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“La La Land” Review

Old School Charm for the Modern Era

la-la-land-movieMuch has been made of the ambition and excitement surrounding director/writer Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, an unabashed musical done in the style of classic Hollywood entries into the genre. From the film industry buffs who adore its old school charms to the less-than-enthusiastic audiences who have already become worn out by the constant praise and awards being heaped upon the film, it seems like everyone has extreme reactions to Chazelle’s film. And with the film making waves by being tied for the record number of Academy Award nominations with a total of 14, it’s difficult to not hold the highly lauded movie musical up to a massive amount of scrutiny.

But what Chazelle, director behind 2014’s stellar Whiplash, is seeking to do with La La Land is to create a movie-going experience that captures the magic of old Hollywood filmmaking while also paying tribute to its many irreplaceable films. In doing so, Chazelle has made a movie that must be compared to many towering giants of film history while also introducing the idea of a musical to audiences who may not be all that familiar with the genre.

It’s a tough spot to be in, but Chazelle and his fantastic lead actors pull it off with ample grace and wit. Though there may be some rough spots in the process and La La Land is far from groundbreaking, this modern musical has grace, energy, and wit to spare, which more than make up for its few shortcomings.

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“Arrival” Review

Stunning, Timely Sci-Fi

arrival-2016-movieThe greatest science fiction films use the genre’s trappings to say something crucial about the human condition, with even some of the most explosion-filled entries into the genre having layered and meaningful metaphors deepening the silly spectacle on screen. Director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival takes one of the most tried and true sci-fi scenarios, first contact with an alien race, and turns it into an intimate affair that strikes a deft balance between the scientific and the emotional.

With an intimate focus on its limited cast of characters off-setting the massive stakes of the story, Arrival is a film that engages the brain and creates layers of emotional investment without sacrificing either aspect. In return, Villeneuve’s film becomes a highly rewarding experience that feels universal yet extremely timely in what it has to say concerning the value of communication, connection, and acceptance.

Those ideas play out when aliens arrive on Earth for the first time, sending governments worldwide into a confused frenzy. In the midst of that chaos, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is contacted by the U.S. Government to attempt communication with the mysterious aliens who have landed in Montana – just one of 12 space crafts that have landed around the world. As she attempts to decipher and understand the language of the aliens, Banks must also confront her grief surrounding a personal loss and the perils of misunderstandings that come from cross-cultural communication.

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The 20 Best Character Introductions in Film

First impressions are crucial in film. Whether it’s a hero, a villain, or any other crucial character, it’s vital that someone’s first appearance in a story make an impact in just the way a filmmaker wants. While not every character introduction is meant to wow audiences and leave a lasting impression, plenty of them are designed to do so.

The greatest character introductions say vital things about the character and inform the larger film as a whole. Whether this is through big and bombastic fight scenes or intimate, detailed character studies, the best introductions linger in the memory and strengthen the character.

As some ground rules, an introduction included here has to be the first time we are introduced to a character in a film, but not necessarily an entire franchise. He or she may have been spotted briefly in the film previously, but not given a true introduction. In addition, the first time a character takes on a new identity does not count, such as Bruce Wayne’s first appearance as Batman halfway through Batman Begins.

Have your own personal favorite character introductions? Let me know in the comments section!

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“Fences” Review

Fantastic Performances Elevate a Faithful Adaptation

fences-2016-moviePlaywright August Wilson won great acclaim and numerous awards for his layered depictions of African-Americans through his many works, one of the most famous being the 1983 play Fences. Now, Denzel Washington has brought the play to life as a film as both its director and star. But Fences’ hyper-faithful recreation makes it into both a powerful display of Wilson’s creation and a sometimes frustrating example of the clash between the styles of play and film.

Set in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, Fences tells the story of husband and wife Troy (Denzel Washington) and Rose Maxson (Viola Davis), who are dealing with the changing world around them and their tumultuous past. As Troy and Rose spend time talking with their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and other family members week after week, we begin to learn more and more about their past, as well as Troy’s numerous shortcomings. But a revelation concerning Troy threatens to tear their family apart and forever alter what small amount of happiness they have carved out in a cold and harsh world.

In every essence, Fences feels like a play. It’s not surprising, given that August Wilson himself adapted his play for the screen before his death in 2005. From dialogue to structure to character, Fences is a very faithful adaptation of the play and both Washington and Davis, who have played these characters countless times since starring in the 2010 Broadway revival, are clearly at home within the interior lives of their characters. Those who loved the play or who are interested in seeing what this seminal story is all about will find plenty to love in Washington’s film adaptation.

However, those unaccustomed to the storytelling style and character work often found within plays may find Fences to feel strange when reproduced in cinematic language. Whether you are keenly aware of the difference between film and play or not, it’s clear that Fences is operating in a far different manner than the typical movie.

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“Jackie” Review

Portman Shines in an Unconventional Biopic

jackie-movie-2016The biopic has been done an umpteen number of times in film, with most following a very similar formula. Life of a famous person is traced since childhood, with defining early moments, heartbreaking tragedies, the creation of defining works, and the rise and fall of various romances all plotted along the way. Throw in some montages and maybe some nifty closing text that wraps up the story, and you’ve basically got every good and bad biographical film.

Director Pablo Larrain’s Jackie most certainly eschews the formula, with the Natalie Portman-starring vehicle tracing a few short weeks in the life of Jackie Kennedy following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Told in a labyrinthine manner and focused on permeating the psyche of its lead character instead of tracing her life’s major events, Jackie most certainly cannot be called a typical biopic. That distinction makes the film unique in the sea of biographical films, but it also frustrates as often as it illuminates.

Above all, Jackie is an acting showcase for Portman, whose portrayal of the world famous First Lady is quite literally at the center of the film. No, seriously, the vast majority of the shots in Jackie situate Portman at the center of the frame and having the film pivot on her as she makes her way through the aftermath of tragedy. Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine’s camerawork is almost claustrophobic, with countless shots pressing into Portman’s visage or gracefully following her closely through the halls of The White House or her estate as she attempts to process the trauma she has just endured. It’s a bold choice and one that often dismisses the events happening around Jackie in favor of dissecting her behaviors, choices, and struggles.

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“Manchester by the Sea” Review

A Quiet, Human Meditation on Grief

manchester-by-sea-movie-posterDepression and grief have been the fuel for countless awards season films and writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is the latest to tackle the topics with an appropriate amount of pathos and empathy toward its characters. However, what differentiates Manchester by the Sea from many others is the subdued, far from flashy nature in which it tells its story, which combines with numerous powerful performances for a quietly moving, humanistic meditation on its themes.

Like the effects of grief, Lonergan tells his story through a filter that feels quieted and crushed by the depression gripping its characters. In doing so, Manchester by the Sea is an emotionally honest and human look at how death and loss impact each person differently and whether moving on from tragedy is truly possible for everyone. In the hands of different filmmakers and actors, Manchester could have easily been a melodramatic roller coaster that insisted on the importance of its acting choices and hammered its viewers with non-stop emotional highs and lows.

Instead, this examination of a man, Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck), who has been living with a past tragedy and must now take care of his nephew in the wake of his brother’s sudden death, works to subtly and earnestly gain emotional investment from its viewers.

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“Sing Street” Review

A Muddled Message with a Song in Its Heart

sing_streetI don’t know if you know this, but writer/director John Carney loves music. You’d probably be able to tell from the fact that two of his previous films, Once and Begin Again, centered around struggling musicians grappling with the ideas of love and happiness as their songs played major roles in how they moved forward in their lives.

Well, would it surprise you to know that his latest film, Sing Street, also focuses on musicians dealing with love and the pursuit of their dreams through the music that they make? It’s not exactly new ground, but it’s clearly in Carney’s wheelhouse, which both works with and against him here in this ‘80s-set coming of age story.

Set in the midst of the heyday of the New Wave music movement in Dublin, Sing Street finds young Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) forced to change schools and attend the rough and uncaring Synge Street CBS. While there, Conor falls for the mysterious aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and decides to form a band to impress her despite having no real musical experience. As Conor struggles to grow in a largely unsupportive environment, he discovers the creative process and tries to forge a new life with a motley crew of new friends that form his band.

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“Moonlight” Review

An Emotional, Artful, Human Examination of the Heart

moonlight-jenkins-moviePainful, aching, and filled with both unique and universal truths, writer and director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a devastatingly honest piece of art.

Told in three parts, Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a young African American man grappling with his homosexuality and being shaped by both the damaging actions of the people around him and his own irreversible choices. Jumping from a time in his childhood to his teenage years to his adult life, Jenkins’ film is sharply focused on the questions of identity and what intolerance and trauma do to those who are most vulnerable.

Adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney and with a screenplay written by Jenkins, Moonlight is an assured and multifaceted film that deserves to be poured over and discussed in the utmost detail. But its countless layers and incredibly emotional narrative can only be given so much justice in a relatively brief and spoiler-light review. Suffice it to say that Moonlight captivates through its humanity, with so many small and big moments weaving together to form the tapestry of a painful, heartbreaking life. Its emotional crescendos and melancholic valleys are utterly earned and the way both happiness and heartache hang on single moments, words, and gazes is enough to be as intense as any thriller or horror film, yet far more honest.

This is a person hanging in the balance. Not life or death, but love and self-acceptance, which dictate far more in life than many are willing to admit.

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“Princess Mononoke” – An Ecological Epic

Nature, humanity, spirituality, and their often mysterious yet vital connections – these are all reoccurring themes within the cinematic works of writer and director Hayao Miyazaki. And few of his films are as heavily focused on these powerful ideas as Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki’s 1997 Japanese animated epic Princess Mononoke (or Mononoke-hime in the Japanese Hepburn romanization) is a tale of the war between man and nature in Muromachi Japan. One that is given literal form in the film’s battle between an industrializing colony of humans and the forest spirits and animals who are being directly impacted by man’s often violent progress. Two humans, Ashitaka, a prince of the Emishi tribe seeking a cure to a demonic curse, and San, a young woman raised by wolves and spiteful toward humanity, are the only hope to break the cycle of violence and bring peace between these two opposing yet interdependent halves of life.

The beauty of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s long list of highly influential animated films is that they can shift from large scale to small, grounded to fantastical, offbeat to classically told, while always remaining poignantly human and thematically resonant. On its 20th anniversary, Princess Mononoke remains a staggering work of artistic and philosophical beauty rendered in stunning, violent masterstrokes.

While it’s clear that Miyazaki is largely invested in the wellbeing and future of nature in both this and many of his other films, he is not without sympathy toward the plight and needs of the human side of the conflict. Like most of Miyazaki’s films, Princess Mononoke lacks a true villain. Rather, each of its characters grapples with a far murkier morality that comes from dealing with a new emerging balance between man and nature’s needs for survival. Without a clear cut villain, Princess Mononoke avoids being a morality tale or a chastisement of industrialization. Rather, it becomes a call for greater understanding and a willingness to work with the needs of both man and the natural world.

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