breakout, runaway glee for his Oscar chances, but his cold embrace of a town and people he shunned long ago asks for the audience’s forgiveness as much as it does those he abandoned, and Affleck is up for the task. There are certainly those characters who we all relate to from time-to-time, but Lee’s similarities to not only my life, but my similar actions left me unsettled and gasping for air in the relatable roads that his character has taken to my own. Besides Affleck, Michelle Williams offers a brief but memorable turn as Affleck’s ex-wife who harbors her own painful memories of the past. Williams sadly isn’t in the movie long, but her ability to shed tears at the drop of a hat should earn her consideration once again as a mainstay in the Best Supporting Actress category. The breakout role of the movie however, is Lucas Hedges as Lee’s sarcastic nephew. The relationship between these two is very engaging for how they banter off of one another, but it’s in those moments of solo scenes where Hedges displays a range far greater than his age. Patrick is someone who doesn’t quite grasp the value of what he has lost, but when he realizes just how alone he is in the world, Hedges is able to turn on the personable charm that makes us intrigued in his full-bodied character. He is proof that teenagers still hold a valuable place in dramatic cinema.

“Manchester By the Sea” treads waters of simple storytelling to offer the audience a complex scenario in love-and-loss. Lonergan’s heavy, ambitious script crashes like waves against the emotional highs and lows of life’s ever-changing stories. A compassion for characters who grieve and receive love to carry on through tragedy. With a hearty performance by Affleck, Lee shows us that life goes on even when it feels impossible.

9/10

Moana

An adventurous teenager sails out on a daring mission to save her people, in Walt Disney’s newest animation gem “Moana”. Three thousand years ago, the greatest sailors in the world voyaged across the vast Pacific, discovering the many islands of Oceania. But then, for a millennium, their voyages stopped and no one knows exactly why. In comes Moana (Auli Cravalho) who sails out on a daring mission to save her people. During her journey, Moana meets the mighty demigod Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson), who guides her in her quest to become a master wayfinder and save her island of loved ones. Together, they sail across the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds, and along the way, Moana fulfills the ancient quest of her ancestors and discovers the one thing she’s always sought: her own identity. “Moana” re-unites the acclaimed team of Ron Clements and John Musker, and is rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements.

Disney hits another home run, as “Moana” is the very best of an unusually exceptional year of animated cinema. A lot of that has to do with its luxurious stylings in breathtaking visuals and colorful palate that crafts one of the most beautiful experiences that you will have at the theater during Oscar season. There’s so much to mention in terms of detailing that goes into Clements and Musker’s picturesque visions and surreal offerings that they capture so effortlessly. The landscapes stretch out as far as the eye can see, creating a Hawaiian paradise that radiates the senses of visual delight. The water layering is precise, and had me questioning several times during the movie if we were actually watching a live action Disney offering. That’s pretty much what the game has come down to; Disney has captivated audiences by their advancements in technology that we never question what is next when we’re constantly raising the bar of animated nirvana. Some of my favorite scenes were those at night, where the physical features of our main protagonists tend to shine a little brighter against the backdrop of a sky full of stars. The physical traits of Maui and Moana get everything right not only in the human touches and feels of physical appearances, but also in that of the actors who voice them. Each is a light exaggeration on their human counterparts, and the design served as a wonderful introduction to two of my favorite animated protagonists ever.

What makes them both so delightful is the chemistry they exuberate with each passing moment. Maui and Moana start off as rivals upon their opening introductions, but it’s so fun to watch them grow as a team, complimenting what the other one lacks. Moana is the brains of the operation. For female moviegoers everywhere, this woman will feel the void left decades prior after some of Disney’s best princesses honed their voices for all to enjoy. What makes Moana so much more is that she isn’t just beautiful, her biggest strength is her ambition to live up to the person she was born to become, and it’s in that quest where her story feels naturally beneficial to the screenplay and smooth run time of 97 minutes. This is a coming out party for Cravalho, a pop star who dons her first acting gig. She inspires this character in ways that we actually witness a transformation physically in the character, despite Cravalho only lending her talents orally. She channels the excitement of being a youth, while harboring the consequences of adult responsibility. Maui is the brawn of the operation, if you couldn’t tell that from his massive physique. Dwayne Johnson is already the most charismatic actor on the planet, but to capture that essence in vocal form truly puts this role above most anything he has done in the past decade. Maui is practically an everyday superhero, but the scenes that brought me the most delight in laughs is when this demi-god lets his guard down and actually expresses cowardice towards the revolving antagonists that invade his comfort zone. Johnson and Cravalho believe in this story because it is a telling of their respective heritage, and therefore make the most sense in a casting agent’s decision.

The screenplay has some faults, mostly in the first act of the movie with some convenient plot devices. I didn’t fault it too much, but two of the problems I had in this area had to do with the curse of the island popping up out of nowhere after hundreds of years, and the diminishing health of a character that literally pops out of nowhere. These things are necessary to the story, but I feel they could’ve been worked in a little smoother with the fast pacing that dominates this movie. The rest of the story is a legitimate feel-good Hawaiian adventure that tells the relics of some of the island’s vast traditions. It’s also kind of great that this movie doesn’t have to waste time with a forced antagonist taking valuable minutes away from the energetic two main protagonists. That’s a surefire sign of confidence that the duo of filmmakers have for this story in heritage, and the creativity flows as smooth as the ocean waters beneath Moana. There’s a great slice for adventure in the revolving backdrops that the movie entails that greatly surprised me. In watching the trailers, I worried that a majority of this movie would take place on a boat, diminishing the possibility of much excitement. I couldn’t be further from the truth. The movie explores several themes and legends that takes our duo through a journey of different characters and landscapes, and it always keeps the intensity of the movie moving, free from settlement.

What Disney film would be legendary however without an amazing soundtrack? Certainly not this one. In addition to the magical duo that not only direct, write and produce this movie, Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda composes a satisfying blend of original songs that will stay in the heads of its audience for years to come. This movie is a mostly musical-dominated picture, so if songs aren’t your thing, you’ve been warned. What’s smart about the musical numbers in this instance is that they are used as exposition and background for our characters when a majority of the movie takes up that musical accompany. This is entertaining us while telling a story, and it echoes the tradition of Disney classics that came before it that hit on that same value. Too many modern musicals pause the flow of the continuity in a movie just to sing a song, but a valuable one will sing and speak at the same time. My personal favorite of the more than ten musical numbers found in the movie is definitely that of Cravalho singing “How Far I’ll Go”, a power ballad about the ocean speaking to Moana reminding her who she is and what she has to do. The lyrical metaphors are strong with this one, and I can see this not only staying in the minds of audiences, but at the very least getting an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song this March.

I did see this film in 3D, but I don’t think spending extra dollars is of much importance with this one. That’s not to say that the sharpening of 3D technology didn’t enhance the outlining work of characters, but there’s really nothing of noteworthy praise in eye-popping effects work that justifies this being a must-see in third-dimension. Even in 2D, the movie’s endless beauty will be more than enough to justify a theater engagement into this vibrant world.

“Moana” is beautifully structured, musically sound, and most importantly entertaining. Anchored by a duo of actors paying tribute to their heritage, this feels like an authentic slice of homegrown animated entertainment that Disney has captured in spades. It reminds us that to become the person we were destined to become, it only takes a little courage and a venture into a world that tingles the imagination. “Moana” will be a permanent fixture of the DVD and Blu-Ray replay button in parental homes from this point forward.

9/10

The Edge of Seventeen

The ever-changing world of a teenage girl fuels thoughts of isolation during “The Edge of Seventeen”. Within this film is a new coming-of-age movie in the vein of “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club”, an honest, candid, often hilarious look at what it’s like to grow up as a young woman in today’s modern world. Everyone knows that growing up is hard, and life is no easier for high school junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), who is already at peak awkwardness when her all-star older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) starts dating her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). All at once, Nadine feels more alone than ever, until the unexpected friendship of a thoughtful boy (Hayden Szeto) gives her a glimmer of hope that things just might not be so terrible after all. “The Edge of Seventeen” is written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, and is rated R for sexual content, adult language and some drinking, all involving minors.

For a first time film director, Kelly Fremon Craig transports us to the times that we now claim were so much simpler, and gives us an almost therapeutic reflection on teenage awkwardness. “The Edge of Seventeen” is a film that has been getting a lot of critical acclaim for its material that feels like it picks up the pages of a script where John Hughes left off in the 80’s, and while the comparison is certainly there for this dramedy that tackles so much, I look at Craig’s film as something so much more. During an era when teenage films feel more focused on the trends and the social media frenzy, “The Edge of Seventeen” offers a candid opportunity for all ages of the moviegoer spectrum to strap down for study hall once more and take us back to the basics of adolescent storytelling. This is a movie with outstanding crossover appeal, and that is because we all relate to the same things that we all go through for those four awkward years that feel like they never go fast enough. This one is never time-stamped for a certain day and age. It is a movie that is made in 2016, but never limits itself to just that, as it focuses on a grander scale on such issues as loneliness, depression, lust, alcohol and jealousy to name a few. These are authentic teenage problems that rely upon authentic teenage conversations, and something as simple as that can sometimes get lost in translation with these movies, but thankfully Craig has had her high school moment a time or two.

Going into this movie, Hailee Steinfeld was probably the last person who I saw in this role, and while my stance hasn’t changed much because of her physical attributes, Steinfeld does prove that she belongs with her most emotionally distributed performance to date. As Nadine, Steinfeld offers a personality that is equally as immature as she is crass, and there’s never a moment when she doesn’t take a second to lash out at the society that has shunned her. This may sound unpleasant, but I found her to be quite refreshing because there are some truths to the observations she cast in her life. All any story ever needs is that little bit of truth, and we as an audience see that through Nadine’s daily lessons. Because of a smart screenplay and performance, all of Nadine’s problems feel like the end of her world that is crumbling down, only to suppress those negatives for the next thing that pops up. Teenagers can be borderline A.D.D, and this script’s decision to flow at that level is one of precise brilliance in execution. Blake Jenner is also delightful as Nadine’s blessed older brother. It feels like Jenner will be a one trick pony until a finale that builds a side to the nagging older brother that we aren’t used to seeing. The radiance of Steinfeld and Jenner echoing off of each other feels believable, but more importantly it feels like a release of building tensions, and it makes for the best series of dialogue for both actors in their young careers. Far and away however, Woody Harrelson once again steals the show in a supporting role. Harrelson’s career has been seen in a different light lately, with positive supporting roles that have shone another delightful layer to the charismatic actor. The relationship between he and Steinfeld is something we have seen in other movies, but what gives it that zest of irresistibility is Harrelson’s transformation from student to friend. A very blurred line in student/teacher policies in 2016, but one of comfort for this particular offering for the delightful back-and-forth between them. Woody feels like the reality check for Nadine’s shallow one-track mind, and there simply wasn’t enough time in this movie to see them share the stage together.

The pacing is sound, omitting 97 minutes of sheer delight that never feels rushed or struggling to feel captivating. There’s plenty here to always keep the transitions smooth, and that feels dependent upon well written characters, as well as timely strategies for where Nadine’s story takes us now that the distance between her and Krista feels imminent. I am happy to say that I never once checked my watch during this movie, and there are probably five other films in 2016 where I have achieved a similar feat, a rare testament to entertaining cinema that always keeps moving.

As I mentioned before, the screenplay is never really focused on just one aspect to the teenage experience, educating and reminding audiences on the complexity to teenage thought process that bridges the age gap in the audience watching. This movie offered a lot of laughs for me, but they weren’t just laughs in the concept of something funny transpiring on-screen, they were a yearbook full of hilariously embarrassing moments that I myself have memories of. If there is one problem to this concept, I was never once surprised at anything the movie unloaded on. Part of that is because I lived through it, but the other part is because everything is unnecessarily choreographed so you see something coming miles before our protagonist does. I did feel great empathy during the third act when so many ideals and dreams change for Nadine. That first taste of adulthood is laid upon our young leading lady, and it hurls an unsettling cloud of clarity in her face that will open her eyes forever to the things that are really important. That is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this script; the fact that Nadine can become a better person. Something I’m sadly not so confident in with a majority of the youth today. The movie proves that we must find our own crowds to blend with, and sometimes it pops up in the least likely of fantasy scenarios. Something that Craig never sugarcoats or glamorizes with her audience. This is a teenage story written by a female perspective. Something that Hollywood still doesn’t have enough of in 2016.

Overall, “The Edge of Seventeen” is a reunion of what made teenage dramedies a mainstay during the 80’s; likeable characters and a lack of protective cloud to ever humiliate them. Through a journey of self-appreciation for our main character that emphasizes her isolation, Craig’s snapshot of modern youth feels like it has such a loud voice for such simple ideals in execution for a poignant coming-of-age story. This is “Sixteen Candles” with one to grow on for that final year of youth before everything changes.

9/10

Hacksaw Ridge

The trials and tribulations of war are tough enough, but made nearly impossible when a young soldier decides against using a weapon in battle. “Hacksaw Ridge” is the extraordinary true story of conscientious collaborator Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a US army medic who, in Okinawa during the bloodiest battle of World War II, saved 75 men without firing or carrying a single gun. He believed the war was just, but killing was nevertheless wrong; therefore he was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon. As an army medic, Doss single-handedly evacuated the wounded from behind enemy lines, braved fire while tending to soldiers and was wounded by a grenade and hit by snipers. He was the first conscientious objector to ever earn the Congressional Medal of Honor by Harry S Truman for saving the lives of 75 soldiers throughout the war. “Hacksaw Ridge” is directed by Mel Gibson, and is rated R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images.

Mel Gibson has certainly proven that he is a more-than capable director with efforts in “Apocalypse”, “Braveheart” and “The Passion of the Christ”, but with “Hacksaw Ridge”, he may have capitalized on his most decorated of achievements to date. This movie is a brutal gut-punch to anyone who firmly supports war activities. An anti-war film that is filmed in such a brutal and hostile manner to present disturbing imagery that really drives a stake through the audience in a safe theater. Many movies fail to capture that dread and feeling of despair in the material they are trying to convey, but Gibson’s personal touch here in atmospheric tension that builds to a resounding blast really kept me on the edge of my seat for just over two hours of jaw-dropping display. This is simply one of those movies that has to be seen if you believe we all serve a purpose in anything, whether it’s big or small. A little engine that could on the battlefield if you will, and it’s clear from Gibson’s direction that this story (like its lead character) has a lot of steam to keep this train rolling.

The story kicks off shadowing the history of Garfield’s character. Right away, we start to understand that his stance on violence and taking a life go much further than a quivering stomach. With his firm belief in the sixth commandment, Garfield’s Doss believes that killing shouldn’t be in the hands of men, supplanting a responsibility for something much greater than them. These scenes went a long way in relating the mental position and beliefs from Doss before one round of ammunition is ever fired in this movie. That’s simple yet brilliant storytelling from a narrative aspect because we are injected with the same kind of feelings and knowledge that our protagonist has. Even the violence hound out there will fully grasp the shock factor of taking a life, something that Gibson showcases as a life-altering event that’s consequences aren’t just at face value. The background of Doss feels slightly rushed, with him being a worker in his Mother’s church, engaged to a beautiful woman he met only days prior, and enlisting into the army all in a half hour window. I can understand this position from an introductory standpoint, and that doesn’t bother me. What does is how these characters are never heard from again halfway into the movie. It’s like Gibson just drops them without any further reaction on Doss’s mental well-being. The story does keep moving at a strongly paced command, but I could’ve used a little more input from time-to-time with what was going on in Doss’s home world without him.

Then it happened. Halfway into the movie, this whole attitude and tone of the movie takes a turn for chaotic when we get our first real taste of war, and it sure is a jarring one. It’s clear to understand why the love story and family living of Doss is played so softly up to this point, so that the impact from the change in scenery really shakes its audience. The action sequences are impressive, piloting some of the very best sound editing and mixing that I have heard in an entire year of audio spectacles. I felt my auditorium seat rumble with every blast that our cast walk through, creating a private hell that feels very much as intimidating as it does claustrophobic. The visuals and set pieces here are breathtaking, communicating the landscapes of Okinawa to a tee. There was a personal feeling of walking into a land where predictability has been thrown out of the window, and that couldn’t ring more true than to see several of the soldiers that we have gotten to know and understand to this point, brutally slaughtered with little to no remorse or lasting reaction. My only slight critique in the war scenes was that of the bullet wounds that looked terrible when compared to the detailed practical effects of the gore. The choice to make the bullet wounds a CGI effect complete with computer blood really distracted me from staying fully embraced in this tense and locked situation that I was in, and I would’ve preferred they played it from a practical standpoint all around.

As far as the performances go, this is a well-rounded cast of fresh faces and film veterans alike, playing against stereotype. It was certainly nice to see Vince Vaughn back in the taking of a serious role here, as his display of Sergeant Howell is the perfect hard-ass to play against our likeable lead. Vaughn has a real father figure sense to him when all is said and done. There’s a great sadness to training kids for weeks only to send them off to be more-than-likely killed. While the quick-wits of Vaughn still resonates in this role, what made me a believer in his delivery was just how menacing he could be when a character is on the opposite side. I also greatly enjoyed the spirited Garfield as our main character. I was a little worried early on about how soft this character was being portrayed, but the transformation into a heroic alter-ego is one of great patience and timing that Garfield puppeteers into his best performance to date. Garfield has some truly heroic moments that show off the greatness that this actor is capable of, and I certainly hope this and last year’s “99 Homes” is a turning point in the career of this promising kid. The best performance leaps and bounds for me however, was the great Hugo Weaving once again stealing the show with less than forty minutes of actual screen time. Weaving plays the father of Doss, so we know immediately the kind of hard ass that this guy most likely is, and our suspicions are confirmed with endless drinking and violence that has rubbed off in detrimental ways to his family. Weaving’s performance here is so gripping because he is our first and only proof during the first act of what war can do to a man. In him, we see a weathered and regretful presence that finds trouble in even passing as a shell of a man anymore, and with more time Hugo could’ve garnered a best supporting actor nomination at next year’s Oscars.

Gibson’s choice to paint “Hacksaw Ridge” as an anti-war film is one not only of great restraint, but great precision in the differences in worlds that he carefully constructs. This movie is not one for the faintly hearted, and the frightening visuals serve as a warning to what kind of history we are doomed to face if we don’t seek the change in the world that we desire. With a little more focus on the homefront to play opposite of Garfield’s harrowing display, “Hacksaw Ridge” not only would’ve been Gibson’s best, not only would’ve been a perfect ten, but it would’ve been possibly the best film of 2016. Like war though, this one will always haunt me for that of what I witnessed. Such urgency in passionate patriotism and religious conviction craft a heroes story that breathes optimism for a better future.

9/10

Queen of Katwe

One girl’s triumph over a popular board game has her fighting to change the perception of her country, one move at a time. In “Queen of Katwe”, For 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) and her family, life in the impoverished slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda, is a constant struggle. When Phiona meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a soccer player turned missionary who teaches local children chess, she is captivated. Chess requires a good deal of concentration, strategic thinking and risk taking, all skills which are applicable in everyday life, and Katende hopes to empower youth with the game. Phiona is impressed by the intelligence and wit the game requires and immediately shows potential. Recognizing Phiona’s natural aptitude for chess and the fighting spirit she’s inherited from her mother, Katende begins to mentor her, but Harriet, Phiona’s Mother (Lupita Nyong’o) is reluctant to provide any encouragement, not wanting to see her daughter disappointed. As Phiona begins to succeed in local chess competitions, she quickly advances through the ranks in tournaments, but breaks away from her family to focus on her own life. “Queen of Katwe” is directed by Mira Nair, and is rated PG for thematic elements, an accident scene and some suggestive material.

There was a time when Disney live action movies weren’t painted with the same embarrassing cliches and directions that they are today. Films like “Cool Runnings” and “Miracle” earned the kind of noteworthy praise from critics that carried over to older and younger audiences alike. Mira Nair seems like a director who has certainly done her homework on her subject, and as a result, “Queen of Katwe” is the most inspiring story of 2016. Nair certainly knows what to focus the audience’s attention on, juggling an entertaining counterbalance between this girl’s life on and off the chess board. It’s really in the hands of the audience to decide which story is at the forefront and which one is the subplot for the movie, but I took this as a miracles tale about the quality of life in a poor country that just happens to cross paths with the chess world. To play those two story aspects equally in time grants this movie the kind of sound pacing over two hours of run time that perfectly transforms everything that we had hoped or expected this movie to be. What I got was a sound surprise for an early fall favorite.

For a Disney movie, Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler certainly don’t shy away from the darker aspects of this story that makes it relatable and compelling. Phiona’s story is one of great anxiety and torture for where she lives and respectively her quality of lifestyle, and that’s always a hard thing to communicate to an audience known to be sugar coated by this studio. It takes great bravery not only for Disney, but for Nair as well to take a chance on such a story that not only is tough to translate to a PG rating, but a story that doesn’t have the greatest level of intrigue for someone outside of these two worlds. I was genuinely fascinated between two branches of storytelling that isn’t always easy to make entertaining. As a chess player myself, I tend to be drawn to these kind of movies, but what impresses me about the stance taken here is how chess is relayed as a metaphor for power to the audience watching. This really is a game of war and power that comes from these tiny pieces on the board, and it’s in that aspect where Wheeler crafts a world within a world led by one enjoyable protagonist. With the Uganda setting, I indulged in the cultures and the traumas that every family and child go through on a daily basis. This really is a movie that shows you what a blessing it is to have what we have, and it does that without ever feeling preachy or condemning. Over the course of the movie, you really begin to accept just how difficult it is for these kids to ever follow a dream when everyone has already written them off for their social standing. That’s an aspect in tone that makes the characters and their acting counterparts one of great enjoyment.

This well rounded cast brings out the best in every character they portray. Oscar winner Nyong’o transcends the supporting actress stereotype in these movies by bringing a real positive female role for the audience to admire. What I loved about her character is how stern, yet loving she comes across to her children, hoping they will avoid the same mistakes that she made early on in her life. Lupita is an actress who thrives on any stage, but her commanding presence as Nakku grounds this story in harrowing reality that never disappoints. Madina Nalwanga also gives an irresistibly warrior-like introduction to what she brings to the table. This girl’s reserved personality makes her triumph that much more magnetic when we finally do see her enjoy her winner’s ecstasy. I found myself unabashedly rooting her on during every match, and that’s a difficult thing for a movie to do for a 31 year-old-man. The reasoning behind such a talent goes to Nalwanga who relates the very spirit of what it means to be a kid who takes nothing for granted. Leaps and bounds for me however, was David Oyelowo, who covers this movie in a blanket of tender care for the children he believes in. Sadly, most of these kids are seen without a father figure in the movie, but David’s Robert is the difference for many lives that rely on his teaching and guidance. Oyelowo himself is quickly becoming a versatile actor in the many characters he has embraced, but what stands this role out above the rest is the interaction between he and the kids who look up to him as a god without being arrogant. He serves as kind of a co-narrator of sorts for the movie’s on-going plot, so we understand every movement that goes into him opening up a new world for those who waived goodbye to optimism a long time ago. David’s personality comes out on more than one occasion, and it’s certainly easy to understand what a project like this means to him.

As far as the technical aspects go, the movie has some hits and misses. The cinematography here is gorgeous, displaying some mesmerizing shots of Uganda and the surrounding countries that the children visit. Some of the problems that I noticed about the movie didn’t hinder its grade too much, but there are some more-than noticeable negatives. First of all the voice editing or ADR is very lagging for the movie. You can definitely tell that the actors had to edit in some audio takes after filming was wrapped up, as a lot of the mouth movements simply don’t add up to the vocal ranges that come out of some of these shouting or crying scenes. This created some minor distractions as the movie continued, and something that simple should definitely be fixed in post production. The first act also feels slightly rushed due to some rapid editing. Scenes feel like they are cut a little too quickly, cutting off long-winded dialogue that you can tell is coming from the facial movements of the cast. Thankfully, this problem fixed itself by the halfway point of the movie. I can only imagine how much was left on the cutting room floor because of it.

Nair and her ensemble cast flourish with an underdog story that never feels artificial or manipulative by a studio known for such a direction. “Queen of Katwe” commands great originality in its story that serves as a shot to the heart of anyone fortunate enough to take it in. An inspiring feature that never overstays its welcome. Disney has a new queen of the castle, and her name is Phiona Mutesi.

9/10

Don’t Breathe

The heist to steal two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars comes at a price of life and death by a handicap veteran out to protect his property. In “Don’t Breathe”, the new psychological thriller from Screen Gems, we meet Rocky (Jane Levy), a teenage delinquent living with neglectful parents, who promises her younger sister Diddy (Emma Bircovici) that they will start their own lives together and move away from their dysfunctional family. Looking for the right amount of cash to run away with in order to do so, her boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), convinces her to break into the home of a blind man (Stephen Lang) who supposedly has a safe in the basement. After breaking into the house in the middle of the night with their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette), they discover that the blind man is not as helpless as he seems, and soon find themselves in a game of cat-and-mouse with a man willing and ready to kill all three at the drop of a sound. “Don’t Breathe” is written and directed by Fede Alvarez, and is rated R for terror, violence, disturbing content, and adult language including sexual references.

“Don’t Breathe” is a grasp of tension-filled air that never lets you down in the number of solid thrills and brutal consequences that it delivers. It’s a three-course meal of claustrophobia, strong pacing, and an unsettling musical score by Roque Banos, that never disappoints in setting the eerie tone for the movie and its characters. After coming out of this movie, I have to say that the sky is the limit for Director Fede Alvarez. This guy has been the talk of the town since creating an actual solid remake out of “Evil Dead”, and Fede was wise enough to team back up with Jane Levy for this movie, as the two of them create a solid 1-2 punch of realism within characters, as well as solid direction from Alvarez, which never fails his projects. In my opinion, “Don’t Breathe” (As dumb a title as that is) is the best in the young career of this promising director. This movie feels like something that could be made so simply, but Alvarez takes his time crafting a slow burn game of emotional puppet strings with his audience. What results is a well crafted shriek-fest to end out the Summer movie season.

What’s different for a movie like this and the script it entails, is that it makes its characters feel very human in dissection. People are going to have a difficult time deciding which side to take on this moral dilemma, and even my vote was changed on more than one occasion, with the ever-changing creativity within this script. Piece by piece, this movie does the kinds of things that “The Collector” never could with its characters; never substituting personal development for brutality in dozens. Throughout the crisp 83 minute runtime, Alvarez stuffs this screenplay with enough drama and troubled pasts among our characters to always keep the audience guessing on their motivations, as well as likeability. In addition to the twists and turns, there is a big bombshell dropped with about twenty minutes left of this movie that I can happily say I didn’t see coming. I did have another theory for what was the big reveal that so many critics have discussed, but I’m happy to be wrong on this one. A script that is anything but predictable is always a good touch in any modern-day chiller, and “Don’t Breathe” always kept me on the edge of my seat for the guessing game.

I want to talk a little bit about the atmospheric tension here because it’s structurally sound. Besides the borderline obvious foreshadowing of making the movie in Detroit for the positives of an abandon location, the movie casts an entrancing cloud of claustrophobic anxiety that never loosens its grip on the audience. This is Hitchcock levels of silence that makes it easy to transform and lose ourselves within the details of every situational horror that this trio of crooks find themselves in. The film toes a line of creaks and thumps, and it always succeeds in making the audience view the movie a little quieter in their experience. I am thankful that my audience was respectable for this movie, as it made the experience even easier to lose myself in. The film does have some jump scares, but it makes sense in how they are delivered here, as opposed to a typical horror movie granting a basketball the same kind of physical heft as a two-hundred pound man. I mentioned earlier that Banos score here is transfixing, and that’s mostly because it’s within his notes where the movie leans on its tension. Any great film needs a score to captivate it even further, but what Banos does here is ominously eerie. The film is played so quiet that I questioned several times if I just heard a sound or instrument injected into the scene. It’s subtle in delivery, but immense is payoff, and this film simply wouldn’t be the same without Roque’s capability to hold the audience in his hands, juggling their emotions with every surprise visually.

My only slight problem with the movie was in the obvious foreshadowing of some storyline elements that are introduced early on in the film. I won’t spoil anything for the readers, but there were more than a couple occasions where something popped up that we spent an obvious minute or two on, only to see it magically make sense later on. This gives the movie an ounce of predictability that I could’ve done without. I understand some elements of symbolism and irony within the constant changing of locations and opportunities for escape within the house, but it sometimes paints an unnecessary picture for what’s coming next. Thankfully, this movie does an opening foreshadowing scene better than others, as very little is given away with where we end up 83 minutes later. Other than this, there wasn’t an aspect that I didn’t enjoy in the movie, and that even includes a young cast that go above and beyond the directing from a top-class director.

Jane Levy once again magnifies the most out of her troubled characters. You realize that there shouldn’t be as much to the characters she plays, but it’s Jane’s ability to capture the very essence of fright within a scene that makes her one of the most sought after horror/suspense actresses working today. Dylan Minnette is someone who has always played it safe to me in the roles he takes on, but here he takes a necessary risk that paid off brilliantly for the young adult. The chemistry behind Levy and Minnette is orchestrated beautifully between them, giving us something early on to root for when they are together, even if they are a couple of scum bags alone. The performance of the night however, goes to Stephen Lang for his portrayal of a blind man that felt very authentic. Lang channels an inner sorrow to his already tragic visual appearance, and you really feel for this man who is permanently in the dark, fighting out against an unseen enemy that breaks into his territory. What I loved most about Lang’s performance is the air of menace that poked out a little bit at a time, setting up a cat-and-mouse game that got very physical and unsettling in the film’s finale. There were things about Lang that made me legitimately uneasy, and that’s the mark of any good antagonist….if you can call him that.

Overall, “Don’t Breathe” is a wonderfully paced exercise in quiet plotting that feels sharp and savvy for its tribute to classic horror films that always put tension first. With Alvarez’s newest winner, we see all of the pieces in the beginning, but the real charm is watching them being put together by a cast whose emotional register is only surpassed by the brutality they entail. A satisfying home invasion thriller that never overstays its welcome.

9/10

Kubo and the Two Strings

A quiet musician lives up to his destiny as the greatest samurai warrior that the world has ever known, in “Kubo and the Two Strings”. The latest visual masterpiece from acclaimed animation studio LAIKA, introduces us to Clever, kindhearted Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) eeking out a humble living, telling stories to the people of his seaside town including Hosato (George Takei), Akihiro (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), and Kameyo (Brenda Vaccaro). But his relatively quiet existence is shattered when he accidentally summons a spirit from his past which storms down from the heavens to enforce an age-old vendetta. Now on the run, Kubo joins forces with Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), and sets out on a thrilling quest to save his family and solve the mystery of his fallen father, the greatest samurai warrior the world has ever known. With the help of his shamisen a magical musical instrument Kubo must battle gods and monsters, including the vengeful Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and the evil twin Sisters (Rooney Mara), to unlock the secret of his legacy, reunite his family, and fulfill his heroic destiny. The film is directed by Laika favorite Travis Knight, and is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril.

Laika Studios hits another home run on the visual spectacle, with their newest feature film. This is 97 minutes of pure entertainment on every measurement of the film presentation. This movie really ignited a fire emotionally within me, and that inspiration hit the mark on all kinds of feelings for the characters and this story. The movie’s fine combination of heartfelt drama, combined with thoughtful comedic timing and bedtime story essence in display, really triggered a nostalgic feeling for the kinds of films that I grew up with as a child. Movies like “Fern Gully” or “The Pagemaster” made us believe that anything could happen, and the magical display of spiritual enlightenment really channels a pleasurable innocence that carries most of the film to new heights, even for the amazing Laika. What I really love about this story is that it’s filmed as an animated movie for children, but exists within a world where adult-like themes are very much commonplace for the characters. This is a world where death is very much permanent, but the altercation with the magical themes and arts really gives something admirable for the whole family. I do believe that this movie will reach more positivity with a young teen/adult audience, simply because some of the themes (E.I, reincarnation) might go over the heads of a younger audience who aren’t quite developed enough to take it all in.

As with any Laika movie, the visual feast to take in is both plentiful and satisfying for anyone who takes on this adventure. The kinds of details and production that goes into creating five minutes of footage is simply mind-boggling, and those of you reading this should definitely stay till the end of the credits to witness a thirty second short feature on how one of the more ambitious scenes is documented. Everything here works for the very feel and tone of the Samurai landscape in Asian territory, to add surreal style to the heartfelt story that it entails. What I love is when Laika will take a movie that is shot in stop-motion clay-mation, and blend it with a practical prop from our own world. An example of this is in a scene where our protagonists are enjoying a meal at sea, and the fish that is chopped up by Monkey is 100% authentic. This gives the movie a feeling of breaking the creative fourth wall, alongside the blending of the two worlds that are separated by a screen. I also thought that the 3D aspect of the movie gave a lot of eye-popping features that justifies spending the additional couple bucks to see it. Some of my favorite aspects of this tool involved the rain playing to the foreground, opposite of our characters who are in the background of its surrounding nature. I also really enjoyed the film’s use of third-dimensional paper effects that really make the stories that Kubo tells come to life for the audience at home. It’s a surreal aspect to the movie that puts the audience front and center among the town people who are listening to his fables, and the it makes for a smooth transition to fully engulf yourself in this world and these characters.

Those very people make some of the slower paced scenes of the movie a lot easier to get through, as this film puts characters first to its video game structuring. As the film progresses, you really start to see the bigger picture with Monkey and Beetle, proving themselves to be the family that Kubo has always longed for. The movie’s very important emphasis on family and what it means in terms of the very survival, as well as ethical fabric of ones upbringing. These two anti-human characters felt more human than a lot of the actual human characters that you get in an animated feature, and it was impossible not to feel touched by how much they grow together as the journey goes on. At the beginning of the third act, the film does put everything into perspective, as a surprising twist really kind of defines everything about these characters that we have been wondering about up to this time. Some of you may see this coming from miles away, but it honestly opened my eyes to the beautifully sound storytelling and respect that Laika has for these characters.

On the subject of voice work, McConaughey is tops. Don’t get me wrong, Charlize Theron and Art Parkinson are the very heart to the movie’s pulse. But Matthew is nearly lost in his role as Beetle, and quite often I had to remind myself that this was the same man with one of the most distinguishable voices in all of Hollywood. Matthew’s character is very etched in comic delivery and silliness, but there’s a subtle layering of heart, and one of a protector to Kubo. We notice his honorable intentions early on, and everything after is simply a comforting example of great character exposition piece by piece. Theron is also a joy, involving herself to two different characters within the movie. Theron’s motherly instincts really go a long way to how she prepares for Monkey, but it’s in her stern delivery where you know this character can get physical at the drop of a sword. Fourteen-year-old Art Parkinson’s coming of age in this picture really captures the essence and innocence of Kubo, especially as you hear his fear orally turn to rage by the film’s climax. This is very much a boy who is fighting to hold on to the last shred of family that he has left, and I found myself cheering emphatically for his survival. His possession of this magical gift of powerful storytelling is not only cool in detail, but seductive in visual stylings. We often forget that Kubo is just a little boy, and that is because Parkinson really elevates his status as something more than JUST another child actor.

If there was one aspect of the movie that I had a slight critique in, it was with the lack of storytelling for the movie’s antagonist. Voiced by the great Ralph Fiennes, the character is used as nothing more than an afterthought for fast-flowing trip that our trio pursue. There are mentions about his character and history throughout the film, but it makes a lot more sense to show this aspect even accompanying visual storytelling. When he finally does appear, there’s very little time left to make a meaningful impact, and that’s made even more evident by his appearance in animal form. This animation isn’t terrible, but it just doesn’t blend well with the look and tone that a Laika movie creates. It feels very one-dimensional cartoonish, and I would’ve preferred the character in human form to give the final confrontation a human conflict among the very magical staples that the movie uses. It would’ve returned it to where it needs to be. No special effects, just man versus boy.

Overall, “Kubo and the Two Strings” strums a captivating story, rich in emotional range, and luxurious in creative design. The film is very much a transcendent breakthrough for the animation genre, and it’s whimsical warning on the adventurous but dangerous side of magic serves us well with a child protagonist living in a world with very real consequences. To quote my favorite line of the movie; “If you must blink, do it now.”. This is one film that you will want to engage audibly and visually from start to finish. A delightful bedtime story that will never put you to sleep.

9/10

Stranger Things (Season 1)

Stranger Things (Season 1 review)

“Stranger Things” is A love letter to the ’80s classics that captivated a generation. This Netflix exclusive is set in 1983 Indiana, in a small rural town where a young boy named Will Byers (Played by Noah Schnapp) vanishes into thin air. As friends, family and local police search for answers, they are drawn into an extraordinary mystery involving top-secret government experiments, terrifying supernatural forces and one very strange little girl who harbors a secret of her own.

Netflix fires on every cylinder, with its latest ode to the 1980’s Sci-fi cinema. “Stranger Things” and The Duffer Brothers (Show creators) certainly knows its audience well, borrowing many coincidences and tone feeling from films like “It”, “ET” and even “Stand By Me”, but it never feels insulting or overdone. It is a visual delight, as well as an original take on the Sci-Fi genre that has a very wide crossover appeal with many different kinds of audiences. This is very much a tribute to that era in cinema where kids stories were treated with an adult layering. Nothing here feels silly or comical, despite the existence of outside worlds and kids battling them. For a mere eight episodes, this is simply a presentation that is too beautiful not to immerse yourself in, and along the way you will enjoy several coincidences that makes this one feel like it was left on the shelves for thirty years, only to be discovered today. There were so many things that I felt were noteworthy of this opening season, and it has me impatiently waiting for a second helping sometime in 2017.

First of all, the cinematography is gorgeous. With so many callbacks to the 80’s and that grainy overall design in picture quality, “Stranger Things” sets the tone accordingly with lots of panning shots that were well known for the time. The production team uses sharp lighting to coincide with the very feel of the antagonists, especially in the lab scenes, which involve a fine use of shadows and neon lighting to grasp the feeling that something is very wrong here. Even the opening credits take the time to set the mood for a very haunting bedtime story that while not always scary, does offer some solid frights along the way. There’s also a very faithful telling of the fashion trends and interiors for that time. The horror posters are a cool wink to anyone who knows where the very influences of this show are coming from, but my personal favorite is in the attention to detail that came with the television sets, cord style phones, and show vehicles that never tripped up once in presenting automobiles made circa 1983.

The music in this show is breathtaking. The Neo-synth pop score composed by Austin, Texas native band Survive constructs a beautiful nightmare that resonates within the walls of such a mysterious land and people within it go a long way in pacing the audience for what’s coming behind every discovery. Some of my personal favorites besides the opening credits launch, were that of the bicycle chase scene in episode six, as well as some of the soundtrack choices, which were very etched in 80’s radio favorites. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” By The Clash will never be looked at in the same light again. It is very haunting playing alongside the communication to this outside world known as The Upside Down. After 2015’s “It Follows” made 80’s cinema fun again, this musical score takes that concept to new heights, offering a pulsating thrill throughout eight episodes of advanced storytelling.

And what storytelling it is, with many television stages of adult and children crossing over to create a beautiful medium in between. The show is wise enough not to give away all of its answers within the opening season, and there’s plenty to feel satisfied with upon this initial offering. The monster is very creative, and the cast are given plenty to do. The series is mostly divided into three different protagonist story arcs; The adults (Led by David Harbour and Winona Ryder), The teenagers (Led by Charlie Heaton and Cara Buono), and the kids (Led by Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin). What’s great is that unlike most shows, The Duffer Brothers offer a comfortable compromise between the three groups to make them all equally interesting and important to the show’s unfolding mystery. Each group of the trilogy works on something different, and it never disturbs or interrupts the other, throwing off the continuous flow.

If I had one problem with the show, it’s in the fast paced editing during the monster scenes, which felt a little rushed. I understand the concept of not wanting to show much of the monster until the end of the season, but this choppy editing left me very underwhelmed at understanding what kind of force we’re dealing with here. It almost feels like everyone in the show knows what it is and I don’t, despite being right next to them through all of this chaos. It’s a small problem in a bigger and much greater delivery, but I feel like a little more wouldn’t have killed the momentum and intrigue that the audience had in these developments.

But leaps and bounds above everything else, the cast is by far the tastiest piece of entertaining pie from this eight course dinner. Very rarely are the kids the best part of any show, but the chemistry and comedic charisma to bounce well off of each other was evident. There are more than a few lines which gave me whole-hearted laughter without ever ruining the chilling tone of the forefront. Millie Bobby Brown steals the show, giving an adult performance for such a tender age of 14. A lot of the audience’s interest relies on her delivery, and I could never get enough of the way fear overcomes her in every scene. She’s got a lot of secrets within her powerful capabilities, but still very vulnerable with what she sees that no one else can or has. My favorite character though, was definitely David Harbour’s Police chief Jim Hopper. With any character who has a regretful past, you always feel great empathy for that character, but Harbour takes it one step further with the eerie coincidences that this small town now faces that relates eerily to what his deceased daughter went through. This feels like a second chance for Hopper, and he decides early on that he has to make the most of it. It’s nice to see Harbour in a main role for once, as he’s usually the villain in every movie he’s in.

“Stranger Things” achieves even higher heights within the Netflix realm that has already triumphed so much in changing how we view television shows. It’s a well paced, beautifully constructed throwback chiller that will bring horror and Sci-Fi fans together for eight episodes of sheer brilliance. “Stranger Things” has happened before, but its compelling storytelling offers viewers a nostalgic piece of fantasy that will call back to the days of being a kid again.

9/10

 

Swiss Army Man

The definitions of true friendship are stretched in this disarmingly original tale by directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. In “Swiss Army Man”, we meet Hank (Paul Dano), a lonely man on the verge of suicide, who is stranded on a deserted island, having given up all hope of ever making it home again. His prognosis for any sprout of life seems void, But one day everything changes when a corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore; and the two become fast friends, and ultimately go on an epic adventure that will bring Hank back to Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the woman of his dreams. Propelled by Manny’s overabundance of flatulence that is being used as a jet-ski (Yes you read that correct), as well as his boner being used as a compass to return to society (Once again, still reading that right), the two form the strangest of bonds that takes us through a heartwarming journey on the importance of surrounding ourselves with people we love. This dramatic comedy is rated R for adult language and sexual material.

Coming out of Sundance last year, this movie was known as “The farting movie”, and to label this film as such reveals to me that: 1. That’s click bait for that particular article, and 2. Those people didn’t fully grasp the deep meaning beneath the unorthodox traits that this movie presented. The farting and boner aspects are only a small percentage of the bigger spectrum that this movie presents itself. They really serve as the something different that puts the butts in the seats, but it’s something bigger hiding beneath the moral compass that makes you stay. One could take a lot from it’s deeper qualities, but to me I saw the movie turning the mirror around on us as a society and revealing how we view others who are deemed as “different”. What’s not acceptable in our society is carried through like motions in a courthouse, and the team of Kwan and Scheinert really communicate how frustrating it is to obide by everybody else’s comforts. What’s refreshing about the way that the movie toys with our ridiculous methods of living and interacting with others is that it slowly navigates through every ridiculous thing we view as strange, often limiting our own ways of communicating love and other emotions. The fear of loneliness is also a big aspect in this movie, and sometimes it’s that monster that forces us to seek out companionship in the strangest of places. This is one of the smartest scripts that I have seen all year, and a lot of that boils down to it’s simplicity.

Clocking in at 90 minutes, the movie rarely ever drags or feels like a chore to watch, mainly because the story (Like our characters) is constantly moving on its journey to happiness. During the second act of the movie, I wasn’t particularly bored, but some of the setups don’t always receive the greatest results in life lessons. They are all very valuable, just some things are focused on for more time than they really deserve, causing the continuity flow to kind of halt in its tracks. This was really the lone problem that I had with the film, as everything with the movie’s technical aspects were perfect.

The sound mixing and editing is very on-point, with several scenes creating kind of a jump or garnering a legitimate concern for our characters in this brutal atmosphere. What the sound composition does is reminds us that this is a dangerous place that this man (Dano) has been cast away on, and the movie uses impactful snaps and thuds for the various scenes when our characters feel a little too big for their forest britches. I also greatly enjoyed the lightning fast transitional montage sequences, as they all feel in-sync with the kinds of rhythms and movements that the story’s creativity has going for it. The way that these scenes mingle with the ingeniously creative musical score is simply as compelling as the friendship between our two main protagonists. What the music does in this film plays an important role with really putting the audience in the moment alongside Dano and Radcliffe. All of the music comes from their own heads, and usually starts as mumble coming from their own mouths. It slowly builds louder into a triumphant musical narrative for the happiness that these men are instilling within each other, and I never stopped humming in the same monotonous manor that Radcliffe did.

Make no mistake about it, this is the single greatest friendship movie of our own current era. This is our Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There’s a borderline romance between Hank and Manny’s growing chemistry, and I was ready for wherever their special union was prepared to take us. The double Daniels really have to make that friendship inviting to the audience, otherwise all will be lost with the film, and it all results in a story that you can root for while feeling every single emotion on the register that you can imagine. I laughed, worried and even teared up a little for our characters, and it takes two compelling performances to really make the investment feel justifiable. Paul Dano’s performance is so enthralling, and leaves a lot of room open for the audience to juggle whether this man really is insane or just haunted by the worst spell of loneliness that one can endure. His performance feels honest without being silly, and Dano certainly adds to an already impressive career that has won me over with roles in “Love and Mercy” and “Youth”. Daniel Radcliffe occasionally borrows the show from Dano, and really drives home the many changes in tone that the film endures. We are seeing the narratives and lessons through his eyes, so when his heart breaks, so goes ours. This is a difficult thing to accomplish, especially in what is presented as a dark comedy for a majority of the film, but Radcliffe never stumbles. For a character without a pulse, he has miles and miles of heart beating throughout this movie. He commits so much of himself to the very zombie-like trance of the character, and I feel like it is his most versatile of roles that he has taken to date.

“Swiss Army Man” was everything that I was expecting and more. Not everyone will get it, and that’s what is genius about the movie. If you cast this film out for being different, then you are the very people and society that it refers to in its educational diatribes. The double Daniels strike gold on a film that is impossible to ignore, but keeps you planted with its very madness that strikes an emotional chord or three. Capped off by terrific social commentary that borderlines satire, and you get a movie that never runs out of gas (Wink wink).

9/10