Sunday, September 17, 2017

Split (2017) - 8 stars out of 10

Split (2017) - 8 stars out of 10

“Split” is the latest mindbender from M. Night Shyamalan.  I disagree with the criticism that he has taken over the past decade (even if you hated “The Happening,” he still deserves respect for crafting “The Sixth Sense”) and I’m so happy that this film has put him back into the good graces of the critics.  The Hitchcockian approach to the film utilizes suspense to create tension from start to finish.  While the tension is so thick that you could cut it with a knife, the film does drag on at a few points and I question how viewers looking for the latest horror thriller may have reacted.  Much of the film’s success lies on Shyamalan’s twisted plot and visual prowess, but we cannot discount the importance of James McAvoy’s performance.  It is essential that McAvoy establish himself as a villain (we can sympathize with his condition, but we still have to fear him); moreover, we have to be able to distinguish between his portrayal of several different personalities solely through his facial expressions and voice.  We even have to be able to tell when one personality is pretending to be another personality.  He has always been an underrated dramatic actor and proved himself to mainstream moviegoers with this masterful performance.  I won’t spoil anything, but I have to make reference that the film has an unconventional twist.  M. Night knows that we expect the unexpected at the end of his films, so he uses a twist that could never be anticipated based on the story that precedes it.  I won’t fully know how I feel about “Split” until I see it a second time.  It is a riveting thriller with fascinating characters, but I can’t help noting the similarities to “10 Cloverfield Lane” which surpasses this film in its pacing, character development, and intrigue.


[Pictured: McAvoy expertly brings several contrasting personalities to life but the real conundrum is "The Beast," a 24th personality that may or may not exist]

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Secret Life of Pets - 5 stars out of 10

The Secret Life of Pets - 5 stars out of 10

“The Secret Life of Pets” is exactly what I expected.  The trailer was a hilarious series of vignettes showing what pets do when their owners leave for the day.  Everybody wanted to see this film because it was going to be so funny!  But I had a sneaking suspicion that once we had been drawn into the theater by the clever trailer, we would find that the vignette introduction quickly gives way to a completely unrelated story.  And sure enough, five minutes into the film the slapstick ended and we were left with Illumination’s retelling of “Toy Story,” only with pets instead of toys.  The film is a nice family comedy that is full of laughs, puns, and cute characters.  I will even admit that I enjoyed it from start to finish, but the story is completely unoriginal and predictable.  The casting is interesting, filling the film with recognizable-but-not-quite-popular actors like Louis C.K., Albert Brooks, Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Ellie Kemper, and Steve Coogan.  The best part of the film is probably Dana Carvey’s turn as an elderly, respy-voiced basset hound and Jenny Slate’s highly energetic voicing of Gidget.  Still, the film lacks that incredibly emotive actor whose voice helps us to connect to the film.  “The Secret Life of Pets” is a film that I will share with my children someday due to its family-friendly nature, but only after we’ve exhausted the catalog of better animated films and need a break.


[Pictured: The characters are cute, the situations are funny, the animation style is unique, but the story is unoriginal]

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Stanford Prison Experiment - 9 stars out of 10

The Stanford Prison Experiment - 9 stars out of 10

“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is a thought-provoking dramatization of the literally unbelievable experiment at Stanford University in 1971.  I have always been fascinated by this chapter in history and wish that the film had received a wider release so that everybody could experience this curiosity.  The premise of the story is that 15 college students are selected at random to take on the role of prison guard or inmate, and the situation quickly turns intense as the students struggle to separate their perception from reality.  I don’t want to dig into the plot too much because you really just need to see it to believe it.  The casting was very well done, making ever prisoner and guard seem completely ordinary and equal at the onset of the experiment.  Ezra Miller and Michael Angarano steal the show with their emotional performances, though all of the characterization is amazing as each student reacts to the experiment in a subtly different way.  The film’s only flaw is that the characters sometimes seem over-the-top.  But that’s what makes the film so amazing.  These seemingly over-the-top circumstances actually happened in this experiment!  The language is pretty strong at points, but it is necessary to create the realism of this story.  If you have never heard of this experiment or enjoy gripping thrillers, you will love “The Stanford Prison Experiment.”

[Pictured: You constantly want to reach through the screen to remind these characters that it is just an experiment, but they can't help progressively buy into their circumstances]

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Christine (2016) - 4 stars out of 10

Christine (2016) - 4 stars out of 10

“Christine” is in vogue but I wasn’t really buying it.  This exposé on depression just didn’t hit the right notes for me.  I believe for a film audience to understand the severity of depression, we must form a connection to the character so that we need them to succeed.  Unfortunately, this character is so emotionally removed from those around her that it was a struggle to form that connection.  The screenwriters tried to throw a little morbid humor into the story with self-help group, which only furthered the sense that her struggle wasn’t that serious (and maybe even comical?)  The odd occasional lighthearted tone in showing the character’s misfortunes interfered with my ability to empathize with the character and, despite what the critics have said, I think that the main issue with the film is Rebecca Hall’s interpretation of the character.  I have really enjoyed her acting in "The Awakening" and "Frost/Nixon", but there was just something lacking in her portrayal of the timid and depressed Christine Chubbuck.  The only reason that I’d recommend this film is so that you can experience the sudden climax of the story.  It is important that you do not research the character before seeing the film, lest you ruin its most surprising moment.  “Christine” deserves some credit for opening our eyes to an historical television event that you’ve probably never heard of.  However, as a social commentary on the serious nature of depression, it is a complete miss.


[Pictured: We should feel so much empathy for this character but the film's miscues in acting and screenwriting leave us watching a piece of history and immediately forgetting it ever happened]

Monday, August 21, 2017

Dunkirk (2017) - 10 stars out of 10

Dunkirk (2017) - 10 stars out of 10

Christopher Nolan is a director that has become known for his films that employ mind-bending concepts (like "Inception") and non-linear storytelling (like "Memento").  So why would he ever direct a war film?  How could his style possibly fit into a period piece of an historical event?  I carried these questions into the theater with me and walked out of the theater two hours later with my mind completely blown.  "Dunkirk" bends the rules of traditional storytelling to create a one-of-a-kind movie experience.  It's hard to say how it compares to other war films because it really needs to be in a category of its own.  First and foremost, this film will be remembered for its unique conceptual use of time.  The script intertwines three stories that occur during the evacuation of Dunkirk.  The story of the men on the land covers one week’s time, the story of the men on the sea covers one day’s time, and the story of the men in the air covers one hour’s time.  It is incredibly confusing at first as the film quickly jumps between timelines without transition, as if the events are occurring at the same time.  But once the puzzle pieces slowly come together as the three stories converge into the same time and place (seen from different perspectives), the result is unlike anything that you have ever experienced.  Beyond this creative approach, Nolan made sure that this story felt real.  He used an interesting combination of unknown actors in the main roles and a cast of all-stars in the supporting roles.  This emphasized the young age and inexperience of the ground troops while providing veteran actors to mentor their younger counterparts.  I’m sure that the presence of big names like Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance were also helpful in drawing in an audience.  To further emphasize the realism, Nolan insisted that the entire cast be British, though one of my biggest complaints is that much of the dialogue is difficult to understand due to the authentic accents.  The combination of quickly jumping between stories, thick accents, and similar style of costumes works against the film as it becomes difficult to distinguish one character from another.  Finally, Nolan’s best decision in making the film realistic was his use of practical effects and thousands of extras instead of a reliance on CGI to make the difficult scenes come to life.  I’ve grown tired of movies that look like a video game and everything in this film was real, from the sinking battleships to the airplanes dogfighting in the air.  When you combine these practical effects with the beautiful cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, it truly captures this moment in time.

Nolan’s cinematic genius is present in every strand of the film’s DNA, including his decision to place us amidst the soldiers instead of using random cutaways to warm rooms and strategists that would give us an omniscient overview.  As an audience, we are as helpless as these stranded soldiers who know very little of the escape plan.  This fits in with the theme of not knowing who these men are outside of Dunkirk.  The script includes a minimal amount of dialogue because we don’t need background information to create an emotional connection to these men.  The only thing that matters to us is whether they will escape.  Instead, the emotions are derived from Hans Zimmer’s masterwork of a score.   It is one of the greatest displays of music supporting and driving the events of a film with its relentless intensity.  Zimmer often incorporates the sound of a ticking clock into his film scores and it is incredibly appropriate within this time-centric film.  Every time that it cuts through the orchestra, it will fill you with anxiety and make you completely nervous.  He further heightens our anxious state through his use of the Shepard Tone (view a must-see YouTube explanation HERE!!).  I literally felt like I couldn't breathe for two hours because the music kept the action moving even when nothing was happening.  But the thing that nearly left me in tears was its inspired use of Elgar's "Nimrod."  Rather than simply incorporating a traditional recording of this orchestral piece as one might expect, Zimmer manipulates the piece into an incredibly slow motion with a slight echo that layers over itself.  It also adds low bass notes to shift the piece's tone from sentimental to dramatic.  The combination of this lush orchestration and the dramatic imagery onscreen may be the best movie moment of 2017.  I rarely discuss a film score in such detail but it is imperative to this film as the script includes a limited amount of dialogue so that the story can be told through the visuals and music.  You can count on seeing “Dunkirk” on the 2018 Oscar ballot in many categories including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, and Score.  It is unquestionably the best film of 2017 thus far and worth seeing twice.

[Pictured: Practical effects and thousands of extras make "Dunkirk" one of the most realistic war films ever created]

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Young Mr. Lincoln - 7 stars out of 10

Young Mr. Lincoln - 7 stars out of 10

“Young Mr. Lincoln” is a fictional dramatization of an 1858 murder case involving Abraham Lincoln’s defense of William Armstrong.  The film is amazing for its depiction of pre-presidential Lincoln, Henry Fonda’s uncanny likeness to Lincoln, and its dramatic storyline.  The main issue is that the storyline’s entertainment value is a result of its complete historical inaccuracy.  I’m not putting it on an “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” level but the only piece of the court case kept intact is Lincoln’s use of an almanac to argue whether the moon was shining on the night in question.  Outside of that, the writers turn one murder suspect into two, surround these suspects with loved ones that didn’t exist, and create the film’s emotional climax out of the questioning of the suspect’s mother on the stand (which never happened).  All of that aside, if we analyze the film as fiction, it is stunning.  Fonda captures the essence of Lincoln’s disposition to the point that we forget that he is an actor.  The performance by Pauline Moore in the role of Ann Rutledge was probably my favorite of the entire film.  It left a large impression considering that it only lasted for about 5 minutes.  Other great performances include Alice Brady as the mother and Donald Meek as the prosecutor, helping the film to operate at a very high level of acting.  The scenery, costuming, and cinematography are average for films made in this time period but the acting really sets it apart.  “Young Mr. Lincoln” probably isn’t the greatest drama that you will ever see but it brings an interesting story and historical figure to life through great acting and screenwriting.


[Pictured: Fonda captures the humble, country beginnings of Abraham Lincoln]

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The BFG (2016) - 9 stars out of 10

The BFG (2016) - 9 stars out of 10

“The BFG” surprised me.  It didn’t make a killing at the box office (which is rare for Disney), there wasn’t much hype surrounding its release, and it doesn’t seem to have much of a fan following.  I can't exactly blame audiences for not showing up.  Personally, I was put off by the creepy appearance of the giant in the theatrical poster and since I am not familiar with the children's book, I didn't have much desire to see what lies within.  However, after the film finally found its way to the top of my Netflix queue, I completely fell in love with the creative story, magnificent visual effects, and the endearing lead characters.  It is a perfect blending of the fantasy and real worlds.  Words cannot describe how grossly underrated this film is.  It is yet another reminder that we should always trust a Steven Spielberg/John Williams collaboration to tug at our hearts and leave us feeling fulfilled.  Mark Rylance gives an inspired motion capture performance.  Ruby Barnhill is even more impressive as she seamlessly interacts with her CGI counterpart and wins us over with her sweet disposition.  Not to mention that her execution of the role makes me want to name my daughter “Sophie.”  I think back to "The Fellowship of the Ring" and how it took me half of the movie to understand that the hobbits were supposed to be short and that the other characters were not just standing uphill/in the foreground.  Then I watch "The BFG" and the size difference are completely realistic.  It is impressive in Giant Country but it is downright stunning when they return to the real world.  The family-friendly comedic moments are tempered by dramatic themes of friendship and loyalty that easily resonate with adults.  I realize that “The BFG” looks creepy at first glance but I promise that if you give it a chance, you will laugh, cry, and fall in love with these characters.


[Pictured: Stunning visuals and endearing characters are the key to this film]