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Manchester By the Sea

What’s to like?

It can throw you off, as a critic, when a movie’s themes hit close to home. Will everyone be affected this way, or is it just me, I ask? Casey Affleck, playing Lee in Manchester by the Sea, has to travel from the big city back to the smaller community where he grew up when life gets crazy. But as specifically parallel as that experience is to my life, it’s also universal–even archetypal–in its relatability. So let’s go ahead and chalk that one up in the plus column. Same with Lee’s small but meaningful growth from a person looking out only for number one to a person who realizes he’s happier if he considers what someone else wants. Hell, come to think of it, at this rate I guess we’ll call this an age-old tale. Continue Reading

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Miss Sloane

What’s there to like?

Jessica Chastain, plain and simple. For my money, she just might be the best out there in terms of actresses in their prime, and she brings it here. Power, vulnerability, intelligence–she radiates it all as she plays a fancy DC lobbyist on a gun control case.

So much of Miss Sloane is complex and deserving of a mixed assessment. For me, though, the rest of this review nets out to be below the “liked” line.

What’s not to like?

As much as I loved watching Chastain, well, you know how it’s sometimes hard to separate the parts of a movie for awards, like, say, directing vs. screenplay? Did that movie live or die during casting? Or, in this case, did I love that character because of the actor or the writer? To me, Miss Sloane is a great example of a mediocre screenplay being knocked out of the park by a great performance.

Sloane was so cryptic, yet compelling. Was every flash of emotion on her face simply a ruse she was projecting? I can’t say. What’s her real deal–is she just a mercenary, up for the highest bidder, or the most passionate person on Earth about something she cares about? I’ve seen the whole movie and I still have no idea. And I have mixed feelings about the not-knowing. So the way I’m reconciling this in my mind is to attribute the good parts to Chastain, and pin the blame on writer Jonathan Perera, for the bad parts, fair or not.

There’s of course the fact that the movie takes a definite political stance on a relevant issue. Always dangerous, and I might be more sensitive than most to politics in movies–even when I agree with a position I usually hate the case laid out for it. Sure, the issue was watered down to be as benign as possible, but it will still be somewhat polarizing.

And let’s talk about the plot a bit. There were lots of twists. I mean: LOTS OF TWISTS. The details of which, of course, being the kind of thing I try to avoid mentioning in a review. But I can report that there were too many. I eventually just checked out in terms of emotional investment because it felt like nothing mattered. Anything potentially relevant would be subsumed into the master plan as a diversionary tactic, or at least nullified by the next random-seeming left-turn. And still, by the end, there was a nice, tidy bow placed on everything. It’s like, oh, this all seemed messy and crazy, but it was under control the whole time. The movie’s deception wasn’t that we couldn’t see what happen next; it was that we were chumps for worrying about anything at all.

I think it wants to think about wrestle with the old question of whether the ends justify the means. But Miss Sloane turns out to be a fairly moralistic tale: people on one team end up getting what they fight for, with ultimately little sacrifice or consequence.

The Verdict

Jessica Chastain props up, but can’t ultimately elevate, this political movie whose misdirections turn out to be too clever by half and that offers nihilism in place of balance.

Fine

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Arrival

What’s there to like?

Arrival is a good ol’ fashioned thought-experiment style sci-fi story. One of those that begins by asking what if? and playing things out. In this case, the what-if is about aliens visiting the Earth–with all the confusion, uncertainty, and fear that would entail–and humanity’s struggle to communicate with them. Always nice to have some thought provoked.

For those of us who love language, this is a wet dream. Who knew a linguist could save the world? Don’t you dare tell me my liberal arts degree won’t come in handy!

The performances are good: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker all breathe life into their characters and represent their sometimes conflicting, sometimes converging interests. Adams and Renner–Louise and Ian–have solid chemistry. Renner in particular I found riveting–he subtly surprised me with some of this choices, showing some range compared to his other work.

Director Denis Villaneuve and writer Eric Heisserer construct a nice story, with a twinge of horror-like tension, and an earned payoff that’s set up nicely.

What’s not to like?

Two things, mainly. Although I’ll tip my cap to the buildup to the plot’s reveal, there’s a mystical component to how things play out. I’m not opposed to that kind of payoff in principle, but it’s a delicate needle to thread, and this one doesn’t satisfy my need for coherence, even if I’m trying to be generous to forces we don’t understand.

The other thing is that Ian, though played ably by Renner, is an inconsistent and contradictory character. His stated purpose–representing the scientific approach to learning about the aliens–is minimized or tossed aside for the most part. He didn’t need to be a scientist at all to play his part–just had to be a nice, reasonably smart dude supporting Louise’s greatness. What’s that– you’re trying to tell me it’s just a gender role reversal and normally the woman is defined by being the helpmate? Yeah, I won’t say you’re wrong. Still, I’m marking it down as a con rather than a pro or even a neutral.

The Verdict

Arrival is an enjoyable sci-fi movie, well-executed and widely accessible. It’ll get you thinking, and keep you entertained with taut story and solid acting. Hell, some may even like the twist more than I did. It’s certainly a thumbs up from me.

Recommended

 

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Ghostbusters

What’s there to like?

There’s been so much political back and forth about this Ghostbusters remake with women in the lead roles, I was a little gun shy to weigh in. To my relief, I found the feminist angle fairly unremarkable in terms of how much I enjoyed the movie. I hope it’s not especially controversial to say the women didn’t distract me with their womanity–nor did they necessarily bring much in the way of extra movie punch. For me, no big deal either way.

I’m also a sucker for throwback cameos. Pretty much every relevant actor from the old version showed up in a (mostly) low key way that still made me smile.

Oh, I should also mention that Kate McKinnon was rather weirdly brilliant. Or brilliantly weird. Something like that. Anyway, her performance might be the best thing here.

What’s not to like?

While Ghostbusters‘s politics ended up modest, so too did the movie. I don’t have any massive complaints, but I did find the movie’s action and humor lacking for, you know, an action comedy. There were few laughs in the theater when I saw it. Mostly it felt like we were constantly trying to stay ready to find something funny but usually missing out on the payoff.

I admit it’s probably unfair for me to mentally compare this movie to the 1980s one. I haven’t seen the original for decades, and back then it was one of those movies my brother and I would watch over and over again as kids. So I’m sure I have more nostalgic affection for the old one than it deserves cinematically. Still, the new Ghostbusters felt watered down and unremarkable. I can see people feeling differently without the biases I bring to the table, but there you go. I has hoping for a bit more, and I left slightly disappointed.

The Verdict

For all the outside hoopla surrounding Ghostbusters, ultimately it’s a rather ordinary, ho hum flick that’s not bad but not great.

Fine

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The Neon Demon

What’s there to like?

Before anything else, it’s important to note that The Neon Demon is one of those artsy(-fartsy), experimental films that takes itself rather seriously. A lot of people aren’t into that. I get it.

BUT, I often get a kick out of movies like this, and I found Nicolas Winding Refn’s current flick fascinating. It’s about the connection between vulnerability and beauty, and simultaneously, paradoxically, between beauty and power. (Elle Fanning deftly brings out all three qualities in the lead role, Jesse.) It’s about how people can be affected by them, and how hard it can be to distinguish those whose reactions are benign and those become more predatory. A little heavy on the English-lit homework angle? Maybe, but I loved it. Continue Reading

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Independence Day: Resurgence

What’s there to like?

Depending on how much you liked the original (I re-watched it the day before this one, and I quite enjoyed it), Independence Day: Resurgence offers a potentially fun trip back to that universe. And I purposely call it a universe to evoke a comic-book style self-contained timeline, because even though the year is ostensibly 2016, things are quite different than how they are in our own, real life 2016. Some science fiction movies present an alternate future; Resurgence gives us an alternate present. Humanity has apparently appropriated a fair amount of alien technology and, for example, learned how to “defy gravity” and make propeller-less helicopters and fighter jets equally at home on the moon as they are on Earth. This alternate present also allows the movie to have more or less present-day clothing styles, automobiles, and even iPads. An interesting hybrid of future and present. Continue Reading

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Maggie’s Plan

What’s there to like?

Maggie’s Plan is what just you want from an indie: it’s different. It’s a New York-/Brooklyn-based story that feels kind of like a Noah Baumbach (maybe While We’re Young or Frances Ha), but director Rebecca Miller adjusts the dials a bit to decrease the self-seriousness and increase the fun. We’ve got the same white urban dwellers and great feel for the city, but the tonal balance kept me enjoying myself the whole time. Continue Reading

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Central Intelligence

What’s there to like?

I’m going to try and be generous here, but there’s not a ton to get excited about. Let’s see what we can say. Central Intelligence is an action comedy, so if that’s one of your genres you enjoy no matter what, go see this one. (How am I doing so far?) There are some of fans of Dwayne Johnson (like me!) and of Kevin Hart in the world, and you get to see a lot of those two here. Even Aaron Paul shows up a few times, throwing in a classic “bitch” line both to make us smile about Jesse Pinkman and to draw the unfavorable comparison of the movie to Breaking Bad. Continue Reading

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Warcraft

What’s there to like?

You may not know this, but I’m a fairly serious World of Warcraft player. That makes this is a tricky review, because my take will obviously be different than that of those coming new or relatively new to the Warcraft universe. I think we can do it, though.

There are definitely some things to like, even if you don’t know this lore. The motion-capture orcs look gritty and cool (props to Toby Kebbell as Durotan–probably the most compelling character in the movie), and the spells the mages cast are also pretty. There is a lot of rich lore here, as well, that the film draws on. The characters’ backstories are extremely filled out, which helps. Continue Reading