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Letterboxd Reviews

So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oscar Predictions

UPDATE:  Ugh...a very poor 15/24 showing.  Pretty awful.  A solid ceremony that unfortunately tainted my thoughts about Moonlight which I now see as winning simply because of Hollywood's need to push a liberal agenda -- a tweet from Jessica Chastain post-ceremony solidified this notion for me.  Moonlight is a very good movie, but I can't help but think Hollywood feels the need to "message movie" America now into thinking the way they think (and also make up for last years #oscarssowhite fracas.  Once again, no slight on Moonlight which is great (hence my grade below), but it's a win that will feel tainted even though it shouldn't.

A very quick rundown of predictions this year is below.  I think I'm getting older and more cynical because despite actually enjoying all of the films nominated for Best Picture this year, I'm looking forward to this evening's Oscar ceremony the least of any that I can remember.  Let's just say it's tough being a conservative and a lover of movies on nights like this -- I know I'm gonna be sanctimoniously lectured this evening.  [Links in the Best Picture category are to my original reviews.]

Best Picture (in order of my preference)
La La Land -- A-
Moonlight -- A-
Lion -- B
Arrival -- B
Hidden Figures -- B
Hacksaw Ridge -- B
Manchester by the Sea -- B
Fences -- B
Hell or High Water -- B-
Will Win/Should Win: La La Land

Best Director
Will Win/Should Win: Damien Chazelle - La La Land

Best Actor
Will Win/Should Win: Denzel Washington - Fences
Very tight race between him and Casey Affleck (Manchester). 
Note:  Did not see Captain Fantastic yet

Best Actress
Will Win/Should Win: Emma Stone - La La Land
Note:  Did not see Elle or Jackie

Best Supporting Actor
Will Win:  Mahershala Ali
Should Win:  Dev Patel
Note:  Did not see Nocturnal Animals

Best Supporting Actress
Will Win/Should Win:  Viola Davis - Fences

Animated:  Zootopia
Cinematography:  La La Land
Costume Design:  La La Land
Documentary Feature:  OJ: Made in America
Documentary Short Subject:  Joe's Violin
Film Editing:  La La Land
Foreign Language Film:  The Salesman
Makeup and Hairstyling:  Star Trek Beyond
Music - Score: La La Land
Music - Song: City of Stars - La La Land
Production Design:  La La Land
Short Film Animated: Piper
Short Film Live Action: Ennemis Interieurs
Sound Editing: Hacksaw Ridge
Sound Mixing: La La Land
Visual Effects: Jungle Book
Writing - Adapted: Moonlight
Writing - Original: Manchester by the Sea

Friday, February 24, 2017

Movie Review - Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures (2016)
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, and Mahershala Ali
Directed by Theodore Melfi

There's something so refreshing about the simplicity and basic nature of Hidden Figures and its engagingly pleasant and uplifting story that it's awfully tough not to enjoy director Theodore Melfi's film as it jauntily prances across the movie screen.  The great trio of black actresses at the film's center -- Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe -- do a fantastic job of sugarcoating the fact that the film's screenplay is riddled with one-note white supporting characters and its direction is full of clichés.  However, despite the lack of edginess and its rather elementary (and rudimentary at times) treatment of race relations in the 1960s, Hidden Figures is immensely enjoyable and held my attention as the true story of the three fascinating lead characters unfolded.

Hidden Figures succeeds not because it's got great direction or plot, but because it's a mainstream Hollywood film that capably tells an unknown true story headlined by three charismatic lead actresses.  At the forefront is Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Goble, a rather genius mathematician who worked for NASA at the Langley Research Center in Virginia.  After working in the segregated computer lab, Goble is called up to help the head of the Space Task Group Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) as his team attempts to launch an American into space.  Henson's Goble is an extremely intelligent woman, but she's also a caring mother to her three daughters who faces all the challenges thrown at her with perseverance ever after losing her husband a few years ago.  Henson is captivating at the center of the film, balancing heart and humor with ease.

Perhaps the bulk of the film's humor (and this is a surprisingly funny piece at times) is supplied by Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, the requisite sassy gal who longs to get her Masters in Engineering but isn't allowed because of Virginia's segregation laws.  While not known for acting, Monáe has proven to be an intriguing newcomer in the field with her work here and in 2016's Moonlight.  She has a presence onscreen that emits strength and grace and she's someone I'm certainly going to pay attention to in the years to come.

The only actress Oscar-nominated for her role here is Octavia Spencer, who plays Dorothy Vaughn, the supervisor of the "colored" computer room.  Spencer is essentially playing the same role here that she played in her Oscar-winning turn in The Help, but she's admittedly good in that no-nonsense type role.  Here, Spencer takes on the motherly role with ease, but I honestly think she's the least impressive of the acting trio -- not saying that in a derogatory way, just in the fact that her role seems the most generic.

The three actresses make this film shine.  Unfortunately, some of what goes on around them proves disappointing.  Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons are given rote, been-there-seen-that roles as 1960s white folk seemingly opposed to integration only to have their eyes opened up when they see what other groups have to offer.  Their evil side-eyes and brusque mannerisms are so utterly stereotypical that it sometimes proves laughable as opposed to impactful which is a shame because I'm sure that these three real-life ladies faced some true opposition to their emergence in NASA.  Kevin Costner bucks the trend as Goble's superior, but it's a bit too little to help.

Director Theodore Melfi doesn't reinvent the wheel here in any way, but in the end, that's okay.  Hidden Figures was meant to be a crowd-pleaser, not a deeply innovative piece.  In that sense, it's entirely successful.  In the end, though, it lacks the gravitas or uniqueness to really make a cinematic impact, but the story of the three ladies at its center is certainly a worthwhile historical footnote to learn about.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Movie Review - Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Featuring the vocal talents of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, and Matthew McConnaughey
Directed by Travis Knight

The stop-motion animation from Laika Studios is always exquisite.  When their films begin (be it Coraline or Paranorman or The Boxtrolls) I find myself completely enthralled by the hand-crafted nature of the work and that awe was no exception with Kubo and the Two Strings, the company's latest venture.  Unfortunately, as is also the case with films by Laika, I find myself disappointed with the story and the company's inability to pace their films properly throughout.  Promising starts always lead into disappointing middle acts which are sometimes lifted in the finales.  Gorgeous animation can only get you so far.

That isn't to say that Kubo and the Two Strings is bad by any means.  It certainly is successful during its first half when we are introduced to our title character, a young one-eyed boy (voiced by Art Parkinson) who lives in a secluded cliffside cave with his depressed and sickly mother.  Every day, he makes the trek to the Japanese village near the cave to regale the townsfolk with a glorious story about a warrior who defeats an evil warrior -- all told through magical origami that comes to life when Kubo strums his guitar.  (Yes, it sounds odd, but it's rather beautifully imagined.)  Kubo has always been told to return home before dark, but one day Kubo attends a festival in town during which the living townsfolk create remembrances of the dead.  Enthralled by the festivities, Kubo stays out too late and the ghostly visages of his mother's two sisters Karasu and Yukami (Rooney Mara) come to try and steal Kubo's good eye in order to give it to his grandfather who, legend has it, stole his missing eye.  Kubo's mother fends off her two sisters and tells Kubo to run away and hide.  Upon waking up the next morning, Kubo is greeted by Monkey (Charlize Theron) which seems to be a real-life iteration of a wooden snow monkey figurine he had his entire life.  Together, Kubo and Monkey trek across the landscape of Japan in order to find the pieces of a magical armor that will protect Kubo from his grandfather who obviously wants to do him great harm.

In and of itself, that aforementioned story is engaging, unique, and melds modern and historic Japanese traditions.  However, once Kubo's trek starts, Kubo and the Two Strings loses much of its dramatic tension, essentially becoming a road movie with Kubo meeting the warrior from his stories (Matthew McConaughey) who helps the young boy and monkey on their quest.  Sure, there is some nice repartee between the voice actors with the trio of Theron, McConaughey, and Parkinson creating an enjoyable listening experience.  And, as mentioned before, the animation throughout the entire film is stellar.  Lush landscapes, gorgeous costumes, and fascinating imagery populate the entire film, creating a visually stunning experience.  However, the story falls apart a bit and while the animation saves it -- this one ekes out a win for me thus far when it comes to the animated films of 2016 -- I really want Laika to step it up in the story department because they've got the goods visually that's for darn sure.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Monday, February 20, 2017

Movie Review - Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water (2016)
Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gil Birmingham
Directed by David Mackenzie

As Hell or High Water opens, brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are robbing the small-town Texas-Midland Bank.  Sure, Tanner's been in jail before, but in general the duo seem like nice enough guys...they're just desperate to save their deceased mother's estate which was just recently discovered to be sitting atop a vast supply of oil.  However, a disastrous reverse mortgage set up by Texas-Midland Bank has the agency wanting to seize the house from the Howard family leading the brothers to formulate the plan to rob the bank's branches and then give the money back to the bank in order to save their property.  The Howards continue on their mission while being pursued by a duo of Texas Rangers -- the retiring Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and the up-and-comer Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) -- eager to stop the culprits before they steal any more dough and perhaps do something more deadly.

Much like is typical in the Western genre -- at least for this reviewer -- Hell or High Water is a very slow starter.  Director David Mackenzie's film is lullingly dull in its first forty-five minutes when it comes to plot.  Sure, the rapport between the Howard brothers and the two Texas Rangers provides heart and humor, but the film was lacking forward momentum and drive.  (Once again, this seems typical of most westerns for me, so your mileage may vary.)  The film's second half picks up the pace, racing forward as the two aforementioned duos meet each other following an intense bank robbery, ending the film on a much better note than it started.

While dull at times, the main quartet of four actors solidly delivers.  Ben Foster is charismatic as Tanner whose unhinged personality ultimately overtakes his more subdued brother Toby who is subtly played by Chris Pine with just the right amount of emotional pain to make me truly believe his character's descent into crime.  The two feel incredibly natural together, coming off as believable brothers despite their distinct personalities.  Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play splendidly off of one another in large part thanks to the wonderfully witty and natural dialog conjured up by screenwriter Taylor Sheridan who has a keen ear for the spoken word (even if the film's plot leaves a little to be desired).

The acting certainly elevates the whole film and is undoubtedly the reason for giving this one a go.  Mackenzie as a director creates an incredibly taut and exciting final act, but unfortunately, the build up to the final moments is a bit slow.  This is a capable film that is perhaps more highly praised this awards season than it should be, but I imagine that's in large part due to the fact that the film ends much more enjoyably than how it begins.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Movie Review - Moonlight

Moonlight (2016)
Starring Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, and Mahershala Ali
Directed by Barry Jenkins

I will readily admit that I wasn't expecting to care for Moonlight in the slightest.  Preconceived notions about a plot revolving around a gay black kid's struggle led me to believe that this couldn't be further from a movie with which I would connect.  However, thanks to a realistic screenplay and a unique directorial structure (both created by Barry Jenkins), Moonlight moves along a fast clip as it explores a central character who we can't help but connect with regardless of our race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Told in a triptych fashion with three segments detailing the life of young Chiron, Moonlight allows us a glimpse into the world of a black child trying to come to grips with who he really is.  We first meet Chiron as a child (played by Alex Hibbert) when he earns the nickname "Little" for his meek, tender personality.  While hiding from bullies in an abandoned hotel room, Chiron is discovered by drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) whose kind persona causes Chiron to open up to him as he questions what makes him so different from the other kids his age including his friend Kevin (played as a child by Jaden Piner).  Chapter Two opens with a teenage Chiron (now Ashton Sanders) still finding himself struggling as an outcast, but beginning to truly understand who he is thanks to Kevin (now Jharrel Jerome).  As an adult, the Chiron in Chapter Three (now Trevante Rhodes) seems to be a completely different person as he deals with the aftermath of a monumental decision he makes at the end of the previous chapter.  His life seems to be on a particular path now (perhaps different than he could've imagined), but that changes when out of the blue he receives a phone call from Kevin (André Holland) with whom he'd fallen out of touch with during high school.

Moonlight seems overly basic when crafting a summary, but admittedly its strength isn't in its plot per se, but in its characters and their awakenings as they discover their paths in life.  Thanks to the rather tender portrayal by young Alex Hibbert of Chiron as a child and the heartwarming camaraderie brought to the screen by Mahershala Ali as his adult father figure, we in the audience are immediately drawn into Chiron's story.  Add to that the fact that his mother (Naomie Harris) is more focused on where to get her next stash of drugs than her son's well-being and we can't help but feel sympathy for Chiron's plight.  Somehow, Barry Jenkins and his casting director give us three (unknown) actors in Chiron who seamlessly meld into one another each taking on the quiet, subdued character creating more depth as the film progresses and ending with a final segment that proves heartbreakingly sad and emotionally effective in its simplicity.  While it's true that Mahershala Ali is getting the bulk of the awards season talk from the film, it's Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes who carry the bulk of the emotion in the film.  In fact, Ali is perhaps the slightest bit overpraised in his role which is quite small.  While he has one very heartwarming scene, I found the performance to be nice, but not overwhelmingly "awards-worthy" by any means.  Similarly, Naomie Harris is a bit too histrionic in her too-stereotypical role as Chiron's drug-addled mother.  There's little depth and originality to her character which felt too stock and rote to this reviewer.

Moonlight is well-directed for sure, but feels "independent" all the time (a la Boyhood from a few years ago although this is a superior film).  That's not really a criticism, but it's not able to break out of the "low budget" feel like the similarly independent Room was last year.  Still, I found myself drawn into this tale much more than I ever thought I would which is a huge credit to writer-director Jenkins and his outstanding ensemble of actors playing Chiron and Kevin.  Together, those six actors created an intensely personal and emotional tale that is surprisingly resonant to audiences across all spectrums.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Movie Review - Moana

Moana (2016)
Featuring the vocal talents of Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Nicole Scherzinger, and Jemaine Clement
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

The fact that I watched Moana more than a month ago and am just now getting around to writing a review should tell you something.  It's not that Moana is particularly bad -- I enjoyed it a little bit  more than Frozen and 2016's Zootopia -- but it's so generic that it's a bit difficult to get excited about it.  Nothing about it particularly roused the cinematic corners of my brain despite its nice animation and solid voice acting.

The story of our titular character begins when she is a toddler, fascinated by the ocean, but told by her father and mother (Temuera Morrison and Nicole Scherzinger) that their Hawaiian tribe doesn't venture out into the water.  As she grows older, a now teenage Moana (brightly and confidently voiced by newcomer Auli'i Cravalho) is encouraged by her grandmother (Rachel House) to explore the vast aquatic landscape and when Moana's tribe finds its food supply deteriorating, Moana ventures out on her own to try and help her people.  Along the way, she meets the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) who eons ago stole the heart of island goddess Te Fiti who is systematically going island to island damaging the landscape.  Together Moana and Maui try to help one another tackle Te Fiti and regain stability across the Hawaiian islands.

The most successful aspect to Moana is the voice acting.  Auli'i Cravalho has a gorgeous singing voice, yet imbues Moana with spunk, personality, and charisma.  The titular character would not have been as successful as it is without Cravalho at the vocal helm so kudos to the casting department for finding this unknown.  Coupling that with Dwayne Johnson's hilariously egotistical Maui and the scenes between these two main characters turn into a treat.

Unfortunately, the film itself plays out a little too episodic and generic to feel unique.  The trials and travails of Maui and Moana do little to advance the story, instead they simply feel like individual segments without a cohesive through-line.  (A meet up with a giant crab which takes up a good ten minutes is amusing, as an example, but in the end proves rather fruitless in the grand scheme of things.)  The music by the immensely popular Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn't help advance the story either a la the Menken-Ashman 90s era collaboration that brought us The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.  Miranda's songs are decent -- Moana's yearning (and Oscar-nominated) "How Far I'll Go" and Maui's fun "You're Welcome" being the best -- but in the end, they do little to add depth that we didn't already see.  That being said, Miranda certainly has crafted better tunes here than we saw in Disney's last musical extravaganza Frozen.

There are some incredibly odd editing and directorial choices that harm the film sometimes (and I never find myself saying that about animated films), but overall, despite the somewhat negative tone of this review, Moana works...it just doesn't soar.

The RyMickey Raing:  B-

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Movie Review - Money Monster

Money Monster (2016)
Starring George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O'Connell, Dominic West, and Caitriona Balfe
Directed by Jodie Foster

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the host of the successful financial cable tv show Money Monster, but one afternoon, mid-show, an armed man enters the soundstage on live television.  Aggravated that Lee's advice to invest in a company called IBIS has backfired, deliveryman Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) had had enough and his irritation built to anger at Gates and the 1% culture.  After placing an explosive vest on Lee, producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) must figure out how to save Lee, appease Kyle, and get the crew out alive.

Told closely to real time, director Jodie Foster creates a decent amount of tension in Money Monster, achieving most of that thanks to the solid performances of her three main cast members who certainly create an atmosphere that consistently keeps them on edge.  For the film's first forty-five minutes or so where it's trapped in the confines of the television studio, there is an overarching sense of doom and fear.  Unfortunately, the script drifts during the film's second half, taking Lee and Kyle on a ridiculous journey through the streets of New York City that seems ludicrous and improbable, oftentimes eliciting laughs as opposed to its intended goal.  It's a shame, really, because there was something exciting going on in its first half and the whole affair falls apart a bit as it continues down an ever-increasingly silly path towards its conclusion.  You could certainly do worse than Money Monster, but in the end, it's not quite recommendable thanks to its disappointing conclusion.

The RyMickey Rating:  C

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Movie Review - Fences

Fences (2016)
Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, and Mykelti Williamson
Directed by Denzel Washington

I will readily admit that I walked into Fences expecting to be bored.  Its length of 140 minutes coupled with the boxed-in nature of filming an adaptation of a melancholy play that takes place essentially in a single house was a bit of a turn off.  Oddly enough, all of my fears came true in certain ways, but I managed to still enjoy director Denzel Washington's take on August Wilson's popular play thanks to some fantastic performances and a storyline that really kicks into gear in its second half.

Washington is Troy Maxon, a trash collector and former baseball player who never made it into the Major Leagues and admittedly holds a bit of a grudge because of it.  He lives in a sizable home with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) who is finding great success with high school football, landing on the prospect list of several colleges.  Troy, who was shafted by sports in the past, refuses to allow Cory to dream his life away with the promise of a future in sports and demands that the teen earn a living through hard work like himself.  Needless to say, this causes a rift in the house not just between Troy and Cory, but also between Troy and his wife and leads to a second act turn of events that changes the course of the Maxon household forever.

Fences takes a while to really get going.  The whole piece is a talky affair, but the first forty minutes or so are filled with some lengthy diatribes by Troy or his best buddy Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) that do little to advance the plot despite admittedly adding to the overall character of Troy himself.  However, once the actual conflict takes shape, the film starts to roll with Denzel certainly taking the lead reins and driving the ship as both its star and director.  Some have said Washington is too "actorly" or "stagy" in this flick, but I found him utterly captivating as a grizzled man who's done his share of wrong things, but wants nothing more than to create a life for his son better than the life he himself had.  This desire is palpable, showing itself in Washington's intense portrayal which is matched with equal ferocity by Viola Davis whose mild-mannered and somewhat subservient Rose turns from a typical 1950s housewife at the beck and call of her husband to a take-no-prisoners head-of-household when Troy's actions lead the Maxon family down a path they never could've expected.  Washington and Davis play exquisitely off one another in their tender moments, but simply excel when the late August Wilson's script requires them to really explore their truest, basest, and fiercest emotions in the film's second half.

This is a tough play to expand beyond the walls of the Maxon house and director Washington rarely explores another venue.  Yes, this leads the film to be a bit static at times and come off feeling rather simplistic particularly in the film's first hour.  However, Washington really manages to create an ever-building sense of emotional tension as the film progresses and its release in the final scenes is the payoff for which we'd waited.  Still, Fences can't quite escape the "boring" moniker even from someone who enjoyed it like myself.  It's not a film I'd particularly ever want to watch again, but it's a film that I appreciate and feel is ultimately worth seeing at least once since Washington and Davis give two of the best performances of the year.

The RyMickey Rating:  B