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.