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Sing Street

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Like John Carney’s previous films, Sing Street is immediately endearing. It has a certain charm and swagger that other films can only dream to achieve. Despite its predictable plot points that come with the confines of a coming-of-age film, Sing Street is an enjoyable romp, with a great cast and some great tunes.

Sing Street is at its best when it’s just the band jamming out. Protagonist Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) forms this eccentric group of kids after struggling to fit in at his new school. His parents are going through a divorce, and he wants to impress a model across the street named Raphina (Lucy Boynton). It’s cute, of course, but Sing Street prefers to delve deeper into Connor’s head and what songwriting means to him. Forming a band initially for selfish reasons turns out to be just what he needed.

The script goes through all the motions of a coming-of-age film, but that doesn’t mean Sing Street cannot stand out. For one thing, the soundtrack is immediately noticeable, featuring ’80s hits from Duran Duran, Hall & Oats, The Cure and more. It’s a treat, and these songs are introduced to Connor by his brother Brendan (Jack Reynor, a standout), and the film gets significant mileage out of his relationship with his underachieving stoner brother. The original songs, co-written by Carney himself (the film is semi-autobiographical) are also brilliant and follow the storytelling logically and musically. Beginning with “The Riddle of the Model” all the way to “Girls,” the songs are lyrically complex and easy on the ears.

Connor goes through all the ups and downs that come with growing up in 1980s Dublin at a Catholic school. He’s bullied, tormented by the school principal, but the band allows him to express his creativity and non-conformity. As the band films their first video, they’re a hot mess, aesthetically and musically. But seeing them grow as musicians and individuals throughout the film is endearing and a joy to watch. Little things, like band member Eamon’s (Mark McKenna) love for rabbits, or the school bully’s surprising developments toward the end of the film, keep Sing Street from falling into any storytelling traps.

While the main romance can be a bit groan-inducing and heteronormative, you’ll find yourself rooting for Connor and his band to crush their gig at the school dance and for Connor to get the girl. Fine performances from the young actors breathe hopes and fears into these characters, such as Raphina’s desire to model in London or brother Brendan’s desire to be more than just the stoner inspirational sibling. Sing Street may not be the most daring of films, but its eccentricities and fantasies turn it into a fine gift this spring.

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Posted by on April 30, 2016 in Movie Reviews

 

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Miles Ahead

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In a biopic about a legendary jazz musician, it can be tempting for the production to mimic the genre itself – carefree, improvisational, and loose. Miles Ahead is all of these things, but it goes the extra mile and remembers to be a cohesive film, taking two distinct periods of Davis’s life and weaving them together. The result is a confident film that knows what it wants to say, anchored by a powerful performance from Don Cheadle.

When production was announced on Miles Ahead, I was ecstatic, but the film isn’t quite what I expected, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Director and star Don Cheadle has a very tight grip on Davis. He knows how he works, his inner psyche, and what music means to him. The care that Cheadle has put into the film isn’t unnoticed, and it makes the film all the better. Cheadle’s performance is brilliant. While there isn’t a scene where he gets to steal the show, and I doubt awards will flock to this understated turn, he still delivers fantastic results. Davis’s raspy voice, his bravado, his “I don’t give a fuck” attitude, it’s all here.

Miles Ahead is structured like most music biopics, never comfortably sitting in one period of its subject’s life for too long. On one side is Davis’s drug-addled, improvisational period. Approached by reporter Dave (Ewan McGregor) to write a piece for Rolling Stone magazine, the two go on a wild goose chase when a session tape goes missing – this includes a last-ditch attempt to buy cocaine from a college student. Miles Ahead gets a bit zany with its set pieces, as Cheadle doesn’t seem confident in letting the plot breathe, but the banter between Dave and Miles is fun and one of the film’s highlights. We get to see how Davis worked (or didn’t work) with others, and his commitment to making a comeback in the late 1970s. The other half of this equation is Cheadle’s love affair with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), and the impact she had on his life that leads Davis to the reckless behavior. Corinealdi is brilliant in the role, and she stands toe-to-toe with Cheadle, keeping Davis’s ego in check and his feet on the ground.

Whether Miles Ahead tells a true story is a conversation for another day (there’s even a car chase with bullets flying), but it is always compelling. Cheadle’s direction and playfulness with tone allows us to see different shades of Davis, whether he’s in a meeting with the head of Columbia Records, or improvising with his famous trio. A layered performance from Cheadle himself leaves a lasting impression, and while the film might stumble and get lost in the details, it emerges as a fine portrait of a beloved musician.

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2016 in Movie Reviews

 

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Everybody Wants Some!!

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Beneath the exuberant playfulness and full-on machismo, Everybody Wants Some!! gets surprisingly deeper than it needs to get. But that’s par for the course for most of Richard Linklater’s films. What sets Everybody Wants Some!! apart from the rest of the pack is its lackadaisical approach. The relaxed nature of the film keeps it from getting overbearing or prophetic, focusing on what the movie does best, which is being completely outrageous and hilariously fun.

Marketed as a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, Everybody Wants Some!! follows a group of college baseball players as they manage to find who they are and navigate college in the 1980s. The loose narrative structure is a character in many of Linklater’s film, and he allows the plot to breathe and gives plenty of room for character development. Freshman Jake (Blake Jenner) is our audience surrogate, as he arrives to the frat house and attempts to fit in among his teammates and also discover who he is and who he wants to be.

Linklater does this through a series of brilliant encounters and sequences in disco halls and party houses that rival Animal House, but the best scenes come from the group of guys simply hanging out. A looming “x number of days before class” reminds us that their time is limited, and they certainly make the most of it. The film explores identity, specifically group identity as the men often put on fronts and suppress themselves in order to fit in and “make the team.” It also beautifully explores the male psyche and bloodlust for competition, whether its a simple ping-pong game or courting women.

The performances are all-around excellent, and Linklater’s team of mostly-unknowns bring complexity and loads of laughs to the group. When Jake arrives, we are introduced to each of the gang individually, all with their own quirks and personal philosophies. The film feels “lived-in,” like we just stumbled upon this dirty frat house and are introduced to its zany denizens. The dialogue and chemistry among the group is dynamic and real, full of quips and smart-assery, but also admiration. Characters like Finnegan (Glen Powell, a standout) often waxes poetic as he tries to score, yet he comes across as no less delusional as his fellow teammates. Other interactions with his teammates allow Jake to play the straight-man, but his straight-man feels welcomed and ingrained in the culture of the group. His reluctance to participate in some of the rituals but also his enthusiasm for belongingness forces Jake to look outside of the team for fulfillment. As he chases after Beverly (Zoey Deutsch), we’re rooting for him to learn from his mistakes and get the girl, but also grow responsible for his education while still bonding with the team. It’s brilliant characterization.

If this is indeed another masterpiece from Richard Linklater, it definitely ranks among his best. It certainly earns its place, with witty writing and a script full of scenes packed with laughs and complexity. Scene-stealing performers all get their chance to shine, never feeling like caricatures or stand-ins, but as fully-developed, real individuals. The film’s low-key approach feels like you’re hanging out with your buddies, as you guys figure out life as square pegs who struggle to fit into round holes.

 

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2016 in Movie Reviews

 

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Midnight Special

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Midnight Special is part chase movie, part science fiction pulp, and the end result is fascinating. It’s simple sci-fi, but the depth within the material makes the film as complex and thought-provoking as the old classics. Director Jeff Nichols knows how to convey a moving and intimate story, filled with thrills and masterful performances, yet keep the more outlandish stuff grounded.

The film opens marvelously, and you’ll be hooked from the get-go. Roy (Michael Shannon) is on the run from the authorities with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who just so happens to have mysterious powers. He’s fleeing a cult with his pal Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and the three reunite with Alton’s birth mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), while avoiding militia who intend to turn Alton into a weapon.

Midnight Special may not seem like deep science fiction, and initially it isn’t. With its limited budget only allowing a few knockout effects, Midnight Special is limited to big ideas on a small scale, and Nichols has his work cut out for him. He knows this, and the best part of Midnight Special is its intriguing mystery. Opening in the middle of a thrilling chase sequence leaves the audience in wonder, constantly asking why Alton is so important and what exactly he is. We continue to ask these questions throughout, and some become answered while others don’t. The beauty of the film is its layering of the story, going back and forth between Roy’s exodus with Alton and the investigation into the boy by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver). Each scene is meticulous in revealing details and relationships, Nichols’s dialogue growing a bit frustrating towards the end yet intriguing nonetheless, and not a second is wasted.

Michael Shannon leads a tremendous cast, in what is becoming quite a fascinating director-actor relationship between the two. Shannon brings Roy’s faith and love in Alton to center stage, crafting a believable and intimate father-son bond, but it goes deeper than that. Shannon is able to conjure up such powerful emotions with just his eyes alone, he doesn’t even have that much to say in the film, yet we go along for the ride. Dunst and Edgerton also do fine work, the former playing an ex-cult member who hasn’t seen her son in years, and the latter being an underdeveloped state trooper whose blind faith in Alton adds interesting layers to the chase narrative.

I could see Midnight Special being a tad frustrating to certain viewers. Many questions are left open-ended and the finale is a bit rushed. But the film isn’t traditional science fiction; the self-contained story allows the world-building to remain simple, as the film is essentially a chase sequence mixed with disaster elements. But Nichols goes above and beyond in his characterization and production, making a beauty of a film.

 

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2016 in Movie Reviews

 

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Zootopia

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Smack in the middle of Disney’s Revival Era, Zootopia is a brilliant social commentary. The film manages to deliver thrills a minute with its detective caper, and a heartfelt message the next, while still remaining laugh out loud funny. In this beautiful city inhabited by animals, anything is possible,

Even a small town bunny like Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin, pitch-perfect like always) can become a police officer in Zootopia. The film makes it known multiple times that she’s the first bunny cop, and since a young age Judy has been an ambitious little mammal, choosing the city life instead of becoming a small town carrot farmer like her thousands of siblings. Here she gets in over her head in a hard-boiled police precinct and crosses paths with the sly fox Nick (Jason Bateman, also perfect), and the two stumble upon a city conspiracy while trying to solve a missing mammal case.

If Zootopia’s story is by-the-books, its execution is anything but. The city rightfully feels like a living and breathing world, ripe for a Disney theme park region. The city’s boroughs all have distinct themes, ranging from Tundra Town to a thick, lush rainforest, and boasting a massive metropolitan Manhattan. World building is always one of Disney’s biggest assets, and the attention to detail here is astonishing. Notice the “As Seen on TV” sign at the small town carrot fair, or the advertisement for the car service “Zuber” on a city billboard. Zootopia is definitely a product of its times, with a total of zero musical numbers (save for a Shakira money grab) and fairy tale sentimentality.

Zootopia’s character development make Judy and Nick feel like real individuals despite being a rabbit and a fox, respectively. Great voice casting lends shades of emotion to the characters, and their zany adventures are coupled with great character moments for kids and adults alike. While the beginning introduces us to Judy’s childhood and her lusty ambition and drive, flashbacks show us Nick’s childhood as a fox, a “predator,” and how he subverts expectations of predatorial preconceptions that others may have. Preconceived expectations of behavior is something that Zootopia warns us to be mindful of, and it doesn’t let its characters off the hook. Even the self-righteous Judy has flaws herself.

Where Zootopia really gets sharp is its message. It is a Disney film after all, and Zootopia’s message of empowerment and embracing differences never gets lost. What’s brilliant about Zootopia is the film’s ability to make these universal morals applicable to practically any social issue today, be it racism, sexism or anything in between. The “predator versus prey” philosophy that the film’s villains try to preach is a great parallel for any “us versus them” story imparted in the world today.

A modern-day metropolitan fable, Zootopia is another smash hit for Disney, whose new films have continuously managed to be more progressive than the ones that came before it. Boasting a great cast led by Goodwin and Bateman (I haven’t even touched on the terrific supporting turns from Idris Elba and Jenny Slate) and beautiful animation that warrants multiple repeat watches, Zootopia is the year’s best film beginning with “Zoo-.”

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2016 in Movie Reviews

 

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The Big Short

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For all of its juvenile tendencies, The Big Short stays grounded in harsh and distressing reality during its entire 2-hour plus running time. There hasn’t really been a movie like this about the 2008 economic crisis, and what Adam McKay has done here is make more than an accessible behind-the-scenes financial drama. The character stakes are incredibly high, as the audience knows the outcome, but McKay’s smart filmmaking allows the film to subvert expectations in every unorthodox way.

From the director of Anchorman of all places, The Big Short is based on the 2010 novel by Michael Lewis (of “The Blind Side” and “Moneyball” fame). It’s a money drama to be sure, yet the most important thing about The Big Short is that it remains accessible. For all of its talk of subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations, the film doesn’t hit you over the head with jargon, and explains the important bits when absolutely necessary (with help from a few special guest stars and some fourth-wall breaking).

The four main characters that The Big Short focuses on are described as outsiders, as they see the crisis coming when nobody else believes them. This lends tension and drives the plot, as awkward hedge funder Michael Burry (Christian Bale) digs into the nitty gritty of the housing market and bets against the market. Burry is the film’s real outsider, and I’ve never seen Bale give a performance so eccentric yet plausible. He dresses for work like a dad at a fish fry, drumming along on his drumpads while the economy collapses around him. On the other end is Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a hot-headed Wall Street trader who catches wind of Burry’s plan via Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). Baum’s character comes away with his faith broken in the system, just like we do, as I left the film with a mix of outrage but also intrigue.

The Big Short never delves into Wolf of Wall Street territory, and that’s a good thing for a film taking on such a serious subject matter. There’s no hookers or blow, no guns, but this film is all about the money. There’s a fine line that the film straddles on how to treat the bankers involved, and the film succeeds at leaving you with the answers you need directed at the people responsible. But this isn’t a call-to-action film either, it’s rather a warning call, neither a wholly satirical one nor a dull biographical picture – it’s Hollywood entertainment after all, with top-notch performances and direction layered with razor-sharp edges. The Big Short is an important film, and it educates without pandering, while entertaining to its full extent.

 
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Posted by on December 31, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Joy

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Loosely based on the life of entrepreneur Joy Mangano, David O. Russell’s Joy is a bit of a mess on the surface. It has such great ideas centered around a riveting main character, yet getting there is a bit sloppy. While the performances are riveting like always – we’d expect no less from Russell – the plot suffers from an over reliance on exposition. The result is a mixed bag of underdeveloped and overdeveloped emotions, but it’s nothing the Miracle Mop can’t clean up.

The structure of the film is as unorthodoxly ‘biopic’ as they come. While the film is technically based on the life of a real woman, the film is dedicated to the ‘true stories of daring women,’ Joy herself is an amalgamation of the creative spirit women like her possess. She’s a thinker, a dreamer, and the film makes that known to us since the beginning. The exposition and narration from Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) helps ease us into her world and introduces us to her unpredictable family. But this is a misstep from Russell, breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule. It works in some ways, as Joy and Mimi are the only normal members of the clan, adding a unique perspective to the mix, but at other time it’s an overbearing device that doesn’t treat its audience like adults.

The beginning of Joy gets us acquainted with Joy and her family, including her two children, father Rudy (Robert DeNiro), mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), and sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm). They’re an interesting bunch, Russell is no stranger to these kinds of family dynamics, and the characters work well as foils for Joy. Joy’s a doer, always thinking and making things with her hands, but her dreams have been sidelined by her family. Her father Rudy’s new girlfriend Trudy, the effervescent Isabella Rossellini, helps Joy get her invention off the ground, and from here the film begins to gain traction.

Joy isn’t known as the “Miracle Mop” movie, as it’s neither a biopic nor a prestige drama. Joy’s invention is groundbreaking, to be sure, but the film isn’t interested in exploring angles related to product development or business strategy. It’s Joy’s film at its core – the supporting characters are mostly background noise – and the film gets most of its emotional mileage from the decisions she makes towards making her dream a reality at her personal and professional expense.

The film’s highlights take place at QVC, when Joy takes her product to executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) and pitches it to the station. It’s here where the film really delivers, both thematically and creatively. The beautifully shot scenes of Joy presenting at QVC put Lawrence to the test, as she must lay it all on the line in such a vulnerable situation. She goes through an array of emotions so complex in this short time that it cements the Lawrence-Russell partnerships as one of the best in the business. The colors of the studio are contrasted with the brights of the kitchen set itself, and it sings.

From here until the finale, Joy settles back into its not-so-interesting role of a murky story about a woman of ideas. Most of the conflict revolves around problems with her manufacturer in Texas, another patent owner of a similar mop, and her family who keeps bailing her out of debt. If Joy had taken more risks thematically and relied less on small random bursts of plot development to keep up the pace, we could have been looking at something special. Joy is still a good film, but it could have been a great one. Inspiring performances (one of Lawrence’s best) and well-developed characters keep the film aloft, and Russell’s direction has never been better, but a murky script holds Joy back from being the hot item this Christmas.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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