Archive for December, 2016

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Fences (2016)

December 28, 2016

Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby

Bottom Line: There is no question that Fences has some of the best acting you will see from any film this year. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis give absolute knockout performances that are both shoo-ins for Oscar nominations and strong contenders to capture the statues. Granted, I haven’t seen most of the award contenders yet, but Washington and Davis give the two best performances I’ve seen this year. They are truly stunning. Totally heartbreaking.

Even though it never specifically places its setting, one can gather from various tidbits of information (i.e. Pennsylvania licence plates, references to Roberto Clemente’s career) that Fences takes place in Pittsburgh sometime in the mid-1950s. Washington stars as Troy Maxson, a garbage man and former baseball star, whose prime passed before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier of Major League Baseball. His experience has left a bitter taste in his mouth so when his son shows an interest in football he immediately nixes the idea, citing the injustices of the past and ignoring the progress of the present, dismissing athletics as nothing but dead ends and empty dreams for a young black man. Viola Davis plays Troy’s loyal and loving wife of 18 years and the script really does a great job of showing the strength of their marriage while dropping hints that Troy is becoming attracted to another woman.

While watching the film, I thought there was something strange about the way it was being presented. It’s incredibly dialogue heavy and the whole story plays out like a series of long scenes. It’s actually quite noticeable. Upon doing some research, I discovered that Fences was actually a Pulitzer Prize winning play written by August Wilson that has had multiple Broadway runs – including one that starred Washington and Davis in these very same roles. So the fact the film adaptation feels eerily similar to a play actually makes a lot of sense. Most of the criticism I have read for Fences has mentioned how little it deviates from its source material, but even though I noticed a stage-like presentation, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the film at all.

What did take away from my enjoyment a bit was the last 30 minutes or so of the film. I felt like it could have ended properly three of four times before it finally did.

Even though it’s almost entirely lacking in action, Fences is a character-based drama that touches on the whole gamut of human emotion. Despite it’s incredibly talky nature, Fences is still riveting and full of surprises. It will entertain you, make you laugh, break you heart, and probably make you cry. Washington and Davis are truly amazing here, but really the whole cast deserves credit for their work – it’s a total acting clinic. Fences is a must see film for the performances alone, but the script does a great job of developing its characters and keeping the audience entranced with captivating dialogue. It does overstay its welcome a bit, but I’d highly recommend seeing Fences at least once.

Replay Value: It’s not the kind of film most people would want to watch over and over again, especially with an ending that drags on forever, but I’d watch it at least once more.
Sequel Potential: None.
Oscar Potential: Washington and Davis are guaranteed Oscar nominations and both of them would be my front runners to win the awards at the moment. There’s an outside chance it could get nominated Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay, but I’ll guess it just gets the acting noms.

Grade: 7/10 (highly enjoyable/must see)

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A Bigger Splash (2016)

December 27, 2016

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, Matthias Schoenaerts
Director: Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love)

Bottom Line: This movie probably isn’t on most people’s radar, but I decided to check out A Bigger Splash after seeing it on someone’s (I can’t remember whose) Best Films of 2016 list. Tilda Swinton plays a world renowned rock star that goes on vacation with her recovering boyfriend (Schoenaerts) to a remote island in Italy after losing her voice, but their tranquil plans are turned upside down when her former lover (Fiennes) and his daughter (Johnson) show up unexpectedly, stirring up a bevy of mixed emotions and attractions.

I was actually quite entertained by this movie even though it has a rather slow pace and focuses almost entirely on human interaction. There was enough tension and mystique to keep me enthralled. Plus, it was fun to see Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes play against type. Swinton is almost always subdued and mysterious in the roles I’ve seen her in and even though she is speaking in a whisper throughout most of this film, I saw more personality from her than I think I’ve ever seen before. Fiennes is best known for playing Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series and is usually cast in more serious roles, but he really gets to chew some scenery here with a very loose, bawdy, and somewhat comedic character. I read that he snap-accepted the part after reading just a few pages of the script and seeing that he was going to have an extensive dance scene. Dakota Johnson plays Fiennes’ daughter and doesn’t drift too far from her 50 Shades role of Anastasia Steele, as she spends most of her screen time looking sultry and tempting the men around her, including her father, whom she has been estranged from her whole life until recently.

A Bigger Splash is a fun, but intimate film that explores fame, human relationships, jealousy and temptation. The small cast all give pretty fun performances and the story is interesting enough that you will want to see what happens to these people. This one is obviously not for the action junkies.

Grade: 6/10 (recommended)

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X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

December 23, 2016

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Sophie Turner, Nicholas Hoult
Director: Bryan Singer (X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Superman Returns, X-Men 2)

Bottom Line: Judging from the trailers, this movie looked every bit as messy as Batman Vs Superman so I skipped it in theaters and now having watched it at home, I can see my fears were completely justified. It’s terrible. When an X-Men movie starts off in ancient Egypt and looks more like a sequel to The Mummy you know things are not looking up. Oscar Isaac seems like a highly capable actor, especially in last year’s Ex Machina, but his portrayal of Apocalypse will probably go down as one of the worst roles of his career. The rest of the new cast adds little to the overall story. The new Cyclops is kind of cool, but Sophie Turner is horribly miscast as Jean Grey, feeling nothing like a young version of Famke Janssen’s take on the character. I was excited to see Jubilee in action for the first time, but she is merely a background character.

I wasn’t looking forward to director Bryan Singer’s return to the franchise – especially after Matthew Vaughan did such a good job with X-Men: First Class – but he managed to bring his original trilogy and the reboot together seamlessly in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, making a solid movie out of a concept that could have been executed so poorly. Well, he couldn’t save the mess of a script he’s dealt here and history repeats itself, as the X-Men franchise once again delivers two good movies and a third one so bad it’s likely going to need another reboot.

This movie is all action spectacle and little else. You’ll likely be looking at your phone after 15 minutes.

Replay Value: Another X-Men movie that doesn’t exist to me.
Sequel Potential: I think the franchise dies again with this film, but Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine has another adventure due out next year with Logan.
Oscar Potential: How about Razzie potential?

Grade: 2.5/10 (horrible/skip it)

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

December 22, 2016

Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen, Riz Ahmed, Ben Mendelsohn
Director: Gareth Edwards (Godzilla (2014), Monsters)

Bottom Line: Rogue One is definitely going to be one of the more overrated films of 2016 – partly because the critic reviews are mostly positive, resulting in an 84% on Rotten Tomatoes, but mostly because it is a generally pleasing film with a strong final act. Fans of the Star Wars brand are going to find very little to complain about.

But it’s not spectacular or without weaknesses. The story is inspired by the crawl for Star Wars: A New Hope, in which The Rebel Alliance obtain plans for the Death Star that reveal how it can be destroyed. This film tells the story of why those plans exist and how they were stolen from the Empire and delivered to the Alliance. It’s actually a pretty neat set up for the original story and sits better with me in the prequel canon than Episodes I through III – but the characters here are kind of weak. It’s the who of the story where things fall apart.

Aside from the heroine Jyn (Jones) and Alan Tudyk’s droid K-2SO with his often hilarious deadpan dialog, I’d wager that most filmgoers won’t remember the names of the rest of the heroes. I couldn’t. There’s a male protagonist played by Diego Luna and a pilot played, questionably, by Riz Ahmed. There’s a blind guy and his friend – and they have some cool moments, but… who are they again? One of Star Wars greatest appeals is creating memorable and lasting characters, which I felt The Force Awakens did a good job of, but Rogue One fails in this regard. Even the character of Jyn is forgettable and I thought Felicity Jones had moments where she just seemed to be going through the motions, delivering her dialog like she was reading it straight off the script. This is an actress that was Oscar nominated as recently as 2014 for The Theory Of Everything. You can’t really blame Disney for trying to capitalize on the Star Wars brand by churning out these side films, but the characters in Rogue One feel hollow and it really takes away from one’s emotional involvement in the story, especially in the last act.

But that last act is actually quite strong. It’s a high octane finale full of “surprises” that seems to be the biggest reason people are walking out of this movie with a smile on their face and forgetting how mediocre the rest of the movie was. It’s no secret that Darth Vader is in this film, unless you haven’t seen any trailers, and he will not disappoint. Though his screen time is rather limited, he’s easily the highlight of the movie when he’s featured. There’s a lot of nostalgia hearing the classic breathing apparatus and James Earl Jones voicing the character again. Plus, we get to see Darth Vader be a ruthless bad ass, which somewhat helps ease the memory of watching Hayden Christensen do his best to ruin the character as Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. It would have been nice to see more Vader in this movie, but I can understand the filmmakers wanting to make a film that can stand apart from the main series – they just forgot to flesh out the new characters.

I actually like the concept of Rogue One and the idea of stand alone side films in the Star Wars canon, I just think the execution here was lacking a bit. There’s a chance it could grow on me more with multiple viewings and maybe the characters will stick with me more, but Rogue One is enjoyable at best, and seems like it is getting a lot of favorable reviews because the ending is good and the visual effects are pleasing. It’s not a great film, but as I said before, Star Wars fans are unlikely to be disappointed.

Edit: I forgot to comment on how pointless it was to pay double to see this movie in 3D. It basically never comes into play or add to the experience. It might be a fun movie to see in IMAX, but do not pay to see this in normal 3D! Save the money.

Replay Value: Worth watching again.
Sequel Potential: This film is an immediate prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy. There are more stand alone Star Wars stories on the way though.
Oscar Potential: Star Wars movies are always a contender for any of the sound or visual effects categories.

Grade: 6/10 (recommended)

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

December 19, 2016

Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Director: Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, Inception, The Dark Knight)

Bottom Line: It’s taken me nearly four years to come to terms with this film. Back in 2012, leading up to The Dark Knight Rises‘ release, my expectations were through the roof and unrealistic – and yet they weren’t. I had similar feelings about The Dark Knight and somehow Christopher Nolan managed to exceed my impossible expectations by making what is still what I consider to be the best superhero film ever – a film so good it changed how The Oscars approached the Best Picture category, increasing the number of films that could be nominated in the future.

But when I walked out of The Dark Knight Rises all I felt was a tremendous amount of disappointment. I was thrown by the fact the film took place eight years after The Dark Knight. It seemed like Batman was barely in the movie, which was fine in Batman Begins when Bruce Wayne is discovering his calling, but I wanted more Dark Knight in this. I suspected that Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were secretly cast as Talia Al’Ghul and Robin, respectively, long before the film’s release, so even though the Nolans do a good job of misdirecting, I wasn’t surprised in the least when the true identities were revealed. Finally, I hated the fact that Bruce Wayne becomes a shut in because his friend/love interest Rachel died. Let me get this straight: the man that pushes himself to the brink of human capabilities to protect his city from the kind of people that murdered his parents is going to disappear from society and whittle away in his mansion because his girlfriend died? For eight years?! During his peak crime-fighting years?! Uh, no. That’s not Batman. It’s such a departure from the character of Bruce Wayne that it’s difficult to shake.

But it’s been four years since The Dark Knight Rises came out and I’ve seen it a few times since then, including as recently as a week ago and well, it’s not so bad. In fact, it’s quite good. I mean there are some flaws – as previously noted – plus some intense magical rope healing (huh?), but I actually really enjoyed this last viewing of it. It  wraps up Christopher Nolan’s trilogy in great fashion, bringing the League Of Shadows back into the mix and allowing Bruce to move on with his life, while allowing The Batman to remain a symbol of hope in Gotham. I can live with the lack of Batman on screen in the film now too. It fits the story. Christopher Nolan has been more interested in making great films than in making a good superhero movie and he continues to approach his Dark Knight series in that fashion with this movie. It’s an incredibly bleak film, but the big theme is hope – first crushing it and then rising up from the abyss to overcome. Batman doesn’t need to be on screen because he’s retired when the film starts and then he’s beaten to a pulp in the middle of it – and that makes his ultimate return that much more powerful.

I absolutely loved Tom Hardy’s Bane. Heath Ledger’s Joker was always going to be impossible to match, but Bane is a GREAT villain in this film. There are some corny moments, like making Talia Al’Ghul a love interest, but Bane is mostly just awesome. I love the mask. I love the physique.  I love the way Hardy delivers his dialogue – and there’s plenty of great Bane quotes in the movie: “Peace time has cost you your strength. Victory has defeated you!” – “Do you feel in charge?” – “Oh, you think darkness is your ally. But you merely adopted the dark; I was born in it.” And many more! He’s smart. He’s ruthless. He’s a physical beast. You believe an out of shape Batman would stand no chance and you wonder how Batman can match him, even when he’s back in peak form. I would have loved to see what Nolan did with The Riddler or even Hugo Strange, but I’m totally satisfied with how he handled Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

Okay, so it wasn’t surprising that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is revealed to be “Robin,” plus the character isn’t Dick Grayson or any other familiar name that takes up the Robin mantle, but Gordon-Levitt’s Detective John Blake was a great addition to this story. When everyone else has given up on Batman, this orphan turned police officer knows his true identity and pushes Bruce back into action. Plus he gets to say some great lines like “We know what’s down there, sir: the police commissioner.” He may not be Dick Grayson and his parents weren’t murdered at the circus, but it’s clear that the Nolans understand the essence of the character.

I listened to Hans Zimmer’s score many times before I saw the movie, which is pretty weird actually. You can sort of paint a picture of how things are going to unfold by listening to the score in sequential order. I mean that’s how obsessed with this movie I was. I just couldn’t resist the temptation. So when I heard the music that was playing during the scene where Batman was flying the bomb out over the bay, you get the feeling that someone important is going to die. It was just a bizarre feeling watching the movie having heard all the music already and having an idea what was going to happen. I won’t ever do it again. With that said, I love the score. Zimmer does a fantastic job of adding adrenaline to the film, especially during Bane’s reign of terror.

A few weeks ago, The Dark Knight Rises was omitted from my top 10 of 2012 list, while films like 21 Jump Street and Skyfall were still ahead of it. Having revisited the movie and deciding I’m actually quite happy with it, it now ranks in my top six of the year. The film has solid acting from its ensemble cast (Bale’s Bat-voice excluded), a great villain, a top notch score, a bunch of dialogue I love, and it looks fantastic – plus it’s a very fitting end to the vision Nolan had for his Bat-franchise. It’s one of the best trilogies of all-time, right up there with The Lord Of The Rings and the original Star Wars movies. When you talk about the best superhero movies ever, Nolan’s Batman movies will always be some of the first ones mentioned, but really, this series has produced multiple great films – not just great for a superhero movie – but some of the best films ever made.

Replay Value: It has grown on me a ton and I can always watch Batman movies.
Sequel Potential: They wrapped this trilogy up just fine, but the Batman character has been revived for DC’s new cinematic universe.
Oscar Potential: The film was totally blanked for both Oscar and Golden Globe noms, which seems a bit unfair as some of the technical aspects and the score are deserving of consideration.

Grade: 7.5/10 (highly enjoyable/must see)

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The Edge Of Seventeen (2016)

December 17, 2016

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Woody Harrelson,
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig

Bottom Line: The Edge Of Seventeen is one of the better coming-of-age films I’ve seen in years. Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a high school junior that feels like the whole world is against her, particularly after one of the few people that can relate to her, her father, passes away. Things are really turned upside down when her only friend begins dating her brother. While I can’t particularly relate to Nadine’s story, I do feel like the script paints an accurate picture of what it’s like to be a teenager – from feeling like your parents don’t understand you at all, to thinking of your sibling as your enemy, to making consistently poor decisions… basically, thinking of nobody but yourself. The Edge Of Seventeen features some amazing acting from the whole cast, but it’s no surprise that Hailee Steinfeld gives another performance worth of Oscar consideration. Having just turned 20, with multiple great performances under her belt already, Steinfeld has established herself as the number one actress 20 or younger. I found a lot of the situations in The Edge Of Seventeen to be quite authentic, like how Nadine swoons over the one dimensional guy she doesn’t know because she finds him attractive while putting the nerdy guy she actually relates to on the back burner. Even though I liked Woody Harrelson in his role as Nadine’s teacher, their relationship felt like a bit of a stretch. Do teenage girls ever share their pornographic text messages with their teachers and ask for advice? Especially when said teacher is a man? I’m thinking no.

There was very little not to like about The Edge Of Seventeen. It was interesting, frequently hilarious, and tells a complete story. Plus it features a ton of amazing acting. It’s not quite a must see film, but I found it very enjoyable.

Replay Value: I will enjoy watching it a second time.
Sequel Potential: I think that would be weird.
Oscar Potential: Steinfeld got a Golden Globe nom, but the Oscar buzz has been quieter. I think she’s deserving, but I haven’t seen all the best performances. A SAG snub is a bad sign.

Grade: 7/10 (Highly Enjoyable)

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J.Cole, A Tribe Called Quest, BJ The Chicago Kid, The League s3, Fuller House s2

December 14, 2016

J.Cole – 4 Your Eyez Only – I had immense expectations for this album, hoping J.Cole could cement himself as #2 in the current hip-hop chain of command. Instead, Cole opts for a concept album that tells a good, cohesive story, but is an undeniable step down from Forrest Hills Drive in just about every aspect, particularly the production. It’s a very subdued album, with ballads to a love interest and a baby daughter – in fact, half the album is Cole doing more singing than rapping. I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I want from one of my favorite spitters in the game today. “Immortal” is the only true hip-hop banger on the album and “4 Your Eyez Only” does a great job of tying the whole concept together. It’s interesting that Cole attacks Kanye on “False Prophets” just before this album’s release implying that ‘Ye’s The Life Of Pablo is “half ass shit he dropped,” but there are roughly 4-5 songs on Yeezy’s latest that are better than everything on this Cole album. Initial disappointment aside, this album is growing on me and “Foldin Clothes” is the only track I don’t really like. It’s not what I wanted, but I’m appreciating it for what it is: a solid concept album from a rapper that is capable of much more.

6.5/10 (Recommended/Highly Enjoyable)

A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service – 18 years after their last project, ATCQ manages to sound both contemporary and vintage at the same time. It feels like something they could have released in the 90’s but addresses topics of today, particularly Donald Trump’s run to POTUS. “We The People” is a great song with a catchy hook that tells all the minorities of the nation that “you must go.” Obviously Tribe is speaking for Trump here and don’t feel that way themselves (in fact, Q-Tip says “put so much in this muthafucka feel like we shouldn’t leave” on “The Space Program”). It feels dirty singing along uncontrollably with such a terrible message, but that’s how contagious the music is. The core members (Q-Tip, Phife Dog, Jarobi) all give great performances throughout the album, but Busta Rhymes might be the MVP as he seamlessly hops in and out on “Dis Generation” and then absolutely demolishes the best beat on the album on “Mobius.” Tribe also gets a short but fantastic feature from Kendrick Lamar on “Conrad Tokyo.” The big feature that didn’t work for me as well was Andre 3000 on “Kids.” I just can’t get into the production on that song. In all, it’s totally absurd that A Tribe Called Quest is putting out an album as good as this in 2016. It’s a project that is enjoyable all the way through, fits in perfectly with the rest of their discography, and is one of the best rap albums of the year.

8/10 (Essential Listening)

BJ The Chicago Kid – In My Mind – I finally listened to this from front to back a week or two ago and there is virtually nothing to complain about. I can’t remember a song I didn’t like and there are numerous tracks that have made my Best Of 2016 playlist, including “Shine,” “The New Cupid,” and “Church” – and really, I could just keep adding on. “Shine” has become the mantra for my marriage with its theme of a couple surviving through thick and thin and shining together. Having bottomed out multiple times in my life, the past few years have really been spectacular and things only keep getting better, so BJ’s lyrics of “when I shine, you shine with me baby” really resonate with me. It’s incredibly satisfying to succeed as a team with my wife and this song expresses those feelings perfectly. This album is very good from front to back and is probably my favorite R&B album of the year.

7.5/10 (Highly Enjoyable/Essential Listening)

“Fuller House” s2 – This show is definitely a guilty pleasure that is mostly enjoyable for nostalgic purposes. The writing and acting are frequently cheesy. While it doesn’t seem terrible for DJ to say her catchphrase of “Oh Mylanta,” I cringe every time I hear Stephanie say “how rude,” it just feels so horribly forced. I can only imagine what it would be like if they actually got the Olsen twins to come back. Would they really have a fully grown Michelle saying things like “you got it dude” and “no way Jose?” Even though Kimmy Gibbler’s ex-husband Fernando can feel like a rip-off of Fez from “That 70’s Show” a lot of the time and her brother Jimmy looks and kind of acts like an Ashton Kutcher clone, I have to admit both characters are a good addition to the second season, with the former taking on a much bigger role this time around as he moves into the house. These two characters provided most of my laughs in the second season. There are a lot of call backs to the previous series that didn’t resonate with me because I didn’t remember them, but I imagine they are fun for serious fans of “Full House.” Danny Tanner’s mid-life crisis that found him living with reckless abandon and doing that whole old white person using hip-hop slang like no one in the world does routine was absolutely terrible. I really don’t get that. It’s never funny and it’s actually quite insulting. Kimmy Gibbler is probably the series highlight. Her character is usually the funniest and finds herself in the best situations – like co-hosting the morning show with Danny Tanner. I couldn’t help but note the Lance Bass reference in the high school reunion episode, saying DJ was voted most likely to marry Lance Bass or something of that nature. The girls graduated in 1995, but N’Sync didn’t become popular until 1998. Just a weird thing that the entire cast and crew overlooked but immediately gave me pause. I’m not disappointed with “Fuller House” because I know exactly what to expect and I’m watching it anyway. It’s a cheesy sitcom that is moderately enjoyable and offers some decent chuckles. I can’t imagine fans of the old series wouldn’t like it.

2.5/5 (Not Recommended/Decent)

“The League” s3 – I thought this season started off terribly and I hope the show isn’t jumping the shark already with four more seasons to go. I honestly found it appalling that the group would conspire behind Ruxin’s back and neg on his #1 overall pick. First off, that is extremely foul play. Secondly, it’s not like a #1 pick even comes close to guaranteeing a league title. The season did start to pick up with the hilarious guest spots from Keegan-Michael Key in “Carmenjello” and Jeff Goldblum as Ruxin’s dad and Sarah Silverman as Andre’s sister in “Thanksgiving.” I thought Taco had some pretty funny moments in the first season, but he’s easily becoming my least favorite character on the show. Andre remains my favorite. Hopefully season four is a step forward because another step back and I might not be able to make it through this whole series.

3/5 (Decent/Good Stuff)