Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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For two decades, the films of writer-director Christopher Nolan have been steadily growing bolder in ambition, scope and dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams mental trickery. From the relatively humble beginnings of “Following” and “Memento” came the genre-defining Dark Knight Trilogy, the mind-tripping shenanigans of “The Prestige” and “Inception” and, most recently, the time-and-space traversing spectacle of “Interstellar.”

From the trajectory, one might have expected Nolan’s next feature to be a smorgasbord of bombast and celestial mystique. But instead, the auteur turned his lens toward the decidedly earth-bound and human setting of World War II and the battle of Dunkirk, the first time Nolan has tackled a historical subject — Nikola Tesla dramatizations notwithstanding.

*Disclosure: While there are many who find Nolan’s shtick tiresome, I am an unapologetic fanboy. Prestige may very well be my favorite movie, and he is one of only a few directors whose filmography I have viewed in its entirety (others including, but not limited to, Rian Johnson, Wes Anderson and David Fincher).*

Interweaving three stories — of land, sea and air — Nolan’s “Dunkirk” follows the evacuation of allied forces from France, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers effectively trapped on the wrong side of the English channel and surrounded on all sides by Nazi forces. On land, young men wait through enemy bombardment for any opportunity to sail across the channel, only to find an equally — if not more — perilous situation on ships targeted by submarine torpedo and dive-bombing attacks. They are aided by civilian ships called in to the rescue effort, and protected from above by a coterie of fighter pilots.

That’s the plot, in a nutshell, as Nolan is less interested in exposition, character and dialogue as he is in setting the scene before a tense, 100-minute exploration of survival and war. For long swathes the film is silent but for the haunting Hans Zimmer, which adds suffocating weight to moments of hopelessness and agonizing claustrophobia as men are trapped inside a series of sinking ships or blindsided by enemy gunfire.

There are a few familiar faces along the way, including Kenneth Branagh as a stoic commander, frequent Nolan collaborators Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, and boy-band alumnus Harry Styles as a rank-and-file soldier. But the movie isn’t interested in star power, relying on a largely unknown supporting cast and spreading the running time throughout its characters in lieu of a clear protagonist. The result is, paradoxically, a more personal tale of war, bolstered by breathtaking aerial photography and the minimalist action sequences that highlight Nolan’s career. He knows that death and destruction don’t require window dressing, and the film is better for it.

While comparatively a much more traditional film, the elements of Nolan’s chronological and visual trickery are still present. He uses the spinning camera work of “Inception” for the interior shots of his sinking ships. And the three main storylines move forward and backward through time — a la Memento and Prestige — to cover overlapping periods of one week, one day, and one hour. Events are shown out-of-sequence and repeated from various character viewpoints while plot is doled out only as needed.

It works incredibly well, resulting in an impactful film in which every second feels significant and climactic, while the mechanics are veiled by a screen of simplicity. There’s no 5th-dimensional beings, dream machines, dueling wizards or masked vigilantes, but “Dunkirk” dazzles all the same. It’s a neat trick, even for a magician like Nolan, resulting in what is easily one of the best films of the year.

Grade: A

*Dunkirk opens nationwide on Friday, July 21.

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Note: Portions of this review were first published during coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

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Written by and based on the life of Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick functions like an inter-nationality take on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” for the millennial generation.

Before he was an anchor player on TV Comedies like Silicon Valley, Nanjiani was a stand-up comedian slumming it on his way up the food chain and a closeted agnostic in a family of strict adherents to Islam and Pakistani culture, which includes arranged marriages. In the dramatized version, he meets the decidedly *not* Pakistani Emily (Zoe Kazan) after a gig, kicking off a courtship that is tested first by his reluctance to reveal all to his disapproving parents and second by a mystery ailment that places Emily in a medically-induced coma.

The writing is sharp, with a sharp blend of comedy and drama as Kumail deals with the titular “Big Sick” Emily experiences. It also includes knock-out supporting roles by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents, who arrive with their own marital demons in tow to the bedside of their ailing daughter. The film’s best moments derive from the stuttered progress Nanjiani makes winning over the parents of a woman he scorned as the three characters hope for the best but fear the worst.

That the based-on-a-true-story film ends on a positive note isn’t spoiling much , but “Big Sick” keeps the tension under the breezy humor and the film easily earns its sentimental finish.

Grade: A

*The Big Sick opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 7.

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Let’s start with some caveats, as few summer blockbusters arrive with the baggage that “The Mummy” is carrying on its shoulders. Not content to simply launch a new franchise, the fat cats at Universal are pinning the hopes of a brand new Cinematic Universe — the de riguer requirement of all major studios in the post-Avengers world — on the merits of this modern retelling of the old Boris Karloff ambling menace.

First, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a new mummy (lowercase) movie, just as there’s nothing wrong with telling stories on screen that feature ghosts, ghouls, trolls, chupacabra, giant snakes, giant spiders, or any other fantastical antagonists.

Second, there’s nothing inherently wrong with cinematic universes. If the movies are good, the movies are good: that’s really all there is too it.

That said, “The Mummy” is not good, and it suggests Universal maybe shouldn’t have cashed its chips so early on its so-called “Dark Universe” (with a slate of films announced already and Johnny Depp cast as The Invisible Man). Russel Crowe pops in as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde in a few heavy-handed scenes that hint at his potential menace and one of the better-choreographed sequences, but to little impact.

What “The Mummy” does well is make the already-good 1999 version starring Brendon Frasier and Rachel Weisz look resplendent in comparison. New protagonist Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) passively trips toward the film’s convoluted and undercooked finale, driven by a combination of demonic possession and a desire to rescue a romantic interest (Annabelle Wallis) with whom he shares all the chemistry of an elementary school science fair project. There’s a dagger and a red stone and crusader tombs and a lot of talk of Set, the Egyptian god of war, all of which is thrown at the viewer like obstacles in an Asian game show.

There are exactly two things this movie does well: the zero-gravity plane crash in Act I that was aired *in its entirety* during the film’s trailers and a chase scene underneath London’s streets that features a brief scene of eye-poppingly impressive underwater photography. Beyond that, it’s a muddled mess of corporate cash-grabbing.

As for the mummy herself, gender-swapped for the modern era, Sofia Boutella does as good as can be expected with the material, but is robbed of any her predecessor’s menace and mystique by the movie’s rush to make her telegenic. Compared to the genuinely chilling Act II of the 1999 film, in which Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep slowly regenerates while haunting his human prey, Boutella’s reanimated corpse makes light work of a few nameless meat sacks before she’s back to her old, strategically-shrouded-to-appease-the-MPAA-rating self.

It’s a rushed, narratively delinquent disappointment that could have injected some of that old-fashioned movie magic into the modern cinema landscape, but instead falls victim to the paint-by-numbers CGI malaise we’ve all grown fatigued of.

Grade: C+

*The Mummy opens nationwide on Friday, June 9.

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You know its a good year for cinema when we have not one, but *two* musicals in the Top 10. And not one, or even two, but *three* exclamation points in the Top 10 titles. But even if you don’t share my love for the powers of song of punctuation, there’s a depth and range to the roster of 2016 films that can not be denied, and that made for an excellent 12 in front of screens big and small (but preferably big).

Without further ado, the Top 10 movies released this year were:

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10. Nocturnal Animals

There’s just something about a classic tale of revenge, and in “Nocturnal Animals” we get two, simultaneously. In the more traditional sense there is the story of Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) who suffers an unspeakable tragedy and, with the help of a local lawman (the indispensable Michael Shannon), goes after those responsible. But Tony is actually is the main character in a novel by Edward Sheffield (also Jake Gyllenhaal) who has sent a manuscript of his work to his estranged ex-wife (Amy Adams).

“Animals” is easier to follow than that description suggests, but it is far from uncomplicated. Director Tom Ford is in no hurray to reveal the emotional manipulations at play, or to reveal explicitly the degree to which the two narratives should be viewed as connected. It’s a dark, violent and tragic story that leaves much to interpretation, with much to digest long after the credits roll.

 

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9. Hail, Caesar!

Whether it be “True Grit,” “No Country for Old Men” or “Raising Arizona,” you can always tell when you’re watching a Coen Brothers film, and it’s never *not* enjoyable.

Still, the brothers have made something special with “Hail, Caesar!” a winking tribute-slash-mockery of the golden age of Hollywood, when dames were dames and everyone was looking over their shoulders for the communists lurking among them.

It may not be the same high-drama awards bait of the directing duo’s filmography, but good luck stopping yourself from rewinding whole scenes to watch them again, be it Channing Tatum leading a  tap dancing send-up of “South Pacific” or the exquisite wordplay of the “Would that it were so simple” sequence between Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes (whose character name is, brilliantly “Laurence Laurentz”).

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8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Part coming-of-age story and part Odd-couple comedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the quirky and endearing New Zealand-set comedy adventure you had no idea you so desperately needed this year.

Foster child and misunderstood “bad egg” Ricky is taken in by warm-hearted Bella and her rough-around-the-edges husband Hec. And after a series of unfortunate events and misunderstandings, Ricky and Hec find themselves the target of a national manhunt as they take to living in “the bush” and working to evade discovery by the authorities.

The chemistry between Ricky (Julian Dennison) and a delightfully crotchety Sam Neil is what makes the film work, as the hunt for the two runaways swells to surprising surreal levels. Keep an eye on director Taika Waititi, whose next project is the upcoming  superhero flick “Thor: Ragnarok.”

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7. Weiner

“Weiner” is the best political documentary ever made. Period. And it owes its alchemy to a fortuitous union of skill and circumstance, as a capable team of storytellers are given unprecedented access to their subject, who in turn manages to torpedo his entire life in front of the camera’s staring gaze.

Anthony Weiner clearly expected a different outcome when he granted the documentarians access, and for the first third you see the story that might have been: a down-but-not-out politician licks his wounds, gets back in the ring and defies expectations to become mayor of New York. But then another shoe drops, and another, and of course the audience knows that there are more waiting even after Weiner is forced to concede defeat.

But what really makes “Weiner” (the movie) something almost Shakespearean is the presence of long-suffering (and now ex-) wife Huma Abedin. An infamous introvert, she hovers at the edge of frame, her jaw set, tense, watching. When the inevitable occurs, it’s Abadin that keeps “Weiner” from being a punch line about a serial screw-up,  and instead a stinging portrait of a political family destroyed by poor judgement.

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6. Everybody Wants Some!!

In 1993, Richard Linklater made “Dazed and Confused,” an American Graffiti-esque film set in 1976 and following a sprawling cast of students celebrating the first night of summer.

Two decades later, Linklater has made his so-called “spiritual sequel,” which is set in 1980 and follows a college basketball team over the last weekend before fall semester starts.

Fans of Dazed will get exactly what they’re looking for, while newcomers will find an endearing and optimistic slice-of-life story about young adults in 1980s America. Like Linklater’s “Boyhood,” EWS is filled with small moments that find the dramatic beauty in humanity and average, everyday lives.

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5. The Lobster

And now for something completely different…”The Lobster” posits a world in which adults are not allowed to be single, to the extent that after losing his wife, David (Colin Farrell) is compelled to reside at a hotel and given 45 days to find a new partner or be turned into an animal of his choosing – in David’s case, the titular crustacean.

Split into two parts, The Lobster first looks at life within the hotel, with its bizarre customs, restrictions and pressures to find a soulmate at any cost. Then, after David flees, we see the other half of Lobster’s world, as our hero joins up with a nomadic gang of woods-dwelling fugitives who have one iron-clad rule: no coupling.

It’s bizarre, to say the least, and wonderful. With a cast of completely game actors (including Rachel Weisz and John C. Reilly)  fully committed to the absurdities of the premise and its execution, Lobster builds on its dry, often dark, humor to an ending that is perfect and disturbingly outlandish.

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4. Moonlight

*The* Roger Ebert often described film as an “empathy machine,” and of all of this year’s movies that role of the cinema is best captured in “Moonlight,” which uses three actors in three time periods to tell the story of a man’s life.  As a child, Little is a soft-spoken boy neglected and demeaned by his substance-addicted mother and taken under the wing of the neighborhood dealer. As a teenager, Chiron is bullied and beaten by his peers and strains to find his place. And finally as a man, Black has adopted the career of his childhood mentor, but seeks out an old friend from his younger years.

It’s a moving, and at times haunting, portrait, and a showcase of diversity. But it’s also understated, and confident. It doesn’t shout “look at me!”  but still results in a film that is impossible to look away from.

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3. Hell or High Water

Too few films are set outside of America’s coastal cities, and fewer still depict the people who reside in America’s heartland as actual people and not flat caricatures.

In Hell or High Water, brothers Tanner and Toby are pressured into desperate measures by desperate times. Their family’s ranch, despite sitting atop an ocean of oil, has fallen into the clutches of predatory banking. To save it, they launch a scheme to rob the money to pay the mortgage from the same banking institutions that have left them in dire straits. On their heels is Marcus Hamilton, a beyond his years law enforcement man circling the drain before he’s shown the door.

The relationship between the brothers is rich, owing no small feat to the capabilities of Chris Pine and Ben Foster (one of the most underrated actors of his generation). They wear their reluctance on their tired faces, and brace themselves against a gathering storm closing in around them.

And while there’s an element of cat-and-mouse as they get closer to their coal, the story never dips into fantasy. It feels real at every turn: real people, pressured into real decisions by the all-too-familiar realities of American economics.

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2. Manchester by the Sea

“Manchester by the Sea” is a heartbreaking, profoundly sad story about loss and grief. It’s also beautiful and inspiring. After his brother dies, Lee (a phenomenal Casey Affleck) is called back to his childhood home and tasked with looking after his nephew Patrick (an also phenomenal Lucas Hedges). But returning home means confronting old demons, and Lee struggles to reconcile his loyalty to his family and his own compulsion to put distance between himself and his past.

Manchester is a master-class of “show don’t tell,” with Affleck in particularly conveying more with his gestures and expression than even the lengthiest monologue could manage. Many sequences are practically wordless, and the mood hangs heavy, despite being punctuated by frequent instances of warming humor.

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester is the type of film where the seems of movie-making disappear, and you forget for a moment that you’re watching fiction.

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1. La La Land

Through three films together, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have crafted a level of creative chemistry unparalleled in modern Hollywood. It helps that both actors are independently charming, but their combined effect is something akin to fireworks.

Take that element, and add it to the showmanship of a well-made musical production and what you have is cinematic magic.

Stone plays Mia, an aspiring but as-yet-unsuccessful actress whose day job is serving coffee on a studio backlot. Gosling plays Sebastian, or “Seb” for short, a jazz pianist and musical idealist who rejects the dilution of pop. They meet, over and over again under circumstances that are delightful,  before a romance eventually blossoms, and in each other they find creative inspirations and motivations that position them at the precipice of either realizing their dreams or falling in defeat.

All of which is set against a backdrop of song and dance numbers that  embrace the old-Hollywood legacy of “Singing in the Rain” and “West Side Story” albeit with a concertedly modern setting and style. But this is not simply a light and breezy affair, concerned only with vibrant colors and Joie de Vivre (both of which, it has in spades). “La La Land” climaxes on a forceful musical number by Stone, singing a tribute to “the ones who dream” and then, in its final moments, the film presents one last pièce de résistance sequence that dazzles you before punching you in the stomach, leaving you wide-eyed, out of breath, and looking to find where your jaw landed on the floor.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the 31-year-old (!!!) phenom behind 2014’s “Whiplash,” “La La Land” exudes the confidence of a veteran filmmaker. But think on this, Chazelle has directly exactly 2 feature films, and it’s all-but-assured that both will have been nominated for Best Picture Oscars when this year’s list is announced (and it’s looking entirely likely that La La Land will score the statuette come ceremony night). If I were to have a complaint about the otherwise perfect film, it would be the nagging knowledge that its director is two years older than myself, which has the unfortunately side effect of making you feel inferior before greatness.

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Note: This review was first published during coverage of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival

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Rebecca Hall stars as Christine Chubbuck, the real-life Florida newswoman who, in 1974, committed suicide on live television. The film follows Chubbuck’s final months, as loneliness, social anxiety and mounting pressure from work pull at her fraying nerves.

Hall is excellent, convincingly playing the barely-contained eruptions behind her character’s fixed expressions. Her Christine is simultaneously off-putting and sympathetic, perpetually getting in the way of her own happiness, which seems just one good day away but always out of reach.

Beyond Hall, however, the film is thin. Aside from her infamous death, Christine Chubbuck was an otherwise uneventful person, a small-market television reporter who lived with her mother and focused on her work. Director Antonio Campos attempts to compensate with a pleasant ensemble of coworkers (played by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, Veep’s Timothy Simons) but the end results feels undercooked.

Grade: B-

‘Christine’ opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 4.

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For readers of Dan Brown’s novels, the announcement that Ron Howard would be skipping the third novel in the Robert Langdon series and moving straight to ‘Inferno,’ the fourth, was welcome news. The neglected book, appropriately titled ‘The Lost Symbol’ was a laughable mess that exacerbated Brown’s flaws as a writer, pitting our hero against a villain, tattooed from head to toe, in a frantic chase to locate 1) an undercover video of a benign Mason ceremony and 2) a mystery McGuffin that turns out to be, ultimately, a King James Bible.

Not a Bible with a special message inside, or a map to some pseudo-fantastical discovery, just a plain old Bible. Genesis to Revelations. Available for $10.38 with free shipping on Amazon Prime.

Oh and Langdon dies, spoiler alert, except he doesn’t, in one of many eyeroll-inducing attempts at faking out the reader.

Compared to that misfire, ‘Inferno’ was a welcome quasi-return to form, falling short of the thrills of ‘Angels and Demons’ and the lesser-but-more-popular ‘Da Vinci Code’ but offering a satisfactory page-turner for long airplane rides or afternoons by the swimming pool.

But it’s still absurdist, pseudo-intellectual pop literature, with more than a little bit of ego masturbation by its author, who crafted a fantasy proxy so glaring in his womanizing, tweeded Langdon that it rivals Woody Allen for self-aggrandizement.

Howard, and star Tom Hanks, are able to smooth some of those edges, adding some maturity to the goings-on and focusing on the puzzles and pistols more than the buxom brunette that Langdon is paired with for the current adventure. But it’s hardly enough, as ‘Inferno,’ like its predecessors, can barely drum up the energy to explain that convoluted and nonsensical plot that loosely connects the anagrams and scavenger hunts that make up the goings-on.

‘Inferno’ does score points for trying something new. It opens in a fog, as Langdon is recovering in a Florentine hospital from a bullet-graze to the head and concussion, which has wiped out his memory of the past 3 days. After regaining consciousness, he is plagued by apocalyptic hallucinations and before you can say “Alighieri” he is being shot at by a would-be assassin and forced on the run with the doctor who treated him (Felicity Jones, to be seen next in ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’).

The film’s omni-chase structure, ostensibly, sends its protagonists through famed locales like the Boboli Gardens and Palazzo Vechio. The eye candy of Dan Brown’s settings is part of the charm of the franchise, and yet in ‘Inferno,’ Howard keeps his camera cropped tight, robbing any hope of architectural and historical eye candy. It’s likely a result of the actors being nowhere near the actual locales, but whether due to movie trickery or no its a wasted opportunity for what would otherwise be a glitzy romp through Florence, Venice and Istanbul.

There are high moments. The perpetually-underrated Ben Foster puts in good work as the de facto villain, a billionaire decrying overpopulation from the rooftops whose death sets the film’s plot in motion. And screenwriter David Koepp takes creative license from the source material, deviating from Brown’s more questionable choices and crafting a third act climax that delivers satisfactory tension when paired with Howard’s competent directing.

It’s almost enough, and certainly gets more mileage than the novel would suggest. And while it escapes cinematic hell, it lands far from heaven.

Grade: B-

Inferno opens nationwide on Friday, October 28.

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Ben Affleck’s new movie, “The Accountant,” is all over the map. Ostensibly, it’s about a math savant with high-functioning autism who earns his keep as a black market book keeper for mega-corporations, drug cartels and terrorists.

But it’s also a family drama about a gifted child raised under the stern gaze of a militaristic father, which molds the boy into a killing machine.

But it’s also a romance, with a social misfit rushing to save the nerdy damsel in distress, played by perfect human Anna Kendrick.

It’s also a pseudo-superhero movie, with a hyper-intelligent one-man-wrecking-machine doling out vigilante justice with the help of J.K. Simmons, in a striking parallel to his upcoming role as Commissioner Gordon in the Justice League movie.

It’s also a revenge flick.

In truth, the disparate elements don’t combine into a coherent hole. The tone is wildly inconsistent, trading blase mayhem with awe-shucks humor and quiet introspection. With Affleck at its center, it feels like Good Will Hunting, Daredevil and Argo crammed into a single stew.

But that stew is not abjectly terrible. Director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) and writer Bill Dubuque (The Judge) clearly set out to make a thinking man’s action film, and to a large extent they succeed. Accountant, with its seemingly emotionless protagonist and no-frills choreography, makes for a unique storytelling format that leans into and twist the tropes of the genre.

Were it not for a few too many unreasonably contrived plot coincidences, the movie would be a valid, albeit not superfluous, success. That the film’s major reveal is so glaringly apparent can’t lessen the dull thud that it lands with, and the film’s action sequences escalate nicely before culminating in a final standoff that is shot in near-darkness, making it nearly incomprehensible. And a B-plot focusing on an up-and-coming Treasury investigator feels completely tacked on as an afterthought, and that’s before an exposition dump at the start of Act II renders the whole sequence largely moot.

There’s enough happening onscreen to keep an audience engaged — though the film runs a little long at 128 minutes —  and the John Wick-esque shoot ’em up style is one that I’m happy to see more film’s embracing. But for all the film’s assets, it can’t quite keep them organized to offset depreciation.

Grade: B-

*The Accountant opens nationwide on Friday, October 14

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