Saturday, November 26, 2016

THIS TOO SHALL PASS...BUT WHEN?!?!: a review of "The Edge Of Seventeen"

Produced by James L. Brooks
Written and Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig
**** (four stars)

It never ceases to amaze me that for a market that is driven by and fully caters to youth culture, that how little any material of any artistic worth is truly made for that very market. But, when something of high quality does miraculously arrive, I truly believe that we should cherish it and do what we are able to ensure the intended audience is able to receive the cinematic message.

This year, while we have been witness to the 30th anniversaries of both John Hughes' seminal "Pretty In Pink" (1986) and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986), these two milestones are notable for so much more than any sense of nostalgia or the longevity of these works that have transcended generations of viewers an fans. What is also notable is that there was once a time in Hollywood when stories about teenagers could be easily produced for a mass audience and with a certain regularity.

Yes, most of those films were exploitative but once figures and filmmakers like Cameron Crowe, Amy Heckerling, Martha Coolidge and unquestionably John Hughes arrived and changed the game, creating feature films that were equally personal, artistic and truthful statements to the adolescent experience, there truly was no going back to the mindless sex comedies of old, the very ones that treated their teenaged audiences as product rather than people deserving of having their stories told to themselves as best as possible.

Yet, long after what I always refer to as that "Golden Age Of Teen Films," essentially more than concluded with Crowe's stunning, aching "Say Anything..." (1989), films regarding and capturing the teen age experience became few and far between, regardless of quality. To think, we have been fortunate to have Hecklerling's "Clueless" (1993), Mark Waters and Tina Fey's "Mean Girls" (2004), Jason Reitman's "Juno" (2007), Will Gluck's "Easy A" (2010), Stephen Chbosky's "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower" (2012), James Ponsoldt's "The Spectacular Now" (2013) and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" (2015) but do regard the time span of those films in relation to each other as well as to Hughes' oeuvre which collected all six of his teenage themed films in a scant three year period. Yes, it is better to have some than none at all, but I think you are able to discern of which I am writing.

At this time, I am thrilled and excited to not only add a new entry to the teen film genre, but truly one of the finest that I have been so fortunate to screen. "The Edge Of Seventeen," the debut feature film from Writer/Director Kelly Fremon Craig, not only completely fulfills the promise and high bar quality of the genre as set by John Hughes and other like minded writers and filmmakers, it proudly displays a multi-faceted, difficult and star making performance from Hailee Steinfeld and it is also one of the very best films that I have seen so far in 2016. Wizards, animated features and other big budgeted features are certainly all dancing around vying for your precious attention and dollars but do trust me, dear readers, when I try my best to point you in the direction of something truly special. "The Edge Of Seventeen" is indeed that special.

"The Edge Of Seventeen" stars Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine Franklin, a high school Junior caught in the seemingly bottomless depths of teen angst, social awkwardness and armed with petulant fury against the world, most specifically her Mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick), with whom she has warred against since childhood, and her all-star, exceedingly popular and universally beloved older brother Darian (Blake Jenner).

When Nadine's best and only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) inexplicably and unexpectedly becomes romantically involved with Darian, Nadine falls into a rage filled emotional tailspin feeling more alone and unloved in the universe than ever. Yet, will the reluctant aid from her acerbic History teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), and the honest attention from her admirer Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto) an equally awkward classmate be able to break through her possibly impenetrable veneer?

Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" exists as a film without a definitive story or plotline, and in this case to a powerful degree. Craig has devised a "slice-of-life" experience a character study of an emerging young woman attempting to make sense of a world she feels is entirely out of step with how she views it. What I adored so very much within this particular character study is that Craig was wholly unafraid to allow Nadine to become a completely unlikeable figure to regard, and even for long stretches during the the film. What she wisely understood with this conception is that it was unnecessary to have a heroine that one could always view as virtuous, therefore someone to root for, so to speak.

Try to imagine if you will John Hughes' "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" told completely from the perspective his his embittered sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey). Or how about Hughes' "Uncle Buck" (1989) as told entirely from the perspective of the enraged Tia Russell (Jean Louisa Kelly). With those descriptions, I feel that you can gather precisely which sort of cloth the character of Nadine is cut from, and it is indeed one that possesses quite the bite, brutal sarcasm and flat out vengeful meanness that serves as Nadine's protective shield as well as propels all who cross her from her path, threatening to make her the sole architect of her own misery--a quality of which Craig is most perceptive and critical.

As with Jason Reitman's pitch black "Young Adult" (2011), what Craig has accomplished brilliantly was to conceive of a character, in all three dimensions, warts and all, and allow the overall humanity of the piece to extend itself to whatever empathy we may hold towards Nadine. We do not necessarily need to like her. We just need to understand her. If we feel the need to throttle her, then so be it. If we feel the need to embrace her in order to tell her that while this time feels endless, it will not last forever, then so be it. And what Craig achieves so richly and beautifully are those very sentiments and so much more for all of us in the audience to feel simultaneously, making for a film that is undeniably tougher and pricklier than Hughes' more populist, fantastical odes to adolescence.

This specific quality of "The Edge Of Seventeen" also fuels the comedy and drama trust into Nadine's tentative and tension filled relationship with Mr. Bruner, who clearly gives it as good as Nadine dishes it out, making this one authority figure one that Nadine feels somewhat secure with, for why else would she intrude upon the solitude of Bruner's classroom lunchtimes on a daily basis and for that matter, why else does Bruner simply not throw her out of the door and into the hell of the high school hallways?  Never fear, dear readers, there is no implied attraction within this particular relationship. Woody Harrelson impresses greatly by depicting a teacher who indeed cares for Nadine's ultimate well being but definitely attempts to keep her at arms length as he conveys that wise and weary adult perspective that Nadine, by nature of her age, could not possibly attain just yet.

But, tremendous praise must be heaped profusely upon Hailee Steinfeld, who at last fulfills the promise of her talents as we witnessed in her stellar film debut as she more than held her own with a veritable command of stature and language in Joel and Ethan Coen's "True Grit" (2010). Steinfeld delivers a multi-layered performance of such humor, depth, perceptiveness, nuance, heart and soul as she brings Nadine to vivid life in all of her confusion, hurt, incredulity, and unfiltered wrath whether misguided, self-righteous or steeped completely in a truthful blend of existing as a perpetual misfit with emotional wounds both painfully real as well as wrongfully perceived.

Each relationship Nadine possess within "The Edge Of Seventeen," with her brother, Mother, best friend, Erwin, a longtime crush in Nick (Alexander Calvert) and even her Father (Eric Keenleyside), could all exist as individual films in and of themselves. Yet with the open hearted fearlessness of her performance coupled with Craig's excellent writing and direction, Hailee Steinfeld creates a character of great intelligence, wit and even compassion, especially when she is behaving at her absolute worst, and even dangerously self-obsessed as she is so consumed with her own troubles, she is unable to view the tribulations of everyone else around her. It is a remarkable balancing act and Hailee Steinfeld has proven without a doubt that she is equal to every single moment that has been given to her to portray this unique character.

Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" is a beautifully insightful, entertaining and artful exploration into that specific time of life that often and painfully feels that it will have no conclusion. Where nobody could possibly understand you especially when you are even straining to understand yourself. It again showcases that teenagers are fully deserving of cinematic material that completely honors the lives in which they live and are trying to navigate themselves through and for adult audiences, "The Edge Of Seventeen" may work as a sharp, acerbic reminder that those years of adolescence were not prances through a field of posies but so often fraught with those hard moments, experiences and questions that would help to build you into the adults you would eventually become.

Filled with equal parts honest laughs and at times, wrenching drama, Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" has more than fully earned its highest marks.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A DECENT BUT NOT-SO FANTASTIC BEGINNING: a review of "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them"

Screenplay Written by J.K. Rowling
Directed by David Yates
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Dear readers, it is of no secret to any of you who happen to have followed any of my reviews over the years as to how much I love the writing of author J.K. Rowling. In fact, if you may recall, when her iconic Harry Potter book series was first being discussed as being adapted for the silver screen, I was vehemently opposed to such an undertaking precisely because of how brilliant and beautiful Rowling's writing actually is, as it contains a literary, visual and emotional heft that made each and every page burst into vibrant life, so much so that the thought of any potential motion pictures felt to me would pale in comparison.

I housed those feelings over 16 years ago and to my astonishment, the "Harry Potter" film series not only honored Rowling's original vision and source material wondrously, they eventually became strong enough films that could exist as works of art in their own right. Since that time, J.K. Rowling the writer has only continued to amaze me through her increasingly rich novels, the stunning, devastating political satire/tragedy The Casual Vacancy and her now on-going dark detective series all written under Rowling's pseudonym of Robert Galbraith.

Now, we arrive with "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them," J.K. Rowling's full fledged cinematic return, alongside her reunion with Director David Yates, to the wizarding world of Harry Potter, albeit with the delightfully risky premise of existing as a prequel and featuring none of the characters that we have come to know and adore. And yes, it is also the first of five planned installments to boot. By this point, Rowling has earned more than enough good will from me that I would indeed follow her pursuits no matter where they should take her and frankly, I felt that if she did return to wizards, witches and magic, this specific approach as executed by this new project would be a fine way to tackle the subject matter and not make the proceedings feel as an explicit money grab.

While I do standby those sentiments and my overall faith in Rowling has not been undone, "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" is unfortunately not quite of the same league as all that has preceded it. No, this is not a bad film in the least, and truth be told, I wouldn't even really call it that much of a disappointment. It was more of a near miss. A film and experience where the intent for greatness is all over the screen but for whatever reasons, all of the parts just did not click as triumphantly as they had in the past. My feelings are not due to some allegiance to the previous eight films, all of which I loved to varying degrees. It is just looking at what was presented to me this time around and finding myself loving some of it, being underwhelmed by bits and pieces and cumulatively feeling that the brass ring, this time was just out of reach.

"Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" takes place in 1926 New York City and stars Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, expelled from Hogwarts, full fledged wizard, world travelling magizooogist as well as future author of the very textbook Harry Potter and his classmates would one day read and study.

Newt's globe trotting journey lands him in New York complete with magical suitcase as he is in pursuit of yet another mystical creature. But when the mischievous, shiny coin grabbing Nifler escapes from Newt's suitcase, the pursuit lands him within an adventure filled with whimsy and a creeping darkness as he joins forces with Porpetina "Tina" Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), a disgraced former Auror, Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), Tina's mind reading sister and finally, the No-Maj (i.e. non magical American civilian) Jacob Kowalski (a terrific Dan Folger), a factory worker who houses dreams of becoming a baker.

Meanwhile, darkness encroaches upon the city via strange, and increasingly violent disturbances of unknown origin but feared within the hidden wizarding community, most notably the Magical Congress of the United States as led by President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and the Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), to be the handiwork of the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald.

Yet, Percival Graves is duplicitous as he covertly aligns himself with young Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), an orphan held under the physically and psychologically abusive influence of Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), the leader of "The Second Salemers," an extremist organization who hunts and kills wizards and witches. Percival hopes that Credence will assist him is tracking down the elusive host of an Obscurus, a destructive force manifested by magical children who have been forced to conceal the truth of themselves from society but is unleashed due to the stress and anger of hiding oneself.

When Newt's misadventures with his accidentally freed creatures lands him afoul of the Magical Congress, especially Graves who fears Newt is somehow aligned with Grindelwald, the secrecy of the magical world is threatened unless the source of the rising malevolence can be discovered.

As you are able to gather, "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" has no shortage of characters, detail, or ideas. The film is a veritable treasure trove of dazzling visuals, strong performances, and a rich conceptual tapestry which features tender romances, slapstick comedy, an arsenal of fanciful creations filtered through a nice animal rights activism and most importantly, a surprisingly grim yet powerfully empathetic look into themes of repression, intolerance, bigotry and the consequences of living within societies (both non-magical and wizarding) where fear runs rampant, certainly more timely than ever considering the current political climate in our increasingly dark real world.

Director David Yates, who helmed the final four and increasingly wrenching and beautiful installments of the "Harry Potter" film series, returns to J.K. Rowling's wizarding world with such confidence that it seems as if it has really only been a scant amount of passed time since "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2" (2011) rather than five years. Yates handles every luxuriously filled frame with reverence, playfulness and the right amounts of drama and darkness, always keeping the main focus of character and story at the forefront rather than the special effects which are as seamless as ever (the film's bittersweet final scenes are absolutely lovely). I was thrilled to learn that he would be taking the reins for this series (presumably, all five films) and I remain convinced that Rowling's vision is in the best of cinematic hands.

And yet, when all was said and done, and even despite my praises, "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" never really adds up to very much at all.

Don't get me wrong, dear readers, there is much to admire about the film and one could not remotely accuse J.K. Rowling of simply going back to the well and lazily creating some new product in the most uninspired fashion. Quite the contrary, "Fantastic Beasts And Whee To Find Them," is positively overflowing with ideas...perhaps too many ideas. Or at least, so many ideas that sadly do not coalesce comfortably into a sumptuous whole.

Returning to the plot description I detailed above, Rowling has more than delivered the plot...but somehow, the film seemed to be lacking a bit of a story. Honestly, in a nutshell, precisely what is this film even about? There is a tremendous amount of activity but for what purpose and to what end? Yes, this is the beginning of a serialized five part saga and we can't know all there is to know right away. I more than understand that. But, it seems that what works within the framework of writing a novel does not work quite the same way when devising a screenplay.

As I have always expressed to you, books are books and movies are movies. In a novel, Chapter One has no need to be fully revealing or satisfying because the reader can just turn a page and dive deeply into Chapter Two. But with a film series such as this one, with the second installment not arriving until one to three years from now, an opening installment this meandering and even somewhat shapeless just does not suffice as it still needs to function as a complete experience all on its own and still, even by film's end, I did have to question to myself, just what was all of that even about?

"Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" is filled to the brim with greatness but it is in search of the connective tissue that would make all of the elements snap and pop vibrantly into place. Instead, it is a film that tends to feel padded from time to time, especially when dealing with sequences pertaining to Newt Scamander and his pursuit of his beloved escaped creatures, sequences that did elicit some yawns from this viewer as the beasts themselves, aside from the charming platypus styled Nifler, never seemed to be that fully defined and certainly lacked the necessary character to make our imaginations marvel.

I think of a film like Chris Sanders and Dean DeBois' "How To Train Your Dragon" (2010) for instance, a film also based upon a book series, where the sheer variety of dragons presented were all so clearly and lovingly designed and presented that we knew and understood which characteristics and powers were attributed to each dragon species, therefore adorning all of them with rich characterizations that enhanced the overall proceedings and the ultimate story overall. Yet, for this film, and one that is partially entitled "Fantastic Beasts," we really know very little about what these creatures are, what they do and the hows and whys Newt Scamander has become such an impassioned caretaker for this magical animal kingdom. Yes, some of that may be revealed over the next four films but even so, for every beautiful sequence (like the one where Jacob first enters Newt's suitcase to find worlds upon worlds of magical beings protected deeply inside) there are other sequences that just drag and feel like place holders before returning to the main action (most specifically, the sequence where Newt and Jacob attempt to coax a rhino-like creature back into the suitcase).

Whatever fantastical qualities the beasts were supposed to possess, they were somehow lost upon me as I watched, a quality I never felt within the entirety of the "Harry Potter" book and film series regarding the creatures, tools, weapons, and environment. Again, I give tremendous credit to Rowling for being able to not only devise a richly detailed history to a fully fictional world, but to its inhabitants as well. But, it didn't take this time around. Perhaps it was the CGI. Maybe something more handmade in the special effects would have served the beasts better, as well as a greater attention within Rowling's screenplay. But whatever the means, the intended connection just never quite matched up for me.

Similar feelings also held more than true for Newt Scamander himself, or rather Eddie Redmayne's performance. Now, as with all of the previous "Harry Potter" features directed by David Yates, the performances from the entire casts were truly resplendent. With "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them," that high standard holds solid...although Redmayne felt to be more than a little awkward and also had a tendency to mumble his dialogue, making it difficult to understand precisely what he was saying from time to time and to a near annoying effect.

Yes, the character of Newt Scamander is shy, introverted and awkward, a figure who clearly relates better and shows greater comfort with animals as opposed to human beings. Yes, this is an emerging character, therefore a man of mystery, someone who will be fully revealed over the following four films. And while Redmayne has some good moments giving us peeks into his mysterious backstory, including the still present wounds inflicted by his lost love, as well as his entire Doctor Dolittle by way of Ghostbusters persona and mission. Basically, the film felt as if he was not yet fully comfortable within the role, therefore we are witness to him getting his feet wet in this character and universe, just as Yates was obviously finding his way helming "Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix" (2007), and how it seems Rowling herself may have been doing with this, her debut screenplay.

But, even with its flaws, "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" is not remotely a failure. Just a film that seemed to stumble in ways that surprised me considering the creative source. As previously stated, this is not a bad film by any means and besides, I could steer you away from it even if I wanted to...and I don't. Truth be told, I would even see it again some time down the road as the adventure and the allegory invites revisiting. All of the ingredients exist and here's hoping for a better, more focused entry once the second installment arrives.

I haven't lost faith in J.K. Rowling and I am certain that she will enchant me all over again before I even know it. But this time her book of spells perhaps needs a bit of a revision.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

LET'S GET METAPHYSICAL: a review of "Doctor Strange"

Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Screenplay Written by Jon Spaihts and Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill
Directed by Scott Derrickson
*** (three stars)

In my childhood as I poured and obsessed over all manner of comic books and superheroes from both the worlds of DC and Marvel Comics, there was one figure I tended to give a wide berth, and that was Doctor Strange.

Frankly, Doctor Strange gave me nightmares. The specialized brand of metaphysical universes, occult magic and the infinite layers of the mind combined with hallucinatory villains like Dormammu and the aptly named Nightmare strayed way too far for my impressionable brain and spirit, one who was more than enough excited by the more traditional costumed and cape wearing adventures and just clearly not at all ready for anything that pushed the envelope to such a dark degree.

That being said, I was more than curious to see what the new film version of Doctor Strange would entail because at the very least it would give the Marvel Comics Universe film series a much welcome upgrade visually and thematically as it woud now incorporate the inter-dimensional--as first witnessed in Peyton Reed's "Ant-Man" (2015)--with the already established and extravagantly presented world which already holds Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor among others.

The resulting film, Scott Derrickson's "Doctor Strange," the fourteenth film in the ever expanding series, not only continues to showcase what has made this film series so durable, as well as much more successful than the struggling DC Movie Universe, it also does tend to stumble a tad with its standard shortcomings. Overall, "Doctor Strange" is a solid entry that does point to more intriguing signs for future solo and group Marvel offerings.

"Doctor Strange" stars a perfectly cast Benedict Cumberbatch as the gifted yet extremely arrogant surgeon Stephen Strange, who loses the use of his hands after surviving a devastating car accident. With his extensive and painful rehabilitation merged with an existential crisis of not being able to utilize his hands to achieve what he perceives to be his life's purpose, Strange falls into crippling despair, alienating all around him, most notably his former lover/closest friend and confidant Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).

After learning of and meeting Jonathon Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) a former paraplegic miraculously able to walk again, Stephen Strange follows Pangborn's advice and journeys to Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal to seek out The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a sorcerer and master of the astral plane and multi-verse, a collection of metaphysical dimensions.

As The Ancient One begins to train Stephen Strange, who is aided by the sorcerer Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the Kamar-Taj librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), dark trouble is underfoot in the form of the renegade sorcerer and Master of the Mystic Arts, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who is armed with stolen pages from one of The Ancient One's book of rituals and plans to utilize it to conjure the horrific Dormammu of the Dark Dimension, a plane of everlasting life and without any sense of time.

Summoning the power of Dormammu threatens to break the magic protective spell of the Sanctum, formed by three buildings located in Hong Kong, London and New York, it is up to Wong, Mordo and Doctor Strange, now armed with the Cloak Of Levitation and the mystical Eye Of Agamotto to defeat Kaecilius and retain the magical balance of power.

Scott Derrickson's "Doctor Strange" is a first rate production that fits snuggly with all of the previous Marvel films thus far. The character of Strange, as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, all swagger and quips (and a predilection for extensive musical knowledge--an area I'd love to trade with him musical facts and figures) yet with a strikingly captivating level of pathos, feels strongly cut from the same cloth as Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark.

Through Cumberbatch's performance, he simply nails that requisite Marvel melancholia, the "Achilles Heel" that sits at the core of the character--his level of hubris, of course, but also his alienation from others combined with what he perceived as his greatest strength-his hands-being robbed from him due to the extensive nerve damage. Once again, this level of attention within the writing, direction and performance grounds the proceedings confidently as we are given the human being long before the costume, cape and special effects, ensuring that we have a figure to root for before any extensive visual razzle dazzle.

And yes, at this time, I do have to commend the film's usage of special effects...for the most part. It is clear that Derrickson has taken lessons learned from The Wachowski's The Matrix" (1999), Christopher Nolan's "Inception" (2010) and even some elements from television's "Heroes" (2006-2010), when devising the look of the film's many action set pieces which present all manner of skyscrapers twisting and turning themselves into kaleidoscopic shapes, metaphysical trap doors, openings and exits--all of which are superbly handled.

But, the sequence that really made my eyes POP, so much so that I wished  Derrickson and his crew had been given the free reign to fly even further is the masterful section when The Ancient One first displays to Stephen Strange the multi-verse. It is a cavalcade of sound and vision that feels as if it took the vortex/wormhole sequence from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) as a starting point and went go-for-broke from there. I cannot even begin to describe the sequence fully as it needs to be seen to be believed but it was the one section that felt as if the comic book itself had burst to three dimensional life and blasted itself across the silver screen with all of the surprise, wonder, awe and even terror necessary to successfully pull it off. Just amazing!

Now I realize that Marvel has a film franchise to keep pushing forwards and they are more than trepedacious to tamper with their successful formula terribly much. But, I do feel that after fourteen films, they have earned themselves some leeway and even some cache to play around and perhaps make these films a tad more daring than they actually are. From that special effects standpoint, it would have remained true to the source material to perhaps make a film that was considerably...ahem...stranger.

With all of the various dimensions, dark magic and alternate planes of existence at play, why couldn't Derrickson create a palate that was more akin to something like Ken Russell's "Altered States" (1981), where the fantasy/dream/drug trip/sensory deprivation sequences were truly out of this world and to date, remain as delirious as they are disturbing. "Doctor Strange" could have significantly benefited from a grander and more macabre sense of danger and foreboding but what was delivered, aside from the very cleverly handled climax between Doctor Strange and Dormammu, was another standard superhero film where, in this case, all of the Mystical Arts knowledge and abilities are just utilized to beat the stuffing out of each other.

Beyond that, "Doctor Strange," by its very nature of being hid debut film is that we are presented with yet another origin story that feels very much of a piece with all of the other origin stories that we have been subjected to. And in doing so, the film just follows all of the same beats as the previous entries, therefore, making for an experience that already feels to be a bit old hat, overly familiar and one where you're itching for the second installment that will undoubtedly delve deeper as that origin business will be long out of the way. But for now, as and entertaining as it is, "Doctor Strange" is very familiar.

Another quibble I have is with the the usage of Rachel McAdams, a fine actress who is again wasted in another role as the long suffering love/former love interest to the troubled, complex male hero. How I wish that when filmmakers choose to bother to cast her, they give her something of some real significance to do because she does indeed have the talent..if only we were allowed to see it.

But when all is said and done,"Doctor Strange" works and very well at that. Next year, we will see three new entries in the Marvel universe from the return of the Guardians Of The Galaxy to Thor and the latest reboot of Spiderman. Here's hoping that with these subsequent installments, Marvel shakes up their own formula and find themselves unafraid to really begin to take some surprising creative risks.

That being said, Scott Derrickson's "Doctor Strange" is good and strong enough to keep that Marvel flag flying high.

Monday, November 7, 2016

TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY: a review of "Moonlight"

Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Written for the Screen and Directed by Barry Jenkins
**** (four stars)

Finally, after far too long this year, I have seen a film that burrows deeply under the skin, and into the heart and mind so luxuriously and with a powerfully quiet devastation that even after having seen it, I wonder just how so much was accomplished with a film that is actually quite reticent.

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight," based upon a story and play from playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, is without question one of the finest films that I have seen in 2016. Through its deceptively mellow atmospherics and often silent eloquence, Jenkins has ultimately created an emotionally surprising and harrowing experience that gives audiences a profoundly clear eyed view into a world that is essentially never seen in modern cinema...or at least in the way Jenkins has mounted his vision.

"Moonlight" is a film of tremendous empathy as well as artistry, precisely the type of film that allows anyone that chooses to view it a priceless opportunity to walk a life within someone else's shoes yet without any sense of hyperbole or any qualities that suggest a didactic self-importance. And dear readers, I definitely urge you to make the choice and see this remarkable, painful, and essential film, especially during a period in our collective history when even a modicum of understanding for those different than ourselves would do each and every one of us a world of good.

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" chronicles the coming-of-age and internal odyssey of Chiron, a shy, withdrawn, reticent African-American individual from inner city Miami and as told in three distinct chapters. In the film's first chapter entitled "Little," we meet Chiron as a child (played by Alex Hibbert), dubbed "Little" due to his small stature and quiet demeanor.

Chiron is the product of an absent Father and Paula (Naomie Harris), his emotionally abusive Mother who is also falling into a horrific drug addiction. Essentially friendless aside from the more outgoing and confident Kevin (Jaden Piner), and often the target of the neighborhood bullies, Chiron first begins to find solace and acceptance in the home of Juan (an outstanding Mahershala Ali), the local crack dealer and his girlfriend Theresa (a very strong Janelle Monae).

The film's turbulent second chapter entitled "Chiron" finds our protagonist in his teen years (now staggeringly well played by Ashton Sanders). With Paula lost to her drug addiction, and now aggressively and repeatedly targeted by classmate bully Terrel (Patrick Decile), Chiron feels more emotionally lost than ever before save for his friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a friendship that opens up the door to Chiron's emerging knowledge of his homosexuality.

The film's third chapter entitled "Black," finds Chiron in adulthood (now played by Trevante Rhodes). Set ten years after the second chapter with Chiron now based in Atlanta as he returns home to Miami after receiving a phone call out of the blue from Kevin (played by Andre Holland).

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" is as magnificent as it is supremely haunting and sobering in its depiction of inner city life combined with a riveting yet dreamlike aesthetic that powerfully underscores a searing emotional pain of one young man's relationship with his own development, his notions of family, his sexuality, and his destiny, all the while filtered through an existential crisis of not only discovering his place within the world but wondering if there even is a place for him at all.

Jenkins' vision culminates in an art film with a capital "A," as his skills as a visual stylist through his brilliant collaboration with Cinematographer James Laxton provides each chapter with a distinctive visual sheen and attention to color. Additionally, I must give special mention to Composer Nicholas Britell, whose nearly chamber music score juxtaposes itself tremendously against the gritty urban settings.

And my word, I am compelled to give special mention to Casting Director Yesi Ramirez for I am unable to think of another film at this time where different actors portrayed the same character at different life stages where the different actors in question all appeared to be exactly the same person. It was as if Jenkins performed a cinematic feat akin to Richard Linklater's masterpiece, 12 years in the making project "Boyhood" (2014) but instead of using the same actors over an extended filming period, Jenkins accomplished a similar feat through using different actors to bring 15-20 years of Chiron's existence to vivid life. All three actors who portray Chiron, and for that matter Kevin, are superb in their individuality and collectively, deftly showcasing the full arc and life stories of these two young men who are inexplicably and yet so purposefully bound together.

Much as with Justin Tipping's excellent and sadly underseen "Kicks" from earlier this year, Barry Jenkins's "Moonlight" is a soulful and often esoteric view of inner city life as well as also serving as an exploration of African-American manhood from its expectations, prejudices, challenges, consequences, trappings and possible transcendence. Jenkins' cinematic eye and perspective are stemmed within visual poetry, where poignant silences contain oceans of meaning, simple vignettes are constructed to serve as deep dives into existential quandaries and the journey of the human spirit as one soul desperately seeks to find his own specific footing.

As with "Kicks" where that film's often solitary protagonist often connected with a spirit guide who existed in the form of a lonely astronaut. the life of Chiron in "Moonlight" is also one of severe displacement, of feeling trapped in a world in which he never created for himself but is forced to survive--the same Darwinian approach as also presented within "Kicks."  For Chiron, his Miami neighborhood is a world that most likely will ultimately define and alter him from who he may have otherwise become due to the unforgiving environment, of course, but also due to truly existing without consistent adult figures to help shape, guide, mold, and protect him.

Regarding the figures with whom Chiron ultimately connects with, "Moonlight" also upends expectations and whatever prejudices we in the audience may be holding towards certain characters--especially within the "Little" chapter of the film as Paula's drug addiction begins to take hold and Chiron finds solace with the surrogate parenting of Juan and Theresa. Juan, so brilliantly portrayed by the masterful Mahershala Ali (who also displays a different take on a similar character within "Kicks") is compulsively watchable as he moves like a panther yet elicits a tenderness and gentle layers of paternal depth that we never typically see from a figure who could have simply existed as yet another stereotypical ghetto drug dealer.

One remarkable sequence is one where he teaches Chiron to swim--a sly nod against the stereotype that African-Americans are not adept with aquatics. The sequence is so deceptively simple as Juan teaches Chiron how to float upon his back, proclaiming that the sensation feels as if he is gliding in the "middle of the world." What is tranquility for Juan expertly delivers to us the feelings of Chiron's abandonment by his own Mother via her addictions and the brutality of his peers. He is floating adrift in the universe, untethered to anything or anyone, rightfully tentative to reach out for fear of being abandoned all over again.

But there is Juan plus Theresa who give him the space, room and patience for him to speak in his own time, to trust when he feels ready and able and to become whomever he discovers for himself to be, When Chiron eventually asks of Juan to explain, "What's a faggot?" Juan's answer again will not only upend whatever perceptions you and I may have of him but also begins to reveal layers of characters not typically given to figures and men such as this one within the movies.

As previously stated, "Moonlight" essentially serves as a dissertation about Black manhood, a topic that is pushed to equally violent and vulnerable limits within the film's harrowing and heartbreaking second chapter, all of which leads to the aching emotional reunions and potential resolutions within the film's third chapter, a lengthy sequence between Chiron and Kevin that flows effortlessly between themes of the pain of lingering unfinished business, the tentativeness in revelations and the anguish of sexual confusion, which leads to the larger existential crisis of denying oneself the right to simply be the very person you are certain that you are but your surroundings dictate to you otherwise for your own sense of survival.  Again, Jenkins utilizes sheer poetry in the film's stunning and seductive third chapter, where elements like a prepared meal and a old soul song speak volumes between two quiet, reticent men, each seeking solace and the potential for connection and pure, unprejudiced understanding.

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" is an exceptional work, a film of tremendous humanity and empathy for those who desperately seek the truth of their own identities and the inherent right to exist as they wish and to the fullest of their individualized potentials. It is a film where Barry Jenkins showcases the lives that falls through society's cracks and are often vilified within the media and politicians either through ignorance, short-sightedness and often without remorse. For within Chiron and his exquisitely presented inner journey, with all of its trauma and sorrow, I would be hard pressed to believe that any of  you could not find some trace of him within yourselves as you regard the paths and pains of your lives as we all ask the following questions: "Who am I?" "What will I become?" "What is wrong with me?" "Will anyone love me?"

With regards to "Moonlight," I loved this film. So, so dearly.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


The body is not only always the temple, it is always the BOSS!

I don't know about you but for myself with my personal vantage point here in the Midwest, I have been nursing an extremely persistent cold and cough for several weeks now...and seemingly directly alongside everyone else who happen to be nursing variations of the same illness. That being said, there is only so far the body will allow itself to be pushed before finding itself truly compromised. So, for the final weekend of October, when I had planned to head out and see one more feature film, my body had other plans and informed me that it would be in my best interest to remain at home to rest, recharge and revitalize myself for all responsibilities and new feature films to come.

And with November, the MAJOR film releases are being let out of the proverbial floodgates.
1. "Doctor Strange," the 14th official entry in the on-going Marvel Comics Universe series of films will make its bow by the end of this week and with the initial trailers already depicting some bold new visual territory to tackle and to hopefully tantalize audiences, I am wondering if it will also be able to transcend any potential trappings of the oft-presented origin story.
2. Then, we have "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them," author/screenwriter J.K. Rowling and Director David Yates' reunion and return to the wizarding world of Harry Potter, but this time as a prequel and the first of five projected films. Of course, I am excited as anyone concerning this new venture but that skeptical side of me wonders if this will end up being overkill. Hopefully, Rowling's mastery as a writer and storyteller will win the day again.
3. With "Arrival," starring Amy Adams, it feels as if we are trying to make yet another return to the type and style of intelligent, thoughtful science-fiction film that we have seen in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" (1977) but has never been equaled, despite some valiant efforts. Again, this subject matter is ground s very well covered but I am curious if there are new creative stones to overturn.

In many ways, just three films in an increasingly busy time of the year is more than enough to make plans for. So, as always, I ask for you to send me your best wishes and I will see you when the house lights go down!!!!