Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Movie Review - "Cabaret" (1972)

I can’t think of many World War II period pieces set in Germany where Nazis are at the front and center of the film, but "Cabaret" surprised me in that regard. While the film is largely about an English scholar (Michael York) and a floozy dancer/singer at a night club (Liza Minnelli) falling in love, the film is set in 1931 Berlin, just a few years before the Nazis came into power and we get to see what life was like before the Third Reich grimy, unclean and paranoid about both the past and the future.

The nightclub that Sally works at is the Kit Kat Club, where the cares of the world seem to fade away and the host loves to ridicule forces trying to control the world. Whether it is an afternoon dance number or gaudy night routine in a packed house, everyone seems to be having a good time and let loose.

But from the beginning of the film, we can see the first hints of Nazi influence. First as a weak kid trying to sneak in the show, then as a boy on the street handing out flyers, the Nazis start to creep into the movie. And each time, they seem to be getting stronger, as they beat up one of the men who turn them away from the club, or grab hundreds of flyers after some of them get slapped out of their hands. It is never the focus of the movie, but their threats always seem to be lurking in the background, waiting for their power to grow before they pounce on everyone and take what they want.

By the end of the film, the audience is full of men in Nazi uniforms and the host that once mocked the Third Reich is now supporting them more than anyone else in the crowd. They have taken over and their musical number, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" has come to fruition.

"Cabaret" works a subtle reminder of how silently and swiftly the Nazis took over everyday life in Germany, and their growing necessity of fear.

Outside of that though, "Cabaret" is fine love story between two competent actors, with Minnelli standing out more than York due to her vivacious and carefree attitude where she wants to be friends and lovers with everyone she meets. The pace is slow and many scenes go on much longer than they need to, especially in the middle of the film. Overall, I came for the musical numbers but stayed for the creeping Nazis.

Final Grade: C

Monday, February 27, 2017

Movie Review - "The Lego Batman Movie" (2017)

If the rest of 2017 ends up being like "The Lego Batman Movie" then we are in for a fun year of movies.

If you've read some of my other superhero film reviews, you'll find that I can be pretty hard on movies that don't understand and appreciate the history of their characters, like "Batman vs. Superman" or "Man of Steel" (although the cardinal sin of both of them is they are boring and unpleasant, but you get my point). There's a reason characters like Superman and Wonder Woman have been around for over fifty decades and still continue to entertain audiences now as much as they did back then - they stand for something. They're not just a vehicle for action sequences or there to spout one-liners, but to reach people through struggle and courage.

Most Marvel films get this, but DC has been having a problem with that since "The Dark Knight." That is, until we got "The Lego Batman Movie."

Maybe it's because this film is helmed by a vastly different crew than the previous Batman movies, as well as a film crew making an animated film for children using mostly brightly colored bricks, but there was certainly an understanding of who Batman was without shoving his tragedy in the audiences' face, while also being insanely loyal to the history of the protector of Gotham.

And for the first time since "Batman and Robin," we get a Batman movie with a sense of humor. But unlike "Batman and Robin," this movies' sense of humor doesn't suck.

In the Lego-world of Gotham City, which always seems to be on the verge of bricking-apart by its many villains, there is but one small man who can protect the city, Batman (Will Arnett), who isn't afraid to toot his own horn and awesomeness in front of everyone, especially when wailing on his guitar. After a dramatic attempt to get Batman's attention, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is desperate to get some gratifiaction from the caped crusader, and thinks that can be achieved through a generator to the Phantom Zone, a place that holds the most the dangerous villains of all time.

This film continues the charm and charisma of "The Lego Movie," by making it the story feel like something we all dreamed of as children through out toys and action figures. The look of this film is exactly the same as its counterpart, although it doesn't always feel like everything is a lego block. Still, the visual style is one-of-a-kind and only adds to the whimsy of its insane execution.

While the bricks maybe small, the scale is massive, especially in the final confrontation when you realize all the vastly different villains involved, including Sauron, Voldemort, the Daleks from "Doctor Who," and King Kong.

This is the kind of kids movies I adore, where the ideas are huge and unbelievably imaginative, yet easy to appreciate and understand. What other film has Batman outrunning the eye of Sauron? And this could only be plausible and oh-so hiliarious through legos.

But this movie has two sides to it - While it is a kid-friendly lego movie, it is also a tribute to the history of Batman. As the film opens up, the Joker says that every villain in Gotham is teaming up to take down Batman, and he means every single villain from the history of Batman, including the obscure one-off characters like the Gentleman Ghost, Orca, Poka-Dot Man and Condiment Man (who's power seems to be spraying ketchup and mustard). Afterwards, the film addresses Batman's "unique" past by mentioning every single Batman movie, including the 1960s Adam West Batman.

Not a single part of Batman's past is left unexplored, including his television shows, serials in the 1940s and 1950s, and most famous comic books like "The Dark Knight Returns." The goofy moments of his past, like Adam West and "Batman and Robin" are just as important as Tim Burton's "Batman" or "The Dark Knight" to this film. Each one adds another level of appreciation to this movie.

Yet, at the same time, "The Lego Batman Movie" creates its own identity among the Batman films by deconstructing Batman and analyzing his character. It asks the question, "Just how great is Batman to Gotham if none of the villains he captures stay in jail for long?" Lego Gotham, just like its other fictional counterpart, is still the most crime-filled city in the world, and its sole savior constantly pats himself on the back for how great of a job he's doing. The film exposes the gapping problem with Batman's war on crime by showing he doesn't have a solution.

On top of all this, we get some great character development for Batman, starting out as someone so absorbed in himself that he feels he doesn't need anyone else. He's quick to criticize and even quicker to use violence. He is untrusting and harsh, but lonely. As the film progresses, we see some great moments between him and a young Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) and the new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), where that bitterness is replaced with pride and happiness, showing that he is a man not an island.

Overall, "The Lego Batman Movie" is both a love letter and character study of Batman, while also remaining kid-friendly throughout and being the most imaginative superhero movie I've seen. There is more than enough material here for both kids and adults to enjoy, as well as diehard Batman fans or even people who know nothing of the Dark Knight. It is uplifting, funny, creative and serious when it needs to be. Compared to the doom and gloom approach of the live-action Batman films, "The Lego Batman Movie" is the happiest movie in existence.

Final Grade: A

Friday, February 24, 2017

Paul's 2017 Academy Award Predictions

I love the Academy Awards. I know that the Oscars are becoming less and less relevant to film enthusiasts, especially since the awards are just seen as Hollywood patting themselves on the back, but that was never what the Oscars meant to me. I've always seen the awards as a celebration of everything film, both new and old. If it was just about the awards, we would not get the hosts talking about how cinema has effected them, or tributes to movies from the past or particular genres, or the Lifetime Achievement Award (which is going to Jackie Chan this year).

There is a love for movies from the Academy Awards. And while the winners of the evening often use their moments to make statements about the world (I can garauntee at least three winners will slam Trump in some way), I try to not let that overshadow the festivites and the passion for cinema.

It is because of this undying love for movies that I am pleased to go through my predictions and picks for this years' Academy Awards. As always, I will list who I want to win the award regardless of how likely it is they will win, who should win as an unbiased point of view while looking at who truly deserves to win, and who actually will win that award. I will also not be looking at any of the documentary awards or shorts, since I know nothing about any of those categories (although I do expect "O.J.: Made in America" to win Best Documentary).

And for the record, I did see all nine films nominated for Best Picture, but not every movie nominated for an award. Strangely enough, I only saw one of the performances nominated for Best Actress, yet saw every performance nominated for Best Actor. With all that said, let's start by looking at -

Best Cinematography -

Who I Want to Win: "La La Land"

Who Should Win: "Arrival"

Who Will Win: "La La Land"

The beginning of a trend you will notice this year - "La La Land" dominating in almost every category it is nominated for. The reason for this is because Hollywood has always loved their musicals, and they are legitimately difficult to pull off in terms of cinematography, choreography, acting, pacing, editing, lighting, production design and so many other aspects. The fact that we have not had a good musical in a while is going to help out "La La Land" significantly.


Best Costume Design -

Who I Want to Win: "Fantastic Beasts"

Who Should Win: "Fantastic Beasts"

Who Will Win: "Jackie"

I liked the costumes in "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" so I'll be rooting for it. But I doubt a fantasy film will walk away with this award.


Best Editing -

Who I Want to Win: "Arrival"

Who Should Win: "La La Land"

Who Will Win: "La La Land"

The editing in "Arrival" added to the films' pacing and sense of mystery, so I applaud "Arrival" for that. But "La La Land" is going to clean house this year.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling -

Who I Want to Win: "Star Trek Beyond"

Who Should Win: "Star Trek Beyond"

Who Will Win: "Star Trek Beyond"

The aliens in "Star Trek: Beyond" were impressive, and most of them were not done digitally. That makes them even more impressive in this day and age.


Best Music -

Who I Want to Win: "Lion"

Who Should Win: "La La Land"

Who Will Win: "Lion"

I think the Academy is going to feel bad for giving "La La Land" so many awards that they'll decide not to give them one of the smaller awards. This is one I see going to a different movie, and "Lion" has the best chance to get it.


Best Original Song -

Who I Want to Win: "Can't Stop the Feeling"

Who Should Win: "How Far I'll Go"

Who Will Win: "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)"

This one could be either "Audition" or "City of Stars" but I was more impressed by Emma Stone's rendition about a town full of people who want more out of life. That being said, I wouldn't mind if it went to "Can't Stop the Feeling" or "How Far I'll Go" either.

Best Production Design -

Who I Want to Win: "Arrival"

Who Should Win: "Fantastic Beasts"

Who Will Win: "La La Land"

Musicals have owned this category in the past, and I don't think "La La Land" will be an exception.


Best Sound Editing -

Who I Want to Win: "Arrival"

Who Should Win: "Arrival"

Who Will Win: "Deepwater Horizon"

Like last year, I'll point out the difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing - Editing is the creation of the sound effects, Mixing is combining all those sound effects into one coherent piece.


Best Sound Mixing -

Who I Want to Win: "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story"

Who Should Win: "Hacksaw Ridge"

Who Will Win: "La La Land"


Best Visual Effects -

Who I Want to Win: "Kubo and the Two Strings"

Who Should Win: "Kubo and the Two Strings"

Who Will Win: "The Jungle Book"

Nothing would make me happier than to see an animated film win Best Visual Effects, especially one like "Kubo and the Two Strings" which was the most visually unique movie of 2016. But I don't see the Academy giving it high marks due to being animated, so I'll pick "Jungle Book" for basically creating a whole new world.


Best Animated Feature Film -

Who I Want to Win: "Kubo and the Two Strings"

Who Should Win: "Kubo and the Two Strings"

Who Will Win: "Zootopia"

Again, "Kubo and the Two Strings" getting some form of recognition would be amazing due to how creative and imaginative it was with the whole paper concept. But it's not Disney, and the Academy rarely gives out this award if Disney is involved. What's even worse is that "Kubo" is up against two Disney films this year, "Zootopia" and "Moana."


Best Adapted Screenplay -

Who I Want to Win: "Lion"

Who Should Win: "Moonlight"

Who Will Win: "Moonlight"

Now we start getting to the bigger awards.

I feel bad for "Moonlight" because it is the most honest and respectful movie of 2016, but I don't see it winning many awards this year. This is one that it probably will win though.


Best Original Screenplay -

Who I Want to Win: "Hell or High Water"

Who Should Win: "The Lobster"

Who Will Win: "La La Land"

A musical winning Best Screenplay? Yeah, with the great dialogue between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, I could certainly see that happening.


Best Directing -

Who I Want to Win: "Moonlight"

Who Should Win: "Moonlight"

Who Will Win: "La La Land"

The acting was the most consistent and moving in "Moonlight" but "La La Land" will get the edge for directing a cast of thousands to sing and dance.


Best Supporting Actress -

Who I Want to Win: Naomie Harris from "Moonlight"

Who Should Win: Naomie Harris from "Moonlight"

Who Will Win: Viola Davis from "Fences"

Now, onto the acting awards and while the supporting awards are wide open, Best Actor/Actress are pretty much sealed up at this point.

Naomie Harris had the most difficult performance to deliver out of the candidates this year, which is why I give her the edge. But Viola Davis will walk away with the award for having to compete with Denzel Washington's hardened jerk of a husband and come across as fiesty and strong.


Best Supporting Actor -

Who I Want to Win: Jeff Bridges from "Hell or High Water"

Who Should Win: Dev Patel from "Lion"

Who Will Win: Mahershala Ali from "Moonlight"

This is the one award I'm not entirely convinced on. On the one hand, Jeff Bridges gave one of my favorite performances of 2016, and Dev Patel stole the show in "Lion." But Mahershala Ali came across as the most kind soul in a film full of twisted individuals. His character makes a lasting impression on you and Ali's performance is the reason for that.

Best Actress -

Who I Want to Win: Emma Stone from "La La Land"

Who Should Win: Emma Stone from "La La Land"

Who Will Win: Emma Stone from "La La Land"

Part of the why I say Emma will win is because she's the only one of the five nominees I've seen. But another is that she admitted to how difficult the song and dance numbers were for her. Sweating buckets after just a few minutes of physical workouts, turning beat-red quickly into a dance sequence, and yet making it all look so elequent.


Best Actor -

Who I Want to Win: Ryan Gosling from "La La Land"

Who Should Win: Casey Affleck from "Manchester by the Sea"

Who Will Win: Casey Affleck from "Manchester by the Sea"

The only reason I want Ryan Gosling to win is so "La La Land" can sweep the Academy Awards. For those unaware, a film "sweeping" the Oscars doesn't mean it wins every category it is nominated, for but to win the five biggest awards of the night - Best Screenplay (Adapted or Original), Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Picture. It has only happened three times in the history of the Academy Awards (1934's "It Happened One Night," 1975's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and 1991's "Silence of the Lambs") and I want to see another film do that. "La La Land" might be our best chance to sweep, but that means Ryan Gosling will have to outshine Casey Affleck, the very clear favorite to win that award.


Best Picture -

Who I Want to Win: "Arrival"

Who Should Win: "Moonlight"

Who Will Win: "La La Land"

And so we come to the final award of the evening and one that isn't nearly as open as the past few years. Last year was close between "Spotlight" and "The Revenant," while 2015 had "Birdman" against "Boyhood."

If it is a competition between two films this year, it would be "La La Land" and "Moonlight," with a favorite leaning far more in the musicals' favor.

"Arrival" was the most relevant movie of 2016, while also being a wonderfully entertaining science fiction film. But that sci-fi element is going to turn the voters away and ultimately "Arrival" is just happy to be nominated, along with "Lion," "Hidden Figures," "Fences" and "Hell or High Water."

"Hacksaw Ridge" gets a slightly better chance than the others due to being a war movie, but not one that particularly stands out above the other films nominated this year. It adds diversity and could slip into win some minor awards, but certainly not Best Picture.

"Manchester by the Sea" is the underdog to Best Picture, but I think it's too depressing to win the category over some of the other films nominated. Honestly, I would rather see "Lion" or "Hidden Figures" win Best Picture over "Manchester."

"Moonlight" is the most artistic and honest film of the year and it deserves to win Best Picture. The performances all hit their marks, the cinematography was inventive for this subject matter, and it didn't feel the need to explain how every character was feeling, letting the film show us a characters' emotions rather than being told their feeings. "Moonlight" is the outside favorite to win.

But, with all that being said, "La La Land" pretty much has this award locked up. If there was a theme throughout most of the films nominated for Best Picture, it is one of sadness and depression, especially in films like "Manchester by the Sea," "Fences" and to a lesser extent "Hell or High Water." But "La La Land" is the counterpoint to all that, a colorful, vibrant, dream-like movie that celebrates classic musicals while also not being afraid of the real world. As I've mentioned in the past, the Academy loves it when a Best Picture nominee honors Hollywood in some way, as we saw with winners like "Argo," "The Artist" and "Birdman." I think "La La Land" will be joining that category.

And those are my picks for the 2017 Academy Awards. I know I am leaning far too much on "La La Land," but I honestly see the Academy adoring the film like they did with "Mad Max: Fury Road" last year. Will "La La Land" sweep the Oscars or will they try to show a bit more diversity? Only time will tell and we will find out this Sunday.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Movie Review - "Fences" (2016)

And I thought "Manchester by the Sea" was sad. But "Fences" blows that depression captured on celluloid out of the water.

Here's the thing about intentionally sad films - The best ones want to take that sadness and turn it into a positive emotion, one that makes you feel better about how you've lived your life and how far you've come. And the great ones will actually make you want to change your life. Films like "Schindler's List" and "Grave of the Fireflies" are some of the most depressing movies I've ever seen, but they build up to that one moment where all the terrible things we witnessed for the last two hours is given meaning and we learn that the whole film was a journey of self-discovery during an awful time.

We gain strength through the tragedy of others.

But then you get movies like "Manchester by the Sea" where the main character refuses to learn anything or solve any of his problems because he does not want to talk about it. This leaves us with a series of pessimistic events that only makes you want to frown. A moment that turns every dismal scene into one of hope never comes, which is why I did not care for "Manchester by the Sea."

"Fences" falls into the same category sadly, but has the pleasure of being even more bitter than "Manchester" as we watch a man try his best to lead a good life for the sake of his family, but his own rage and ego get in the way of everything, to the point where he feels the need to berate everyone who ever cares about him. We watch as his poor life choices wreck havoc on his loved ones, while he remains a stubborn ass.

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a waste collector in the city of Pittsburgh, and lives in a small rundown house with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Troy is always upset with the little money he is given, mostly because he could have been a professional baseball player but he was already in his 40s before the MLB allowed African-Americans and never made it into the league. Cory is given a chance to be on a college football team, but Troy refuses to let him on leave his job at the auto repair shop, despite everyone else saying Cory should be given this opportunity.

With Casey Affleck's character in "Manchester by the Sea," at least you could excuse his anti-social behavior due to his tragic past, but Troy is a man who refuses to let anyone else have any fun or live a fulfilling life, but he's allowed to do whatever we wants. He outright forbids his son from playing football, despite Troy being an athlete himself, and refuses to let his wife do anything other than her wifely duties. And he shuts down the lives of his loved ones all while claiming that this is the right thing to do.

Troy's dialogue is full of grandiose speeches about how everyone else is wrong and the only right way to live life is by his words. The moment I despised Troy as a character is when Cory asks him why he does not like him, and then gives a diatribe about how its not his job to love or even like his own son, but that he is only here to provide for his son because that's his job. He treats every conversation, every interaction and every decision like it was his job, and one that he does not want to do. His way is the only correct approach and every one else is foolish for thinking differently than him.

He is, without a doubt, the biggest scumbag of 2016.

Troy's approach to life does eventually come back to bite him in the butt, especially when his care-free approach to his life, filled with heavy drinking, produces consequences. But even then, Troy thrusts those consequences on his family, especially his wife. And this is where the sadness comes from - A woman who was living her life to the best of her ability by being a good and understanding wife is punished for something she did not do, and its all thanks to her scumbag of a husband, while he refuses to change how he lives his life.

This man is ruining the lives of so many others, whether he is trying to or not. But all he can say is that is who is he is and that it's too late for him to change.

Part of me hates "Fences," but I cannot say it's terrible because there are some great performances here, especially from Viola Davis and the intensity of Denzel Washington. Davis has several great scenes where she has to bawl her eyes out while trying to match the rage of Denzel and she delievers in every scene. Denzel is at his best when he talks about his encounters with death and the Grim Reaper, going into great detail about his boxing matches with each of them, yet his refusal to mention anything about heaven or God. When he feels threatened by death that's when Denzel turns up the heat.

But overall, I did not enjoy "Fences." There was so much sadness for the sake of sadness that I couldn't latch onto anything relatable, especially with how stubborn and selfish Troy could be. It is clear by the amount of dialogue and mostly being set in one location that "Fences" was a stage play first and it shows, with lots of soliliques and diatribes. If you enjoy that, then you will get a kick out of "Fences."

Final Grade: C-

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Movie Review - "The Quiet Man" (1952)

This is the perfect movie for a laid-back, lazy Sunday afternoon. A nice glimpse at an easy-going Irish lifestyle filled with pleasant people who want nothing more than to enjoy each others' company.

"The Quiet Man" follows Sean Thornton (John Wayne) as he moves from America to Ireland in the 1920s, and intends to buy back the land his Irish family once owned. As he does, Sean falls for young Irish girl Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O'Hara) and intends to marry her. But Mary Kate is devoted to her Irish traditions and won't marry Sean without the approval of her brother, Will (Victor McLaglen), who despises Sean for taking land that he felt belonged to him.

The title "The Quiet Man" works perfectly for John Wayne, not because he doesn't talk much, but that all he wants is quiet and pleasant lifestyle, which he feels can be achieved in Ireland. His biggest worries here are courting Mary Kate and rebuilding his home, which everyone in town is more than willing to pitch in (or at least give him a flower to plant). He cares little about money or petty squabbles with Will, since he knows that won't bring him peace.

"The Quiet Man" was directed by John Ford as a love-letter to Ireland, where both of his parents were born, and makes full use of its technicolor landscape, as the bright yellow-and-orange sun sets over the deep green hills that stretch for miles. Or the rippling rivers with their stony bridges contrasted by the massive blue skies. Watching this film is like spending an afternoon looking up at the clouds and making shapes or animals out of them, doing so without a care in the world.

Like any good John Ford movie, there is a wide range of colorful characters, all of whom love conversing and their pints of alcohol. From the nosey cabbie Michaeleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald), to the loud priest who loves to fish Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond), to the rich widow who loves controversy but hates people Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick), there is no shortage of wacky Irish folk here.

Overall, "The Quiet Man" is one of the most relaxing and peaceful movies I've seen in a while. It is an appreciation of the Irish, their culture and their landscapes, as well as how accepting they are of letting outsiders in. John Wayne offers his usual bravado, especially when he feels he has to marry Mary Kate the moment he sees her, but that just makes the cultural differences so funny and captivating. Watch this one to help you unwind after a long day or if you want one of the best looking Irish films you'll ever see.

Final Grade: A-

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Movie Review - "Adam's Rib" (1950)

Here we have a classic comedy that only works because of its two lead stars - Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. If it were anyone other actors, who would have had to force their chemistry, "Adam's Rib" would be difficult to get through.

Hepburn and Tracy each play lawyers married to each other. They spend their mornings reading about the newest crimes in the newspaper, each taking a different stance, while they make googly-eyes at one another. But one morning a story about a wife shooting and nearly killing her cheating husband comes up and Hepburn's character believes that all the blame is on the husband, while Tracy cannot see her point of view at all. Tracy is given the case by the District Attorney and Hepburn's character seeks out the case and vows to win it for not just the wife, but all opressed women, turning this into a battle between the sexes, as well as husband and wife.

Their points are made clear - Hepburn feels the husband's continued neglagence and irritability with his wife forced her to take this drastic act to save her marriage and house, while Tracy demands that the person who fired the gun and attempted to end another life, whether that person is a man or a woman, should face justice.

I will admit that, as the film started, I was firmly in agreement with Spencer Tracy's side of the argument, no one has the right to end another life. But as the film went on, Hepburn continued to make solid and convincing points about how terribly the husband treated his wife just because he wanted her to lose some weight.

Yet, while all of this is going on, Hepburn, and Tracy show their love for each other. They would make kissy-faces at each other under the table or give the other gifts and back massages while outside the courtroom. Even when they become irritated with one another, their love still shines through. This is just how their freaky relationship works, the need for opposition and debate is so strong that they look forward to their arguments.

"Adam's Rib" is one of the few comedic courtroom dramas that pulls of analysis of the law and slapstick perfectly, and its due to the stern yet passionate speeches filled with fire and brimstone from Hepburn and Tracy that makes it work. The dual nature of their relationship and the ability to go from heated debate to passionate love is what makes this so hilarious.

This is a film filled with domestic battles - Man vs. woman, nature vs. nuture, conversative vs. liberal, and ego vs. the law. But like all good battles, the film lets you understand and appreciate both sides of the argument.

Final Grade: B+

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Movie Review - "Lion" (2016)

It is interesting that I saw "Lion" only a week after having seen "Hidden Figures," which are similar in many ways. Both are based on true events, they are ultimately uplifting stories but are both also quite manipulative in how they get you to feel for these characters.

With that said, "Lion"'s execution is far more subtle and effective than "Hidden Figures" was. The latter was always in your face about its message and characters, as it should have been for the time period. But "Lion" creeps up on you, unsuspectingly, through calm and quiet performances from Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, and works its way into your heart without even trying.

Set in the India in the 1980s, young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) wants to help his older brother Guddu at his job and make money for their family. The two leave by train, but Saroo cannot stay awake and ends up falling asleep on a different train that he gets stuck on for two days. Saroo ends up on the other side of India where everyone speaks a different language, lost, and unable to find his way back home.

Saroo is eventually adopted by an Australian couple (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) and is raised in a loving and caring atmosphere. But twenty years later, when Saroo (Dev Patel) goes off to college he is told of this revolutionary new piece of technology that could help him find his home and family - Google Earth.

The first half of "Lion" follows a young Saroo throughout a shabby, filthy, and infested Calcutta and it paints quite a picture of India without saying much about it. There are hundreds of homeless children running in the streets and at night they are hunted down and carried off to a prison-like area where they can receive an "education" from adults who would rather be anywhere else. Food is scarce and kindness is a rarity.

All this plays into Dev Patel's role as an older Saroo, who has spent the last twenty years living in comfort with anything he wanted at his fingertips, but realizes that his family is still stuck in that terrible place and have spent everyday wondering what happened to him. Patel says little throughout the film, but his grief and anger speak through his constant need to find his family.

Additionally, Nicole Kidman has some wonderful scenes as Saroo's adopted mother. She admits to her son early on that she will always be there, listening to what he has to say without forcing it out of him. She seems to understand the emotional baggage that comes with adopting a lost child and wanted nothing more than show him that the world is not as bad as he thought it was.

Both Patel and Kidman give reversed and quiet performances, letting their pauses filled with concern say more than their words.

While "Lion" can be manipulative at times, these performances and the two vastly different worlds that are built make the whole journey worth the sometimes forced emotional moments. The film avoids the typical genre cliches of finding lost loved ones through its quiet anger. The pacing might seem slow to some but I felt it moved well in building up how terrible living in India can be. Overall, "Lion" just might be the best uplifting movie of the year.

Final Grade: A-

Monday, February 6, 2017

Movie Review - "Manchester by the Sea" (2016)

One thought was going through my head as I was leaving "Manchester by the Sea" - Boy, that sure was sad. And it would have been a lot happier if he actually talked about how he was feeling. The first thing my parents said to me as they were leaving the theater was, "When you have a wife, talk to her about your problems. Communication is key! You don't want to end up like Casey Affleck."

As I am writing this review, I have recently finished writing my thoughts on "Hidden Figures" and "The Pink Panther," both of which left a positive impact on my in one way or another. But because "Manchester by the Sea" was such a sad-sack from start to finish, the film means almost nothing to me. It was certainly well put together and Casey Affleck gives one of the most captivating performance of the year, but there no hope to hold on to, no joy to be had. Even "Hacksaw Ridge" at least had a good moral about fighting for what you believe in despite what everyone else might tell you or force on you, and that was a gruesome war flick.

But "Manchester by the Sea" is sad for the sake of being sad, to the point where it is almost depressing. Its main character certainly goes through a difficult journey that I sympathize with, but he is given every opportunity to improve and he refuses to take it like a stubborn child who doesn't want to eat his vegetables.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) works as a janitor and handy-man at a series of apartment complexes in Boston. Lee is unfriendly towards the tenants and obnoxious to everyone else, picking a fight with someone who might look at him the wrong way. When Lee finds out his brother (Kyle Chandler) has passed away, leaving his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) all alone in Manchester, Lee does his best help Patrick settle in, despite having to deal with harsh looks and whispers of Manchester about Lee's past.

Casey Affleck is one of the more underrated actors, but I can see why. He usually gives performances that are quieter in his tone, more about the subtlety and facial expression than what he's saying (which might explain why most of his performance goes over my head). But that quality is what makes him perfect for this role, as a man trying to mask his pain and cannot deal with world when he can hardly handle himself. Affleck is in every scene of this movie, and he plays Lee as a man sitting on anger, ready to burst at a moments' notice and doesn't seem to know anything but anger.

My biggest complaint with "Manchester by the Sea" is that Lee never moves beyond this point. Anger is his default emotion and despite what happens between him and Patrick, the journey these two go through, he seems to have learned nothing. Even though he's clearly in a lot of pain, Lee refuses to talk about his feelings like a normal person would. This would be fine if Lee gave a reason outside of "I don't want to talk about it," but that's the most we get.

I am left in this strange place where I sympathize with Lee due to his past and Afflecks' performance, but I don't relate to him because of his inability to communicate, even with his loved ones. There are so many scenes that are infuriating, because they offer Lee and Patrick plenty of opportunities to talk about their pasts and the future they could share, but is instead filled with awkward silence.

Overall, I appreciate what "Manchester by the Sea" was going for and enjoyed Afflecks' performance, but this was slow, poorly-paced and frustrating to watch. If a scene wasn't about Lee refusing to change, it was about awkward moments of Lee's lack of social skills. The only reason to watch this one is for Casey Affleck's acting, which does elevate the film above its sad story.

Final Grade: C

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Movie Review - "The Pink Panther" (1964)

Boy, 1964 was the year of fun movies wasn't it? "Goldfinger," "Mothra vs. Godzilla" and now "The Pink Panther." Screw 1939 or 1994, 1964 might be the greatest year of cinema.

These days, I hear little about the Pink Panther film series, at least anything good. Before watching this movie, my only exposure were the Steve Martin movies, who portrays the title character Inspector Clouseau as incompetent fool who doesn't seem to understand how the world works. And most people seem to agree with me. But after watching the original film, I can see why Steve Martin's performance is so infuriating to those who enjoyed the series.

In the 1964 film, Inspector Clouseau is played by Peter Sellers, a bumbling police officer who seems to be just a few steps behind the notorious jewel thief, the Phantom (David Niven). He travels the globe constantly searching for the next clue, alongside his wife Simone (Capucine). We quickly learn that Simone is working with the Phantom and stops the Inspector at every turn, but seems to have fallen in love with him, and at least two other men.

For all of his comedic antics throughout the film, what I enjoyed about Inspector Clouseau is that he was still great at his job. He was always on the trail and would set aside family and loved ones to complete his mission, always intelligently assessing the situation and coming to the best conclusion possible. His problem is that he doesn't always look where he's going and his body cannot keep up with his brain.

He's not a mindless idiot, just uncoordinated and a little too dedicated to the job.

Originally, "The Pink Panther" was mostly going to be about the Phantom and his nephew attempting to steal the largest diamond in the world, the pink panther diamond. But as the filmming progressed, Peter Sellers stole more and more of the show and cracked up everyone on set with his bumbling personality. This convinced the studio to put Sellers in more scenes, until he ultimatley became the main character and got top billing. David Niven later noted that, while he played a jewel thief, it was Peter Sellers who stole the movie.

And while Niven does well with his role, playing the suave yet pompous gentlemen, Sellers gives us some great scenes in the later parts of the film.

My biggest complaint with "The Pink Panther" is how slow it starts out. There are small moments of goodness sprinkled throughout the first hour, especially between Niven and the princess who owns the diamond, but nothing substainial. But once it gets to an uproarious scene where Clouseau, the Phantom, his nephew and Simone keep going back and forth through the same hotel room and Simone attempts to hide everything from her husband, the film gets great, with one great joke after another leading to a hilarious punchline.

Overall, "The Pink Panther" may start out slow but it has one of the greatest comedic endings I have seen, which makes the whole journey worth it. Peter Sellers is wonderful in every scene, whether he is solving a crime or bumbling his way through answering the phone. It is not hard to see why this verison of Inspector Clouseau is so beloved and why Peter Sellers stole top billing for this movie.

Final Grade: B+

Friday, February 3, 2017

Movie Review - "Hidden Figures" (2016)

Boy, this was a film that tried to appeal to everyone - A film about launching the first astronauts into space, while also a civil rights movie at the same time. And it's based on true events.

On the one hand, "Hidden Figures" is bare-bones and is about as predictable as you can get. Every emotional note is hit right when you'd expect it and it is filled to the brim with speeches about race, equality, perseverence, and getting into space. This makes the film hoaxy and cheesy in its execution.

And yet, the hoaxyness of "Hidden Figures" makes the film endearing, because of the intensity and tenacity behind its many great performances. I left the theatre with a smile on my face, just like any great feel-good movie should.

Set during the space-race between the Soviet Union and America shortly after the Soviets launch Sputnik, NASA has now become determined to put a man into space and orbit around the planet. To do this, they hire the best minds and engineers they can find, which include mathematician Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), engineer Mary Jackson (Janeele Monae) and mathematician/supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). All three not only face the problems of being the first people to launch someone out of our atmosphere in a flaming ball of hot metal, but also the constant struggles of racial discrimination and gender inequality in the heat of the civil rights movement, in an environment surrounded by white men.

This film would not have worked if it were not for its three lead actresses. In the hands of less capable or convincing talents, "Hidden Figures" would fly apart at the seams.

Henson is quiet and reversed, yet is so strong and determined to show her worth that her intensity cannot be ignored. There's a fire in her eyes that made her performance so captivating, which I did not expect from the opening that showed her character as this hyper -intelligent child that did not like people, similar to Sherlock Holmes. Yet Henson plays Katherine as a woman desperately trying to earn her place in a world she knows that she belongs in.

Monae is fiesty and independent, which leads her to being the funniest of the three as she stands up to her husband and friends. While she gets the least amount of screentime of the three, Monae packs each scene with charm and a little bit of sass as she bucks the system. Her stand out scene comes when she confronts a county judge, as she lists off his accomplishments and how he has always supported change.

Spencer, as always, is a wonderful actress here - killing her enemies with kindness. She has the quiet quality of Henson and the sass of Monae when she needs it, but her tenacity and willingness to learn is what gets me. She has a motherly quality to her character, as someone who cares more about the well-being of others over herself, which makes Spencer perfect for this role.

Together these three ladies show different sides to handling racial discrimination, while also trying to contribute to the world. Their chemistry with each other comes off as three supportive sisters who realize the world is not going to change over night and they need to take care of each other. All three carry the difficult task of making these over-the-top lines carry the weight they need without overselling it.

While I can say I have seen stories like "Hidden Figures" a dozen times before, I cannot say I've seen performances quiet like the ones these three gave.

Overall, "Hidden Figures" accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do through its feel-good performances and story that reflects all the charms and curses of the 1960s. It made me laugh, cheer, and think, which is a great thing for any movie to do.

Final Grade: B

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Movie Review - "Intolerance" (1916)

It is amazing how much of a damn I didn't give about "Intolerance."

Directed by the grandfather of filmmaking, D.W. Griffith, "Intolerance" was made as a snide comeback to the critical response to Griffith's previous film, "The Birth of a Nation." For those unaware, that was the first feature-length movie ever made in 1915 and it has aged about as well as wet bread sitting out in the sun for a month - Offensively racist in terms of storytelling and filmmaking, "The Birth of a Nation" is a chore to sit through nowadays.

"Intolerance" is not racist like Griffith's predecessor, but it is equally as tedious while remaining impressive for 1916. This three-and-a-half hour long movie tells four different tales of intolerance throughout different periods in time, including ancient Babylon, a brief period on Jesus, a French renaissance tale and one set during modern American times.

Any movie that has a network narrative, like "Cloud Atlas" or "Love Actually," owes a lot to "Intolerance." And for being a silent black-and-white movie made only a year after the feature film was created, it does have a distinctive way to inform the audience when and where we are through different-tinted screens. Most of the French story has a green tint, while the Babylonian era is a stained yellow. Any time violent acts occur, no matter the time period, the screen is tinted red.

There is also a fifth time period, in which the "mother of time" rocks a craddle back and forth, and mankind is the symbolic baby in the craddle. The mother is played by Lillian Gish, who would go on to have one of the longest careers in Hollywood and be one of the silent eras greatest actresses.

Outside of that, nothing about "Intolerance" stuck with me. I couldn't tell you what happened, because I really didn't care about anything that was happening.

When you watch as many different types of movies as I do, you come across a film that never attempts to pull you in and get you invested in what they're trying to do or say. "Intolerance" is one of those movies.

I appreciate one of the first attempts at an movie epic and the creation of the network narrative, but multiple stories about hatred and injustice throughout time isn't compelling or worthwhile when done as a silent film. That is something you need active dialogue for, and unfortunately that wouldn't be invented for another eleven years.

So I give "Intolerance" a pass for being ahead of its time, but like "The Birth of a Nation" this one was a chore to sit through.

Final Grade: C-