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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

National Board of Review Award Winners

So it begins:

Best Film: Manchester By the Sea

Top Films: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, Hail Caesar!, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Moonlight, Patriot's Day, Silence, Sully

Best Director: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Best Actor: Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea

Best Actress: Amy Adams, Arrival

Best Supporting Actress: Naomie Harris, Moonlight

Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water

Best Original Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By the Sea

Best Adapted Screenplay: Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese, Silence

Best Animated Feature: Kubo and the Two Strings

Best Foreign Language Film: The Salesman

Top 5 Foreign Language Films: Elle, The Handmaiden, Juieta, Land of Mine, Neruda

Best Documentary Feature: O.J.: Made in America

Top 5 Documentary Features: De Palma, The Eagle Huntress, Gleason, Life Animated, Miss Sharon Jones!

Best Ensemble: Hidden Figures

Breakthrough Performance (Male): Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea

Breakthrough Performance (Female): Royalty Hightower, The Fits

Best Directorial Debut: Trey Edward Shults, Krisha

Top 10 Independent Films: 20th Century Women, Captain Fantastic, Creative Control, Eye in the Sky, The Fits, Green Room, Hello My Name is Doris, Krisha, Morris From America, Sing Street

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review: Allied (2016)

* * *

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard

Allied is one of the most beautiful looking films of the year. Meticulously assembled and working very hard to evoke a more classical style of movie storytelling, Allied is a different kind of film than those that populate the multiplex these days, though I wouldn't quite agree with critics who call it "old fashioned" or a "throwback" to the films of the 1940s. It draws its inspiration from films of the past - borrowing visually from David Lean (but also from the not-so-old The English Patient), a little bit from Casablanca, and structuring its second half like a noir - but its sensibility is too modern for it to properly be called old fashioned. The sex is too explicit, the violence is too explicit, and its depiction of WWII servicemen and women as surrendering to a "we could die at any moment so anything goes" hedonism is definitely outside of the realm of any old school film. It exists somewhere in between the movies of yesteryear and the movies of today and though it's not flawless in every step it takes, it succeeds in being entertaining.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Review: Arrival (2016)

* * * 1/2

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner

"We need to talk to each other." At a time when society seems more divided than ever, when not only do the left hand and the right hand not seem to know what each other is doing, but can't even seem to fathom that they belong to the same body, this may be the most relevant line of film dialogue in 2016. A great human drama couched in a science fiction thriller, Arrival is both a fantastic entertainment and the kind of introspective piece of work that keeps you thinking about it for days afterwards. To my mind this is the best of director Denis Villeneuve's English-language films, the closest thing he's made to a masterpiece since his trio of great French-language films Maelstrom, Polytechnique, and Incendies. Anchored by a wonderful performance by Amy Adams, Arrival is one of the season's must-see films.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review: Moonlight (2016)

* * * *

Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes

The protagonist of Moonlight exists in a space of silence. Told at one point that only he can decide who he's going to be, he faces the additional challenge of having to navigate the fraught terrain of identity without the assistance of a language with which to define it. He can only understand it in the negative: what he shouldn't be, what it's unacceptable to be, what it's dangerous to be. So he remains silent most of the time, searching for a space in which he can belong or for a way to belong in the space he's currently in, a desert of outward expression. Directed by Barry Jenkins, and adapted by him from Tarell Alvin McCraney's play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue," the film is a vision of restraint, and somehow the more restrained it is, the more compelling it is - right up until the end, that is, when the floodgates finally open and the film achieves a breathtaking level of catharsis. Moonlight is a film that's going to come up a lot in the coming weeks as the year-end awards and nominations are given out, and it deserves every bit of the adulation it's about to get.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Review: War Dogs (2016)

* * 1/2

Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill

When Bertolt Brecht wrote "Mother Courage and Her Children," it was his intention that the main character would be seen in a negative light. She's a war profiteer and he wanted the audience to come away thinking her morally reprehensible. Instead, the audience found her sympathetic. Where he saw a "hyena of the battlefield" making her living off of the suffering of others, they saw a survivor who did what she had to do. He rewrote the play and made her worse, but it did nothing to shake the audience's alignment with her. The European audiences of the 1940s, having endured the relentless upheaval of WWII, saw her as something of a victim of circumstance, someone whose actions might not have been admirable, but whose drive to endure was. In the same vein, some might view the story of David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli less as a story of two people trying to cash in on the chaos of the Iraq War and who, through their participation, bear some moral responsibility for the lives lost and people displaced, and more as a story that glamorizes an element of war by showing how it allowed them to attain all the most desired trappings of Bro culture. War Dogs is a pretty shallow movie that pretty much does exactly what it's trying to criticize, yet it's not without its charms - which is the problem. A story like this shouldn't feel like so much fun.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Tales From the Black List: Pawn Sacrifice (2015)

* * *

Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber

The story of Bobby Fischer is so strange and fascinating that the surprising thing about Pawn Sacrifice is not that it would end up on the Black List, but that a feature film based on Fischer's story hadn't already been made before the first list was published in 2005. Pawn Sacrifice, written by Steven Knight (screenwriter of Eastern Promises and the upcoming Allied), made the 2009 list and when it made it to the screen last year became the first non-documentary film about Fischer, which is kind of surprising when you think about it. You would think that a true story of an American triumphing over a Russian on the world stage would have made it to the screen sometime between the actual triumph of the Miracle on Ice and the fiction triumph of Rocky vs. Drago, but then again perhaps Fischer himself (who died in 2008) was what kept his story from getting to the screen. At any rate, Pawn Sacrifice benefits from being such an interesting story that it would be difficult to go wrong with it, though it never does manage to quite become everything that it could be even with a great performance at its center.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Review: Eddie the Eagle (2016)

* * *

Director: Dexter Fletcher
Starring: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman

There are two ways of looking at the story of Michael "Eddie the Eagle" Edwards. One is as a heartwarming tale of someone whose spirit is so pure that it doesn't matter to him whether he finishes first or last, just so long as he's able to participate and compete. To a certain degree, that's what the Olympics are supposed to be about: the love of sport for the sake of sport. The other is as a slightly more cynical story about someone seeking to bask in the glory of the greatest athletic competition in the world and who discovers a loophole that he can use to his advantage in order to get there, who doesn't care if he finishes first or last because his passion isn't for any sport in particular, but for the idea of being part of the "Olympics." This being a film, and being very much in the grand tradition of uplifting sport movies, Eddie the Eagle opts for the first kind of story, and that's just fine. It's a very good film for the kind of film that it is - it's funny, warm, and feelgood - but it never strays outside the confines of the playbook.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review: The Bronze (2016)

* 1/2

Director: Bryan Buckley
Starring: Melissa Rauch, Sebastian Stan

Can a comedy be so nasty that it ceases to be a comedy at all? There are plenty of R-rated comedies that have come out in the last decade and a half and have built themselves around the simple fact of their protagonist being a mean piece of work (some even get straight to the point by putting "Bad" in the title, like Bad Santa or Bad Teacher; this one might have been called "Bad Olympian," except that that would imply that she wasn't a successful athlete), some on the assumption that all you need to make a comedy successful is a character who acts like an asshole in every situation for no discernible reason. The first half hour of The Bronze is relentlessly unpleasant for this very reason. After that, it settles down a little bit and stops trying so hard to prove its "edginess," though it doesn't get significantly better or funnier. It does, however, feature a sex scene that has to be seen to be believed and which is almost entertaining enough to make the rest of the film worth watching.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Atonement (2007)

Director: Joe Wright
Starring: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai
Country: United Kingdom/France

For whatever reason, Joe Wright has never really been given his due as a director, despite his facility in various genres and his skill as a narrative and visual storyteller. He started with Pride & Prejudice, bringing a fresh vision to a classic story and overcoming the not inconsiderable obstacle of there already existing a version largely considered the "definitive" one, later came out with Hanna, a thriller that plays like a videogame (and I mean that in the best possible way) and endures much longer in the imagination than something that at first seems like a mere genre exercise ought to, and then returned to the world of literary classics with a bold and inventive adaptation of Anna Karenina. And, okay, he also made the critically reviled Pan, but when you make a film as masterful as Atonement, you should be allowed some leeway to make a clunker now and then. One of the most lauded films of 2007, netting 7 Oscar nominations (including Best Picture, but not Best Director), Atonement seems to have fallen out of favor in a way that other masterworks from that year, such as No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood have not, but it's a film that has stood the test of time. From its painterly tableaus to the almost playful way the production elements engage with the story to its ability to fold its allegory into the narrative in a way that feels unobtrusive, Atonement is a film that fascinates and resonates.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Review: Bad Moms (2016)

* * 1/2

Director: Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
Starring: Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christina Applegate

A movie like Bad Moms is proof through absence of the value of women in the writer's room, at least when it comes to projects that are about women. Because while it's funny enough and wants very badly to be (and thinks that it is) sympathetic to the plight of "the other," Bad Moms ends up giving itself a lot of credit for insights that it doesn't actually possess. The point it wants to make is that society places an impossible burden on mothers by creating unachievable standards for motherhood, but I'm not sure that writers/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore really understand why that's a point that needs to be made. Bad Moms is funny in the way that a lot of raucous comedies are funny, with a lot of the laughs coming from the "... did they just say/do that?" school of shock humor, but it's not so funny that it covers up the fact that Lucas and Moore don't know how to resolve the plot they've set into motion because they don't really understand the issue they're trying to address.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Ten Years Later... Casino Royale (2006)

Director: Martin Campbell
Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen

In so many ways, 2006 feels like it was a lifetime ago. One of those ways is with respect to the Bond franchise, that behemoth of a series that has transitioned and survived through multiple cultural ages with multiple actors playing the lead role. Before 2005, who knew that the most defining characteristic of that role - which had been played at that point by a Scot, an Australian, a Brit, a Welshman, and an Irishman, the actors ranging in age from 30 to 58 so that in transitioning from actor to actor the character's age is in constant flux - was apparently the hair color? The way that people freaked out at the prospect of - gasp - a blond Bond, of all things, is precisely how I know that no matter how good he might be in the role, Idris Elba is never going to get a chance, even though Daniel Craig is now considered one of the best Bonds (if not the best Bond). What's funny is that the shrieking panic of the people behind things like danielcraigisnotbond.com isn't entirely off the mark, in that an argument can be made that the Bond played by Craig isn't "Bond" as moviegoers had known him up until that point. But we'll get to that.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Grizzly Man (2005)

Director: Werner Herzog
Country: United States

“I believe that the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” With a point of view as bleak as that, Werner Herzog may, at first glance, seem like an odd fit for the story of the inherently optimistic Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent 13 summers camped out in Katmai National Park and believed that he had a special connection to the bears and other wildlife that make their home there. But Herzog is no stranger to stories of crazy dreamers, men battling against the world itself and trying to harness the power of nature in order to remake it according to their own design. In this respect, Herzog is uniquely suited to telling this story, which ended in tragedy in 2003 when Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and partially eaten by a bear, a finale captured by Treadwell's ever-present video camera but which exists only in audio form, due to the lens cap being on. Assembled from some of the footage that Treadwell captured, Grizzly Man is a film about nature’s majesty and man’s hubris, a story of one mad filmmaker as told by another mad filmmaker.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Netflix Originals Marathon: The Fundamentals of Caring (2016)

* * *

Director: Rob Burnett
Starring: Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts

If Tallulah is the best movie I've watched during this marathon, then The Fundamentals of Caring is the most surprising. It was a hasty addition to the list, and I didn't have much in the way of expectations of it. Everything about it (including the generic title) makes it seem like the sort of movie you've already seen a hundred times, where people have to come to terms with things and help themselves by helping someone else, and the sensibility is just a bit on the quirky side. This one even has a road trip giving shape to its narrative, to boot. There's nothing groundbreaking, or even really particularly notable, about The Fundamentals of Caring, but it's an enjoyable watch. To be sure, it's the sort of movie that you can just relax into and not think about too much because it's going to hit all of the expected beats at exactly the moments it's supposed to, but it's a good movie of its type, funny and warm and mostly earning those feel good moments.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Netflix Originals Marathon: Special Correspondents (2016)

* *

Director: Ricky Gervais
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Eric Bana

When watching a movie there are few things more disappointing than when it has the opportunity, and seemingly the drive, to be a biting satire, only to lose its nerve midway through and end up being something a lot more generic and safe instead. That's the case with Ricky Gervais' Special Correspondents, a comedy that seems willing and able to take a piece off the media and the commodification of tragedy for the purpose of making money, only to fold up and reveal itself as a standard issue buddy action comedy. Parts of the film are quite funny, the performances are better than they have any reason to be, but overall I found myself much more engaged by the paths the film keeps choosing not to take than by the actual story it decides to tell.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Netflix Originals Marathon: Tallulah (2016)

* * *

Director: Sian Heder
Starring: Ellen Page, Allison Janney

Midway through Tallulah the eponymous character imagines the world without gravity, a sudden shift that finds everyone just floating up into the air, untethered to everything below. Having spent most of her young life drifting around the United States, and having lost whatever connection to others she once had after being abandoned as a child, she's already the definition of untethered - beholden to no one, nothing to hold her back - and yet as she describes the scene, she insists that she would grab onto something and stay connected to the earth down below. Because what is there if there isn't connection? Easily the best of the films I've watched for this marathon, Sian Heder's Tallulah is a thoughtfully told tale that manages to have compassion and understanding for even its most broken characters.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Netflix Originals Marathon: Mascots (2016)

* *

Director: Christopher Guest
Starring: the Christopher Guest players

When Christopher Guest is at the top of his game, he creates comedies that are among the funniest out there. When he's not quite at the top of his game, he still creates films that are good for at least a few genuinely hearty laughs. Mascots, which like most of Guest's films plays out in mockumentary format, is not great Guest. That may be because it lacks two of Guest's most valuable regulars - Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy - and it may be because it takes as its premise something that doesn't have much air of reality. Community theater productions are a real thing (Waiting For Guffman), dog shows are a real thing (Best in Show), folk music concerts are a real thing (A Mighty Wind), and Oscar campaigning is a real thing (For Your Consideration), but are there actually mascot competitions? The focus here might be too specialized and obscure. There are funny moments in Mascots to be sure, but it doesn't hold together all that well.