Thursday, December 29, 2016

Kids These Days: "American Honey" an alive, free-flowing road trip

American Honey (2016)
162 min., rated R.

British filmmaker Andrea Arnold made a splash with 2009’s “Fish Tank” and brings a lot of vitality from across the pond in “American Honey,” a free-flowing, impressionistic road trip about the socioeconomically disadvantaged living on the edge of the American heartland. So lived-in and alive that it could be a documentary, the film carries one along on a wave of sadness, transcendence and hope. There was no actual script for her actors to follow, but writer-director Arnold reaches invigorating heights of filmmaking and raw visual poetry with music and feeling. For nearly three hours, this is an unflinching yet compassionate and revealing piece of work.

Acting newcomer Sasha Lane, who was picked out of a spring break crowd on Panama City Beach by Andrea Arnold, is a fresh-faced discovery as a dreadlock’d Oklahoma teen named Star. Before fleeing her rough life of dumpster diving for food and taking care of two young kids, she locks eyes with a confident guy named Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who offers her a job selling magazines door to door in different neighborhoods. Star soon becomes the new girl in a shady crew, led by manager Krystal (Riley Keough), riding along in a white van of smoking, tatted, underprivileged young people like herself headed to Kansas City. While living in and out of motels and trying to make money during the day, the free spirit also hopes to connect with Jake. For once, Star finally feels wanted, but what will become of her?

“American Honey” doesn’t quite justify its sprawling 162-minute running time, but it certainly makes its own hypnotic path with its free-form narrative, aided by Robbie Ryan’s handheld, fly-on-the-wall cinematography (shot in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio). Although Andrea Arnold carefully avoids trashy condescension toward her characters, it is sometimes difficult to buy that any of them beyond Jake could be effective salespeople, but that's a minor point amidst the bigger picture. Fearlessness incarnate, Sasha Lane has an incendiary spark and a natural screen presence, while touchingly actualizing Star's arc to selflessness and self-realization. Shia LaBeouf fits right in as charismatic hustler Jake, as does Riley Keough as no-bull manager Krystal, and every other face (a lot of them unknown actors from off the street) looks like a real one that could be found loitering in a K-Mart parking lot or shopping mall. Arnold’s musical choices are even indelibly used, including Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Carnage’s “I Like Tuh,” Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” Raury’s “God’s Whisper” and the title song by Lady Antebellum. A lot of time is spent in that van with Star and these kids, but one thing is for sure: you can’t take your eyes off of them.

Grade: B +

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Worst Films of 2016

After 2016, let us forget that these pieces of junk were ever made by human beings, not chimpanzees or aliens, and actually saw the light of day. Life is too short. Cheers to a new year with fewer bad movies.

Dishonorable Mention: Abattoir; Antibirth; Bad Santa 2; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Boo! A Madea Halloween; Cell; Collateral Beauty; The Disappointments Room; The Forest; The Girl in the Photographs; Gods of Egypt; Independence Day: Resurgence; Intruder; Martyrs; Mothers and Daughters; Most Likely to Die, Satanic; Suicide Squad; Yoga Hosers

5) Shut In - Dull, by-the-numbers and really rather dumb, “Shut In” is only a suspense thriller in theory. This snoozer misdirects the viewer into thinking he or she is watching one of three subgenres—a psychological thriller, a supernatural thriller, or a “…From Hell” thriller—but that suspense wears off real quick and trades it in for plodding tedium. It’s also a waste of Naomi Watts, Oliver Platt, Jacob Tremblay, and some handsome cinematography. 

4) Mother’s Day - “Mother’s Day” will be the third time late director Garry Marshall has pulled together an attractive ensemble to fit into multiple stories for one big ode to another Hallmark holiday. The last two star-packed extravaganzas weren’t much more than frothy, manufactured comfort food, but “Mother’s Day” repeats the same problems and then adds a whole new set that it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s obvious, mawkish and vanilla, and then sometimes it’s even insultingly lame and inept. Jennifer Aniston fares the best out of anyone in that she actually gets to be charming, funny and honest, but she deserves the credit, not the terrible script.

3) The Darkness - The premise of a vacationing family (led by Kevin Bacon) unknowingly bringing home a supernatural force from a sacred Native American cave is a perfectly creepy hook on which to spring for a horror movie, but telling a story, generating dread, or even staging an effective jolt seem to elude "Wolf Creek" director Greg McLean this time for his first studio venture. Never scary for a second and bereft of atmosphere, this milquetoast genre effort is just derivative and immediately unmemorable. It almost makes one long for the dozen other mediocre copies of this supernatural horror formula.

2) Warcraft - The mythological fantasy genre seems like the hardest one to crack sometimes, and scripted, acted movie adaptations of video games rarely work. An example of both, “Warcraft” is an egregiously tedious and perplexing experience. It should not be a necessity to have played Blizzard Entertainment’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game “World of Warcraft” to enjoy what plays out on screen, but this is bound to alienate anyone who isn’t part of the prepackaged target audience. For a $160-million, CGI-loaded fantasy tentpole, “Warcraft” is a tough sit, lacking in fun, heart, stakes, imagination, and narrative momentum.

1) Dirty Grandpa - Surely the blueprint for “Dirty Grandpa” must have sounded like uninhibited fun for a hard-R road comedy. For better or for worse—all right, definitely worse—this is a raunchy, unprecedented opportunity for 72-year-old Robert De Niro to play a perverted lout of a widower making it his goal to have sex with a college girl and revel in general inappropriateness. Hopefully the paychecks were worth it for De Niro, Zac Efron, Aubrey Plaza, and everyone else involved. Smarmy, smutty and stupid, “Dirty Grandpa” wasn’t only a pandering and groan-worthy insult against immature humor but the most off-putting motion picture of the year.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Space Heroes: "Hidden Figures" a necessary, warmly felt crowd-pleaser

Hidden Figures (2016)
127 min., rated PG.

When a film based on true events is released during awards season, there is the cynical notion that it will be the cinematic equivalent of eating broccoli. To be sure, “Hidden Figures” has a Disneyfied, feel-good stamp all over it and takes dramatic license like any film does, but one would have to be dead inside to not respond to it positively as a stirring celebration. Set during oppressive times when change hadn’t yet begun, this overlooked history lesson about three unheralded African-American women who deserved their due for their work in space travel is a significant one but also entertaining and marvelously acted. Such a story shouldn't have dragged its feet to be told to the world in 2016, but it's better late than never. 

Based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, “Hidden Figures” shines a light on the unsung pioneering heroes on the ground and behind the scenes at NASA during 1961 in Hampton, Virginia, as the Russians were ahead of the curve in space exploration. A widowed mother of three with a full-time job, Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) works as a mathematician, calculating the astronauts’ launch windows. She is assigned to the Space Task Group, led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and dominated by white men (save for Harrison’s white female assistant), and would have to hike half a mile away to the racially segregated West Computing building to use the “colored ladies room” and use a different coffee pot. There was also no protocol for women to attend briefings, which would seem important for Katherine to sit in on since the data changes every day and makes all of her work moot. Her two other colleagues were just as crucial. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is a “computer,” having the responsibilities of a computing department supervisor without the proper title or pay raise. While raising a family, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is an engineer who would later receive permission from a judge to attend night classes to expand her knowledge. Their efforts would lead to astronaut John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) eventual orbit around Earth, relying upon Katherine’s exact calculations, and this would mark an important turning point in civil rights and gender equality.

Director Theodore Melfi (2014’s “St. Vincent”), who co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder, keeps a light, accessible touch for this uplifting story, but “Hidden Figures” is really driven by bright performances. These strong, smart, proud black women are far from just sassy types; they are fierce and good at their jobs. In bringing life to Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and acting newcomer Janelle Monáe are all spark plugs, full of sympathy, likability and strong-willed determination. Henson is ostensibly the lead, and very good, but the lesser-known Monáe is so enormously charismatic and confident in front of the camera that if she continues her career in acting after this and “Moonlight,” lead roles should await her after this breakthrough. Mahershala Ali (2016’s “Moonlight”) is exceedingly charming as Colonel Jim Johnson, Katherine’s military suitor who would eventually become her husband; getting a man is just part of the packaged deal. In slightly antagonistic roles, Jim Parsons, as main Space Task Group engineer Paul Stafford, and Kirsten Dunst, as the stringent, no-nonsense Vivian Michael, aren’t quite hemmed in as caricatures but prove that mere condescension counted as racism; fortunately, the actors receive key beats of mutual respect with Katherine and Dorothy, respectively. Lastly, Kevin Costner solidly underplays it as NASA director Al Harrison, who’s tough but begins to trust Katherine and let her have a voice.

“Civil rights isn’t always civil,” Mary’s husband Levi (Aldis Hodge) tells her, and that’s the unfortunate truth. This is just one example of historical progress, and we still have a long way to go. Warmly felt and necessary about the black female experience, “Hidden Figures” isn’t so much about the uncertainty of the outcome, which is history, but how Katherine, Dorothy and Mary get there. Is this Hollywood treatment glossy and sanitized? Maybe, but that hardly makes a dent in the film’s robustly satisfying entertainment value, and if a story worth telling must be told in crowd-pleasing fashion, then so be it. This is a winner.

Grade: B +

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Animal Idol: “Sing” has its pleasures but mostly just harmless

Sing (2016)
108 min., rated PG.

The latest effort from Illumination Entertainment who last gave audiences “The Secret Life of Pets” over the summer, “Sing” is a jukebox musical with anthropomorphic animals. It is never up to the standards of Disney Animation’s “Zootopia” from much earlier this year, although like DreamWorks Animation’s “Trolls,” it’s slight but enjoyable in the moment. For a while, writer-director Garth Jennings (2007’s “Son of Rambow”) and co-director Christophe Lourdelet are able to sustain their film with the setups of their colorfully detailed animal characters—there isn’t a human in sight—and the “let’s-put-on-a-show” energy of the auditions and final performances. When the film is limited in creative inspiration, it’s hard to criticize the cute factor too much. If it’s lightweight and forgettable compared to the bar that Pixar has raised, “Sing” will have to do as a perfectly pleasant crowd-pleaser.

Hoping to restore his father’s classic Moon Theater to its former glory with every cent he has, financially struggling koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) decides to promote a singing competition with a $1,000 grand prize. Unfortunately, after a misprint at the fault of Buster’s elderly chameleon secretary, Miss Crawley (Garth Jennings), all of the flyers mistakenly read a $100,000 winning. Before discovering the error, Buster already holds auditions after a gigantic turn-out. Among the competitors in the wacky troupe are overworked pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a wife and mother of 25 piglets; moody porcupine rocker Ash (Scarlett Johansson) who gets in without boyfriend Lance (Beck Bennett); musically inclined gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton) who would rather follow his dream than fall in with his bank-robbing father (Peter Serafinowicz); street-performing mouse Mike (Seth MacFarlane) who gets in over his already-big head with the mob; and eventually enormously talented but terribly shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly), who suffers from so much stage fright to actually showcase her impressive pipes. Can Buster pull off a miracle before the bank repossesses the theater?

Silly, innocuous and eager to please, “Sing” has a wonderful cast and shines most during the musical numbers. The design of Buster Moon shares a smile with Matthew McConaughey, who voices him, but some of the supporting characters are much more engaging. Reese Witherspoon is very likable as the harried Rosita, who ends up being paired with flamboyant dancing enthusiast Gunter (Nick Kroll), a fellow pig, to perform a “spicy” rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” Taron Egerton does an impressively gentle version of Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me,” and recording artist Tori Kelly provides major warmth as the meek Meena. Jennifer Saunders (Edina of “Absolutely Fabulous”) is also a snooty hoot as older sheep theater diva Miss Nana Noodleman, but the funniest and most lovable character, above all, is the dotty Miss Crawley (voiced by writer-director Garth Jennings). 

The areas in which “Sing” doesn’t quite, well, sing are more on a screenplay level. Each character gets his or her own setback in the plot—Mike, at some point, owes money to a mob of bears after cheating in a card game and Johnny inadvertently lets his dad get arrested when he’s late as the getaway driver—but there might be more complications than necessary to heighten the stakes. The film is certainly lively during these more antic-filled moments, although everything would have benefited from a tighter focus. Like the “Despicable Me” movies and “Minions,” there is an appealingly absurd undercurrent to the humor. For example, koalas and sheep have a resourceful way to wash a car, and Miss Crawley’s glass eye repeatedly falls out of its socket. The film has its alternately amusing and tuneful pleasures, but it always seems to be on the cusp of being funnier and more clever without quite getting there. Consider “Sing” mid-tier Illumination; it’s easy to like but even easier to forget.

Grade: C +

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Over the Moon: "La La Land" dazzling, joyful musical heaven

La La Land (2016)
128 min., rated PG-13.

With “La La Land,” writer-director Damien Chazelle not only revives the art of jazz again in his follow-up to 2014’s “Whiplash,” but the splashy Hollywood musical, to boot. A rhapsodic valentine to classic Hollywood and its city of lovers and dreamers, the film is bound to play on the nostalgia of viewers who miss the golden age of the MGM Technicolor movie musical, but at the same time, it is such a fresh, vibrant and endlessly entertaining revitalization with a core universality. “La La Land” dazzles and enchants as so much more than just a frothy, lighthearted homage to cinema of yore or a mere stunt, and it would be unreasonable to not get lost in the magic and glorious exuberance. It's earnest without being corny and proudly, unconditionally romantic without a hint of irony. Calling it a cinematic achievement in overwhelmingly joyful transcendence next to 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain” and 1961's "West Side Story" would not be hyperbole, either.

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are just two artists in Los Angeles who briefly lock eyes during a busy morning commute. Hailing from Boulder City, Nevada, she is an aspiring actress, hoping to get her foot in the door as she spends her days reading for auditions and waiting for a callback, while working as a barista on the Warner Bros. studio lot. He is a jazz pianist who dreams of keeping jazz alive and opening his own club. One night-out after returning to her car to find it has been towed, Mia is lured into a supper club by Sebastian’s music on Christmas. He doesn’t really give her the time of day then, as he gets fired by the grumpy manager (J.K. Simmons) for playing an original piece he wrote instead of holiday standards. Only later will Mia and Sebastian see each other again and meet cute. They may be perfect for each other, but as they both are at the start of their careers with their own goals and ambitions—Mia decides to write a one-woman show and Sebastian joins a pop-jazz band, led by an old friend (John Legend)—maybe now isn’t the right time for love.

Pulling off a show-stopping production number right off the top with “Another Day of Sun” spectacularly staged in one take on the gridlocked overpass from the 105 freeway to the 110 during Los Angeles' sunny winter, “La La Land” gets the viewer swooning and tingling from its infectious energy and splendor. Shooting in 35mm Cinemascope, cinematographer Linus Sandgren can seemingly do anything, his camera audaciously and fluidly gliding and swooping. From there, after getting splashed with someone’s coffee and getting cut short during a promising audition, Mia is persuaded by her three roommates to go out for the night, making an eye-popping quartet in their jewel-toned dresses, sashaying down the street to the car and then arriving at a big party where everyone partakes in a poolside song and dance of “Someone in the Crowd.” It’s yet another dazzler with virtuoso showmanship that’s simply exhilarating to watch and doesn’t end there. Mia and Sebastian’s tap-dancing duet ("A Lovely Night") on a hilltop overlooking the San Fernando Valley after leaving a party is pure bliss. A walk through the Griffith Observatory and the planetarium after they catch "Rebel Without a Cause" at a local movie house is a fanciful and unabashedly romantic fantasia, while Mia's powerful "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" showcases the character's passion and knack for storytelling. And, finally, the grand, moving closing "what-might-have-been" sequence brings it all home, being full of melancholy and dramatic weight and yet still leaving the viewer in a giddy state.

Making their third time on screen together their most adorable and meaningful after 2011’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” and 2013’s “Gangster Squad,” Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are a wonderful pair together that it would be impossible to not be completely swayed by their electric chemistry. Like a modern Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the two stars throw themselves into the singing and dancing with a “let’s-put-on-a-show” vigor and skilled choreography (thanks to “Dancing with the Stars” choreographer Mandy Moore) without feeling overly rehearsed. Individually, Stone is incandescent and a pro with comic timing, and Gosling shines, as well, balancing charm and crabbiness.

A gushing labor of love for Damien Chazelle and all involved, “La La Land” is a dreamy, lovely delight. From the color palette to the clothing to the head-to-toe long takes of the staging and an editorial style that doesn't cut every second, it is old-fashioned in the best of ways. Though it is not a full-fledged musical with wall-to-wall music, Chazelle makes one believe that cinema can be revolutionary and traditional, holding true to the musical rule that characters can still break out into song and dance, even in an L.A. traffic jam. It should be added that the original orchestrations by Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, carry such a hummable, lingering reverie, particularly "City of Stars." For a story so simple, it achieves so many remarkably big feelings, it moves like a dream, and it’s sweet for a vast majority of the time but more bittersweet and true than a rose-colored fairy tale. A special motion picture that couldn’t be altered in any way because it’s already perfect, “La La Land” is sheer nirvana for movie lovers. Audiences will be swept away, as if floating on a cloud.


Guess Who's Meeting the Parents?: "Why Him?" is spotty but not laugh-free

Why Him? (2016)
111 min., rated R.

There are films that arrive with low expectations and unexpectedly surprise you. “Why Me?” isn’t quite a prize—you can already hear the title being used as ammunition with easy puns like "Why Bother?"—but earns points for being far more tolerable than its worrisome, cringe-inducing ads. As a slight, raunchier variation on 2000’s “Meet the Parents,” it is of little surprise that this R-rated Christmastime comedy was directed by John Hamburg (2009’s “I Love You, Man”), who wrote that memorable Ben Stiller-Robert De Niro hit and its two diminished-to-abysmal “Focker” sequels. Amusing in spots but indefensible, the film flips the script by bringing the family home to meet the boyfriend, but at least here is a studio comedy with an intergenerational rivalry that doesn’t turn everyone into a bunch of idiots. Because of the enjoyable cast game to bring the funny, it would be a lie to claim that “Why Him?” offers no laughs. It’s just spotty.

Michigan printing company manager Ned Flemming (Bryan Cranston) has always been close with daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch), who’s now a 22-year-old student at Stanford. After an unplanned but terrible first impression on a Skype call during Ned’s 55th birthday party, he, wife Barb (Megan Mullally) and 15-year-old son Scotty (Griffin Gluck) realize Stephanie has been keeping something from them when a guy enters her dorm room and unintentionally moons the entire family (and their friends). For Christmas, they agree to fly to California and spend it with her, but instead of taking them to the airport, Stephanie takes them to stay at the Palo Alto mansion of her boyfriend, 32-year-old video game-designing mogul Laird Mayhew (James Franco). When the Flemmings officially meet him, he is free-spirited and unfiltered, to say the least, welcoming them without a shirt on. Laird freely expresses his four-letter vocabulary, inappropriately compliments Barb’s body, and openly talks about his and Stephanie’s love life. He’s eager to please by showing off his new tattoo of the Flemming family’s Christmas card on his back and building a bowling alley for Ned, but not much pleases Ned, especially when Laird asks Stephanie’s father for his blessing to marry her. Hilarity ensues here and there.

Neither awful nor fully successful, “Why Him?” constantly hits and misses. Co-written by director John Hamburg and Ian Helfer (2011’s “The Oranges”) with a story credit by Jonah Hill, the one-joke script comes close to becoming the kind of wacky, hacky, strained at-loggerheads farce that has begun its own subgenre with “Monster-in-Law,” “Mr. Woodcock,” and “Bride Wars.” The difference here is that Laird isn’t actually evil behind Stephanie’s back, and infantilization between Laird and Ned is kept to a minimum. For better or for worse, "Why Him?" has more in common with 1993 Pauly Shore starrer "Son in Law."

One may wonder how accolade-winning actor Bryan Cranston got roped into working on a comedy like this, but he shows as much commitment here as he did playing Walter White. Cranston never overplays Ned Flemming as a Fuddy-Duddy or Overprotective Father cliché but still comes across as a human being; he is simply an out-of-touch family man still living in analog times but in denial about his printing business eventually bottoming out. Ned loves his daughter and wants what's best for her, and he understandably thinks Stephanie can do a whole lot better than Laird upon his first impression. As for James Franco, there is always an unpredictable danger and outright weirdness to him—and not only in his life visible to the public eye—and here as the ingratiating Laird, the grinning, twinkle-eyed actor meets somewhere in the middle of unctuous and sweetly idiotic. Though his puppyish doofus-with-a-heart-of-gold shtick doesn’t always hit, Franco can be endearing and does earn laughs, one moment in particular being when he comes to have a talk with Ned and Barb in their bedroom, still dripping wet through his caftan after having a shower.

The winning Zoey Deutch (2016's "Everybody Wants Some!!") makes her Stephanie easy to like, even when it’s initially difficult to see what she actually sees in Laird. It could have been even more of a thankless prop of a role than it already is, but Deutch gives the character backbone and her own voice. Megan Mullally, who always seems to be saddled or mistreated with nothing roles in lesser film projects, brightens her scenes whenever she can. As Barb, Mullally gets to let loose, particularly when her character ends up vaping weed, and makes a solid “good cop” foil for Cranston. Keegan-Michael Kelly has his moments as Laird’s manservant Gustav who trains him in self-defense with ambush exercises, but just a little of Gustav goes a long way. It’s also good to see Andrew Rannells and Casey Wilson in anything, even if their roles don’t register as more than cameos.

Scattered across 111 minutes, there are about as many groans as there are laughs. Technology bits, like a paper-free, high-tech Japanese toilet and Kaley Cuoco’s intrusive Siri-like disembodied voice, are pretty inspired. Celebrity chef Richard Blais working as Laird's personal chef and serving up edible soil and paper for Stephanie's family is a funny idea, and there is a fun running joke with KISS. When the script dumbs itself down and lets Laird’s fondness for profanity go on and on, it wears out its welcome. The film's high or low point, depending on one's taste in comedy, is its most Sandlerian gag involving the pretentious installation art that of a dead moose inside a glass tank full of its own urine; the penultimate punchline is better than the one that follows, which desperately wants to shock and involves said dead moose's testicles. Landing a one-out-of-five joke average in nearly two hours' time might not impress, but “Why Him?” still isn’t the most grating way to pass the time during the stressful holidays. That would be "Bad Santa 2."

Grade: C +

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Sleeping Beauties: "Passengers" an unusually bold space opera until action takes over

Passengers (2016)
116 min., rated PG-13.

*Spoiler Alert* This review contains a crucial plot reveal that is nearly impossible to dance around. Read further at your own risk.

Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are a couple of the most attractive and charismatic movie stars on the planet, so seeing them headline a love story in space would seem to suit them well. While the marketing campaign has inaccurately led audiences to believe they are getting a certain kind of film, "Passengers" is actually an unusual space opera about a romantic relationship and an ethical conundrum with a little high-stakes adventure tossed in. Director Morten Tyldum (2014’s “The Imitation Game”) and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (2016’s “Doctor Strange”) unveil a “what would you do?” reveal pretty early on and address the moral implications of a decision that could endanger a complete stranger. At the risk of failing, “Passengers” travels down bolder, morally complex avenues, and when it is doing that, the proceedings resist blowing up in the faces of its stars. It’s not until the third act that the film goes off track and finally turns to mush, but ultimately, one is probably going to be of two minds about it.

The Starship Avalon is a spacecraft in transit from Earth to a distant colony called Homestead II — “the jewel of the unoccupied worlds” that offers a better way of life and makes Earth look overpopulated, overpriced and overrated. Including a crew of 258 and 5,000 passengers who have chosen to give up their lives on their home planet, everyone is assigned to hibernate for the 120-year-long voyage, until mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up from his hibernation pod — 90 years too soon. After wandering around the ship, he realizes he is the only one awake and can’t get any answers. The pods were said to be fail-safe, but Jim can’t even program his pod to put him back into cryogenic slumber. Alone for a year and three weeks, Jim has tried every option but made the best of the activities The Starship Avalon has to offer. Losing his mind a little and reaching the end of his rope, he then stumbles upon one of the pods containing Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), whom Jim learns was a New York writer looking for adventure. Does he discharge this stranger from hibernation and put her at risk with him, or does he grow old and die alone? You do the math.

From the start, “Passengers” lays out the logistical details of the spaceship very efficiently and sets up a desirable atmosphere. It’s absorbing and methodically mounted in ways similar to 2007’s “I Am Legend” and 2013’s “Oblivion” when Will Smith and Tom Cruise, respectively, had to be resourceful as The Last Men on Earth and went about their daily routines under extraordinary circumstances. The predicament that Jim wrestles with is involving, and it would have been a strong enough basis for the remainder of the film had there been more trust in that vision. Jim is full of guilt for his selfish act, but at the same time, who could stand living a solitary life with the knowledge that you would die before reaching your last chance at a better life? That's the only real validation for Jim’s actions, as the script does later let him off the hook too easily. If the character were played by anyone other than Chris Pratt, the pivotal decision that Jim makes in waking up Aurora could have felt even more queasy and despicable. It could have hovered over the film as a problematic turn-off, and yet, it raises interesting questions. Jim keeps the lie a secret from Aurora, but when the heartbreaking truth does come out—and, of course, it has to at some point—he immediately confesses and the betrayal she feels is palpable. Then, as soon as the ship begins to slowly malfunction, so does the film.

Without question, Chris Pratt receives the trickier role. The casting of Pratt certainly works in the film’s favor, mostly getting one to understand and buy into his relationship with Aurora. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Jim happens to look like Chris Pratt but also radiates an innate likability. As Aurora (a name that might be a bit on-the-nose for a sleeping beauty, don’t cha’ think?), Jennifer Lawrence is equally effective and as appealing as the real Jennifer Lawrence seems to be in the public eye. For a woman stripped of her will to live by a man who fills her heart, Aurora still retains her female agency and earns a satisfying moment when she gives it to Jim real good. The two stars have chemistry and get to stir up some passion, even if the script often works against them. Their interplay with a third passenger is also amusing, Michael Sheen adding gentleman wit with a touch of creepiness as glass-polishing android bartender Arthur, who almost recalls Lloyd the Bartender in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”

Like a switch that might have been a result of studio groupthink or test screenings, the climax of “Passengers” sets the tension between Jim and Aurora on the proverbial shelf to force in some explosive action. Instead of confronting the elephant in the room for too long, the film would rather blow stuff up and give audiences the Hollywood ending. Aided by Rodrigo Prieto’s sleek cinematography and Guy Hendrix Dyas’ production design, it also looks good and gives the viewer enough sights to drink in (when the gravity goes out of the ship while Aurora goes for a swim, it's one of the more thrilling set-pieces). Thomas Newman’s score is fine, too, although the music swells so much that potentially moving or even understated moments become saccharine. As long as one is willing to forgive it for not sticking to its guns, "Passengers" is slick and reasonably compelling with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence a cosmic match, even when the film surrounding them ends up being less ambitious and provocative than how it started. 

Grade: B - 

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Pre-New Hope: “Rogue One” admirably grim but clunky and less fun

Rogue One (2016)
133 min., rated PG-13.

Back in more basic times when George Lucas first introduced his “Star Wars” universe with the 1977 groundbreaker, a MacGuffin was just a MacGuffin. Now, “Rogue One” is here to change that notion. Billed as the first stand-alone feature in a “Star Wars” anthology series, the film is still a prequel, taking place between Anakin Skywalker turning to the Dark Side and Princess Leia stashing some important plans inside of R2-D2. It doesn’t alter the saga in any way—and has nothing to do with J.J. Abrams’ sequel trilogy that began with 2015’s terrific “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens”—but rather fills in the gaps and serves as a bridge for what audiences are already expecting. Credit is due to director Gareth Edwards (2014’s “Godzilla”) and screenwriters Chris Weitz (2015's "Cinderella") and Tony Gilroy (2009's "State of Play") for taking a gamble by starting anew and introducing new characters for a one-off entry, while linking these heroes’ mission somewhere in the middle of “Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith” and “Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.” Those who never wondered what happened before the Rebel Alliance and Princess Leia came into possession of the plans for the Death Star need not apply.

Without any need for a crawl after “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” “Rogue One” begins with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as a child. Before her escape, she witnesses her father, weapons designer Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), being held hostage by Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to create the planet-destroying Death Star for the Empire. After being rescued and raised by rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), an adult Jyn is now estranged from Saw and in prison. Meanwhile, Empire cargo pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) sneaks a message from Galen to Saw, while Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is sent by the Rebels to break Jyn out of her cell. Jyn discovers her father is still alive, but when the Rebel Alliance don’t want to steal the plans for the Death Star, she goes rogue with a team, including Cassian, Bodhi, robot K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), blind monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen), and Chirrut’s friend Baze (Wen Jiang), to find and destroy them. 

All of the ingredients seem to be here and ready to go in “Rogue One.” Problem is, the debits are too fundamental to shake off. The new batch of characters—nay, concepts of characters—are not fully realized, never offering enough charisma, internal conflict, quirks, or arcs for the viewer to feel emotionally invested. Any film can work even if the conclusion is never in doubt, but there need to be well-defined characters to make the journey worth taking and pop with urgency; as a result, the destination does not feel satisfactorily felt. There’s simultaneously too much plot that underserves the characters as functional running pieces and not enough of a compelling reason to warrant telling this “Episode 3.5” story. Besides the inadequacies in the script, the shooting style definitely takes the “war” in “Star Wars” to heart. Compared to Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” or any of the other “Star Wars” movies, there is too little scale here. The pacing is also clunky and the color scheme has a drab, rainy sameness about it that saps the film of much awe or excitement. The visual effects are as tactile as those in “The Force Awakens,” but lump-in-the-throat moments are few. In fact, the most satisfyingly thrilling moments occur in the third act and also come right before the credits roll, and those will kept under tight lock-and-key.

Leading the way (and the rebellion), Felicity Jones is physically and emotionally capable as Jyn. Through little fault of her own, though, there isn’t much to this heroine that her presence registers far less than it should. Who Jyn is as an adult and how she becomes imprisoned upon first meeting her remains a mystery, and though she was raised by extremist Saw Gerrera, the details of his extremism are sketchy, too. She's scrappy and able to take care of business, not unlike Ren, but the thinly written Jyn deserved more complexity beyond looking apathetic most of the time and shedding a few tears. With such a diverse cast assembled, it disappoints that everyone else is made from the same bland mold, virtually a name with one trait apiece, although a few of those traits do manage to be enjoyable. The two players that highlight the entire film are martial artist Donnie Yen, as blind samurai Chirrut who believes in the Force, and Alan Tudyk’s bon-mot-spouting droid K-2SO, who provides sorely needed levity and personality. Lastly, there are two uses of CG actors, one being Peter Cushing (who died in 1994) being digitally resurrected to play Grand Moff Tarkin and another that won’t be revealed since it is in the last shot. It is a strange choice but less distracting than many have opined, working more often than not, especially when one considers how far visual effects have come since the “uncanny valley.”

Admirably so, “Rogue One” has a largely grim tone and takes more chances than most crowd-pleasing blockbusters ever do, as this is a story about sacrificing oneself for the greater good. Still, for such an eagerly anticipated release, it makes one dump on the concepts of hype and buzz when an underwhelming experience is the result. Without ever transcending into anything more than “sometimes good but ultimately just okay,” this seems to have been made for fans who are pleased by nothing more than spotting Easter Eggs and enjoying the minutiae and logistics of space wars rather than having a rousing, entertaining time at the movies. Not exactly an upper-echelon “Star Wars” story, "Rogue One" doesn’t portend well for pre-packaged fan fiction.

Grade: C +

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Man and the Sea: "Manchester by the Sea" expertly acted and quietly aching on a human scale

Manchester by the Sea (2016) 
137 min., rated R.

Absent the superlative level of the performances and the pangs of truth, “Manchester by the Sea” could have gone wrong. It could have threatened to become melodramatic artifice or a heavy, funeral slog, but playwright-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan—this being only his third film after 2000’s “You Can Count on Me” and 2012’s “Margaret”—knows better, handling a story about guardianship, guilt, and the ways in which we all grieve and communicate differently on a small, human scale. For a film as aching and expertly performed as “Manchester by the Sea” to work, it’s not only a testament to the performances, but what’s there on the page. What Lonergan has written never tells the viewer how to think or feel, although it definitely allows them to think and feel.

Still reeling from a personal tragedy, Boston janitor and handyman Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) lives a solitary life and just tries to get through each day. When he gets a call from “home”—the seaside fishing town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts—his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has been hospitalized for congestive heart failure. Upon Lee’s arrival after a long drive, Joe has passed away, leaving behind a 16-year-old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). That leaves Lee to arrange the funeral and attend the affairs of his late brother, including deciding on what to do with Joe’s boat and taking care of his teenage nephew for whom he has been named guardian in Joe’s will. As he moves into Joe and Patrick’s home, Lee is soon haunted by what forced him out of this town in the first place.

“Manchester by the Sea” takes its unforced time to get where it’s going, yet makes nary a moment feel extraneous. Without notice, the film freely weaves in and out of Lee’s memories, bringing dimension to Lee and illuminating how he became who he is in the present. We see how good of a man Lee was before a terrible house fire that reduced him to a hollow shell of a human being. It isn’t a mystery, but in dribs and drabs, one immediately becomes invested in Lee and hopes the best for him. In a way, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan explores communication between men, whether it’s between brothers or an uncle and nephew when both enter the grieving process. There is a welcome dose of humor that organically springs from the characters in their Bostonian, F-bomb-ridden banter and Patrick’s cocky behavior in which he juggles two girlfriends.

Casey Affleck is exceptional, carrying the weight of the film, full body and soul, as Lee. In what might be the actor’s most accomplished work since 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” as well as an impressively internal performance that could have given in to showy histrionics, he vividly actualizes this broken man with an almost unconscionable amount of bottled-up guilt and simmering rage for one person. If that makes it sound like no one in the cast measures up to Affleck, that surely isn’t the case, as there are no weak links to be found. Lucas Hedges (2014’s “Kill the Messenger”) is an unaffected natural, acting as a real teenage boy does, and holds his own against Affleck. The impossibly excellent Michelle Williams doesn’t have a lot of scenes, but she conveys so much in a seemingly small part as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife. She makes such a deep impression, particularly in one devastating key moment and an affecting, concisely written scene when the re-married Randi tries to resolve relations with Lee. In the latter, Williams breaks the viewer’s heart, her voice cracking with a hope for reconciliation and her body language doing all of the talking. Rounding out the supporting cast is Kyle Chandler, seen only in flashbacks, as Lee’s brother Joe (whose last name also happens to be Chandler); Gretchen Mol, as Joe’s ex-wife Elise; and Matthew Broderick, in one scene, as Elise’s second husband Jeffrey, an evangelical Christian.

A wise, insightful and heartrending slice-of-life that traverses loss, “Manchester by the Sea” resonates. Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t go after big, overstated moments with exclamation points but rather handles everything with grace, naturalism and profundity. As befits specific kinds of stories, not every film needs to visually “wow” audiences. With that said, cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes lends a delicate touch to each frame, while Lonergan finds a rich sense of place with the working-class Massachusetts milieu feeling lived-in and textured. While the film doesn’t subjectively hit quite as hard emotionally as other films exploring the same subject matter have, it is quietly powerful all the same. Too much of a catharsis might have seemed phony. Instead, there is no happy ending, just the hopeful chance for a new beginning.
Grade: B +