The year is finally at its ends, and as moviegoers now turn both to the influx of pre-Oscar awards groups and look ahead to the offerings of 2017, I'm once again back for my yearly tradition of jotting down my thoughts on smaller films that I've been able to catch up with on DVD or otherwise, even if the year proper is still not quite over for me. I hope you enjoy what I wrote, and I hope you'll check out some of these films as well. Happy New Year!
In her follow-up to 2014's Selma, director Ava DuVernay takes us on a scathing journey through the history of America's prison system, increasing in population exponentially over the course of several decades, including stirring societal bias, and skewering towards inmates of non-white racial upbringing. In a lot of ways, it's a very appropriate double feature with Selma, eyeing over the history of the correction institution with a scrutinous attention to detail. Through all the various textual loopholes, media manipulation, and political circus shows, what should come to be seen as a beacon of fair and equal justice, instead begins to look more like a glorified series of slave houses. Despite all the best efforts of revolutionary minds to bring peace between races, DuVernay also uses the loopholes of the 13th Ammendment to highlight how racism is systemically embedded into American culture. We've been through the Civil Rights movement, the obliteration of segregation and voting rights bias, but now thick in the crisis of growing prison populations, as well as guards and policemen brutally attacking men out of paranoid profiling, one can only wonder what will be the next phase that continues this vicious cycle. It's a piece of our history that even with nearly 250 years of growing acceptance and wisdom, we still can't manage to get right. It's a topic that the most misguided detractors would discredit by saying that to speak out against the justice system is to be an attack against police and to not be a true patriot. A very invalid argument, as patriotism for one's country is one thing, but blind ignorance of its inherent flaws and hypocrises is something completely different. It's a thoroughly engaging and powerful piece of documentary viewing, and it's a film that leaves you angry by its end, at the failures of a system with clear bias and greedy motivations, at the needless brutality that hurt or ended lives, and the cruel and unforgiveable exploitation used by media and politicians as ratings and approval boosters. Be sure to check this one out.
****1/2 / *****
Florence Foster Jenkins:
One man's trash may be another man's treasure, but sometimes that seeming trash may have more value behind it then that one man may think. Following up his previous success Philomena, director Stephen Frears crafts with Florence Foster Jenkins a very affectionate and sensitive portrayal of the titular figure, as she practices and builds her way up to a performance where she would be dubbed "The Worst Singer of All Time." For a film that could have easily fallen on the cynical side and exploited the woman, while the film does garner some genuinely good laughs from Foster's outrageously flat range, the film wisely walks that thin line between playful absurdity and endearing enrapturement. While Jenkins isn't a good singer, the obvious passion and the infectious love of music behind her eyes, that love of music being a noble tool that can unite and inspire millions beyond explanation, makes the film a genuine crowd pleaser, with Meryl Streep's luminous performance being a stellar beacon of charm. The film may follow its tired biopic cliches, is often less "funny" than it is "humorous", and can hammer its point a little too much on the nose, but still makes for an entertaining and touching time nonetheless.
***1/2 / *****
Hell or High Water:
In his follow-up to 2015's Sicario, writer Taylor Sheridan has found a particular knack in the realm of crime thrillers. Turning his attention away from the dark world of cartels, and more to a simple series of robberies planned by brothers, Sheridan and director David MacKenzie craft an engaging neo-noir take on the Western genre, which while existing in a modern setting, feels no less fearful or violent as the two brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) leap from town to town and bank to bank. It's a film built around brotherly love (literally ad figuratively), and the forms and means in which it takes, whether it be shown out of simple affectionate touches and consoling words, or the brutality of aggressive violence and intimidation in protection. The film may be somewhat slight, but features some terrific performances holding it together. Chris Pine does well at playing against type, Jeff Bridges as a sheriff on the home stretch of his career plays more internal and reserved than we typically see of him, but it's ultimately Ben Foster who steals the movie. His is a nuanced, but powerful performance with tremendous emotion and soul, with it being to Foster's credit that underneath the character's unhinged recklessness and itchy trigger finger, there's still a caring and heartbreaking core to offset that prickliness.
**** / *****
I just don't get Yorgos Lanthimos. After sitting through his outrageously dark and bizarre 2010 film Dogtooth, his sense of black humor has always been a tough pill for me to swallow. It seems the trend continues with his first English-Language film The Lobster, in which the world has become a dystopian society where human beings without romantic partners are soon transformed into animals. It's a premise of great ambition that opens itself up to some lasting food for thought, but once again, the overall humor and mood of the movie keeps me at a distance from it. Not that the film can't be humorous in its apparoach, but for the most part, ideas that probably seemed funny to Lanthimos on paper don't translate too well onscreen. One such element highlighting this is the narration by Rachel Weisz' nearsighted woman, which tries to wring laughs out of her deadpan use of colorful profanity, as well as reiterating events either before or after they're happening as if to spell out the obvious (going along with the film's themes of not realizing the obvious right in front of you). An interesting idea not fully formed, although the movie's large cast goes a long way in selling the seemingly off-putting material. However, I personally can't help but wish the film had given more to Lanthimos muse Angeliki Papoulia, excelling as a fellow hotel guest to Colin Farrell's David, who best is defined by her sociopathic bloodlust and her sadistic ability to observe in unfeeling manner the pain of others. Ultimately, it's a film that leaves me cold in spite of its very best efforts, but it's a film with ambition that still have to be given credit for.
*** / *****
A very modest and unassuming little dramedy, this meandering little gem may not always be consistent, but its unabashed tenderness and endearing heart carries it right through to the very end. Director and writer Lorene Scafaria is very effective in how she bounces between the many individuals encountered by lead star Susan Sarandon, capturing in elegant observational detail all the seemingly insignificant, but especially meaningful reactions and expressions of the people she comes across. The film is ultimately a charming love letter to motherhood and the love of our mothers, those people so happy to dote upon and go above and beyond for their children, and children at heart, all while capturing in sometimes heartbreaking detail their own inability to make themselves happy through the compromises they experience. Sarandon is absolutely effervescent as she goes through these motions and emotions, meeting with a series of different faces, the most prominent being Rose Byrne as her daughter, best embodying the annoyance at the unintentional abrasiveness of mothers, but also translating well the emotional turbulence of adulthood, and that still present need for motherly advice and consolation.
***1/2 / *****
All jokes about the film being "Amy Adams Reads a Book: The Movie" aside, this follow-up to Tom Ford's A Single Man is a very ambitious and nerve-wracking thriller. While some may consider the general atmosphere of the film to be quite cold in nature, such a deliberate move is actually a welcome decision. Using the three separate timelines of the film, set between Adams' art-centric business world, the romanticized past of her romance with Jake Gyllenhaal's Edward, and the novel-within-the-film western revenge story written by the latter (with Gyllenhaal playing the novel's main character in a dual role), Ford makes a great deal of comment on the nature of love, the fragility of preserving it, and the rocky transitions that come from the bitter fallout. Isolation and closed off separation feature a great deal in Ford's photographic eye, with Adams' insomniac Susan having grown particularly icy despite seeming to have it all (and true to the title, looks almost like a prowling owl in her eye shadow). Some of Ford's timeline jumps and dialogue may not be quite up to snuff, and the various cameos he's enlisted to appear in single scenes can sometimes be a distraction (with the likes of Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, Laura Linney, and Jena Malone), but his assuredness behind the camera and with his actors - especially Michael Shannon as a dubious sheriff within the novel that acts as a shaky moral compass to Gyllenhaal's Tony, and a surprisingly superb Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a crude and sickeningly vicious gang leader - still elevate the film over those issues.
**** / *****
John Carney has developed a status as one of the best modern musical directors, with each film of his covering thoughtful themes concerning the lure of music and artistic passion. With his latest film Sing Street, he's crafted an affectionate ode to the new wave music of the 80's. As usual, he's less concerned with flowing stories or definitive beginnings, middles, or endings, instead favoring a more stream of consciousness approach in following his cast of characters around. While not as successful as Once in this regard, due to some quite one-note supporting players, he captures a truthful and layered portrait of the turbulence and bittersweet capsule moments of life, best embodied by Jack Reynor's fantastic performance tinged with candid expression and crushing disappointment. To Carney's credit as well, the music and lyrics of his song sequences are all spot on, all genuinely capturing the groovy 80's spirit they emulate, feeling as if they could have actually been released during that time. It may not go above and beyond the confines before it, but is such a charming and satisfying movie that such minor issues are easy to ignore.
**** / *****
Star Trek Beyond:
With JJ Abrams having taken a detour into the galaxy far far away, in comes Fast & Furious director Justin Lin and writer Simon Pegg to take the helm for the third entry in the newly rebooted Trek series. After the franchise's main characters threatened to get lost in the breathless action of Into Darkness, Pegg chooses to deliberately scale back the scope of the film, placing the spotlight back onto the unique and hilarious interplay and chemistry between the main team. The film finds a great deal of humor in its numerous tag team pair-ups, with Zachary Quinto's Spock and Karl Urban's McCoy proving a fantastic pairing, and with the film being given more breathing room to tell a more tightly knit tale, when we finally get to any of the several strong set-pieces, it provides a genuine thrill and sense of excitement. Joining their ranks is Kingsman's Sofia Boutella, contributing some of the most endearing moments of the film, and even being given some great close combat fights. If only the same great characterization had been showed to the villainous Krall (played by an unrecognizable Idris Elba under heavy makeup), it could very well have rivaled the first film as the high point of the series.
**** / *****