Fifty Shades Darker: Movie Man Jackson

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She’s just a sucker for pain. When the world last saw Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), she had had enough of billionaire Christian Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) penchant for pain during intercourse. Ana has left Christian behind, and started to focus on herself, acquiring a job as a secretary for one of Seattle’s biggest publishers, SIP.

Christian isn’t ready to leave Ana behind, though, and reappears in her life offering to change. No contracts, or nothing she isn’t comfortable with. As the two attempt to navigate a more “vanilla” relationship, Christian’s complicated past makes this endeavor difficult.

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Call me an idiot or just too nice, but I was one of the people who didn’t believe that Fifty Shades of Gray was the worst thing modern cinema ever created. That’ s not certainly not to say it was a good or even passable movie, but it was watchable enough in stretches to go into the sequel, Fifty Shades Darker, with a relatively open mind. That didn’t last long. Working with a bigger budget, Fifty Shades Darker ends up being a much smaller and flaccid movie package.

One thing the first Fifty Shades of Grey possessed was fairly good cinematography and direction from Sam Taylor-Johnson, and a decent score and solid original music tracks. The actual production wasn’t that bad. But this go-around, “FSD,” directed by James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross), doesn’t stand out much from the average ABC Family or Oxygen film, minus the subject matter. It’s a very lifeless looking production that does nothing to titillate or stimulate, and the music chosen to accompany these “sexy” scenes ranges from corny to cringey. It’s bad the first time, by the 6th time, you’ll feel violated.

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The two lovebirds in Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan return, with passable chemistry, but not the white hot chemistry this movie needs to be effective. As in the previous movie, Dakota Johnson is by far and away the braver of the two stars once again, putting her entire body out to bare in embarrassing situations. If only her character was as strong as Dakota claims her to be, Fifty Shades Darker may have something.

Dornan bares a little more this go-around, and is a tad better than before with some more character meat. Unfortunately, his American accent slips pretty noticeably here and there, to the point where that’s all I was looking for. With that said (for better or worse), they are the best things about this sequel. Everyone else looks bored to be there (Bella Heathcote, Kim Basinger), or a little over-the-top (Eric Johhson). His role into the story is seen from a mile away; not sure if it is supposed to be.

One can get on the stars and the cast for lackluster acting, but the realization is, these aren’t talentless thespians. Two films deep now, probably not much of a stretch to say that the source material for the Fifty Shades novels is extremely shoddy. Some stories are better left in the book. The dialogue is almost always agonizing to listen to. I simply don’t believe there’s someone out there to make this sound even average, but couldn’t someone else be allowed to take a stab at the screenplay who wasn’t the author’s husband? One thing to exercise artistic control, another to not want to take any suggestions from other, possibly more experienced, people.

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As yours truly pressed on through Fifty Shades Darker, there was one thought that went through the mind: The emotional and physical pain that Ana experiences from Christian’s unconventional desires are nowhere near the levels of pain I experienced watching it unfold.

D-

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Hidden Figures: Movie Man Jackson

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Numbers are indiscriminate. Relatively speaking. The year is 1961. The United States of America is in a race with Russia to put an astronaut into space. But, they are hitting quite a few snags in the process. They simply do not have the manpower, or possibly the mindpower, to break through.

Three brilliant African-American females mathematicians in Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) are assigned to various departments to helm Langley’s efforts to launch one of its own into the stratosphere. All are qualified, but each face difficulties in getting their peers to accept them as equals. But the mission takes precedence, and hitting its intended target means putting aside any hate and coming together as a unit.

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Needing for a Disney-live movie that isn’t made by Disney? Hidden Figures does the trick, a true story that pays good tribute to amazing women. Well, relatively true. It’s sound in all areas without being extraordinary in any, either. Nothing wrong with playing it safe and filling a purpose.

The title of Hidden Figures serves as a double meaning. The movie’s core plot revolves around finding the math that doesn’t yet exist to propel a shuttle into space. But on a more figurative sense, for myself, I sadly had never heard of these women, but I suspect a good deal have not, either, effectively making these women almost ghost-like in the annals of history. Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) takes the quarterback manager approach here. There’s little that catches the eye cinematically, but it’s certainly competent. Producer Pharrell Williams provides a few high spots with original songs that fit the 1960’s setting perfectly.

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Melfi lets the story of Hidden Figures, adapted from the nonfiction book with the same name, tell itself. However, there are obvious embellishments and prints of Hollywood that are left on the production. Hidden Figures does a good job at showcasing the institutional racism that permeated the time period, the small things that made life difficult for African-Americans, and women in a male-dominated field. But, Hidden Figures becomes hokey at times with specific moments and certain characters who didn’t exist. This is not the film to get hyper-accurate history from.

Still, the lead characters of Hidden Figures provide some insight into these troubling times, and though they all work towards the same mission, all three women have their own storylines that the film addresses. It helps that each of the three actresses pull off great performances to make their characters likable and believable. Taraji P. Henson is the standout of the entire picture, and now seeing the list, it is a little disappointing to not see her get a Best Actress nomination; she’s that good with the requisite award scene that plays for a nominee that feels completely natural in the movie. The surprise is Janelle Monáe, who was good in Moonlight but has more to do here, and might be more deserving of the supporting nod than the über-consistent Octavia Spencer who did receive the nod.

As for the rest of the supporting cast, most end up playing the evil white person or misguided white person who thinks they mean well but actually do not. At least for many of the central characters at Langley, this applies. As such, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons are playing parts and not so much characters to give life to, though Dunst is a little more impressive with what she is given. On the other side of the spectrum of characters at Langley lies Kevin Costner’s (no one’s going to accuse him of having questionable views in Hollywood!), just a guy who’s about the job regardless of skin color. Costner’s character is good, even if a scene borders on being the aforementioned hokey. Aldis Hodge and Mahershala Ali provide solid yet unspectacular work as stock husband/love interest. But, it’s nice to see these up and coming actors of color in a high-profile movie.

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Hidden Figures is the sum of great lead performances to tell the stories of three women who didn’t get the recognition they deserve until now. Everything else in the film, facts included, is secondary, but it does end up equaling a feel-good watch.

B-

Photo credits go to aceshowbiz.com, denofgeek.com, and filmandnow.com.

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La La Land: Movie Man Jackson

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Dreams, dreams, dreams. Los Angeles, California is the place people go to achieve their dreams. However, it is also the place where many a dream unfortunately go to die. For aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), and old-school jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), only failed auditions and small-bit gigs have come from their hard work. Both do not have much more effort to give to their aspirations.

But, their batteries are recharged after chance run-ins continue to bring them together. Romance arises out of it. And luck actually begins to change for both of them. Their careers appear ready to take off, but the relationship they’ve built together could be undone if so.

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Much like Hail, Caesar!, La Land Land is a love letter to something particular. Whereas the former film was a love letter to old Hollywood, the latter film is much more specific in its scope, writing a letter to a particular genre of film. That genre of film being the musical. Its simplicity and uncommon-ness in today’s day and movie age makes for a fascinating and fresh watch.

Yours truly never looks forward to watching a musical, and I was a little skeptical of La La Land for this very reason initially. My skepticism was put to bed rather quickly, as director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) opens the movie with an astonishing set piece on the actual LA freeway. What Chazelle does here is simply amazing. The music happens rather organically, rather than overly manufactured. Though the pieces become significantly smaller scale-wise as the film progresses, that doesn’t make them any less impressive. In fact, it allows the cinematography to shine brighter, making for a beautiful-looking movie. This obviously isn’t a three-dimensional feature, but it pops a lot more than most do. It’s impossible not to appreciate all of the technical hard work and cinematic skill that’s on display. Underrated aspect of the movie? Cool to see the City of Angels not as a dunghole of despair, but—ahem—a beacon of hope and opportunity.

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But, La La Land isn’t purely a musical. It is basic romance between two characters that initially start at odds, the common backbone for many a film. He also takes stabs at a few themes that hit emotionally, mainly the idea of taking destiny in one’s own hands and the internal fight an individual has with remaining true to their artistic values, versus cashing in and providing stability.

Chazelle also wisely veers away from falling into overly cheesy mode or the happy Hollywood ending, and it gives more credence to the story. Perhaps 10-15 minutes could have been trimmed off in the middle, but otherwise, the film moves at a brisk pace, and an engaging musical number is seemingly right around the corner when things ever so slightly bog down.

I like to believe that the strongest romantic on-screen chemistry between stars makes a viewer believe that off-screen, the two could easily be an item that plasters the front pages of the tabloids and leads the E! nightly news. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have that kind of chemistry, surely cultivated from previous movies, scintillating from the initial crude beginning on the freeway to the touching ending. Neither is classically trained in the art of song and dance, but their commitment is evident. These aren’t easy roles to nail even with extensive research or hours upon hours of practice. It speaks to the raw skill that each person has that their performances come off pretty effortless.

Sound and unmemorable work is turned in by supporting castmates John Legend, J.K. Simmons (pretty much a cameo), and Rosemarie DeWitt, but they do their jobs. Their roles aren’t written to be meaty, just to provide more meat to the characters Gosling and Stone occupy. Outside of Stone, Gosling, and Chazelle, the biggest star of the film is the unseen choreographer Mandy Moore (to my surprise not the singer). If Chazelle wins Best Director, Moore’s got to be right beside him or mentioned at the top of the acceptance speech.

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Liking the musical genre does not need to be a prerequisite for appreciating La La Land. To qualify it as only a musical would be a disservice to it. There’s more than enough in this particular number for anyone who just likes film.

A-

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Fences: Movie Man Jackson

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What more can be given when everything has already been given? In 1950’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania lives Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a 53 year-old who makes his living as a waste collector. At one time, Troy was a great baseball player in the Negro Leagues, but was deemed too old to play in the Major Leagues once the MLB lifted the color barrier.

With his job, Troy has managed to provide for his wife Rose (Viola Davis), and their son Cory (Jovan Adepo). But it hasn’t been easy. Often, Troy thinks about what could have been instead of realizing what he’s got, which complicates his relationships, especially with Cory. As his 17-year old son approaches manhood and potential stardom on the football field, Troy struggles to accept the hand that life dealt him.

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Adaptations—be it books, video games, or plays—don’t always translate to the silver screen. For one reason or another, an aspect or aspects of what made the adaptation special/worthy of a huge following in its original form often are missing once the adaptation becomes a movie. For Fences, based on a 1983 play by playwright August Wilson that was revived in 2010 starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, it’s not necessarily what is missing but what feels just a little out of place.

Washington not only stars here as Troy like he did in 2010, but also takes on the task of directing, his first directorial credit in over nine years (The Great Debaters). He recreates the blue-collar feel of 1950’s Pittsburgh and a specific neighborhood very well, where everyone is simply trying to make ends meet to get through day by day. Much of the movie’s production takes place in the small two-story Maxson household, and in a way, it almost becomes its own character. This is where the movie feels…right at home. Anytime where the feature traverses out of the home, things become kind of choppy.

Fences features an overall compelling plot, but it does have valleys in where its two hour, 18 minute runtime is felt. Nothing’s wrong with a bunch of dialogue, but I believe a key moment or two could have had more of a emotional effect if the moviegoing audience were allowed to actually see it as opposed to hearing about it. Granted, most of the dialogue pops on the screen, but on occasion (like the beginning for example), it is sort of clunky and just runs on and on. These moments are most indicative as to how playwriting and screenplay writing can sound different.

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Still, Fences mends its film feature issues with explosive all-star performances from its duo, just like the initial trailer promised. As stated, Denzel is reprising his character from the 2010 play. His Troy possesses an amazing amount of depth. An enigma he is; a man yet simultaneously a kid, driven by duty, yet unwilling to accept even a small amount of responsibility for matters happening in his life. He’s a character who sees in black and white (literally and figuratively), yet he, despite not believing he does, has a whole lot of gray. Washington has always excelled at playing layered characters, and Fences is probably his best showcase of his acting prowess since Flight.

Joining him is Viola Davis, who won a Tony for her performance as Rose in the 2010 play. She may very well win an Oscar for the same role. This is very clearly a film that revolves around Washington, to the point that, intentionally or unintentionally, marginalizes Davis and her character for a while. As such, Davis doesn’t get a lot of opportunity to do a bunch. But, when her character finally comes out of her slumber, it’s something to behold. The rest of the cast does well also. Russell Hornsby, who I’ve appreciated since 2004’s Playmakers on ESPN, shows why he should be doing more in Hollywood, and Jovan Adepo is reminiscent of a young Derek Luke.

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Performances translate across mediums, other aspects don’t always. Even without seeing the play, I’m convinced that Fences is a stellar one. After seeing the film, I’m convinced that Fences is a pretty good one.

B

Photo credits go to slashfilm.com, vanityfair.com, indiewire.com, and shadowandact.com.

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Manchester by the Sea: Movie Man Jackson

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Wait, this isn’t about the city in England? In Quincy, Massachusetts lives Lee Russell (Casey Affleck). He works as a janitor, bringing little attention to himself. Once a fairly friendly and upbeat individual, Lee has become extremely reserved, as a result of a tragedy that has shaken him to his core.

Said tragedy was so affecting that he had to move out of Manchester by the Sea just to distance himself from the situation. However, he’s forced to come back because his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), passes away suddenly. This leaves Joe’s son (and Lee’s obvious nephew), Patrick (Lucas Hedges) without a guardian. Unbeknownst to Lee until he picks up the will left behind, he finds that he’s been entrusted to take care of Patrick. As reluctant to the idea as he is, this may just be the best thing that could happen to him.

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Manchester by the Sea, for yours truly, was a tough movie to get a feel for going off of its trailer. Two stories? One story? Bit of a comedy? Coming of age? Well, it is a tad bit of all of that to varying degrees. But those degrees add up rather nicely. By the end of it all, Manchester by the Sea is a rewarding viewing experience.

Director Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret) essentially tells a tale of the five stages of grief in denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Like the Kübler-Ross model, not all five stages are explicitly shown, or chronological, or necessarily experienced, but many are present at least in one way, shape, or implicit form. For a while in the beginning, Manchester by the Sea does feel a little tonally off, one minute both light and then the next seemingly heavy.

But the blend does get stronger as its runtime, though a little lengthy at 2:17, goes on. Lonergan incorporates flashbacks to give much of the film its emotional gravitas. By its midpoint, context is given as to why Lee Russell is as he is, and the flashbacks here rarely break up the flow of the present. It’s a better usage for drawing emotion, than say, starting the feature with why Lee is so distant which may have come off as forced. The moments that stand out the most in Manchester by the Sea may be those in which nothing is heard, aside from a musical piece composed by Lesley Barber or a licensed piece of music. For as good as the dialogue is, a picture—or in this case, a frame—is worth a thousands words.

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Manchester by the Sea is buoyed by two supporting performances in Michelle Williams (hardly present but makes her presence felt when present), and Lucas Hedges, much more than teen angst. His chemistry with Casey Affleck is warm and compelling, and not all gloom. Some of the best parts of the film are ones that inject a small bit of humor along with seriousness, and these scenes in the 2nd half simply make the movie feel real.

But make no mistake, Manchester by the Sea is anchored by a career-best Casey Affleck. Watching Affleck early on is somewhat underwhelming…until I realized that I was looking for this “in-your-face” performance from him instead of just watching it. He plays broken and defeated so well, and it makes the small victories he eventually gains all the more rewarding as a viewer. His eventual acceptance in regards to his past and what his future should include punctuates a strong ending written by Lonergan. The ending works great because it isn’t overly sappy, nor completely downtrodden. There are things that can’t be undone, and we all live with regrets, but these regrets shouldn’t always weigh us down.

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In the sea of pure major awards contenders, Manchester by the Sea makes itself noticeable as one of the better ones. Anchors aweigh.

B+

Photo credits go to Imdb.com, usatoday.com, and hollywoodreporter.com.

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Nocturnal Animals: Movie Man Jackson

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Whenever you’ve got it, hold onto it. Art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) has made a new life with husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). It’s a bourgeois life, one that Susan has been accustomed to with well-off parents. It’s also an empty one that only looks glamorous from the outside.

Many years before, Susan found love with writer Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). They married, and things were rosy for a while, until Susan determined that Edward couldn’t take care of her like she wanted to be taken care of due to his overly sensitive nature and writing profession.

Susan receives a manuscript of her ex’s latest novel, Nocturnal Animals, a name Edward affectionately called Susan. It’s a dark tale, about a Texas man and his family who run into a gang of unstable individuals on the highway. Seems random, but the more Susan delves into the novel, some characters and some events hit awfully close to home.

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With a title fitting for a horror movie, Nocturnal Animals is dark. It’s uncomfortable. It can be hard to watch and even a little scary. But like the best fashion, it is also impossible to take eyes off of, or forget. Nocturnal Animals illuminates in quality and memorability from from start to finish.

Attention is seized right from the movie’s opening credits sequence. Fashion mogul turned director Tom Ford (A Single Man) certainly sears this sequence on the brain as one that is equal parts revolting yet extremely mesmerizing, with a beautiful dreamlike musical track by composer Abel Korzeniowski.

While the meaning and/artistic merits of said scene are likely to be debated for a while (count yours truly as a guy who gets the meaning but still feels that it’s done for shock more than anything), I’ll admit that it was rather alluring. Much—if not all—of Nocturnal Animals is, whether it be in the sweltering Texas desert heat, or in the cool interiors of an NYC penthouse or art gallery. The color red makes its way into a great deal of the movie. Red typically symbolizes a lot: Love, anger, attention, revenge, courage, to name a few. These are all themes that Ford touches upon or goes into depth on, maybe not perfectly, but they are there.

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Honestly, Nocturnal Animals works a lot better narrative-wise than it should. What could easily become confusing to follow never does become so, thanks to on-the-point editing and stylistic choices. The parallels between stories aren’t always congruent with one another, but when they are, Ford’s feature is extremely fascinating and rewarding, and maybe it just requires another watch for every piece to fit snugly. Aside from one visual in particular, he pushes audiences to make their own final decision as to what the meaning of the story is, whether it’s positive or negative, what happens to the (real world) characters, etc. Another strong strength? It’s unpredictable.

It’s no surprise that the cast assembled here makes for one of the stronger ensembles of the 2016 calendar year. When Amy Adams, no obvious slouch, turns in what is probably the fourth best performance of the entire movie (more as a result of her character, not her actual skill), there’s some high level acting present. Jake Gyllenhaal, again pulling double duty in a feature, is brilliant once again, and the writing for his characters allows him to display his amazing skills as both are given wonderful arcs. As an aside, he has what may be the most truest and moving quotes about love I’ve heard in an extremely long time. They are lines of dialogue I’ll never forget.

It’s Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson who give Nocturnal Animals an element of “fun” that would likely not be there without them. Make no mistake as that does not mean the work they do here is not deserving of serious supporting category consideration (already has garnered it at the time of this writing), but their characters are so dogged and world-weary (Shannon) or eccentrically vile (Taylor-Johnson) and it makes for an interesting showdown that could easily be its own movie. Shannon’s been a stud for a while, but it’s nice to see Taylor-Johnson reassert himself as a talent. He’s more or less The Joker as a guy who seemingly just likes to watch the world burn and inflict suffering on people, but he’s chilling every time he’s on screen. Pick better roles please!

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I don’t pop Molly I watch Tom Ford. And with Nocturnal Animals, I want to keep watching him, and I hope he directs more. But if it takes seven years to come up with a unique story worth telling in cinematic form, keep on making those Gucci handbags and Saint Laurent dresses while prepping that next film, Ford.

A-

Photo credits go to thefilmstage.com, ukmovies.yahoo.com, and everythingaction.com

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Lion: Movie Man Jackson

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Home is where the heart is. In the Indian village of Khandwa resides brothers Guddo (Abhishek Bhrate), Sarro (Sunny Pawar), and their mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose). Older brother Guddo often takes Sarro around the city of Calcutta to get food, while their mother makes her living carrying rocks and doing menial work. While doing a job, the five-year old Sarro becomes separated from Guddo, and ends up on a train that takes him far, far away from home.

Saroo aimlessly searches for a way back to his loved ones, running into so many pitfalls and dangers along the way. Thankfully, an Australian husband and wife take him in for adoption and provide him with a stable home. Now 25 (Dev Patel) , Saroo is achieving great things and has the love of mother Sue (Nicole Kidman), father John (David Wenham), and girlfriend/college classmate Lucy (Rooney Mara). Still, his heart yearns for his first family, and the desire to find them only burns deeper each passing day.

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If there’s one studio that’s synonymous with awards season, it would have to be The Weinstein Company for my money. Sure, they’ve released duds, but when it’s time there’s always a movie or two in their catalog that makes us forget TWC had any association with those stinkers. This year, the bullet in their holster is Lion. 

Based on the autobiography written by Saroo called A Long Way Home, Lion is pretty simple, in a way the trailer didn’t capture. This is a story that could happen anywhere, and the fact that it is true and a five-year old actually endured it is fascinating to think about. In a way, the film is a little of a mystery, and uses this aspect to enhance drama. Of course, the mystery isn’t what the film is about, but rather, the pull of home on an individual.

There are halves to many a movie, but they stand out strongly in Lion, and they’re different enough to shape the experience in a good or bad way for some viewers. The first half follows Saroo at five, wide-eyed, and trying to make sense of what’s going on and how he’s ended up where he’s at. It’s undoubtedly the stronger act, with a performance from young Sunny Pawar that truly tugs at the heartstrings. This half of the movie also features the better cinematography and direction from Garth Davis, many shots are framed wide which helps to drives home just how alone the youngster is in such a huge world. And from a basic sense, its simply awesome scenery of locales not always seen in cinema.

 

The second half, in the opinion of yours truly, is still quite good, and ends the movie on a great and earned emotional sendoff. Dev Patel performance in displaying mounting pressure and all-out desperation to find his family hits home, and Nicole Kidman gives her all to a role in which she has real-life experience with; she’s likely on the supporting actress list. Compared to the first, however, something’s missing and the search doesn’t hook as much as it initially does.

It may be the editing, which isn’t perfect in the first half, but adequate. In the second half, elapsed time isn’t clearly defined, and some character introductions/relationships/reintroductions are a little clunky as a result. Chemistry between Patel and Rooney Mara is average. The scenes they share extensively together (not a ton) is when Lion becomes a tad clichéd and its pace compromised.

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But even with that, Lion does a lot more to be legitimately emotional than the average solely Oscar-centric movie. In simplicity, a moving tale is found.

B+

Photo credits go to cnn.com, time.com, variety.com, and impawards.com.

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The Edge of Seventeen: Movie Man Jackson

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Rather stand at the edge of tomorrow continuously than revisit The Edge of (age) Seventeen again. Since birth, the awkward Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) has always had issues fitting in with her age group. Where making friends and being the object of everyone’s affection has always come easy for her slightly older brother Darian (Blake Jenner), Nadine’s had no such luck. If it weren’t for her lifelong friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), being seventeen would be unbearable.

Unfortunately, it becomes just that once Krista takes a liking to her older brother and the feeling is reciprocated. With her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) never really having a connection with her, and her father sadly out of the picture, Nadine finds slivers of support in her sarcastic history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) and equally awkward classmate Erwin (Hayden Szeto).

Hayden Szeto in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

If the old, 80’s style genre film that John Hughes popularized is what someone’s hearkening for, The Edge of Seventeen fills that void superbly. Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig hasn’t kept it a secret as to her inspiration(s) for this movie. The look alone, how it starts (teen angst songs abound but not annoyingly so), how it’s told, some common characters, and more are all throwbacks to the genre films of yesteryear. Like most flicks in the genre, its pretty linear and easy to see how things are going to play out. Only difference is, this doesn’t take place in the 80’s. It’s very much a 21st century movie, but the great thing about this is that The Edge of Seventeen doesn’t rely on its setting. This is going to be a movie that ages quite well.

In The Edge of Seventeen, Craig has written a film with a lot of heart. Almost all of the sentimentality feels earned and legitimate, as the runtime is just right and the screenplay well-paced, with maybe only a slight bit of “rushedness” between the climax and resolution. Craig has also written a film that is simply believable in how teenagers act, how they speak, etc., and she stays away from trying to paint her lead character as 100% correct while everyone around her is incorrect. Nadine is flawed, sometimes shockingly so, but this ultimately makes her more relatable and endearing.

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As good as some of those 80’s teen movies were, some were laden with middling and bad acting, even from the leads.  Every notable cast member in The Edge of Seventeen delivers good to superb performances. Great writing can certainly give more to a performance, but a sizable chunk of responsibility still falls on the actor and actress. It starts with Hailee Steinfeld, in her first real starring role. She does it all, be it off-the-head snide sarcasm or strong scenes of emotion. Her Nadine’s annoying, overreactive, lovable, and awkward, sometimes all at once. And again, it helps that she isn’t written as Ms. Perfect, as it gives more authenticity to the proceedings.

The teacher role that Woody Harrelson takes on is a perfect fit for his talents. No one is saying he isn’t talented, but occasionally he has the issue of not being able to assimilate nicely into features. Not so here; the relationship he has with Nadine is sweet but not in a extra sappy way, providing sagely advice in his own unique way. Even typically skim throwaway roles such as the oblivious mother, douchebag brother, and best friend are fleshed out, and acted well by Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner, and Haley Lu Richardson, respectively. If there were one person who steals scenes away from Steinfeld, however, it would easily be Hayden Szeto in what is one of the best supporting roles of the year. If a photo accompanied teenage awkwardness in Merriam-Webster, his would be there.

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What’s old can still be new. Bolstered by strong writing and wonderful acting work, The Edge of Seventeen cements itself as an all-around stellar film, and one of the very best in its genre.

A-

Photo credits go to collider.com, comingsoon.net, and http://www.phase9.tv.

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Jackie: Movie Man Jackson

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It’s tough to pick up the pieces. The assassination of John F. Kennedy has left the first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman) all alone.

Always the portrait of cool to the American public, behind the scenes, Jackie is struggling to keep it together. But this tragedy allows Jackie to dig deeper, and to continue what her husband left behind.

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Know that awards movie you want to fall head over heels for but just can’t? That movie would be Jackie, solidly functional in most areas, exceptional in one area. But as a complete package that is supposed to be moving and emotional, it can be rather dull and lacking in poignancy.

Where Jackie impresses is its overall commitment level to its central character. Unlike a good deal of biopics which are almost always criticized for “not exploring the feature character deep enough,” writer Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larraín make Jackie Kennedy the Alpha and the Omega of this movie. How they go about it isn’t in the most successful of ways, however. As Kevin mentions in his thoughts over on Polarbearstv.com, the narrative is rather jumbled, and it never really settles into a groove. The more I think about it, there’s really not much of a story to be found.

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As the film goes on, its narrative issues undermine most of the intended emotional moments. It is a shame, because the technical aspects are very strong. Composed by Mica Levi (Under the Skin), the score, though turned up a bit high sometimes, is always compelling. The direction, albeit unspectacular at times, is astonishing at others, particularly during the moments which Jackie is being broadcast to the world. They legitimately look like 60’s stock reels.

Back to commitment, Natalie Portman immerses herself as the widow of JFK. All of her extensive research in videotapes, audiotapes, and books as it pertains to Jackie Kennedy pays off to create a character that goes deeper than the surface. In the hands of a less capable actress this role could become a little bit of a caricature, but under Portman’s grip, the character feels real. Her work here is up there as her career best, but one wishes that there were that one or two scenes that imprint themselves on the memory. It’s no fault of her’s, the script and middling direction lets her down.

It would be wrong to not acknowledge the other members of the cast, but they ultimately are just serviceable. If there were a relative standout, Billy Crudup plays nicely off of Portman as Theodore H. White, the famous journalist who was called to write about the legacy of Jackie’s husband. This itself feels like it could have been its own true piece in the movie, instead of being used as a framing device where momentum becomes scattershot.

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In the classic (made up) category of “superb performance(s) in a forgettable good film” lies Jackie. Expect an intriguing character, and an unmoving story.

B-

Photo credits go to ew.com, usatoday.com, ramascreen.com, and deadline.com.

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Moonlight: Movie Man Jackson

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There’s no magic existing in the Moonlight here. On the streets of Miami grows “little” Chiron, a young African American boy extremely small in stature. He gets constantly bullied. He lacks a father. He gets no assistance from his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), too concerned with finding her next high. The only stable adult figures he has are the drug dealing Juan (Mahershali Ali), and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe).

As Chiron grows, his identity does not. What he truly is and how he truly feels isn’t something that many people in environment can understand or care to, except for his one constant friend, Kevin. The tunnel can be dark, but sometimes it just takes a of little support, or even just the idea of it, to see it through to the light.

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There are immediate comparisons that come to mind when one watches Moonlight. Films such as Dope and Boyhood deal with similar themes and literal central subject growth. It would be easy to overlook and possibly dismiss Moonlight as one of the many in the common coming of age genre. But that would be to dismiss its sticking power and directorial precision.

Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) serves as both the writer and director for this feature. Although inspired by a Tarell Alvin McCraney play known as In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Jenkins brings a lot of personal experiences into the movie, growing up as a youth in Miami. As such, the movie feels extremely authentic, by no means a autobiography, but a snapshot of what could be many African-Americans growing up. Everything in the story comes together nicely; no one character feels overwritten, underwritten, or of a caricature, and all moments that could have been overkill are handled with care. Broken into three parts, the movie invokes memories of Richard Wright’s 1940’s classic novel, Native Son. Each part is wonderfully paced, and Jenkins gives the audience enough to chew on and save away for later, and eventually, reflect upon in the end.

Perhaps the best thing about Moonlight, however, is that it truly doesn’t feel like it is written for a specific audience. Yes, it is written by a black man with an all-black cast, and race is an underlying theme throughout the movie. But, it isn’t the sole theme. Much like its poster which depicts sections of its central character to form a whole, race is but one part of the whole. That whole here being identity, comprised of race, sexuality, environment, societal expectations, and more. Any viewer should easily able to understand at least one struggle of the main character.

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An unexpected plus of Moonlight is its impressive cinematography. All of it is very alluring, whether resembling something akin to the style of Boyz in the Hood and Menace II Society early on, or later in the movie when Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton stage a brilliant final act that takes place at night in a restaurant, then a car (quite possibly the best scene that few will talk about), and finally, an apartment. Raw is the word; there are many close-up shots of the characters that the camera just lingers on occasionally, making sure to lap up every single bit of emotion that this cast puts out. They etch themselves into the brain.

Going to go on record here and say that Moonlight is likely to be the launching pad for quite a few thespians. Only Naomie Harris is a known commodity in Hollywood, and her portrayal of a junkie mother is on the spot. Each actor that plays Chiron through his various stages of boyhood/manhood is wonderfully moving, but the actors who play the latter two stages of Chiron’s life stand out the most. For such a fresh face to the acting business, Trevante Rhodes (playing Chiron/”Black” in the final act) seems to be a natural and has the all-important screen presence. This could be a perfect opportunity for the Academy to be innovative and nominate all three actors playing the same role as “Best Actor.” Not to be forgotten are two other supporting actors in Mahershali Ali and André Holland (Selma). Ali ends the first act with poignancy, and Holland helps to end the film on an optimistic note. Both roles deserve acclaim, but Ali arguably steals the show despite being in for only a third of the runtime.

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Moonlight is amazing storytelling and fully realized directorial vision that never once feels overly manufactured to make noise during the awards season. But it will, and it absolutely should.

A

Photo credits go to thewrap.com, collider.com, and indiewire.com.

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