2016 Movies

Lion

Stranger than fiction. Sometimes real life events are so incredible that they seem like works of fiction. I’ve had a few moments in life where I found myself in the middle of something epic. But those were just moments. Imagine a life that rivals some of the greatest stories you’ve ever heard. Such a life belongs to Saroo Brierley, an Indian-born Aussie from humble yet extraordinary beginnings.

Lion begins with a window into the world of Saroo (Sunny Pawar, Love Sonia), an impoverished, adorably resilient five-year-old boy. He and his older brother Guddu supplement their mother’s meager income by panhandling on the streets of their small enclave, a tiny village in India. I was transported to another world, both morally and culturally. Saroo’s learned resourcefulness was a byproduct of the apathetic environment in which he lived. Yet his spirit was one of innocence and joy.

In my travels to Indonesia, I witnessed firsthand how those with the least have the most love in their hearts. It shines forth like a beacon, and that’s the quality young Saroo radiated into the world. All is well until one fateful day threatens to snuff out that little light. While waiting at a train station for his brother to return from securing work, Saroo inadvertently becomes trapped on a train and whisked hundreds of miles away. He disembarks in the congested city of Calcutta, where he does not speak the language and cannot describe his home. Lost in a shuffle of insidious indifference, Saroo fends for himself in a manner no child should have to. Danger lurks around every corner, as he narrowly escapes one pitfall after another.

Through sheer serendipity, Saroo finds himself at an orphanage, where a new family is eventually brokered. In yet another seismic shift in his life, he is adopted by an Australian couple, John (David Wenham, Goldstone) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman, Secret in Their Eyes). This time the change is one that brings peace and healing, as John and Sue give Saroo the love and security he so desperately needs, filling his childhood with joy once again.

Fast-forward 25 years and Saroo (Dev Patel, Chappie) is a fresh-faced young man coming into his own. He has a girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara, Carol) and has nestled into a secure life. But no matter how wonderful things have become, Saroo can’t escape the nagging memory of the life he once knew. He longs to find the mother and brother whom he believes never stopped searching for him. Hampered by poverty and a deficient local infrastructure, it was virtually impossible for Saroo to have been reunited with his family after he came to be stranded in Calcutta as a child. Now that he is an adult, he embarks on the emotional journey to find his family. Saroo is torn between wounding his adoptive parents and satisfying his own longing to reconnect with a forgotten part of himself, toiling away in frustration in an effort to pinpoint the area in which he grew up.

I frequently extoll the virtue of film’s ability to illicit emotion and remain with the viewer long after watching. The most powerful films feel like an emotional investment. As I’m oft to repeat, the beauty of film as an artistic medium lies in its ability to transcend outward differences and to convey the profound depth of the human experience. With all that’s going on in the world, it’s nice to experience something good about the human condition, to connect with another story on an emotional level. Lion was a beautiful film, and I felt deeply moved and emotionally invested in what I was watching. One of the year’s best.

Grade: A+

Moonlight

I find myself increasingly relying on social media as a means to hear about new film, television, and music. In this age of the 24-hour news cycle, information flies fast and furiously each day, especially when it comes to pop culture. Last month on Facebook I began to see chatter about Moonlight, a film I’d admittedly never heard of. The movie poster alone caught my attention, and when I saw it featured omnipresent, emerging star Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, Luke Cage), I was sold. The trailer was stunning, and many critics have hailed it the best film of the year, with it earning an impressive 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, as much as I wanted to love Moonlight (and I like it a great deal), I was ever so slightly disappointed in light of its overwhelming praise.

Movies are traditionally structured in three acts, and writer/director Barry Jenkins adheres to this axiom quite literally. In Moonlight he tells the story of Chiron (pronounced sha-rone), a young Black boy coming of age in a tough part of Miami. In addition to limited financial resources, Chiron’s single parent upbringing is further strained by his burgeoning sexuality. The ‘first act’ of the film depicts Chiron’s formative years. Dubbed “Little” by his peers, Chiron is quiet and withdrawn, but opens up under the benevolent eye of Juan (the aforementioned Ali), a local drug dealer. Hoping to fill the void of Chiron’s absentee father, Juan and Little form a bond built on nurturing acceptance and love. The film shines here in its beautiful depiction of this bond between man and child. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (portrayed wonderfully by Janelle Monae) are Little’s only solace.

The film skips ahead, picking up with “Little” when he is about 16, and at this stage of his life he uses his given name, Chiron. The events that transpire during this period would go on to shape his early adulthood as he timidly, awkwardly explores his sexuality. This would also prove to be a volatile period in his life as the violence and bullying around his identity intensifies. His mother is a non-factor, battling demons of her own. Naomie Harris (Spectre) masterfully portrays a woman ill equipped to tend to her child, her addiction precluding any meaningful efforts at love and stability.

In the film’s final act, Chiron has become a young man. His life experiences have ostensibly hardened him, but the outward trappings of masculinity belie a gentle spirit, hiding the same little boy who shared his vulnerabilities with Juan and Teresa. The film’s strength was in its emotional exploration of powerful themes involving masculinity, self-actualization, and the human condition, bolstered further by the performances of its young actors at three distinct stages of life.

Unfortunately, I thought the narrative faltered in its final act, a frequent criticism of mine, but a pronounced observation regarding Moonlight. The film’s ending was anti-climactic and disappointing. I understand that the same level of conflict cannot be sustained throughout a film, but the final impression of Chiron should’ve been more definitive, in my opinion. The ending didn’t negate the film’s emotional impact, but it muted its effect. After being satisfied with about 75% of the film the only question left at the end is, “Is that it?” Grade: Revised to A-

Allied

As a self-professed cinephile, I try to be a student of film. Admittedly I’m not as well versed in the finer points of film history and avant-garde genres as some others, though I pride myself on at least knowing the masters, from Kurosawa to Kubrick. Moreover, I try to view the classics such as Citizen Kane and Casablanca (I enjoyed the latter more than the former). The films of yesteryear give a glimpse of the glamor of Old Hollywood, replete with dashing leading men and captivating leading women. Allied harkens back to that golden era in its stars Brad Pitt (The Big Short) and Marion Cotillard (Macbeth), two spies who fall in love amidst the danger and turmoil of World War II.

Pitt stars as intelligence officer Max Vatan, whom we first meet parachuting into the middle of the Moroccan desert. Cotillard features as spy Marianne Beausejour, Max’s mission cohort who has been laying the groundwork for his arrival. Posing as husband and wife although only having just met, I was enchanted by the delicate dance between characters, Marianne taking the lead as a compliant Max deferred to her expertise. Having to play the role of lovers (of course) leads to real feelings between Max and Marianne, but their focus is razor sharp – and in one scene Max reminds the audience that even though he is maintaining an outward charade, he cannot afford to let his guard down, as any momentary lapse in judgment could not only cost him the mission, but their lives.

It’s tempting to glance at this film and compare it to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, another film in which Pitt and his female co-star are featured as married spies. That would be a mistake, as any comparisons are superficial. Allied is a far superior film, though to be fair both movies have their place. Not purely a love story, Allied should appeal to an array of viewers with its air of romance and intrigue. Writer Steven Knight (Burnt, Locke) punctuates the story with suspense and danger, equal parts action and love story. Pitt and Cotillard’s chemistry is undeniable, both organic and intentional. Pitt hasn’t been this magnetic on screen in years, and veteran director Robert Zemeckis (Flight) depicted every detail beautifully, effectively capturing every passionate, dangerous moment between the two sizzling leads. In one unforgettable scene Max and Marianne make love in the middle of a sandstorm, the swirling sands rocking their car to and fro as they reach their pique within.

I can’t find a single fault with Allied, a well-acted, well-written, beautiful film with something for everyone: action, suspense, love, and mystery. Stylish and atmospheric, it was reminiscent of a bygone era but will undoubtedly appeal to contemporary audiences. This was one of the better films I’ve seen in 2016. Grade: A.

 

The Accountant

In life, I’ve found that it’s fine to have preferences, but that you should remain open-minded. You just never know when your tastes may change. I used to prefer Matt Damon to Ben Affleck. Comparisons between the two have been inevitable, as they’re best friends who emerged on the Hollywood scene in tandem. Damon always seemed to be the superior actor, and I still think that holds true. However, I don’t like Matt Damon as much as I once did. And Affleck lately has just seemed…cooler. The Accountant looked like a smart action thriller, and I was drawn in by the titular character’s backstory. Unfortunately, it was just an average movie, and my mini-streak of duds continues.

Affleck (Batman v. Superman) stars as Christian Wolff, an accountant with the uncanny ability to crunch numbers better than a calculator. He has a beautiful mind, one that is suited perfectly for his chosen profession. Through flashback we learn that Christian was born with a high functioning form of autism that gifts him with amazing intellectual abilities while rendering him socially inept. His father refuses to coddle him, teaching him instead to defend himself to the literal death through relentless combat and martial arts training. His compulsive need to finish tasks lends itself well to this borderline abusive instruction. Fast forward to present day, and Christian’s unique upbringing and skill set have led to a lucrative career “uncooking” the books for some of the world’s most notorious criminal enterprises.

If you consort with international criminals, chances are you won’t go unnoticed for long. Eventually Christian draws the attention of Treasury Agent Ray King (J.K. Simmons, Whiplash) who pinpoints his identity with the help of junior agent Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Arrow). When Christian lands a high-level corporate client, the Feds become even more invested in his activities, and King and Medina turn up the heat. Working alongside young accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates), Christian becomes entangled in a web of danger in the pursuit of millions of missing dollars for their mysterious new client. Soon their lives are in jeopardy, but who’s calling the shots?

I enjoyed the sight of Affleck stomping his way through would-be foes shocked that a pencil pusher was kicking their ass. However, the plot was a muddled mess. My need for things to make sense wouldn’t let me ignore the seemingly pointless series of events that were strung together and called a storyline. Although the plot strengthened the film in its establishment of Christian’s backstory, it faltered miserably as the movie wore on, and any “twists” fell woefully short. Affleck was effective for the most part, though his performance could easily be panned as a caricature. Jon Bernthal (Sicario) makes an appearance, and though his presence usually enhances a film, here it was just more evidence of a poor storyline. Wait for this one on Redbox. Grade: C+

The Girl on the Train

Before I see a film, there’s an occasional bit of trepidation. There’s always the risk that the results will not live up to the expectation, especially if the studio includes the best moments in the trailer. Good editing and well-placed scenes can leave you duped. Such was the case with The Girl on the Train, a film that teased mystery and suspense, but failed to deliver on both. I was expecting something in the vein of Gone Girl but was left with something much more forgettable.

Emily Blunt (Sicario) stars as Rachel, a troubled divorcee who hasn’t gotten over her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux, Zoolander 2), despite the fact that he’s moved on by starting a family with his former mistress. Rachel is battling demons, struggling with addiction, living day to day with the loneliness and betrayal of her failed marriage. She commutes to Manhattan on the train every day, often gazing out at the sprawling homes dotting the train’s path. One home in particular draws her attention, a charming white abode occupied by an enchanting young couple. The woman, a carefree blonde, is everything Rachel wishes she were: vibrant, hopeful, in love. Her husband appears devoted and loving. Rachel crafts a narrative for the couple in her mind, spinning fanciful tales from weeks of brief observations.

When the young woman Rachel’s been observing goes missing, she comes even more unhinged. Claiming to have witnessed her abduction, she tells the authorities – who are reluctant to believe her, given her fragile emotional state. Things get even more complicated when it’s revealed that the missing woman was also Tom’s nanny. The characters are intertwined in a way that isn’t abundantly clear – and here’s where I hoped the film could’ve been more suspenseful. For a substantial portion of the film we watch Rachel stumble through her pathetic life in a lonely haze, but instead of empathizing with the character, I was mostly apathetic.

Furthermore, the story felt disjointed, as writer Erin Cressida Wilson (Men, Women & Children) used flashbacks, frequently shifting back and forth from different perspectives and points in the recent past. Perhaps this device was employed in the book from which the film was adapted, and maybe it was more effective in that medium, but it faltered here. The pacing was slow and uneven, and I didn’t feel emotionally connected to the characters. The film didn’t become worthwhile until its final act, which was overwhelmingly predictable. I feel catfished by this movie. Take it from me and save your money. Grade: D+

Don’t Breathe

I don’t typically watch horror movies at all, let alone at the movie theater. However, there was something interesting about Don’t Breathe, the story of a would-be victim who turns the tables on some trespassers in his home. The film begins by introducing us to the main characters and their motivation. If we were to feel any sympathy for what they shall endure, it would help to establish an emotional connection with the characters first.

Friends Rocky, Alex, and “Money” are looking to make an easy score. They’ve had luck hitting a few homes, but now they need one more job before packing up and moving to California. Rocky (Jane Levy, Suburgatory) wants to provide a better life for her little sister, Alex (Dylan Minnette, Prisoners) is smitten by Rocky and would do anything to please her, and Money (Daniel Zovatto, It Follows) is just your typical criminal opportunist. Money tells the other two about a prime target, a blind veteran who lives alone in a largely abandoned neighborhood. He has $300,000 somewhere inside, and the trio of miscreants feel only a brief twinge of guilt at the notion of robbing a blind man blind.

It’s said that when a person loses one of their senses, the remaining four senses overcompensate for the loss by becoming more heightened. Alex, Rocky and Money have bitten off more than they can chew, preying upon a seemingly vulnerable target without realizing they are the ones entering the lion’s den. The blind man knows his house like the back of his hand, and he is uniquely advantaged compared to his intruders, despite his apparent handicap. After he gains the upper hand, I’m torn in my emotional allegiance. Do I feel sorry for these kids, or did they bring this on themselves? I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, and the tension was heart stopping. It was fascinating to watch them scramble like caged animals, unable to make a sound as the blind man moved just inches away.

Don’t Breathe is aptly titled, as you will find yourself holding your breath in terror throughout this frightful film. The premise is a good, realistic one, and I liked the moral questions posed by the anti-heroes’ own greed. If you enjoy the genre, you will definitely be pleased. Grade: A.

Hell or High Water

When we think about interesting movie settings, we might think of some exotic locale, perhaps a far off land – maybe a jungle or the base of a volcano. But great cinematic landscapes don’t have to be on the other side of the world. Sometimes an effective movie setting is one that is rarely depicted, but not so far away. Such was the case for Hell or High Water, an enthralling film capturing a slice of southwestern America. The Texas setting lent itself surprisingly well to the story of two brothers who chart a dangerous course through the Bible Belt.

When we meet brothers Toby (Chris Pine, Star Trek Beyond) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster, The Finest Hours) they are brazenly robbing a small bank. Inexperienced but resourceful, the pair is bumbling in their execution but genius in their foresight. Tanner is fiery and violent, while Toby is sympathetic and measured, each the perfect foil. Inevitably, the siblings soon draw the ire of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, True Grit), a small town sheriff near retirement (a familiar trope, I know). He and his partner begin tracking the duo, mapping their likely targets, surmising that they are stealing small amounts to reach a modest, specific goal. If they can determine the motive, perhaps they can narrow in on a suspect.

Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) weave an atmospheric tale permeating with desperate energy. Toby and Tanner are just a half step ahead of the law, and it could all come crumbling down at any moment. As their motivation for the robberies is revealed, we feel the weight of their burden. A sense of foreboding hangs like a cloud over the film, hinting that the pair is on borrowed time. Many viewers will probably relate to the movie’s themes, particularly the brothers’ sense of frustration at the seemingly short hand life has dealt them, always a day late and a dollar short. Blue-collar, working class, somewhat marginalized and essentially impoverished.

The film was reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ work, with cinematography and setting similar to both No Country For Old Men and Blood Simple. I could also see Sheridan’s hand reflected in the story, which bore cinematic similarity to his work in Sicario. The Texas landscape was grimy and hot, and their desperation was palpable. Perhaps I shouldn’t have rooted for them, but I did – which is a testament to the film’s story and two leads. Foster and Pine gave textured performances, evincing wide-ranging emotion. While there has been praise from critics, the average moviegoer may be reluctant to see this film – but don’t be one of those people. Hell or High Water has been one of the better films of 2016, so far. Grade: A