Movie Review: Sully

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imageFor those yearning for a solid Hollywood film with something to say, “brace for impact!” Director Clint Eastwood’s solid biopic Sully (A-) turns convention on its head with an interior examination of an American hero who followed his instincts and famously saved 155 people with a famed plane landing on the icy Hudson River and then doubts himself in the wake of evidence and scrutiny. Against the backdrop of an obsessive culture in which we meticulously pour over footage of pivotal events including the “Zapruder Film” of the JFK shooting, Eastwood’s clinical study of an unlikely emergency water landing combined with a quiet, restrained and mighty performance by Tom Hanks in the title role, makes for an emotionally exciting adventure wrapped in a contemplative piece of cinema. Minor quibbles include a discordant score (Eastwood wrote his own theme music) and a moment or two when the flashback-laden structure does a disservice to forward momentum. But it’s ultimately a stand-up-and-cheer/think experience, made even better by Aaron Eckhart as a charming first officer. Those who think they know the whole story already will be enriched by what Eastwood does here. It’s also an essential big screen theatre experience with magnificent sound and visual effects. With a tip of the hat to the pilot, his crew, the passengers and the first responders, it’s the hero story we may not have known we needed at this exact moment in time.

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Posted in 2016

Movie Review: Captain Fantastic

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imageSomewhere on the cinematic patriarchs continuum between Captain von Trapp and the Great Santini, Viggo Mortensen gives a sensitive, soulful and indelible portrayal of a flawed but well-meaning dad in Matt Ross’ incredibly engaging Captain Fantastic (A-). Mortensen is the draw here, summoning a rugged loner charisma that at this point can just be called “Mortensenesque” as a man raising his six children off the grid in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest with unconventional techniques to teach them self-sufficiency, critical thinking, peak physical performance and a global worldview. His headstrong homeschooling, an ongoing ropes course and debate society in the woods, wins him no favor with his in-laws (well played by Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) but makes him a hero in the eyes of his neo-hippie children, all beautifully played. George MacKay is an earnest delight as the oldest of the offspring, incredibly moving as he experiences a date for the first time after being shrouded in the wilderness. Ross makes an assured directorial and writing debut, showcasing the central family’s confrontations with society in a way that keeps you guessing of whether or not it will all work out. There was a melancholy moment I thought would be a pensive ending, but I liked the extended epilogue – including an unforgettable family jam session – even more. The film is a cult sensation challenging American mores in the tradition of Easy Rider and Into the Wild and highly recommended.

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Posted in 2016

Movie Review: London Road

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imageRufus Norris’ adaptation of the West End musical London Road (B) is a curious case of hybrid musical documentary. This syncopation of vérité verse attends the tale of the plainspoken citizens of Ipswich, England, changed forever in 2006 by a quintet of killings of prostitutes who had emerged as curbside phantoms on the scene of a benignly neglected, sleepy borough. Actresses Olivia Colman and Anita Dobson lead an ensemble of sturdy players who brilliantly sing-speak the actual lines of a forensic investigation and subsequent media coverage of the aftermath of the murders, bringing humanity to the random viciousness befalling domestic tranquility. Even Tom Hardy, the most internationally recognized star in the film, has a nice singing bit as a roguish taxi driver tossing out conspiracy theories. Through the vocals of the victimized women living on the margins of town, we learn a little about the irony of a neighborhood watch wary for certain infractions and blind to a city’s most aching needs. Despite the chilling subject matter, there’s an overriding spirit of nihilistic dark comic glee that the filmmakers are having such a good time reinventing how a musical can take shape. Although recorded live, the dulcet dialogue has a delightful dubsmash quality with “ums” and “you knows” treated like they’re the angelic utterances of Jackie Evancho. The asymmetrical, casual quality of the music recalls Dancer in the Dark or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and makes this essential viewing for fanatics of the musical form in its perpetual evolution or of droll, defiant British storytelling. The narrative sometimes yearns to break forth a bit more from its mumblecore melodies and doesn’t really ever make that leap. It would have been interesting to see how an Alan Parker or Ken Russell would have dabbled with more forceful visual panache into this subject matter. As it stands, Norris has challenges honing in on the exact plum protagonists most worthy of our attention. And the procedural story isn’t quite shocking or special enough to warrant this passionate a cinematic treatment. Still, this unconventional yarn is a thrilling detour from traditional storytelling.

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Posted in 2016

Movie Review: The Light Between Oceans

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lightbetweenoceansIt’s like Thomas Hardy crafted two thirds of an epic and let Nicholas Sparks finish the final chapters. Derek Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans (C), itself an adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s popular post-WWI Australian romance, features Michael Fassbender as a former soldier turned lighthouse keeper and Alicia Vikander as his new bride on an isolating island where intrigue about their offspring becomes the stuff of tempestuous melodrama. The presence of veteran Aussie actors Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson and a few verses of “Waltzing Matilda” are basically the clues you’re down under (thankfully no koalas) long before the narrative seeps below sea level. Fassbender and Vikander are wonderfully charming until their character motivations require them to become a bit stupefying. They commit to their craft well after the story strains credulity. A thankless supporting role does Rachel Weisz no favors. What starts out pulpy, electric and suspenseful simply becomes sudsy, irritating and overlong. Add to this mix an inconsistent narration, an overuse of reading letters and an awkward framing device, and you have the formula for a tepid September studio release.

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Posted in 2016

In Memorium: Gene Wilder

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eliBy Eli Sanchez
Guest Contributor
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In Memoriam: Gene Wilder 1933-2016

If you were a child of the 1970’s and you had a single parent who had a hard time finding a sitter, you ended up going to a lot of movies that most children would not normally be allowed to attend. That brings me to Gene Wilder. When my mom was attending San Jose State while I was a child, the student union there would frequently run cheap double features on weekends. The double feature I recall playing a great deal was Silver Streak and Blazing Saddles, or sometimes it was Silver Streak and Young Frankenstein. At 3-4 years old, I was fascinated with trains; but then of course, I was also into westerns. And being my mother’s child, I was also into old monster movies. There was something to appeal on all levels with those films. So at a very young age, I was introduced to the strange, neurotic nuance that was Gene Wilder. If it wasn’t the harried would-be hero George Caldwell of Silver Streak, he was the drunk Waco Kid hanging upside down in a jail cell sharing a joint with Cleavon Little. If he wasn’t playing one of those, he was the half-crazed genius Froederick Frahnkenshteen or the clinically certifiable Leo Bloom. If ever there were a clinic on frenetic comedy, those films started that road to ruin for me. I knew who Gene Wilder was before I knew who Mel Brooks was. And of course through three films with Brooks (The Producers included) and his various partnerships with Richard Pryor, he and a cast of dozens made me laugh again and again as I got older and socially more aware and mature enough to handle the humor. In other words, his films never get old. There was Willy Wonka in possibly his creepiest role, and then there was Sigerson Holmes in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother as the lesser known younger brother of the great detective. I am forever thankful for that humor and that inspiration that helped me through those awkward years of my youth when you’re at the height of being misunderstood. Those films and Wilder’s antics appealed to many, I’m sure. I can’t think of one line that ultimately sums up what Gene Wilder meant to me, but I do think the closing line of Blazing Saddles is very appropriate:

Waco Kid: Where you heading, cowboy?
Bart: Nowhere special.
Waco Kid: Nowhere special. I always wanted to go there!

Trust me, Gene, you were definitely always “somewhere special” to me.

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Guest Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

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kubojamieBy Jamie Williams
Guest Contributor
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With its first three beautifully awkward films, Laika has been in ascent to the top of the animated features heap, and with its fourth, Travis Knight’s Kubo and the Two Strings (A+), the studio has equaled peak Pixar (to me, the run of Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up) in crafting this engaging, emotionally resonant, and fresh take on the hero’s journey, told with dazzling visuals and technical creativity. A flinty Charlize Theron, a plummy Matthew McConaughey, and the wonderful Art Parkinson as Kubo lead a great voice cast.

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Posted in 2016, Jamie Williams

Guest Movie Review: Don’t Think Twice

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dontthinktwicejamieBy Jamie Williams
Guest Contributor
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Don’t Think Twice (B+) is light and dry like the last warm day of autumn, and an assured effort from writer/director Mike Birbiglia. Gillian Jacobs is a marvel. For a movie about improv comedy, it’s more bittersweet and nostalgic than consistently laugh-out-loud funny, though there are plenty of lived-in moments that show the deep history and affection among the troupe as they struggle to deal with jealousy, resentment, and personal disappointment of the ascent of one above the rest.

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Posted in 2016, Jamie Williams

Movie Review: Hands of Stone

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imageAlthough many viewers may be feeling “no más” to the prospect of another boxing movie, Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Hands of Stone (A-) turns out to be stunningly good and one of the most unexpected character dramas of the year. The film is a sports biopic about the career of Panamanian former professional boxer Roberto Durán, and he is fiercely portrayed by Édgar Ramírez in one of those performances that defies every expectation. His brute deconstruction of machismo, his hunger for victory and justice and his nationalistic zest for life seeps out of every frame. The character is often hard to like, and that makes it even more intriguing. Through superb period detail and art direction against a backdrop of a revolutionary time period in Panama paralleling a transformation in the boxing industry through television and sponsorships circa late 70’s and early ’80s, the filmmakers create a soaring narrative that turns the tables for American audiences expecting to root for their native son. Usher Raymond is a delight in a small part as U.S. boxing hero Sugar Ray Leonard, conveying magnanimous authority. Ana de Armas is remarkable as Felicidad Durán, imbuing the spouse role with grace and verve. Magnificent in other supporting parts are Ellen Barkin and Rubén Blades, the latter legend contributing mightily to the soundtrack as well. But it is Robert De Niro who reclaims his mantle as one of the cinema greats as champion trainer and narrator Ray Arcel. He is splendid in the supporting role; and like Ramírez, you can’t take your eyes off him. De Niro’s corner of the ring pep talks with the Panamanian boxer are part inspiration, part confessional and part master class in quiet dignity. Whether you love sports movies or actively resist them, you will find this story – and the style of telling it – captivating.

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Posted in 2016

Movie Review: Southside with You

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SouthsideWithYouPromotionalPosterIn the tradition of the talky and compelling Before Sunrise trilogy, a new movie takes a similar approach to the fateful first date of one of the most historic and captivating couples of modern times. Writer/director Richard Tanne’s Southside with You (A-) stars Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter as a young Barack and Michelle Robinson Obama, respectively, circa 1989 in Chicago. This slice of life – literally one day in the life – is buoyed by radiant performances by the two leads and a timeless tale of a young couple challenging each other to become their best selves. Sawyers brings charisma and persistence and Sumpter a fierce intelligence and drive to the love story. Both are indelible and delightful in the roles. The incidental nature of a first-date-in-the-making that involves a picnic, an art gallery, time in The Gardens, an organizing meeting, drinks, a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and a trip to an ice cream parlor illuminates so much more about a future First Couple than a traditional montage-filled biopic ever could. It is a lovely story, gorgeously filmed and beautifully acted. It’s gimmick free and groundbreaking in its own way as a chronicle of history unfurling before our eyes.

 

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Posted in 2016

Guest Movie Review: Sausage Party

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jamieSausage_PartyBy Jamie Williams
Guest Contributor
Silver Screen Capture

At this point in the collective careers and oeuvre of Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, et al, we know what to expect from their raunchy, HARD-R comedies, but the bracingly vulgar and profane jaw-dropping shocks brought to bear in a way that only the laws of animation allow make Greg Tiernan’s Sausage Party (B) something one simply cannot unsee or unknow (and I’m MOSTLY fine with what I saw and now know). In the same way that Kevin Smith’s Dogma was the most spiritually profound movie to feature a poop demon, Sausage Party matches that lowest of brow language and ideas with a truly thoughtful meditation on the meaning of life and the idea of an afterlife. Hilarious, great voice cast, inventive puns and word play, vivid finale. That said, I feel sorry for any middle-aged father who may have taken his teen-aged son not know how wholly awkward a cross-generational viewing it would be!

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Posted in 2016, Jamie Williams

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