Free Fire: Movie Man Jackson

 

Take your shot. In 1978 Boston, an abandoned warehouse is the scene for a weapons transaction between Republican Army agents (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley) and gun runners (Sharlto Copley, Babou Ceesay), brokered by neutral yet-in-the know Americans (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer).

Tensions arise naturally, but the deal is still in place. Just as the deal seems to be squared away, chance undoes it. Immediately, everyone in this warehouse is left to fend for themselves. What does the last man (or woman) left standing receive? Whatever large amount of money is in the now unclaimed briefcase.

On one hand, it’s sort of impossible not to get somewhat taken aback by the frenetic, 90 minute ballistic blitz that is Free Fire. And on the other hand, Free Fire jams much more than anticipated. Why? Let yours truly try to take a shot at explaining.

Want to get right into the bloodshed? Director Ben Wheatley (The ABCs of Death, High-Rise) does just that, creating an adequate igniter that puts the two factions in each others’ crosshairs. Okay, 90 minutes of ballistic blitz isn’t entirely accurate, but 70 minutes is. And it’s during this beginning and subsequent immediate aftermath of this igniter that Free Fire is at its most enjoyable. The action, while a little hard to follow exactly at times, is nonetheless fascinating during this period, with seriously impressive SFX to boot.

However, the second half comes (which is a little of a misnomer, more on that shortly), and it’s around this point in time in which Free Fire’s premise gets spread too thinly and stretched too widely as what essentially amounts to an entire 1st act. It is cool to see action immediately in a movie, but doing that without any real expansion of its participants—or at least some breathing room to shine light on the characters taking part in said action—kind of dilutes it.

With few standout qualities and characteristics, most of the characters in Free Fire end up blending into one another. Everyone seems to say the word “c**ksucker.” It’s honestly hard to remember names, which side of the divide they’re on, who they’re shooting at, etc. If there were more fun dialogue interspersed or a locale change provided by Wheatley, Free Fire may have avoided that feeling of crawling and dragging to the conclusion.

This is a big cast, and as previously mentioned, most sadly blend into each other. Even stars like Cillian Murphy and Brie Larson don’t pop out like envisioned. But, Armie Hammer and Sharlto Copley do. Hammer, seemingly on a career uptick after The Lone Ranger, is right at home at being the coolest guy in the room…err…warehouse, as well as the biggest badass within it. Copley, South African accent and all, gets to be eccentric and physical in his comedy; every time his mouth opens something funny comes out of it. The two get a good amount of screentime together on the same side, having that vibe that Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe had one year ago in The Nice Guys. Maybe these two should have been the stars of CHipSthey’re that good, and make up for many of the film’s issues.

Free Fire definitely has its share of blank rounds, but also possesses some pretty explosive ones that occasionally hit center-mass. Worth a cursory view, if just for Hammer and Copley alone.

C+

Photo credits go to sundaypost.com, drafthouse.com, and theplaylist.com

For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com. 

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The Comedian: Movie Man Jackson

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Ha. Ha. Ha. Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro) is a icon in the world of comedy, making his name as “Eddie,” a famous television character he played years as. It’s all anyone wants to see when he does stand-up now. When he just performs as Jackie, no one cares about his reinvention, and his routine often suffers for it.

The aging comic ends up getting physical with a audience heckler, and is forced to serve 30 days in jail. Upon coming out of imprisonment, he meets Harmony Schiltzstein (Leslie Mann), a woman who is attempting to reinvent herself. What starts out as simple friendly company for unwanted responsibilities and social functions ends up becoming a more solid companionship then the two realized was possible.

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One could mistake The Comedian, the latest movie featuring Robert De Niro, as a Dirty Grandpa clone without Zac Efron. It’s almost as crass, but a lot less juvenile. So if the similarities to that movie are there, why is this one a better watch?

For one main reason, The Comedian is a lot more believable. Believable isn’t something a film has to be (much less a comedy), but let’s just say that a crude old man chasing youth and an endless supply of sex and drugs on spring break stretches the realm of possibility. In The Comedian, director Taylor Hackford (Ray, The Devil’s Advocate) places De Niro’s Jackie into a world where his character is fictional, but most around him are not. It gives Jackie more credence as a older comic when he interacts with people like Jimmie Walker, Hannibal Buress, and Billy Crystal, and he’s treated like an equal. The world here and structure feels a little like Chris Rock’s feature a few years back, Top Fivewith a jazzy soundtrack/score that evokes a bygone era.

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De Niro himself is probably the funniest he’s ever been since Meet the Parents. That’s not to say that there aren’t low points in his performance, as some of his jokes are too one note and surface-level, but they’re few and far between. He commands the stage and showcases a level of charisma that hasn’t been seen in most of his recent movies. The spotlight is clearly his here, but others play prominent roles.

Leslie Mann shares good chemistry with De Niro, and the two become intertwined in something that looks to be predictable and then, is not. She’s not playing too much different of a role than what has become typical of her, but it works well enough regardless. Names like Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, and Patti LuPone make appearances, mainly in an effort to round out De Niro’s character.

As a comedy, subjectively speaking, The Comedian nalis more times than not. But, it’s not a perfect movie because it isn’t purely a comedy. Really, The Comedian is a character study, or at least fancies itself as one. Intriguing questions about 21st century fame and the nature of comedy are posed. However, the screenplay never answers or goes deep into them. Furthermore, most character studies often feature a noticeable arc that the main character goes through. Come the end of the film, it is debatable as to how much Jackie truly evolves, if at all, and it ends up leaving the film not as resounding emotionally as I believe it intends to be.

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Still, The Comedian provides De Niro with his best feature vehicle in quite some time, which kind of deserves a small round of applause. Not a flawless routine, but not a joke, either.

C

Photo credits go to spicypulp.com and Youtube.com.

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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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Split: Movie Man Jackson

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If a crazy person tells you something’s real, believe it. Shortly after a party held by one of her high school classmates, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) gets a ride from the party host, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), accompanied by Claire’s best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). Before even making it out of the parking lot, they are attacked by an unknown assailant.

Upon waking in what appears to be an underground lair, the trio of girls discover that the assailant is Kevin, certainly an off-man simply because he took three girls in broad daylight. But quickly, Casey, Claire, and Marcia realize that Kevin has Dissociative Identity Disorder, and each of his 23 personalities mean a different interaction each time. They’ve been abducted for a reason. A 24th personality, which Kevin’s therapist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) doesn’t believe to exist, could spawn, and this could mean trouble.

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Having back-to-back successes isn’t a streak, but it does point the proverbial arrow up, or at least stabilizes it. With 2015’s The Visit and now Split, it would appear that director M. Night Shyamalan is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, or a “Shymalanaissance” as everyone seems to be calling it. Outside of the awards circuit, Split is a reason to hit the local cinema when typically the month of January doesn’t provide many, if any.

Yes, Split is a film aided by a view in the theater. Much like in the vein of 2016 features like Don’t Breathe and 10 Cloverfield Lanealmost all of the events that take place in the runtime are confined to one location. The feeling of claustrophobia runs at a pretty high level throughout, and Shyamalan captures the various chase scenes and perspectives of his antagonist brilliantly with differing high-low camera angles. Simple things such as conversations take on a higher level of importance here, and the camera fixates itself in extreme close-up mode often to display what characters are thinking, or transitioning into/out of. The score composed by West Dylan Thordson (Joy, Foxcatcher) is rather minimal, but one track in particular becomes etched into the brain and invokes a sense of dread.

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Another reason to simply watch in theaters is the likelihood that the longer one goes without watching opens the chance of the movie being spoiled. This really deserves to be watched without any knowledge of what the major reveal is. With any M. Night movie, obviously, there’s the twist and/or ending. I’m honestly torn on how I feel about it. While being as un-spoilerific as possible, I’ll say I love the execution, but am not so psyched about where the ending strongly suggests things will go.

Regardless on how a person feels about the final moments, Split carries an efficient script. Weak in spots, sure, and not that deep considering the subject matter of Dissociative Identity Disorder, but it holds interest throughout. It is very reminiscent of 2003’s Identity, without the slightly deeper look at DID that movie possessed, but way more engaging and a much less dopey ending.

Split features better acting than that movie had from its leads, however. Can’t really say that James McAvoy carries this, but without his impeccable talent switching, sometimes mid-scene, this would be a feature that would probably split apart at the seams. McAvoy doesn’t get to act out all 24 personalities, but he probably could. The few he does show are all different and feel like full-on characters, He dials up humor when the script needs it, but transitions into menace effortlessly. He’s an obvious standout, but Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley create a triangle of great performances.

Taylor-Joy’s work takes a little while to appreciate, if only because it takes a while to see how she fits into everything, but she has an amazing arc that provides Split with a real emotional component. With some roles, believability is everything, and from the moment Ms. Buckley appears on screen as a therapist with a wealth of information, she has a way of making the audience believe everything that comes out of her mouth. Unfortunately, the roles of the latter two girls played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Lula go nowhere, to the point where one does wonder if the movie could have still been written without them.

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After a long stretch of poorly-received films that could make one believe that a once-promising director could have lost his mind (or at least his passion and skill), I think it is safe to say that with the conlusion of Split, a directorial beast has re-emerged, and his name is M. Night Shyamalan.

B

Photo credits go to movieweb.com, broadwayworld.com, and joblo.com.

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Gleason: Movie Man Jackson

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Live with purpose. Love with purpose. Football player Steve Gleason has always played the game of football with determination and purpose, an overachiever in all aspects as an undersized-yet-tenacious linebacker and eventual safety. During the New Orleans Saints’ return to the Superdome after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, Gleason became a symbol of rebirth for the city, state, and region, blocking a punt on Monday Night Football that was returned for a touchdown.

Five years later, Steve is diagnosed with ALS, a disease in which life expectancy doesn’t often exceed three years after diagnosis. Though debilitating in physical condition, Gleason refuses to stop fighting, and intends to leave his incoming young one with memories about who his father was.

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From electronic commerce to legitimate media production studio, Amazon.com has quite the features to hang its hat onto, from original streaming programming to well-received and noteworthy films. In the span of 18 months, the studio has distributed Chi-raq, The Neon Demon, Manchester by the Sea, and Gleason, a moving documentary about continuing the fight, no matter what it may be.

At the end of Gleason, Steve Gleason states “Unfortunately, this is real life. It’s not a movie…” On one hand in the obvious sense, the latter is incorrect as this has made the rounds in film festivals, awards talk, etc. It is clearly a movie in the basic sense. On the other hand, one sees rather quickly that Gleason’s end statement hold a ton a weight. He and director Clay Tweel made this with the clear intent: To be a video diary for his son whom he may not be around to see.

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I feel like Captain Obvious here saying this, but Gleason is real, more real than most documentaries if that can be believed. No frills or gimmicks whatsoever. It is fascinating and saddening to see a strong, fit young man reduced to an unfortunate soft shell of what he once was, a reminder that the human body is only flesh and bone and some things regarding how it functions just are out of our control. This would be still be a good documentary if it solely focused on Steve. A particular moment in a church is heart-wrenching to witness.

But, the feature goes deep into those around him and how they are affected with Steve’s declining health. His wife, Michel, struggles with being pregnant and simultaneously having to take care of her husband. The stress is evident, and it culminates in a powerful scene that brings up the importance of each other in their respective lives, and the toll it takes on each of them; Steve for being unable to improve his condition and help his wife through her pregnancy, and Michel for struggling to remain upbeat. An early scene shows Michel being emotionally hit with a freight train of emotion, realizing that what is affecting her husband is only the beginning.

Additionally, the somewhat dysfunctional relationship between Steve and his father, Mike, is examined, and the aspects it covers from religion and faith to the cyclical nature of parenthood. As much as the physical is looked at in this movie, seeing father and son address and accept their shortcomings in their relationship that have little to do with Steve’s current condition proves to be rewarding. Steve’s status as a national symbol is brought up, and as such, the question about how one draws meaning from life when what they are known for, or have done for a lifetime, becomes stripped away from them is posed.

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No stone appears to be unturned, but if there were one item that could have possibly been addressed, it’s the change in directors from Sean Pamphilon to Clay Tweel, due to Pamphilon releasing audio of then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams that implicated the coach and the football team in a scandal that promoted injuring opposing players for monetary reward (Bountygate). Hearing Gleason give his detailed thoughts as to why he removed Pamphilon from directing duties would have been appreciated, but including this into the film wouldn’t exactly fit in with everything else, so it is understood why this is left out.

As heartbreaking as Gleason can be to view, it is uplifting. Takes a while to experience the feeling, sure, but one can see why this needed to be widely distributed by the end credits as it brings massive awareness to ALS. No matter the affliction, to paraphrase a great speech delivered by legendary coach Jim Valvano: “It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul.” No white flag.

A

Photo credits go to mmqb.si.com, abcnews.go.com, and wgno.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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Office Christmas Party: Movie Man Jackson

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Ain’t no party like an Office Christmas Party cause an office Christmas party don’t stop. Christmas is coming around the corner at Zenotk, a Chicago-based technology company led by its manager Clay Vanstone (TJ Miller). Spirits aren’t exactly high in the office; the company isn’t meeting its profit goal, and the threat of layoffs and the branch being closed is high. Clay’s uptight CEO sister, Carol, (Jennifer Aniston), wouldn’t mind this, as she’s always had some jealousy towards her brother.

The only shot Clay has in saving his branch and the employees he loves is to land a big client. When the pitch he, CTO Josh Parker (Jason Bateman), and lead engineer Tracey Hughes (Olivia Munn) make to industry leader Walter Jones (Courtney B. Vance) fails, they have but one last card to play: Invite Walter to their annual “nondenominational holiday mixer,” aka Xmas party. Here, they can show why they are a company worth giving business to. Even if this fails, at least the company goes out in a blaze of glory, right?

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The party comedy. I never really think of that as a subgenre, but it absolutely is, whether as a launching pad to the rest of the movie, à la The Hangover or This Is the End, or the movie itself such as Project X, Sisters, and House Party. Throw the obviously-named Office Christmas Party into that subgenre, sharing similarities with the aforementioned titles. So what does this mean?

It means that Office Christmas Party is stretched pretty thin. Certainly, with a title like such, one’s not exactly expecting a well-woven screenplay. On one hand, kudos should be given to writers Justin Malen, Laura Solen, Dan Mazer, Jon Lucas, Scott Moore, and Timothy Dowling for trying to cobble up some story and character relationships around the massive party. And, they kind of achieve in the first act right before it.

On the other hand…that’s a lot of writers that have a hand in contributing to the story! Around the midpoint of the party, things start to go haywire in the script and not necessarily in the best comedic ways. Throw in some forced reconciliation and commensurate romances into mix as well. Some less interesting side characters and plots get promoted to “A” status while more interesting side characters and plots get cast to the storage closet. It does make a person wonder if a few less party planners  writers could make for a stronger offering.

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The party itself is riotous, maybe not full of non-stop hilarity, but definitely where Office Christmas Party gets the bulk of its laughs, supplied by a good portion of its all-star cast. Kate McKinnon and TJ Miller are probably the most valuable players, much more hit than miss anytime they’re on screen. Miller in particular brings the most honest-to-goodness nature, his manager reminiscent of a poor man’s Michael Scott which provides the movie with a little holiday sentimentality. Smaller character like Courtney B. Vance (huge surprise), Randall Park, and Rob Corddry steal scenes.

Not all of the all star cast is comedic fire though. There’s no bigger fan of straight man Jason Bateman than yours truly, but he is slightly dull here and not as funny as in previous films. Olivia Munn’s never really been comedic, and Jennifer Aniston, someone who’s proven to be legitimately funny numerous times (often with Bateman), is nothing more than a overly mean witch. The pimp character played by Jillian Bell sounds great in doses, but becomes annoying by film’s end once she becomes a central figure.

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Far from a fruitcake but not the best gift ever, Office Christmas Party is the proverbial gift card gift in movie comedy form. Won’t be mad with it and can certainly get some usage out of it, but not a gift to remember, either.

C+

Photo credits go to comingsoon.net, indiewire.com, and yahoo.com.

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