Friday, December 30, 2016

'Hidden Figures' Reminds Us That We Have A Long Way To Go, Baby

This review originally appeared on

Hidden Figures tells an inspiring story about four women much of the world had probably previously never heard of, whose work and perseverance in the face of institutionalized racism and sexism broke astronomical barriers — literally!
It's just too bad the movie itself is rather bland and predictable, formulated to make you get angry at the right places, cheer at the right places, and not really question whether we've really come that far at all.

The story centers on three black friends and coworkers at the NASA field center at Langley in Virginia in the early 1960s. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematician, but more specifically, a "computer;" Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), a mathematician and supervisor of the "colored computers" division; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a computer and aspiring engineer.

The majority of their work consists of making advanced mathematical calculations for the early days of the NASA space program, when America was racing against Russia to make it into orbit, and eventually, to the moon. While all three women's stories are presented, the majority of the film centers on Katherine, who was a mathematical prodigy from an early age, and is placed on the Space Task Group, headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the division that will help calculate the figures needed to launch the first man into space.

She is the only African American on the team, as well as the only female computer, surrounded by a bunch of white men in short-sleeved button ups who at the least don't even notice she's there, and at the worst, are downright competitive and hostile. (Her main antagonist is played by Jim Parsons because of course.)

A major obstacle to her daily job centers on bathrooms, and the fact that the division she's working in has no "colored" bathrooms, forcing her to race a mile across the campus to the colored building every day just to be able to pee. Harrison eventually notices her frequent absences, and demands to know just where it is she disappears to every day. In a heated and tearful reply, Katherine explains, angrily exposing the ridiculousness of the situation. Soon after, Harrison is seen taking a sledgehammer to the Colored Bathroom signs, and declaring all bathrooms at the campus be integrated.

Both Katherine's speech and Harrison's sign destruction garnered applause from the audience, which illustrates a problem with both films like this (and how we're taught history, itself). The oppressed who stood up against their oppression deserve all the credit and applause in the world. But does a white man with nothing to lose really deserve applause for doing what is empirically right?

To the film's credit, none of the white people in it are overtly racist, but what they are has the same effect: They're complacent and convinced that segregation is just the way things are, and they should all just learn to live with it. At one point, Dorothy Vaughan's supervisor, played by Kirsten Dunst, tells her, "Despite what you think, I have nothing against you," to which Vaughan replies, "I'm sure you believe that." It's a statement that could certainly be said to a large portion of the voting public today.

All that said, the history of these women is inspiring, even if it didn't happen exactly as it did in the movie. The real Katherine Johnson has said in interviews she was never "aggressive," she just did her work, so it's questionable whether her confrontation over the bathrooms, among other moments where she stands her ground, ever happened. But watching a woman do her job for decades, sparking change by merely being excellent at her work, does not make for crowd pleasing cinema.

All of the actresses give fine performances, and have their Oscar-worthy scenes, perfect for "Your Consideration" submissions. I was surprised by what a natural actress Janelle Monáe is, something that was only hinted at in her small role in this year's Moonlight. Octavia Spencer plays headstrong but non-confrontational very well, as she has consistently in the past. And Taraji P. Henson is convincingly smart, even if she pushes her nerdy glasses up her nose one too many times. She also gets some choice scenes as a widow and single mother, as well as with a budding romance with a Lt. Colonel, played by Mahershala Ali.

There's nothing wrong with Hidden Figures, and uncomplicated movies like it. It's certainly doing good by shedding light on some figures who shouldn't remain hidden in history. It just has the unfortunate luck of coming out in a year full of constant reminders that while we may have come a long way, (baby), we have a lot further to go than we may have thought.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Icky Stalker Scenario Spoils Intriguing Premise Of 'Passengers'

This review originally appeared on

Passengers is being billed as an sci-fi action romance starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt as two passengers on an interstellar voyage who accidentally wake up decades before they're set to arrive at their destination, with no way of going back into hibernation. And it kind of is, but with one whopping plot point they're leaving out of the ads.

Some may say this is a spoiler, but I say anyone who intends to see this movie has the right to know that it's not actually a story about two people who are put into an impossible situation who then find love and the will to get through it together.

Instead, it's a story about one guy, Jim, who accidentally wakes up almost 100 years too early during a journey from earth to a new colony planet, and after spending a year alone going crazy, decides he can't take it anymore, so he stalks one of the prettier sleeping passengers by learning all about her life...and then decides to wake her up too.

Knowing she won't be able to go back to sleep. Knowing he will, essentially, be murdering her.

I can already hear the counter arguments. It's a desperate situation! He's going to be stuck alone for the rest of his life! What would you do? (I can answer that! As someone who has never viewed the hypothetical threat of solitary confinement as anything other than a  potentially welcome break from the bullshit of other people, I think I'd be fine with it. Especially when there's a robot bartender that looks and sounds like Michael Sheen that I can spend the rest of my life talking and drinking with.)

And perhaps it is a juicy ethical dilemma. What makes the film's handling of it so gross is that Jim doesn't pick an interesting sleeping guy on the ship to keep him company. He picks a beautiful woman, named Aurora (ugh, the symbolism), because if he's going to condemn someone to death, why not have it be someone he'd want to have sex with? Not considering for once, of course, the possibility that she wouldn't want to have sex with him.

Of course he lies to her about just why she woke up, convincing her they're both victims of some kind of weird ship glitch. And of course, because this a big budget movie starring two very attractive and popular stars, she falls in love with him. And of course, his secret is eventually revealed, and she then hates him for what he's done. And of course, a big threat comes along that forces them to work together and realize what really matters.


It's too bad, because Jennifer Lawrence and Christ Pratt are both extremely likable actors, and the situation they're in is actually a pretty interesting one. One that would have been just as interesting without the icky stalker scenario, especially since it's really nothing but a story device that just forces the plot into a typical middle act wherein the people in love with each other hate each other until the final act, when they realize they actually do still love each other.

The space ship Avalon is a lot like the ship in Wall-E, except devoid of its thousands of obese passengers, and full of everything you could possibly want — as long as you've paid for the gold star package. (Jim, of course, has not.) There's the aforementioned bar, straight out of The Shining, along with restaurants with robot waiters who have French accents; a basketball court; and a movie theater that serves popcorn. There's also a genuinely cool and exciting scene centered on what would happen to a swimming pool if the ship were to suddenly lose its gravity.

Less compelling are the ridiculous action sequences that fill up Passengers' finale, as the duo tries to figure out why the ship is falling apart, and realize their only hope comes in trying to fix something outside of the ship, (it's always outside of the ship, isn't it?), which leads to a scenario straight out of The Abyss, and a situation that should have had me on the edge of my seat, but instead just caused my mind to wander, and wonder why, on a ship full of 5,000 passengers and crew, the sick bay would have only ONE medi-pod.

It could have been fun watching Jim and Aurora explore the Avalon, taking advantage of its amenities together, like an interstellar Adam and Eve. But we can't because Jim's horrific act taints the entire goddamn movie.

Monday, December 19, 2016

'Irving Berlin's White Christmas' Is Colorful, Lively, And Predictable

This review originally appeared on

The touring company of Irving Berlin's White Christmas has returned to San Francisco for a ten day run through December 24th, at the Golden Gate Theater. It's a production that's colorful and lively, if a little too traditional.

The show is based on the classic 1954 movie White Christmas, which starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen. The story is altered a bit, and the production filled out with classic Irving Berlin songs not in the original film, such as "I Love a Piano" and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm". (Some songs seen in the original film have been axed, like the unfortunately named "Minstrel Number.")

Like the film, the show opens in 1944, somewhere in Europe, as the duo of Wallace and Davis sing White Christmas to their fellow troops. The show then jumps ahead 10 years, with the duo now world famous, performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sean Montgomery plays Bob Wallace, the Bing Crosby role, and Jeremy Benton is Phil Davis, the Danny Kaye role.

Davis is written as a total horndog, though Benton plays him as though women are not the first thing on this guy's mind. Still, the plot must follow that Davis is so smitten with the Haynes sister act that he fools his partner into following them to an inn in wintery Vermont, where the promise of a winter wonderland causes an entire train car to sing "Snow."

Kerry Konte plays Betty Haynes, the Rosemary Clooney role. She's a redhead in this version, and she catches the eye of steadfast loner Bob. Meanwhile Judy Haynes (Kelly Sheehan) and Phil are smitten from their first meeting, illustrated in the lovely number, "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," as the duo starts a dance on a dance floor that soon gives way to a stage filled with stars and fog.

Once the foursome makes it to the inn in an unfortunately temperate Vermont, Wallace and Davis learn that the owner is their beloved former Major General Henry Waverly (played by Conrad John Schuck, an actor I immediately recognized from his frequent appearances in the films of Robert Altman), who has fallen on some hard times, not helped by the sudden rash of vacancies due to the lack of snow.

So, in classic musical fashion, the duos decide to Put On a Show, and help raise publicity for the inn and funds for the Major General. The majority of the show is then a sort of show-within-a-show, as the a large cast of dancers and singers are brought in to rehearse for the big Christmas Eve event.

Lorna Luft plays the innkeeper Martha Watson, a role that was a non-musical part in the original movie. It's an expanded version of the character, and she's now a frequent foil of the Major General, as well as a potential love interest. (The closest thing the show has to a bawdy line comes from Watson, but I won't give away what's probably the show's only surprising moment.)

Luft's number "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" is a nice addition to the show's songbook, but I didn't really need to have it reprised at the end by the character of Susan Waverly, the Major General's young niece; it was just a little too cutesy.

For me, the film's biggest problem is just how boring Bing Crosby is in the role of Bob Wallace. Why any woman would be smitten with him is just beyond me. Sean Montgomery has a bit more charisma, but I still didn't feel any real chemistry between him and Kerry Konte's Betty; she's no Rosemary Clooney.

One welcome change the musical makes from the film is in the misunderstanding that drives the second act. While it's still an "idiot plot," where everything would be sorted out in two seconds if the characters would just talk to each other, it's at least a misunderstanding that makes a lot more sense than the one in the movie did.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas is a classic ensemble musical, where the majority of the numbers are performed by a large group of dancers, with choreography I found a tad dull. Still, the show does have a payoff in its closing number, with the entire cast decked out in their red Christmas best, performing "I've Got Your Love to Keep Me Warm," followed by "White Christmas," as snow falls on the stage, (and if you sit close enough, you might get a few flakes in your hair). It was a finale that managed to temper the Scrooge in me, for a little while.

Friday, December 16, 2016

It's Hard Not To Be Swept Away By 'La La Land'

This review originally appeared on

I'm a bitter cynic who's long insisted I don't like musicals, even though there's more than one in my list of top 20 favorite movies, and just hearing songs from my favorite childhood animated films can cause me to burst into instantaneous tears.

When I learned a few years ago, after watching both versions of True Grit, that I didn't actually hate Westerns, I just hated bad Westerns, it made me realize the same holds true for my other generally disliked genre, musicals.

A bad musical can make you roll your eyes, cringe in embarrassment, and question the need for all that singing. But in a good musical, a sudden song and dance number can perfectly illuminate the inner feelings of its characters like nothing else. And when a musical is at its best, it can make the hearts of an audience swell. There's really no other way to explain it.

La La Land is a musical that understands that heart-swelling.

From the very beginning, the film announces its intentions of golden era cinema style in a modern setting, with a "Presented in CinemaScope" title card that leads to a widescreen frame presenting one of Los Angeles's worst aspects: Bumper to bumper freeway traffic.

But even the worst of L.A. (and really, that traffic is the only bad thing about the city that's ever shown in the film) is turned into something exciting and beautiful, as the drivers start to sing, and then get out of their cars to dance, leaping, jumping, and pirouetting in a six-minute musical number that looks like it was shot in one sweeping take. (It wasn't.)

Within that traffic jam are our hero, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and our heroine, Mia (Emma Stone), whose romantic comedy meet-cute moment includes horn honking and middle finger flipping.

Mia is a struggling actress who works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, when she isn't rushing from audition to audition. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own jazz club, preferably in a venue he covets, a once legendary place that has been turned into a "samba tapas" restaurant.

Los Angeles is a giant small town, so it's inevitable that Mia and Sebastian should meet, more than once. It's the third time that's the charm, as they leave a party together in search of her parked car, a walk that ends with a song and dance number filmed against the purple sunset.

Director Damien Chazelle shoots these dance numbers the way they used to be shot, which is to say, the way they should be shot, as uninterrupted scenes that show the dancers in full frame — no manic cutting full of close-ups of tapping feet.

Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are merely adequate dancers, performing choreography by Mandy Moore (the other one) that is never too challenging. They're also merely adequate singers that, ironically, were this movie actually made during the golden era, would have probably been dubbed over by stronger voices.

I'm sure there are better singers and dancers out there who can also act, but the movie would then have to give up Gosling and Stone's immense natural charm and completely believable chemistry. So, in this case, I'll take two actors who can easily make me laugh and cry during the non-musical scenes over some Tony-level singing and dancing talents.

Plus, Chazelle understands the limitations of his stars, and makes up for it by placing them in numbers where the setting and the cinematography do the heavy lifting. One such scene is a first date at the Griffith Observatory that finds Mia and Seb literally floating on air while they quickly fall in love.

La La Land is unabashedly romantic, both in Mia and Seb's love story, and also in its love of Los Angeles, classic Hollywood, and jazz. It's hard not to be swept away by it. There are so many moments that left me wanting to clap with joy, and the ending managed to both break my swelling heart and make it swell again.

I just wish the central story wasn't so run-of-the-mill. I'm not sure anyone loves Hollywood as much as Hollywood seems to love itself. There have been countless stories about Hollywood hopefuls, and La La Land's is really not that new. Seb is talented but stubborn! He doesn't want to tarnish his artistic integrity and sell out, until, of course, he's given the opportunity, and the paycheck, that selling out can offer. Meanwhile, Mia is a dreamer whose optimism is being worn down... if only she could get that one big break!

And while La La Land's look certainly feels fresh, it's only because this style of musical hasn't been seen in a while. But it has been done. Martin Scorsese even did something similar with his 1977 film New York, New York, by using classic musical filming techniques paired with modern acting styles. At times the effect was jarring, and the film was a pretty big flop. But I can see a lot of its influence in La La Land, down to a male lead who just wants to open a "genuine" jazz club, and a female lead with Hollywood stars in her eyes.

Within the film, Sebastian complains about L.A. saying, "They worship everything and value nothing." I see it a little differently: they worship themselves, and then reward that worship with Oscars. And La La Land will probably get a lot of them.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Odd Casting Chills A Jumpy 'Jackie'

This review originally appeared on

Natalie Portman, who began her career as a child actress, moved on to play both a manic pixie girl and a sci-fi princess, has grown up to be a very controlled actress. Even when playing someone losing her mind, in Black Swan, the role that won her an Oscar, she never felt dangerous. So it's kind of perfect for her to be cast as Jackie Kennedy, one of the coolest cucumbers to ever enter the public eye.

At the center of the movie Jackie is an interview the former First Lady gives to someone only known as the Journalist (Billy Crudup). It's a weird set-up because the journalist seems completely bored, put out, and confrontational, as if he had been forced into interviewing Mrs. Kennedy a mere week after the murder of the President, instead of recognizing it to be the journalistic coup it is. (The character is loosely based on Theodore H. White, whose Life Magazine article "For President Kennedy: An Epilogue," did indeed run a week after the assassination.)

In light of the Journalist's disposition, I don't blame this cinematic Jackie for being defensive, insisting that nothing will be going to print without her input and editing, something that even happens during the course of the interview itself. "Don't think for a minute I'm going to let you print that," she tells him after one exchange, puffing on her cigarette. "Also, I don't smoke."

The narrative jumps around, showing us a behind-the-scenes look at Jackie Kennedy's famous televised tour of the White House, conducted one year after her husband took office; the day of the assassination itself; and the days after, when Jackie had to plan the funeral, something she clearly felt was the most important contribution she'd ever make towards her husband's legacy.

But as a whole, the movie is very cold. Director Pablo Larraín shoots much of it in a very controlled, almost Kubrickian way. There are lots of close-ups of the actors talking directly at the camera, as well as slow tracking shots following the characters through the halls of the White House, and amongst the tombstones of misty Arlington National Cemetery. Peter Skarsgaard, who looks and sounds nothing like his subject, plays an oddly stoic Robert Kennedy. Greta Gerwig, as Nancy Tuckerman, hunches over tiny Portman (who is several inches shorter than the actual Jackie), in a role simply not suited to her quirky talents.

Jackie Kennedy's firsthand description of the assassination was never made public during her lifetime, but what the movie depicts is clearly modeled after the interview that was published posthumously, every gory detail of it. It's so visceral it almost feels exploitative.

It's the moments surrounding the event that are some of the film's strongest, and it's in those scenes, where Portman's performance — when her breathy take on Jackie's unique voice is quieted — that she has the most impact. The scene where she tearfully wipes her husband's blood of her face is no doubt the film's For Your Consideration clip, but better still are the scenes of a slightly drunk Jackie wandering her rooms, trying on ball gowns she'll now never need to wear at the White House, and the black dresses she will.

If Jackie the film accomplishes anything, it's to help to cement the fact that Jackie Kennedy did some extraordinary things following her husband's death. She chose to walk behind his casket in the funeral procession, vulnerable to a public that, just a few days prior, had proven to be deadly. She insisted her husband be buried in Washington D.C. and not his home state ("He belongs to the people," was her defense of that choice), and ultimately, it was she who helped to create the mythical President Kennedy and their Camelot, which was a lovely symbol for a President who, because of his assassination, wasn't allowed to create any real kind of legacy.

Friday, November 25, 2016

'Rules Don't Apply' Is A Gorgeous, Creepy Mess

This review originally appeared on

Warren Beatty has been wanting to make a movie about Howard Hughes since the 1970s, and it's no wonder why he felt an affinity for the eccentric billionaire. Both Beatty and Hughes were dashing Hollywood men with an endless supply of women and a disdain for the spotlight. (For Beatty, that just meant a general dislike of the press and avoidance of interviews; for Hughes, it meant going for years without being seen at all.)

But Warren Beatty is pushing 80 now, so the chance to make a movie about all of Hughes' life has passed. (And has already been done, with Martin Scorsese's The Aviator.). So Rules Don't Apply isn't really a Howard Hughes biopic as much as it is a Hollywood romance with Howard Hughes as a sort of looming, dominant, almost godlike force that's sometimes front and center, but is more often sitting hidden behind a wall, or a curtain, or the door to a screening room.

Covering fours years, the movie starts in 1964, but then bounces back to 1960, where we meet Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and her mother Lucy (Annette Benning), who have just arrived in Los Angeles. Marla is a good Virginia Baptist girl, a beauty contest-winner who has been granted a movie contract with Hughes' RKO Pictures studio. She soon learns she's one of dozens of girls, all under contract and living in fully furnished homes paid for by Hughes, who are all wondering when and if they'll ever actually meet him, let alone get a film role.

Marla's driver is Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), a good Fresno Methodist whose big goal in life is real estate, but who finds himself drawn further and further into Hughes' inner circle. Frank is also developing feelings for Marla, but their religions, paired with Hughes' insistence that the drivers never date the actresses, are impediments.

Any fan of post-war Hollywood glamour won't be disappointed by Rules Don't Apply's gorgeous recreation. The costumes, cars, and sets are a vintage lover's dream, and had me so enraptured I could almost overlook the fact that the movie I was watching is a bit of a mess.

Beatty seems unsure if he wants the story to be about Hughes or about the young lovers, so he never gives full focus to either. At about the middle mark, the film begins to center a bit more on Hughes and his increasingly erratic behavior, which, while fueled by genuine mental illness, is mostly played for laughs. And granted, some of those moments are really, really funny. Beatty has always had keen comedic timing, and there's one scene centered on a 26 page memo to the police department about a missing cat that stretches so far past the breaking point that it springs back and becomes one of the funniest things I've seen all year.

I have a feeling Beatty was well aware he was too old to be playing the 60-ish Hughes, as a vast majority of his scenes are shot in shadow or dim lighting. And while that might do some to hide his obvious age, it does nothing for his looks, instead reducing his eyes to black, devilish orbs in the darkness, a vision all the more creepy when it comes to the inevitable love scene between Hughes and his starlet. (This is a Warren Beatty movie. You didn't think he wasn't going to make out with the ingenue, did you?)

As tends to be the case these days, it was hard to view Rules Don't Apply through anything but the lens of our current climate. After all, it features a rich, temperamental businessman, likely completely crazy, who views women as property. And I imagine many who worked for Hughes felt the same way: It could actually be kind of funny...if our lives didn't depend on him keeping his shit together.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

'Moana' Isn't Your Standard Disney Princess Movie, And That's A Good Thing

This review originally appeared on

Towards the middle of Moana, Disney's latest non-Pixar animated release, the demi-god Maui calls the heroine "princess." Moana corrects him, telling him she's not a princess, she's the daughter of the chief.

"You're wearing a dress and you have an animal sidekick. You're a princess," replies Maui.

He has a point.

Granted, the dress she wears doesn't sparkle in any way, and her animal sidekick is a mentally challenged chicken that doesn't talk, but in many ways she does resemble a Disney princess: she's beautiful, with long flowing hair; she's rebellious; and while she may not be "royalty," she's heir to the top position in her village. (Some say chief, others say princess.)

So, yes. Disney could be accused of creating just another Disney princess. But it's Moana's differences from those previous princesses that are key.

For one, she's not white. Yes, Disney has given us Princesses of Color in the past, but let's face it, the majority of them have been alt-right approved. (Not to mention that the most popular animated Disney movie of all time, Frozen, was so white, I'm surprised you could even see the princesses against all that snow.)

For another, there is no love interest. There's no prince destined for Moana's hand, and while she does spend the majority of the movie with a beefy demi-god, their relationship is strictly platonic. Her reward is a successful quest, not a happily-wedded-after.

Moana is steeped in cultural folklore, mainly from the South Pacific islands, and is set during the time when those Polynesian natives were the explorers and settlers, long before the west arrived. The movie opens with a grandmother telling a group of children about Maui, the demi-god who created the islands, in a nice bit of animation that resembles Polynesian tattoos. (Maui's animated tattoos become a running gag later on in the movie as well.)

Moana (Auli'i Cravalho, a Hawaiian native making her screen debut) lives on the island of Motunui, where ever since she was a (really, really cute) baby, she's been drawn to the sea. Her father, Chief Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison), is convinced any attempts to venture past the island's reef will be met with doom.

But as their island begins to lose its fish and its crops, Moana believes their only hope is to leave the island, and, following the lead of her grandmother's stories, find Maui and force him to return the stolen heart of Te Fiti. It makes a little more sense in the movie, though really, it's just a story device to get Moana and Maui together.

And once they are together, the film hits its stride. The Rock gives Maui just the right amount of bravado —: he's a jerk, but a lovable one. Because this is not a Pixar movie, it means the movie breaks for songs, and even Maui gets one, the amusing and pretty catchy You're Welcome, which, along with the rest of the film's songs, has lyrics written by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Of course, Moana gets a ballad as well (How Far I'll Go), but I'm not sure it's going to become a song parents learn to hate as much as Let It Go, mainly because I don't think it's going to be as big of a hit, regardless of the presence of that word "go" in there. (A better song comes care of Jemaine Clement, who makes an appearance as a Bowie-esque giant crab in love with Shiny things.)

The majority of the movie follows Moana and Maui on their ocean voyage, as Moana learns to become an ocean navigator, on the way to saving the world. And refreshingly, once Maui gets past the princess jokes, he learns to treat her as an equal, and not as a helpless maiden.

In fact, there's not a lot that's girly about Moana. On every step of her journey, her gender is never an impediment, and is rarely brought into play. Now, I don't know if that's because the movie was written by eight people, only one of whom is a woman, or because it was directed by four dudes, or if it was actually by conscious design. And it doesn't really matter. By giving us a heroine that acts the way heroes always have, perhaps Disney has finally given us a "princess" movie that can cross that mythical gender divide.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Plot-Packed 'Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them' Plays To Adults

This review originally appeared on

It's been almost 20 years since the first Harry Potter novel was released, and fifteen since the first film in the series hit theaters. Those kids who first read those books and saw the movies are adults now, many with kids of their own, and while I'm sure they're sharing their Harry Potter love with those youngsters, I bet there's a part of them that wishes there were some new stories to dive into.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them fits into that niche quite well, giving adult Harry Potter fans something aimed a little more at them, while still being perfectly acceptable for those younger Potterphiles.

Until recently (this week, as a matter of fact), my only exposure to the Harry Potter world was via the movies, not the books. I saw them all, and enjoyed them, but never felt particularly drawn into the world. In general, the genre isn't my favorite. But Fantastic Beasts sucked me in right away for two reasons. One, because it's centered on adults, and not kids. And the other because I am a sucker for period pieces, especially when that period is New York City in the 1920's.

Directed by David Yates, who directed the final four Harry Potter films, from a screenplay by J.K. Rowling (her first), the film is based on the title of a textbook assigned to first year Hogwarts students, which was released as an actual companion book to the original series in 2001. It centers on the book's supposed author, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist who arrives in New York with a suitcase full of critters and plans to release one into its native habitat in Arizona. These beasts aren't pretty unicorns, and most are kind of, well, beastly. (My favorite has to be the platypus-like Niffler, who seems to like shiny jewelry almost as much as I do.)

But before he can even hail a cab, he comes face-to-face with the New Salem Philanthropic Society, an anti-witchcraft cult headed by the stern Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), and her creepy adopted kids, including Ezra Miller as Credence, who looks like Buster Keaton — if Buster Keaton had been beaten by his mother on a daily basis.

If that weren't enough, one of Newt's creatures escapes; he accidentally reveals his magical skills to a No-maj named Jacob Kowalski (No-maj is the American version of Muggle); and he is arrested by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson, always charming), an investigator with the Magical Congress of the United States of America.

When his beasts are wrongfully accused of the destruction that has befallen certain areas of the city, Newt, Tina, her clairvoyant sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Jacob (Dan Fogler) team up to rescue the escaped beasts, and figure out just what is behind the seemingly dark magic rampages. And that's just one plotline in a film that has many.

But that can be forgiven since the movie is supposed to be the first in a series of five films. They need to set up a lot of things, like how magic in America is kept hidden, how those who practice it are segregated from the No-majs (segregation, because, America), and how a dark wizard has broken free in Europe, bent on exposing the magical world to the Muggles and taking over both. (The casting of that character is supposed to be a secret, though by now it's pretty much an open one. But, just in case, I'll just say I wonder if they're beginning to regret their casting choice in light of this past year's events, because I know the reveal didn't exactly fill me with excitement.)

This is the third Eddie Redmayne film I've seen in which he plays a character that never seems to look anyone in the eye. Newt is supposed to be shy and a bit awkward, hence the shifty looks, but it's an affectation that grows a bit tiresome. He also mumbles a lot, which meant I spent half the film wondering if I'd missed a key piece of dialogue.

Much more delightful is the performance of Dan Fogler as Kowalski, the cannery worker who dreams of opening a bakery. He's basically a stand-in for the audience, as he's exposed to more and more magic with wide-eyed wonder, and a what-the-hell-why-not attitude. Fogler's perfect comic timing also gives the movie the majority of its laughs.

Towards the end, the film gets a little too action-packed, with the city of New York (once again) on the verge of destruction. But there are enough moments of magic in the rest of the movie to make up for it, and it had me looking forward to the stories to come. Especially if Newt drops the mumbling, and pairs up with Kowalski.

Better yet, give Kowalski his own spin-off! Fantastic Feasts and Where to Eat Them. I'll be first in line.

Friday, November 11, 2016

'Arrival' Is Both Sci-Fi Spectacle And Art House Head Trip

This review originally appeared on

It's an interesting time for a movie like Arrival. Had I seen it a week ago, and not the day after the beginning of the apocalypse election, my reaction to it may have been different. But after the events of this week it's hard not to view a story about a relatively measured response to an alien arrival as anything other than pure fantasy.

But, of course it's fantasy; it's a movie! And a big reason we go to the movies is to escape. I will admit, sitting in that theater for two hours, free from post-election worries and the constant updates in my Facebook feed, was the best I'd felt in almost two days.

So, yeah, Arrival may seem a little laughable, considering the direction the world is going. But I'm doing my best to view a scenario where the first words out of the President's mouth aren't, "I don't care if this is unprecedented. They came here illegally! And also, how can we be sure they aren't Muslims? BLOW THEM UP!" as hopeful and not naive.

As a matter of fact, we never see the President of the United States. Instead, this story about twelve monolithic spacecrafts that have landed at various spots around the world focuses, primarily, on the scientists, soldiers, and governmental grunts who decide the most important thing they can do is get an answer to the question "Why are you here?"

To do that, they recruit Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist. Having suffered a tremendous loss, she's lonely and brooding, with nothing to lose. With Adams' pale face and wistful performance, Louise comes off as a ghost in her own world. Why not take a trip to the middle of Montana to enter a spaceship?

She's paired up with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist. When the two first meet, she argues that language is the bedrock of humanity, while he argues that science is. (She's right. There's no science without language, dude.) While he's got a lot of questions he'd like these aliens to answer, Louise reminds him it might be best to stick to the basics, like names, before jumping into quantum physics.

Arrival starts off at a pretty fast clip; it doesn't take long before Louise and Ian are donning hazmat suits and entering that ship. That scene, while definitely bringing to mind movies like 2001 and Close Encounters, stills manages to feel completely new, as the laws of gravity are twisted, and the scientists enter a cavelike room that resembles nothing else if not a movie theater.

I was impressed with director Denis Villenueve's use of music in last year's Sicario, where Jóhann Jóhannsson's score felt like a pulse, driving the intensity of several scenes. Jóhannsson returns here, and the score has a similar effect, enveloping the viewer in an alien realm.

The aliens, which are eventually called heptapods, look a little like giant hands were molded into squids. Louise quickly figures out it would make more sense to try and learn a visual language than a verbal one. She is eventually able to decode the aliens' written language, which resembles a kind of circular Rorschach inkblot, but the movie, unfortunately, skims over just how she does that, instead relegating the breakthrough to a moment of narration over a montage.

That's disappointing because up to that point, the movie really does center on the slow but still exciting process of discovery and revelation, free from conflict. Instead, the movie almost gets lost in a subplot involving soldiers who view the aliens as nothing but a threat, and rising fear around the world.

But I'll give that a pass because why the soldiers do what they do is still central to the one of the film's central themes, namely, the power of language, and how words can drive people to do some pretty crazy things. (There I go, bringing up the election again!)

Arrival's advertisements aren't hiding the fact that there's a twist in the movie. I'm not going to spoil it, but will say I imagine some people are going to come out of it scratching their heads, especially if they're used to linear storytelling. For me, I was glad the use of flashbacks and Louise's soft-focus memories of walking through grass meant more than just proof that Villenueve has seen a lot of Terrence Malick movies.

Arrival walks a delicate balance between science fiction spectacle and art house head trip, which explains why it was released during awards season, and not amongst the summer blockbusters. It raises some really interesting questions about time and the human experience that requires a lot more thinking than something like Independence Day does, and I hope it succeeds, because if a movie like this can become a hit in our current landscape, there might be hope for the future.

Friday, November 4, 2016

'Doctor Strange' Is A Superhero Movie On Peyote

This review originally appeared on

Having suffered this year through both Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad, I went into Doctor Strange with some trepidation. Yes, both of those disasters were DC flicks, and Doctor Strange is the latest entry into the expanding Marvel cinematic universe, which has time and again proven to be far superior. But along with B vs S, and Suicide Squad, this year has also brought us Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, and X-Men: Apocalypse. Can you blame a woman for feeling some superhero fatigue?

At least Doctor Strange is going for something a little different, at times coming across as a superhero movie on peyote. Which makes sense, since the character's comic book rise concurred with the psychedelic sixties (even if its creators insist they were nothing but squares).

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is, indeed, an actual doctor, a brilliant and arrogant neurosurgeon who trades romantic banter with Christine (Rachel McAdams), a fellow surgeon and former romantic partner. It seems they didn't break up as much as his growing ego just kind of pushed her out the door.

So, of course, he lives alone in huge New York apartment in the clouds, with only his drawers full of kinetic watches (FORESHADOWING!) to keep him company. He's the kind of guy who drives recklessly across winding two lane roads while checking his phone messages. Of course, that ends up with him nearly losing his life and tragically losing almost all use of this hands. And what's a brilliant surgeon without his hands?

When western medicine fails him, he seeks out alternative treatments, on a quest that leads him to Kathmandu, and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an oracle/guru/witch/swami/sorcerer/everything else "mystical," who convinces the doctor the cure for his broken hands is via a stronger spiritual center.

There's some controversy surrounding the casting of Swinton in a role originally written as an Asian man. Director Scott Derrickson's defense is basically that the original character was a racial stereotype, so by casting a white woman, they were able to avoid those racist undertones. Of course, another reaction to such a character could have been to just write a better version of him, but with that said, I will admit I appreciated Swinton's presence. A lot. She's easily one of the best things about the movie, bringing her trademarked brand of kookiness, which is always delightful to watch. Plus, damnit, we need all the female superheroes we can get!

Dr. Strange trains with the Ancient One, getting further guidance from Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a fellow follower, learning to cast spells, open doorways in space, and throw a mean punch. These lessons lead the characters into psychedelic realities that look like a cross between an Escher painting, a kaleidoscope, and Inception. These moments are fun and colorful, at first. But once the trio has to fight bad guy Kaecilius, (Mads Mikkelsen), the ever rotating and expanding landscapes get a little exhausting. (I will admit the murky 3-D I was forced to watch the movie in did it no favors.)

When Doctor Strange works, it's for the same reasons most of the Marvel movies do: They aren't afraid of humor, and they know what's funny. Cumberbatch's dry delivery, some slapstick involving the Cloak of Levitation, and a funny bit about a wifi password had me laughing more than anything in Suicide Squad and B Vs S combined.

But it also suffers from the same big problem so many of these superhero movies suffer from: too many villains, and villains that are just too big. Kaecilius alone would be enough, but by the end, with the introduction of an even bigger bad, the destruction of the entire universe is at stake. How Dr. Strange deals with the situation, while supposedly a very bad thing to do, doesn't seem to have any negative consequences, and leaves you wondering, well, if he can just do that, why would we ever need any superheroes saving us from anything ever again?

Friday, October 28, 2016

'Moonlight' Is One Of The Best Films Of 2016

This review originally appeared on

Moonlight is easily one of, if not the best, films I've seen this year. It crushed me, and made me remember just why I love the movies. That's something easily forgotten when you have to see as many mediocre movies every year as I do.
Directed by Barry Jenkins, whose lovely San Francisco-set Medicine for Melancholy came out over seven years ago, and based on a short play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, it's a three-act story centered on the life of Chiron, and his coming of age in a tough Miami neighborhood.

In the first act, he's known as Little (Alex Hibbert), one of a couple of derogatory names the bigger and meaner kids around him have labeled him with. One afternoon, as he's hiding out from those rock-throwing kids, he's befriended by a man named Juan (Mahershala Ali), who treats him kindly and welcomes him into the home he shares with his girlfriend, Theresa (Janelle Monae). Juan becomes the father figure Little so desperately needs, teaching him that only he, Chiron, can decide who he wants to be, and not those who are tossing out names.

But Juan is a crack dealer, and Little's mother (Naomie Harris) is an addict. She's also one of his customers. Little's quiet realization that these two things are true is one of the film's more devastating scenes, both because it's inherently heartbreaking, but also because it reveals one of the film's biggest strengths, that of breaking apart what might appear to be some pretty rotten stereotypes, and reminding the audience that these black lives are human lives. Not all people who do bad things are bad people.

In the film's second act, Chiron has taken back his name, and is now a painfully quiet, skinny, and deeply lonely teenager. The taunts from his classmates have grown more pointed; "faggot" is thrown about with abandon. The kids have also become more violent. And his mother has fallen further into addiction.

Ashton Sanders's portrayal of the teen Chiron is astounding. Watching him made my heart ache. He's as tall and skinny as a beanpole, but walks around hunched over, as if subliminally trying to shield himself from the blows that could come at any moment. He can barely look anyone in the eye, and, like his younger self, always seems to be holding back his words.

He has one friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the only kid who also had his back when he was younger. He possesses all the confidence Chiron lacks. One night they find themselves on the beach together, sharing a blunt and conversation that allows Chiron to finally express some of the pain that's been aching to come out. "I cry so much I could turn into drops," he confesses. The sexual encounter that follows is both unexpected and inevitable.

Two acts of violence end act two, and the Chiron of act three is the result of those acts. Trevante Rhodes plays the adult Chiron, who now goes by the name Black, a nickname that had been given to him by Kevin. But it's more than a nickname. "Black" is what much of the world may now see him as — that and only that —and that's a terrible truth with which to live.

Chiron's entire life is filled with so much pain and hardship that you can't help but feel an increasing sense of fear and tension that suddenly, things could go completely and tragically wrong. Imagine living with that fear every day of your life.

And while tense, the third act is also filled with the film's most beautiful and romantic moments. There's a scene in a diner, when a song is played on the jukebox, that has to be one of the most dizzingly romantic moments ever caught on film. It brought me to tears.

Barry Jenkins has made a movie that ranks up there with works by masters like Terrence Malick and Wong Kar-wai. It also brought to mind Richard Linklater's Boyhood, though Moonlight does it one better. It convinces us, through performance alone (because really, none of the actors looks all that much alike) that this is indeed the same Chiron, at every age.

I also loved how Jenkins's camera circles around characters, most memorably when a school bully clears through a crowd, and we are reluctantly drawn into a circle to witness a fight. His use of color to paint a mood is all the more impressive knowing the film was shot digitally. And the soundtrack, which includes classical, hip-hop, and classic R&B, is perfect.

But ultimately what most impressed me about Moonlight was how a movie so quiet, so subtle, and so understated, could slay me so hard.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Tom Cruise Shouldn't Have Gone Back For 'Jack Reacher: Never Go Back'

This review originally appeared on

Going into Jack Reacher: Never Go Back I kept wondering why the movie even existed. Tom Cruise already has a successful action adventure series with the Mission: Impossible movies, is Jack Reacher so different that it warrants an entire franchise of its own? Being that I have seen the first Jack Reacher movie, and can't remember a thing about it, but have seen all the Mission: Impossible movies and can tell you at least one memorable thing about each of them, the answer seemed to be a firm no.

But it turns out there is a big difference between the two franchises! Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is boring, drab, and completely lacking in any of the fun, silliness, and excitement inherent in a Mission: Impossible movie.

Jack Reacher is an ex-Army major who basically wanders around the country, offering up his battle skills where they're needed. In the movie's opening he's just laid waste to a host of bad guys in a diner parking lot, all of them involved in some kind of human trafficking ring. That done, he pops his thumb and hitchhikes his way back to Washington D.C. where he hopes to finally meet Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), the person who's been sending him on these underground cases, but whom he's never actually met face to face. Upon his arrival in D.C. he learns Major Turner has been arrested for espionage, which Reacher knows is bullshit.

Oh, and he also might have a teenager daughter he never knew about.

Just why that revelation is included in a file about Major Turner's case is never made completely clear. What is clear is that the addition of the teenage Sam (Danika Yarosh) is about as necessary as the addition of any Scrappy Doo or Poochie-type character tends to be. It's not going to get the teens interested and it's just going to annoy everyone else.

Adding a child to the mix is a calculated move to give the character some heart, but it doesn't work, and every moment that's supposed to be about Reacher finally caring for someone is so cringe-inducing, it gave me a neck ache.

The majority of the movie follows Reacher, Sam, and Major Turner on the run from the bad guys, from D.C. to New Orleans, and this is where the major difference between the Reacher and M:I movies reveals itself. There are no elaborate stunts, exotic foreign locales, or clever gadgets and disguises to keep us entertained throughout Never Go Back. The closest it gets to anything visually exciting it a chase scene through a French Quarter Halloween parade. Instead, the majority of the movie takes place in grim motel rooms, crumbling warehouses, and a completely unrealistic airplane set. (Also, the entire sequence involving a flight from D.C. to New Orleans is so preposterous, it elicited some incredulous snickers from the audience.)

A Tom Cruise movie always comes with a lot of baggage, specifically, Tom Cruise himself. But when he's in a good movie, I can sometimes get past that, and recognize what made him a star in the first place. He's usually at his best when he's a combination of heroic and fumbling; think, him chasing his own eyeballs down a hallway in Minority Report. There are few classic Cruise moments in Never Go Back, like when he sasses back to his former bosses, or when he punches through a car window into the face of its driver. But for the most part this Jack Reacher is so stoic, he might as well be an ass-kicking robot.

There is one redeeming aspect of Never Go Back, and that's Cobie Smulders as Major Turner. About 90 minutes into the movie, as she was strangling a bad guy with a garden hose, I realized, this is all I want! A rogue female Army Major, traveling the country and kicking some ass. We don't need another Jack Reacher movie; we need a Major Turner movie. And if they get started now, they just might be able to release it in time for Hillary's second year in office.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Plot Holes And Clunky Exposition Make 'The Accountant' A Write-Off

This review originally appeared on

The Accountant stars Ben Affleck as a high functioning autistic man who is a strip mall CPA during the day, and a criminal bean-counter/assassin at night. He doesn't dress up in a bat costume, but he does like to gruffly whisper into the ears of his would-be victims before killing them.

The film begins with a shadowy man entering a building and soon laying waste to its inhabitants. We then flash back to 1989, where young Chris Woolf (Seth Lee), the older of two brothers, is brought to a neurological center by his concerned parents. He exhibits OCD tendencies, self-soothing behavior like rocking and finger tapping, and the occasional total freak-out.

He's offered a place at the center, but his father refuses, insisting the only thing that can "cure" Chris is an increased exposure to the things he's reactive to, which, in his mind, means forcing Chris and his brother into martial arts lessons that leave them bloody.

Jumping to the present day, we meet the older, buffer Chris Woolf (Ben Affleck), a loner living a single-set-of-silverware life, driving from his big empty house in an Illinois suburb to his strip-mall office, where help clients figure out how to turn their jewelry-making hobbies into small business write-offs. You can tell Chris is a math genius because he likes to solve accounting mysteries by writing out numbers on see-through glass.

We also meet Ray King (J.J. Simmons) the director of Crime Enforcement at the Department of Treasury, who is obsessed with finding out just who this mysterious homicidal accountant is, and Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a young analyst he basically blackmails into solving the mystery. Why? I guess because Ray King doesn't know how to use Google, since that's basically all Marybeth Medina does to get to the bottom of the Chris's real identity.

The cast also includes John Lithgow as the head of a robotics firm that hires Chris to examine its books, Anna Kendrick as Dana Cummings, a junior accountant at the firm (and, for a brief and agonizingly awkward moment, the potential object of Chris stilted affection) and Jon Bernthal as an equally mysterious assassin that wants Chris and Dana dead.

The movie wants to lay out its pieces like the jigsaw puzzles Chris can so easily put together, using a non-linear timeline filled with flashbacks, tossing out plot twists here and there, and introducing characters with no context. But towards the middle director Gavin O'Connor seems to lose faith in that presentation, and instead sticks in a solid fifteen minutes of clunky exposition, explaining everything we've just seen.

And even with that explanation, it still leaves so many plot holes and loose ends flailing about I wonder if the hope is to turn this into a franchise? It definitely seems to set itself up for a sequel no one will want to see.

Though, to be honest, I'd rather see a sequel to this than Ben Affleck's upcoming Batman movie.

Friday, October 7, 2016

'The Girl On The Train' Is A Formidable Thriller

This review originally appeared on

Following the success of Gillian Flynn's 2012 novel Gone Girl, (though I would posit The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is probably where it really started), there has been a seemingly endless stream of similar novels, most with either "woman" or "girl" in the title, and all centered on some kind of mystery. (I'll admit to reading way too many of them.)

Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train, which was released early last year, was one of the more successful books to follow that formula, and its film rights were bought before it was even published. It's a fast read, with a pretty good build-up to its central dead-girl-mystery, but it suffers from an annoyingly choppy writing style and a disappointing ending.

One of the book's biggest problems is the central character of Rachel, who is such a pathetic and drunken mess that she inspires more annoyance than pity. You just want to slap her, hand her a copy of Lemonade, and tell her to make like Bey and get a different kind of pissed.

Luckily, the movie has Emily Blunt in the role of Rachel. While she's still a drunken mess, Blunt is able to garner our sympathy for this Rachel, who is really trying to hold it together (though her alcoholism makes that almost impossible). Blunt plays drunk — or more specifically, a drunk trying very hard not to appear drunk — exceedingly well, and she also looks like hell through most of it.

Rachel is the titular girl on the train, which she rides from her lonely room in the suburbs and into Manhattan every day. (In a nod to the book's original English setting, Blunt retains her British accent, but the book's U.K.-centric canned gin and tonics are dropped in favor of vodka in a water bottle.) On those rides, Rachel becomes entranced by one of the houses she passes and the seemingly happily-married couple who lives there.

But on one of those train trips, she sees the woman kissing another man. The next day, Rachel learns the woman has disappeared. And Rachel fears she herself might have something to do with it.

Because, you see, Rachel also passes by another house on those train trips. It's the house she used to live in with her husband, Tom (Justin Theroux). He still lives there, only now it's with the woman he left Rachel for, and their infant daughter. And Rachel has a tendency to, after her usual 10 or so too-many drinks, drop by there unannounced. This is something she fears she may have done the night of the neighbor's disappearance. Unfortunately, her drunken blackout is only allowing her to remember flashes of events that may or may not have happened.

While Rachel is the center of the story, the movie also jumps into the lives of Meghan (Haley Bennett) — the woman who disappears — and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), Tom's new wife. And it's those peeks into the private moments of three different women who are all dealing, in some form or another, with fidelity, motherhood, and the expectations of their gender, that makes the movie a bit more interesting than your standard whodunnit. While I wouldn't say the film is overtly "feminist," (not that there's anything wrong with that!), it is intensely feminine, loaded with moments, both exhilarating and traumatic, that will resonate a lot more with women than they will with men.

Readers of the book may be wondering if its worth it to see the film, since they know the ending already. That ending was one of the biggest problems I had with the book, and I can easily say, without giving anything away, that the movie does a much better job with it; there's a benefit to being able to show things instead of having characters simply explain it all.

The Girl on the Train may not reach the heights of a cinematic classic like Rear Window — a clear influence — but it's still a formidable thriller, and more impressively, an adaptation that actually improves on the blockbuster book it was based on.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Tim Burton Fails Again With 'Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children'

This review originally appeared on

While I've often appreciated the films of Tim Burton, I've very rarely loved them, finding him too often to be so involved with the the look of his films that he forgets he's supposed to be telling an actual story. Add to that the nearly constant inclusion of Johnny Depp (who is a dominating presence, to say the least), and his recent films have felt both one note and exhausting.

While he didn't direct the disastrous Alice Through the Looking Glass that was released earlier this summer, it still had his handprints all over it, and Burton is probably hoping Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will wash away the memory of that mistake. Sadly, it will have to be chalked up as another failure.

Based on the first book in a young adult series by author Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's centers on Jacob (Asa Butterfield), a Florida teen who is closer to his grandfather (played by Terence Stamp) than to his dad, partially because Grandpa told some pretty great bedtime stories in his youth. But Grandpa's continuing insistence that those stories weren't just stories is chalked up to dementia as he's grown older, and Jacob begins to doubt him too.

When his grandfather meets a gruesome fate, it convinces Jake that he had been telling the truth all along. He persuades his distant and bird-watching (?!) father (Chris O'Dowd) to accompany him on a trip to an island in Wales, to see that "home for peculiar children" where his grandfather was once a resident.

What follows involves portals, time travel, and those aforementioned peculiar children, who are all living the same day in 1943 over and over again to avoid eyeball-eating "Hollowghasts." (Seriously.) Jake is looked on with suspicion by residents like Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), the sullen boy who can bring inanimate objects to life, and is clearly a stand-in for Burton himself. Others can't help but be drawn to him, like Emma (Ella Purnell), the literally ethereal blonde who would float away if not weighted down by her steampunk metal shoes.

Maybe 20 years ago, a home full of kids with "special" and often supernatural talents would have elicited some sense of wonder or excitement, but all I could think was, "Yeah, I liked this place better when it was known as Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters."

Burton's latest "muse" Eva Green (when you've got a type, you've got a type!) plays Miss Peregrine. She gives an enjoyably weird and off-kilter performance, speaking in an odd, clipped accent and gliding around with birdlike movements, which is appropriate considering Peregrine isn't just her name.

But she's really the only standout in a film that feels phoned in. The majority of the kids are reduced to the peculiarities and given no real personality, and Jake spends way too much of the movie as an observer instead of a hero.

But where the movie really fails is with the bad guys, lead by Samuel L. Jackson. God bless him, but I'm just plain tired of seeing him show up as the villain! Especially when he doesn't bring anything new or exciting to the role. Here he's the same old grinning monster, cracking wise but rarely saying anything that's actually funny.

It doesn't help that he's also in charge of some monsters that are so unoriginal, I was sure their initial appearance was a joke. Ha ha, you thought the bad guys were gonna just be eyeless and noseless dudes with fang-filled mouths, AGAIN? — just kidding! Here's something REALLY SCARY!

No such luck.

The original book's best aspect was its use of found photographs as a starting-off point for a supernatural story: Actual found black-and-white photos of spooky-looking kids doing things that look unexplainable are interspersed throughout the book. Of course, the photos are really just old camera tricks, but having them included in the book with a backstory adds a certain sense of plausible reality to the whole thing.

Burton barely gives those photos a passing moment, taking away the one thing that would explain why Jake was convinced his grandfather's stories were true. But I suppose that makes sense. The film actually does come off like a long-winded and boring tale told by someone who's probably ready for his pudding after a nice long nap.

Friday, September 23, 2016

'The Dressmaker''s Uneven Tone Makes For A Jarring Experience

This review originally appeared on

The Dressmaker opened overseas last year, and became the second highest-grossing film of 2015 in its home country of Australia. But I seriously doubt it will be met with quite the same enthusiasm here in the States.

Kate Winslet stars as Myrtle "Tilly" Dunnage, a haute couture dressmaker who has returned from Paris to her small, dusty, hometown in 1951 Australia. Her entrance, along with her opening line, "I'm back, you bastards!" sets up the story like an old-fashioned revenge Western, only this time, the hero is armed with a Singer and not a Smith and Wesson.

Tilly has ostensibly returned home to care for her feeble and slightly insane mother, Mad Molly (Judy Davis, who gets the majority of the film's limited laughs), but what she really wants is the answer to a question that has haunted her since childhood: Did she in fact murder a classmate when she was ten years old?

Most of the miserable townsfolk believe she did, and don't exactly welcome her home with open arms. But she's come armed with the talent she's honed since her banishment from town, and once the townsfolk see her prancing around in her fabulous frocks and learn about the skills she has to offer, they start to appreciate her.

Until they don't, and go back to hating her again.

The Dressmaker is a movie that doesn't stick to one tone, even during the course of a single scene, and it all adds up to a jarring experience. Granted, Australian comedies are rarely subtle, and the characters that inhabit the dusty town Dungatar are broad to the point of caricature, including the cross-dressing police sergeant Farrat (Hugo Weaving), who screams in glee at the sight of some silk organza yardage; the hunchbacked pharmacist (Barry Otto) who prescribes riotous lectures instead of actual medicine ("It's addictive!"); and the town Councillor (Shane Bourne), who nightly drugs his high-strung wife to the point of unconsciousness, and then proceeds to rape her.

It was that scene, which comes fairly early in the story, that had me distrusting the film. While the moment isn't exactly played for laughs, it's also not presented as the horrific act it is, either. And so much of the film that follows has a similar problem of not managing to balance the extreme mood swings it takes.

There's a romance at the center of the story, between Tilly and Teddy McSwiney (Liam Hemsworth), a young man who, for some unfathomable reason, hasn't become a horrible person like everyone else in the miserable town. (Kate Winslet is clearly older than Liam Hemsworth, and while it's refreshing to see that kind of age difference play out in the actress's favor for once, it doesn't make sense within the context of the film since they're supposed to be the same age.)

Teddy wants to help Tilly get to the bottom of her mystery, but is constantly warning her that even with all the fancy sewing she can do, the town is never going to like her. Which had me wondering, wait, is that the point? What exactly is she trying to do? She knows they're horrible people, and it doesn't seem like she cares much what they think of her. Yet, she makes them all these dresses leads to no change in them. If anything, it makes them even worse.

Speaking of those dresses, the first half of the film is filled with some lovely fashions (my favorite was the black evening dress with the white accordion sleeves). That, the burgeoning romance between Teddy and Tilly, and some suspense surrounding just who killed that little boy in the schoolyard all makes for a pretty entertaining little tale. For a little while.

But then the film starts to pile on the tragedies, lining them up right next to some comedic deaths, and because both are played with the same tone, the film earns neither the tears nor the laughs it's shooting for. Is The Dressmaker a comedy? Or a tragedy? It tries to be both, and ends up being neither.

Friday, September 9, 2016

'Sully' Manufactures Unnecessary Drama, Sells Subject Humorlessly Short

This review originally appeared on

I'll say up front that Sully was a difficult movie for me to watch, since one of my biggest fears is flying (and I happen to be getting on a plane Monday). But I would imagine even those who aren't scared of flying aren't thrilled by the prospect of crashing, so watching a realistic plane disaster probably instills some rapid heart beats in your average viewer, if not the virtual panic attack it gave me

And director Clint Eastwood certainly doesn't shy away from that crash (sorry Captain Sully, I mean "forced water landing"), showing the full event more than once throughout the course of the film. The story takes place during the weeks immediately following that "landing," although it jumps back in forth in time, showing the moments before the event, the event itself, and the investigation that followed, but not always in that order. There are also a few flashbacks to Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's earlier days as both an amateur and a military pilot.

One of the biggest miracles of the event dubbed "the Miracle on the Hudson" is that the man behind it turned out to be so perfectly modest, down to earth, and likable. So it was almost inevitable that, when the (equally) inevitable movie came out, he'd be played by the universally likable Tom Hanks.

Hanks has the white hair and mustache, and looks enough like Sully to seamlessly blend into the character. But ironically, the one thing Hanks's performance is lacking is levity, and anyone who has ever met the real Sully (who hails from the Bay Area) or has seen him in TV interviews knows that he's got an easy and often self-deprecating sense of humor.

Granted, the film takes place within the week after the crash, so it's possible that Sully wasn't at his most charming during that time. (Actual TV interviews that happened that week, however, tend to prove otherwise.)

And that's just part of the the film's overall problem, as it repeatedly gins up drama where it really isn't needed. I'm sure Sully had more than one moment of PTSD after January 15th, 2009, but the film's version of Sully shows him barely holding it together, imagining planes crashing every time he looks outside a New York window, waking up in cold sweats, and having many angst-ridden phone conversations with his wife (Laura Linney) who is back home in Danville. Alas, Linney's character is almost exactly like one she parodied in an Inside Amy Schumer sketch earlier this year. (Note to screenwriters: If the wife role requires her to spend the majority of it on the phone anxiously speaking to her husband, perhaps rethink it a bit.)

Sully's anxiety is centered on one constant question: Did I do the right thing?

Sure, it seems like a silly question to have when what you did basically saved the lives of over 150 people, and it had me thinking, so what if he could have landed at a nearby airport safely? The end result would have been the same.

Except for the loss of that plane, of course, and that's where the movie's manufactured villain comes in.

The implication is that the National Transportation Safety Board was more concerned with the loss of the aircraft than it was pleased by the avoidance of a deadly disaster. But I don't really believe the hearings that were conducted after the accident were as insulting and skewed (and brief) as they are in the film. I was disappointed to see Eastwood, who has been able to avoid black-and-white morality in a lot of his movies, resort to creating such a cartoonishly evil villain in the NTSB (as personified by Jamey Sheridan, Anna Gunn, and Mike O'Malley).

Sully landing that plane on the Hudson is an amazing story, but it's also a pretty brief one. Captain Sully never wanted to be in the spotlight, and got out of it as quickly as he could. He also never took sole credit for the events that day, always acknowledging his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (played in the film by Aaron Eckhart and his mustache), his crew, and New York's emergency response teams. It's ironic that a movie being advertised as "the story you didn't know" is actually at its best (and most harrowing — see it in IMAX for added heart stress!), when it's showing us the story we do know, namely the events of that cold afternoon in New York, on January 15th, 2009.

Friday, September 2, 2016

'The Light Between Oceans' Is Pretty But Turgid

This review originally appeared on

The Light Between Oceans, adapted by writer and director Derek Cianfrance from the 2012 novel by M.L. Stedman, is an old-fashioned romantic tragedy filled with fateful events, bad choices, and really pretty people walking around really pretty scenery.
Michael Fassbender stars as World War I vet Tom Sherbourne, who returns to Australia and accepts a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the western coast. He's a moody and tight-lipped man who is dealing with some obvious post-war angst, so a lonely island is just what the doctor ordered.

Tom easily catches the eye of the lovely Isabel (Alicia Vikander) during a visit to the mainland. She's a smart, happy, and forward young woman who basically takes the reins, asking Tom on a date and then essentially proposing to him a few hours later. But, it being 1918, no marriage can actually take place until those two exchange several turgid letters to each other over the course of several months.

Once wed, Isabel joins Tom on Janus, and while their isolated island is an Eden at first — there is no limit to the number of shots that include glistening waves, vivid sunsets, and the swaying fields of grass that surround their home — things turn terrible when pregnancy enters the picture. Childbirth was an already a dangerous experience back then, but toss in a complete lack of any immediate medical care, and anything but the most complication-free pregnancy is a potential for tragedy. And it's just such a tragedy Isabel and Tom must face. Twice.

So when a healthy baby shows up on their shores shortly after Isabel's second miscarriage, it seems to Isabel to be nothing but fate. She urges Tom not to report it, and to raise the baby as their own. Who would know?

Of course, things don't turn out so happily ever after. A few years later, during another visit to the mainland, a grieving widow (Rachel Weisz) catches Tom's attention. And therein lies one of the movie's main problems: Tom is such a cypher that we never really understand his motivations — or lack thereof — or why he's so haunted. Isabel clearly wears the pants in the relationship, and, as a uniquely forthright and determined young woman in the early 1920's, is a much more interesting character to center a movie on. But instead, we see the story primarily through Tom's passive eyes.

The film is, of course, beautiful to look at, with lots of shots of the good looking leads in their lovely lace dresses and manly woolen sweaters as they walk through the rugged landscapes. Fassbender and Vikander both do the best they can with the material at hand, and if you sense a real sense of chemistry between them, it's probably because the couple fell in love while making the film. Weisz is also very compelling in a role that requires her to spend a lot of time crying.

And sure, I'll admit to shedding some tears myself by the end of the movie. But it was an almost involuntary reaction, like jumping when something leaps out in a horror movie, or burping after drinking a big gulp of beer. There were tears on my cheeks, but I wasn't feeling a thing.

Friday, August 26, 2016

'Don't Breathe' Goes Where Most Modern Horror Movies Won't

This review originally appeared on

In a scene near the beginning of Don't Breathe, our three teenage antiheroes are sitting in a car, casing the next house they're going to rob. It's owned by a recluse who won a large settlement after his daughter was killed by a wealthy drunk driver, and the presumption is the money is in his house, which is the only occupied residence in a completely desolate and crumbling Detroit neighborhood. The recluse is also a war veteran, and blind. As they're watching, the blind man walks out of this house to take his giant Rottweiler for a walk.

Smart robbers would take that opportunity — the one time they know the guy isn't home — to enter and rob the house. Instead, the teenager named Money (Daniel Zovatto) says, "Let's do it tonight."

For all its twists, masterful suspense, and flipping of genre conventions, Don't Breathe still deals with horror movie characters, and a horror movie just can't get very far unless its characters do stupid things — like deciding to rob a house when they're positive the homeowner is actually in it.

Which isn't to say these kids don't have a plan. Nice guy Zack (Dylan Minnette) has a father who works for a security company, and thus has easy access to house keys and security codes; Rocky (Janey Levy) is handy because she's a tiny girl who can fit through small spaces; and Money? Well, he's the tattooed bad boy who brings a gun to a robbery, thus giving a homeowner perfectly legal recourse to shoot them all in self defense. Whoops!

The movie tests the audience's alliances well at the beginning. You can kind of side with the kids because they're stuck in Detroit, and, at least in the case of Rocky, have terrible (to the point of cliché) home lives. They just want one more score so they can get out of Michigan and start over in California! On the other hand, they're robbing a blind war veteran who lost his only child to a tragedy!

Director Fede Alvarez, probably best known for his 2013 remake of The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi also returns as producer), steps back from the ultra gore of that film, sticking primarily with pure suspense. There's a great scene when the kids first enter the house that feels like an endless take, as the camera follows them in and out of rooms, and up and down stairs; it's a great way to ground the audience in what will be the movie's primary setting.

Stephen Lang, as the nameless Blind Man, is genius casting. At first he appears pretty feeble — he's got gray hair and stubble, and those ghostly, milky eyes. But then, as he's stumbling around in the dark, you notice this old guy is! (Seriously. Stephen Lang is 64 years old and is in better shape than either of the younger guys in the movie.)

While Alvarez doesn't completely avoid the genre's love for loud jump scares (they usually happen in the form of that aforementioned Rottweiler), I did appreciate how much of the film's suspense relied on quiet and darkness. The need for both the intruders and the Blind Man to remain totally quiet to avoid detection means a lot of the film's biggest scares come from the Blind Man suddenly appearing in the background, thiiiiiiis close to one of the kids, neither of them aware of the other's proximity.

Don't Breathe isn't perfect. It has one too many endings and a scene that probably goes too far into the realm of the disgusting. (I still haven't decided if I hated that moment, or appreciated its audacity). But those are small criticisms for a movie that made me hold my breath more than once, and managed to take suspense to heights most modern horror movies don't even bother with anymore.

Friday, August 19, 2016

War Dogs Is A Derivative Pack Of One-Note Antiheroes

This review originally appeared on

Imagine you're a guy who became somewhat famous, or perhaps even infamous, and you've just found out a major motion picture is going to be made based on that part of your life. Exciting!

"This is amazing!" you say to the producer. "Who's going to play me? Oooh. Let me guess. George Clooney? Leonardo DiCaprio?....Brad Pitt?!...No? OK, who then?"

"Close!" says the producer, "He's a huge star. I know you're going to be pleased. It's...JONAH HILL!"


You hang up the phone.

This is a conversation I like to imagine has happened four times in the last five years, as Jonah Hill has played four characters inspired by real people, in the films Moneyball, The Wolf of Wall Street, True Story, and now War Dogs. And while none of those real men resemble Clooney, Pitt, or, DiCaprio, they also don't look much like Jonah Hill.

It's not just the looks thing, though. Everyone loves a good character actor, including me! It's just that Hill has built such a career on playing really, really unlikable guys, that I imagine anyone learning he was going to be bringing their story to the screen would have to stifle a feeling of dread that for the rest of their lives, their name will be associated with another repulsive Jonah Hill character.

And he's pretty repulsive in War Dogs. He stars as Efraim Diveroli, a not so-nice Jewish boy from Miami who has figured out how to make millions via the U.S. government by bidding on contracts posted on FedBizOps, a government-run website where anyone can bid on government jobs, some of which include arms procurement. (It's actually a pretty fascinating site to peruse. I'm thinking of making a bid for this Removal of Accumulated Sludge job, who's with me?!)

Efraim takes advantage of the "gray market," which is basically the government saying, "We need a shit ton of weapons and ammo, and we don't care where you get it, as long as it's cheap. Also, don't let us know about it if it's not exactly legally acquired."

Efraim recruits his childhood friend David Packouz (Miles Teller), and it's David who is supposed to be the moral center of the film. He narrates the action, and is presented as a good guy who, after years working as a masseur and a failed venture to sell bed sheets to rest homes, is quickly seduced by Efraim and his wads of cash. As an added "nice guy" bonus he's also got a girlfriend (Ana de Armas) and child, although that girlfriend role isn't much more than her saying, "David, I trust you" and then "David, how COULD YOU?" over and over again.

But David and Efraim aren't really good guys. They make money off wars they both claim they're against, ripping off poor working stiffs in battle-beaten countries in the process. They hold meetings at strip clubs because of course they do. Efraim spends most of his earnings on hookers and blow.

And sure, antiheroes usually aren't nice guys. All you need to do is watch the movies director Todd Phillips constantly references over and over (particularly Scarface and GoodFellas) to know that. But when presented well, antiheroes are also complex, and David and Efraim are anything but. The closest thing to a moral dilemma David comes to is asking if what they're doing is legal, and then shrugging after Efraim says, "Well, it's not illegal." And Efraim? Well, he's just a flat out scumbag who thinks he's a lot funnier than he actually is.

Director Todd Phillips, best known for the Hangover films, really wants War Dogs to be as good as the movies that are his very clear influences. But his incessant use of freeze-frames, voiceovers, and classic rock songs is instead just a reminder that this has all been done before, with much more finesse and nuance, in much better films.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins Is More Than Just Hilariously Bad Singing

This review originally appeared on

Remember when Meryl Streep was the queen of drama? When any movie in which she shed a tear was guaranteed to garner her an Oscar nomination, and often the prize itself? (A running joke in my family come Oscar time has always been, "Why was Meryl Streep nominated again? Oh yeah. Because she was in a movie.")

But lately her career has changed course, in much the same way her equally lauded male contemporary Robert DeNiro's has: They're both starring in a lot of comedies. Of course that's where the similarity basically ends, since Streep's comedies have been consistently better than DeNiro's — although I will defend The Intern until my dying day.

Florence Foster Jenkins is the latest Meryl Streep summer comedy, and it's a pleasant, and at times touching little gem based on a true story. Streep is the titular Florence, a very rich patron of the arts with an undying passion for music. Once a child prodigy pianist, after an illness left her with nerve damage, her piano playing was replaced with singing, for which she had considerably less talent.

With nothing but time, money, and a love for music that drives every aspect of her life, Florence decides to perform a concert, and hires aspiring composer Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) as her piano accompanist. Helberg is best known for his role on TV's The Big Bang Theory, but I think his talents shine brighter here. Much of the movie's comedy depends on his reactions to Florence and her voice, which he states "defies medical science," and he manages to get a laugh every time.

Hugh Grant costars as St. Clair Bayfield, Florence's husband. He's the perfect counterpoint to Helberg's incredulous pianist, a husband who is both completely supportive of Florence's aspirations, and fiercely protective. There's more to their marriage than first appears, and director Stephen Frears does a good job of balancing the sadness inherent in their story with the very simple comedy that comes from hearing someone singing badly. (If there was an Oscar for Best Bad Singing By Someone Who Can Actually Sing Well, Streep would get it, and you can learn more about her preparation for the role in her recent interview on Fresh Air.)

Of course it's not Florence's talent that gets her a night at Carnegie Hall, it's her money, and the movie's closest thing to a villain comes in the form of a theater critic who refuses to lie about her lack of talent. And in many ways, his criticism is absolutely right — her show is a gross display of privilege.

But there's also art that, because of the sheer optimism, devotion, and blind belief of the artist, is immune to any kind of criticism, and in fact defies it. The films of Ed Wood come to mind, or the music of Daniel Johnston. And Florence Foster Jenkins certainly deserves a place among those artists, whose love for their craft outshines their abilities, and results in a type of human production that people come to love anyway, blemishes and all.