Review: Why Him?

We’re pretty familiar with the plot of Why Him?: a college-age woman, Stephanie, (Zoey Deutch) introduces her older, free-spirited, billionaire boyfriend Laird (James Franco) to her family, which includes an overprotective but loving dad, Ned (Bryan Cranston). There’s tension, since Ned thinks Laird is extremely inappropriate for his daughter. In an attempt to win over Stephanie’s family at Christmas, Laird hosts them at his massive California mansion as he falls over himself trying to impress them with elaborate parties, gifts and gestures.

So yes, the trope of the inappropriate boyfriend is something we’ve seen many times. However, this take on the trope is one of the funniest in recent years. Despite my reservations going into this movie (I thought a Franco/Cranston pairing was too good to be true and would disappoint), this movie made me laugh. A lot.

Most of the film depends on Cranston’s ability to play the straight man against Franco’s off-kilter character, and it works pretty well. Laird is genuine and well-meaning, and it’s hard to really dislike the character even when so over the top. Laird’s over-zealousness may provide the core jokes of the film, but there are still many other amusing scenes. A special mention needs to be given to Keegan-Michael Key, who plays Laird’s loyal butler Gustav. He is hilarious and the comedic highlight of this movie. My favourite scene was heavy on the toilet humour, literally, and involved Cranston and Key in the washroom. Enjoy it for what it is.

If you’re walking into a movie like this, you’re not likely to be overly concerned with the details; you’re just going to want to laugh. This movie has lots of funny moments, and Cranston and Franco have great chemistry. For that, it’s worth a watch.

Review: Fences

For Fences, the third film from Denzel Washington as a director, the award winning actor returns to a stage role that netted him a Tony Award in 2010. Washington and Viola Davis (who also won a Tony for the same revival opposite Denzel) star as Troy and Rose, a black married couple in the 1950s at a major crossroads in their life, in this adaptation of late playwright August Wilson’s most fondly remembered entry from his Pittsburgh Cycle.

Almost empty nesters, Tom and Rose watch as their teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) grows into his own as a man. Hardworking garbage man Tom has a set way of living and a rigidly defined sense of self that often rubs against those around him, particularly Cory who could be a major football prospect if his father, a onetime baseball prospect in his own right, would let him play the game and not force him into working down at the local A&P all the time. Rose tries to be a good wife and mother, caught between Troy’s law and what she feels is best for her son.

Troy doesn’t think too much about being hard on Cory, as he has other problems weighing on his mind. He wants a promotion at work. He has a layabout jazz musician for an older son (Russell Hornsby) from a previous relationship, who only comes calling to borrow money on Troy’s payday. He feels immense guilt about having inherited his house from his traumatized and mentally disabled younger brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who hasn’t been the same since coming back from the war with a plate in his head. Troy’s also keeping a bigger secret that could threaten to tear his family apart more than his hardheaded stubbornness ever could have on its own.

That secret (which comes at roughly the halfway point) is the big reveal in the film and in Wilson’s original show, which has been adapted almost word for word here to a point where the original playwright receives the sole screenwriting credit. Washington’s reverence towards Wilson’s material is both a blessing and a curse for the film. Quite often, critics and audiences will watch a film based on a play and say that it feels “stagey,” and although Washington certainly knows what to do with the performances of his cast and how to create a true sense of time and place, there’s no shaking the feeling that seeing Washington’s Fences is literally like watching a stage play. The action takes place almost exclusively in or around Troy and Rose’s house, captured by Washington and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Girl on the Train, Far from the Madding Crowd) in locked off one-and-two shots. There’s even a moment where Washington mounts a superfluous montage to depict a brief passing of time at exactly the point where most stage shows would head into an intermission. There’s no hiding the stage roots of Fences, and Washington almost can’t be deigned to try as a filmmaker.

The world and scope of Troy’s existence widens somewhat the worse he makes life for those around him in the second half, but that’s a minor touch considering most of Fences centres at all time around people having lengthy conversations with little narrative embellishment allowed outside of the words being spoken and delivered with authority. It all comes to a head when the film remounts the slow paced final act, which is something that works on stage, but in a line-for-line film adaptation comes across as static and closed off instead of cinematic. Just as Fences should be gearing up for something climactic, it’s mostly just characters debriefing about things we already know and don’t need to see.

But while it isn’t visually interesting as a film, Fences holds a great amount of power in its material, and Washington and Davis look energized by the chance to revisit it. It’s nothing particularly new to watch Washington play a blustery, hard working, old school alpha male considering that he’s become a go-to performer for such things, but he’s always able to bring out the richness of Troy as a character. Troy’s a unique blend of rational fears, alcoholic tendencies, and toxic masculinity; a pure product of his culture and time. Washinton’s never trying to make this patriarch into a lovable, humble figure of strength, and he never shies away from making him out to be a more than a little boorish. It’s like watching an actor in his most natural element, and his performance more than his direction creates the necessary friction for Fences to remain as watchable as it ultimately is.

But the bulk of the praise here should be heaped upon Davis and Adepo. Davis’ portrayal of Rose is the definition of a slow-burn. It’s a smartly realized turn that balances emotional beats with thoughtful moments where the generous actress allows the audience to witness the thought processes of her character in subtle detail. Rose is a softer person than Troy, but not a soft person, and while we can see why Troy and Rose would be together, we also get the sense that if she were to leave him, she would be perfectly capable on her own. And if Rose represents the spark and Troy represents the fuel, Adepo’s performance as the rightfully angered and put upon son is the raging fire at the heart of the film. He holds his own against Washington, which is no small feat for any performer, and is able to throw some bluster back at him. The scenes where Troy and Cory come close to blows are the best in a film packed with moments of great acting.

With three headlining performers like these operating at the top of their game, Fences becomes much harder to criticize based on its technical peccadilloes. It’s not a mesmerizing bit of filmmaking to look at, but the performances are showstoppers.

Review: La La Land

Writer-director Damien Chazelle follows up his surprise critical and commercial success Whiplash with a quantum leap in bravado, grandeur, scope, and difficulty with the ambitious, resplendent throwback musical La La Land, a work so genuine and earnest (which I mean as a good thing here) that it’s the definition of “heart on its sleeve” filmmaking. It’s an entertaining, engaging, exceptionally made spectacle possessed by the Holy Ghost of Old Hollywood and the Freed Unit. There’s a reason why La La Land took home the Audience Award at TIFF 2016, and your hatred for musicals as a genre would have to border on downright murderous to not get any entertainment value out of this.

It’s a simple boy meets girl story set across four seasons in modern day Los Angeles, the city of entertainment industry dreams where opportunities for success are at a premium. Mia (Emma Stone) is a struggling, affable actress from Boulder City, Nevada. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling, sometimes obstinate jazz pianist with dreams of opening his own club. In each other they find equal amounts strength and frustration. Over time, Sebastian more or less lucks into musical success, but the achieving of his dreams of career stability runs afoul of Mia’s constant battle to get noticed as an actress, threatening to tear the loving couple of outsiders apart.

From the opening Technicolor musical number where Hollywood hopefuls sing about their problems on a gridlocked freeway, Chazelle never tries to coyly hide his influences and passions here. He’s making, as Francis Ford Coppola might say, “one from the heart,” and the heart at the centre of La La Land is massive and warm. It’s a film for which cynics need not apply, especially if they want their cynicism to remain intact. Here’s a filmmaker so clearly tired of modern day, often pandering tropes that he makes sure to include an aside during the film’s “spring” section where Mia is forced to listen to a pathetic wannabe screenwriter drone on about how he’s praised for his “world building” abilities at a deathly dull party. Chazelle knows deep down that he’s making a feel good film, but he’s not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes with needless subtext or convolution. The story to La La Land is a straightforward point A to point B progression told via a relationship between two likeable characters trying to find their way in a complicated world.

The major degree of difficulty faced by Chazelle with La La Land comes from the decision to make it a full on musical, and a sort of antiquated one at that. For the past thirty years or so, audiences have become accustomed to musicals that are off-beat, edgy, or avant-garde, or jukebox musicals that lean heavily on pop hits and not so much on original tracks unless they were trying to backdoor their way to an Oscar. To watch a film where characters express themselves so openly through the power of a song created in the voice of whomever is singing it in an effort to forward the plot feels jarring at this point, almost alien. It didn’t used to be like this, but outside of legitimate theatre, that magic seems to have been lost. Sure, there have been a handful of mostly dire big screen adaptations of theatrical musicals over the past three decades, but no one has attempted this straightforward of an original musical in years.

Chazelle captures the musical interludes with wide eyes and open arms, boldly flaunting his film’s openly nostalgic nature that comes across as both a warm hug that invites the viewer in and a brandished middle finger towards modern convention. A great looking vista that captures the sun setting on Los Angeles is the perfect place for a lengthy song and dance number between Mia and Sebastian. When they go on their first proper date, they burst with almost dreamlike rapture through the roof of the iconic Griffith Observatory. Only when Mia feels great uncertainty about her life via a torch song does Chazelle appropriately scale things back and strip them down. He knows the genre, and he has made sure that cinematographer Linus Sandgren, the production design and art departments, the musical squad (including co-star John Legend, who appears as a former acquaintance of Sebastian’s), composer Justin Hurwitz, and editor Tom Cross were all on the same page. The musical numbers never feel out of place, and the whole film runs like clockwork around them.

It’s also an embarrassment of riches that Chazelle was able to cast a pairing as charismatic and assured as Stone and Gosling. They’ve previously shown off their effortless ability to play off one another in past films together, but here they’re allowed something fully worthy of their talents. They can put their ability for deadpan comedy to great use. They both have a knack for saying more with a simple pained look than they ever could with a phrase. They can charm and antagonize each other in equal measure. If they appear in more movies together from here on out (and it would be nice, but unnecessary if they did), they could rightfully go down as one of the greatest on screen duos – romantic or otherwise – of all time. They literally bring out the best in each other, which is necessary when trying to deliver material as potentially alienating and foreign to modern day audiences as this.

Review: Sing

Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a theatre-loving koala, who is desperate for a hit show. As a last resort, Moon decides to hold a singing competition at the theatre. When the prize money is accidentally listed as $100,000 (instead of merely $1000), it attracts a horde of wannabe singers, including pig housewife Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), who is teamed up with the flamboyant Gunter (Nick Kroll), rocker porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), criminal gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton), crooning mouse Mike (Seth MacFarlane), and shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly). All the participants of the singing competition have to overcome their personal challenges, in order for the show to become a hit.

Sing is the latest animated film from Universal Studios and Illumination Entertainment, best known for Despicable Me. This film is a jukebox musical, taking its cues from singing competitions like American Idol, as well as the television series Glee. The film features dozens of well-known songs, ranging from Frank Sinatra classics to modern pop hits. In fact, one of the most entertaining scenes in the film is the audition montage, featuring hilarious renditions of songs like “Bad Romance,” “Kiss from a Rose,” and “Safety Dance.” Eventually, the competition is pared down to the core contestants, who rehearse for the big show, all while Buster Moon tries to find money to prevent the bank from closing the theatre before the show.

Sing almost doesn’t need to be an animated film with anthropomorphic animals, since this is a story that could have worked just well in a live action setting. However, the fact that it’s animals doing all this singing adds a certain cuteness to film, particularly a recurring gag involving a Japanese tanuki quintet. Sing is also loaded with celebrity voices, such as Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, and Scarlett Johansson, all of whom do their own singing in the film.

Sing is ultimately much more than just a jukebox musical, with the film also having messages about the power of song and how you shouldn’t let fear stop you from doing the thing you love.

Review: Collateral Beauty

Collateral Beauty is a strange, ungainly ensemble holiday movie. If I were to try and explain it to you, I would sound like a crazy person. I’ll try to do my best without spoiling everything (no matter how much I desperately want to in an effort to underline how strange this movie is), but I have a feeling you’ll have a lot of questions. Those questions are valid, but before I get into reciting the plot just know that the actual film will have few answers for those unlucky enough to sit through it.

For the past two years, New York marketing firm executive Howard (Will Smith) has been in a depressive funk following the death of his child. If he’s not sitting in his apartment catatonically looking off into space or trying to ride his bicycle full bore into oncoming traffic, he’s spending his work days hunkered down in his office making elaborate domino structures. He tries going to a support group for parents who have lost children (moderated by a kindly Naomi Harris), but he can’t bring himself to go into the building. He’s also so tortured that he writes and sends letters of anger and despair to three intangible constructs: death, time, and love. His partners at the firm – Whit, Claire, and Simon (Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, and Michael Peña) – have reached a point of critical concern, as the firm has been brought to the brink of destruction because Howard refuses to interact with any of their clients and he won’t hand off the business to anyone who can properly run the company while he recovers from his loss.

So concerned are his loyal partners that they concoct a plan to oust Howard by straight up gaslighting him. They hire a private investigator (Ann Dowd) to intercept the letters, and they pay a trio of actors – Madeline, Amy, and Raffi (Helen Mirren, Kiera Knightley, and Jacob Latimore) – an ungodly sum of cash to approach Howard in the real world as the embodiments of Death, Love, and Time, respectively. The hope – and indeed the only thing driving the plot – is that Howard is broken enough to believe that all of this is really happening and that by interacting with the embodiment of these constructs he’ll find closure.

For a moment, let’s forget about the lapses in logic and leaps of faith such a plot – created by screenwriter Allan Loeb (Just Go with It, Here Comes the Boom) – requires of the viewer. Let’s also forget that despite operating under the guise of caring for Howard’s well being that the aims of his colleagues are annoyingly self-serving, and that if this is the best plan they can come up with they could have spent just as much energy and time picking up Howard’s slack at work instead of crying and whining about it (although there’s some convoluted explanation that states on a contractual level that apparently Howard is the only person authorized to actually WORK at this firm).

Forgetting those massive problems, this isn’t an entirely terrible plot. Collateral Beauty is set at Christmastime, but it’s not altogether Christmas-y. In this respect the Dickensian employment of three “ghosts” in the vein of “A Christmas Carol” could hold some weight. It’s unabashed in its desire to emotionally manipulate the audience, but there could be something good or at least cathartic in that for some viewers. But Loeb and director David Frankel (Marley & Me, The Devil Wears Prada) want to create a show-stopping, celebrity packed ensemble film instead of focusing on Howard’s road to recovery. As fine as Smith is in all of his scenes (especially a scene where he takes Mirren to task on the subway), he’s curiously misused and lost amid a cast of supporting actors that have as much screen time as he does.

You see, much like Howard, his colleagues are hurting, too, but they also don’t want to admit it. Whit has his own beef with love, coming out of an acrimonious divorce after cheating on his wife, leaving him with a young daughter who hates his guts. Claire wants to have a baby, but she fears she has waited too long. Simon has been lying to his family about his health. They each get paired up by the script with one of the actors playing the core constructs to try and work out their problems. This is where the film starts to break down irreparably because none of these tangential storylines are playing on the same field.

The interactions between Peña and Mirren are so delightful that I wished the entire film was about the two of them. They’re such strong and capable performers that they make the vaporous material into something genuinely watchable. Next to Smith’s admittedly balanced performance and Frankel’s exceptionally beautiful and creative use of Christmas lights to light key scenes, they’re the best thing in the movie. That’s not a slight against Winslet and Latimore, but both of them are pretty much forgotten about and neither has anything worthwhile to do. They might as well not even be here.

As for Norton and Knightley, these are two of the worst performances you’ll see all year. Knightley’s cloying, doe eyed optimist that talks like an airhead constantly runs afoul of whatever inexplicably unholy acting turn Norton is trying to pull off here. As written, Whit is kind of a sleazeball, but Norton works overtime to try and make someone so lecherous into a misguided charmer. When Amy tells Whit he should try harder to earn his daughter’s affections back, Whit acts in a way that suggests he’s only going to hang out with his kid because it will give him a better chance of banging Amy.

Norton sucks the life out of the film every time he appears on screen, putting on a disingenuous, often confusing tone and cadence. I was trying to figure out if he even read the script. He’s either improvising every line of dialogue Whit has and hoping that his fellow cast members can keep up (leading to a film with a lot of awkward, unintentional pauses that I am shocked are in the final cut) or he genuinely doesn’t care.

Despite all of this, I can still say that Collateral Beauty works in individual moments where the cast are able to oh so briefly rise above the material. It’s a good idea borne from a plot that’s in the poorest of taste; like two good movies and two bad ones poorly stitched together at the hip. This concept could work, but Frankel and Loeb are abjectly clueless as to how they would ever pull it off, and they never stay in one place long enough to develop or enhance any of the storylines. Despite the shaky ground, I was almost compelled to give Collateral Beauty a slight pass because the good was outweighing the bad (with the caveat that Norton and Knightley be cut from this entirely)… until the ending of the film.

The ending of this film is one of the worst in cinematic history. I hesitate to even call it an ending. It’s a pair of scenes predicated upon a twist, and it’s not even the one you’re probably thinking is going to happen. The twist that’s easy to figure out is only kind of, sorta proven true because Frankel and Loeb jettison the one the audience has in mind for something much more nonsensical and good will killing. Frankel races through wrapping up the storylines of the colleagues, all of them left unfinished, and forgets to give his film any sort of third act. Where the third act should be is a painfully manipulative twist involving Howard that not only doesn’t make any sense (and feels worse after the somewhat villainous colleagues ultimately get their selfish desires fulfilled), but amounts to the most head-scratching logical swerve I’ve seen in a film since High Tension, a film that sucks, but at least has a third act.

There had to be massive cuts made to this film either in the editing room or at the script level. This is over two hours worth of story material packed into a 100 minute frame. Even the film’s good moments come across as unsatisfying by the time the credits roll, and I refuse to believe that anyone involved with Collateral Beauty could look at the last fifteen minutes and think it was remotely okay. Instead of a low aiming inspirational flick, Collateral Beauty becomes a cruel, bafflingly half-assed movie; something that if you were to show it to someone who actually lost a child they would never speak to you again. If you take someone who is feeling down to see Collateral Beauty, you might, for a while, think your intentions are good. By the end of the film, you will turn out to be a terrible friend.

Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Yes, the rumours are true.  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story lacks the crawl famous to all seven previously released  Star Wars movies. But more on that in just a bit.

In 1999, when George Lucas released the first of his Star Wars prequel movies, excitement was high. Unfortunately, those films proved to be a major disappointment, in part because of a razor-thin plot spread across three films, but largely because they destroyed the mythology of A New Hope and turned its villain — perhaps cinema’s greatest — into a whinny narcissistic teenager.

Who knew that it would take Walt Disney Studios — home of Mickey Mouse and Goofy — to stumble upon the right formula to explore the Star Wars past. For Rogue One explores events that occur before A New Hope AND strikes the right balance of providing a back story that is neither thin on plot nor destructive to the original film’s lore. And thanks to the leadership of producer (and Lucasfilm president) Kathleen Kennedy, Rogue One, a single-story entry located outside the official Star Wars saga, explores the events leading directly into A New Hope with the perfect mix of action and sentimentality.

Rogue One focuses on Jyd Erso (Felicity Jones), who as a young child witnesses the murder of her mother and forcible conscription of her scientist father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), into the Empire by its weapons director, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), for whom Galen builds the Death Star. Jyd is rescued and raised by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a militant rebel fighter who trains Jyd to be a great fighter before abandoning her when she is 16. When an Imperial cargo pilot (Riz Ahmed) defects to Saw with a message from Galen, the Rebel Alliance rescues Jyd from prison, where she’s held on unspecified charges, and sends her to Saw with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Rebel intelligence officer. Along the way, they are joined by Cassian’s droid, K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk); Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind man self-taught in some Jedi skills; and fighter Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). Together they attempt to steal the plans to the Death Star.

To go into any further detail into the plot would spoil the fun for Star Wars fans looking forward to seeing the film over the holidays. But Star Wars fans will delight in seeing old characters making appearances in the film, including Rebel leaders Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) –Princess Leia’s adopted father — and Mon Mothma (Genvieve O’Reilly) a character who originally appeared in Return of the Jedi. Grand Moff Tarkin, originally played by Peter Cushing in A New Hope also appears, as does Darth Vader himself, along with James Earl Jones’s voice. Even smaller characters make an appearance, including the man from Mos Eisley with 12 death sentences who attacks Luke.

But will Star Wars purists be content with Rogue One‘s stylistic differences? The crawl is missing. Elements of John Williams’s original score are used, but Michael Giacchino brings in a new treatment. And unlike the Star Wars saga, it is clear that Rogue One‘s lead characters won’t be in any other Star Wars movies; obviously, this film is intended to be a sideline to the main saga. Fans of A New Hope will squeal in delight in how Rogue One‘s characters, cameos and plot lines neatly and directly lead into the beginning of A New Hope, and director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters John Knoll and Gary Whitta should be commended. And stick around for the very end. You’ll be amazingly surprised.

Review: Lion

An exceptionally structured and suitably moving debut feature from Australian television veteran Garth Davis, the uplifting and at times quite subtle Lion takes bold chances with its story of one man’s search for his true identity. Lion could easily be written off by cynics as claptrap Oscar bait, but there’s no denying that Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies (Candy, Life) have crafted something fresh within the Hollywood crafted inspirational movie template. Divided almost into two films, Lion (which was the runner-up for the coveted Audience Choice Award at TIFF 2016) tells two true stories of overcoming adversity told from the perspective of the same character at different points in their life. Each story comes with its own distinct set of challenges and storytelling dynamics, but while the first half might be slightly better than the second, they still amount to a very admirable and accomplished whole.

As a child in 1986, Saroo Khan (played by Sunny Pawar as a tyke and Dev Patel as an adult) gets lost and abandoned at a train station, separating him from his mother and brother. After accidentally boarding a train about to leave the station, he travels alone for two days across the country where he’s seen as an orphan at his final destination because he speaks Hindu and not Bengali. After a year passes in an orphanage and his mother can’t be located, he’s sent to Tasmania to live with a pair of loving, adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). As an adult, Saroo appreciates his new life, but still feels like a lost boy. Through the use of Google Earth, research of train patterns, and calculating how fast and how far he would have travelled on that fateful day during his childhood, Saroo begins a lengthy, years long quest to find where he came from, while nagging questions about his family begin to eat away at him and threaten to destroy his otherwise healthy relationship with his supportive American girlfriend (Rooney Mara).

Davis and Davies spend almost the entire first hour alongside Pawar as young Saroo tries to navigate the dangerous life of a child on the streets of India. It’s harrowing, wrenching stuff that informs the rest of the film before the remarkable child actor hands things off to Patel. Shooting in murky tones and never eschewing the dark existence of being a homeless child on the streets of inner city India, Davis appropriately makes young Saroo’s existence into something nightmarish. Things aren’t just tough for the young boy, but damn near impossible, especially when one takes into account a language barrier that Saroo faces when he reaches his final destination of Calcutta, and his situation is made worse by evil adults who see a parentless child as an opportunity for potential exploitation, profit, or imprisonment.

There are no clichés for this sort of thing, and the first hour of Lion remains unassailably excellent. Newcomer Pawar finds a patient collaborator in Davis, who seems to be crafting the film’s lengthy set-up around the young man’s more natural abilities to react. It’s a child performance that seems uncoached and unforced, something that’s no small feat for any filmmaker, and an admirable decision on the part of the filmmaker. Without a child as believable as Pawar, Lion might have amounted to something a lot more manufactured in tone and depth of feeling.

When the story shifts to 2008 and adult Saroo’s quest for closure, Patel commands the screen and delivers the best performance of his career. People often talk about actors who “disappear into their roles,” but Patel’s performance is like watching a man disappear. His existential and melancholic malaise grows, and he answers the film’s ultimate questions about privilege through his performance. It’s a highly internalized turn that only allows for a few moments of genuine levity and joy from the actor, most notably a wonderful meet-cute between Saroo and Mara’s Lucy that turns into an awkward, but charming impromptu dance sequence. Patel plays Saroo as someone who desperately wants happiness and closure, but has few ideas on how to achieve either of them.

Patel also lifts up the somewhat saggy second half of the film where inspirational movie clichés start to form, but never fully take hold thanks to Davis’ directorial restraint. Patel has great chemistry alongside Kidman and Mara, but neither has much of anything to do except look concerned for their loved one. The number of times these great female performers are saddled with looking at their onscreen son or boyfriend with furrowed brows and worried eyes is somewhat distressing, and a subplot involving Saroo’s tempestuous fellow adopted brother from a different family (Divian Ladwa) distracts from the core narrative more than it informs.

It’s never in doubt that Saroo will achieve some sort of catharsis or closure by the end of the film, no matter how hard Patel tries to lay the character’s mental unravelling bare for the audience to see. And yet, any overarching criticisms one could levy towards Lion feel like minor speed bumps. Davis and his crew have adapted Saroo Khan’s life with great poignancy and respect towards an experience that few people on earth could fathom or completely understand. Lion has been made free from cynicism and yet keeps a keen eye on how unfair the world can be. It’s a delicate tightrope to walk, but Davis and Patel does it quite well.

Review: Office Christmas Party

There aren’t many titles in film history as bland and uninspired as Office Christmas Party. Although the latest film from the directorial duo of Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory, The Switch) is a passable enough bit of ribald, seasonal gross out gags and good cheer in equal measure, it never rises above a title that adequately explains how “meh” the whole thing is. It’s a film where there will be an Office Christmas Party, and in that respect the results can’t be that much of a letdown. It’s just that too much of the film doesn’t take place at the party, and that’s where things are a bit uneasy. It’s an ensemble comedy that can thank its almost overqualified cast for allowing the film to barely rise above its unexceptional title.

The managerial team at a Chicago tech firm is having a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit. Branch manager Josh (Jason Bateman) has just settled a traumatic, costly divorce. Security manager and chief tech engineer Tracey (Olivia Munn) feels like her cool new idea to turn any available light source into an internet connection isn’t being taken seriously. Actually, everyone in the office has some sort of crisis going on in their lives, but perhaps none more serious than what Clay (T.J. Miller) is experiencing. He’s one of the heads of the company, but he’s a bit of a stoner, burnout, and screw up, and he finds himself amid a custody battle for his father’s company with his sneeringly evil CEO and older sister, Carol (Jennifer Aniston).

On what’s supposed to be the night of the big “non-denominational holiday party” (as Kate McKinnon’s requisite square H.R. rep calls it), Carol announces that not only is the shindig not happening and all holiday bonuses are cancelled, but Clay, Josh, and Tracey will have to cut 40% of their staff and potentially shut down if they don’t meet their quarterly expectations in the next two days. Their only tangible hope of pulling off such a Christmas miracle comes in the form of courting a wealthy investor (Courtney B. Vance) to invest $15 million in their company. Clay’s plan: to throw the party to end all parties as soon as Carol is safely on her plane to London that night and prove to their potential angel that his company is one that cares deeply for the people working there. Unfortunately for Clay, the party might not be enough to turn employee morale around and various circumstances will conspire to make the evening an out of control affair.

That’s a lot of plot for a film that can’t be bothered to come up with a more interesting title, and the lengthy, unnecessary, and rudimentary exposition dumps contained within a script that astoundingly took six people (three for the screenplay, three for the story) to come up with never amount to anything novel or revelatory. The relationships between the characters are fine enough to allow the actors to interact with one another on a comic level, but outside of a burgeoning relationship between Tracey and Josh and the acrimonious sibling rivalry between Clay and Carol, none of it really matters. The first 40 minutes or so of Office Christmas Party lag as a result of such overstuffing, and it’s all made worse by nothing having any sort of interesting or unexpected payoff. And the less said about the tacky, feel good ending, the better.

Everything one thinks will happen is going to happen exactly when, where, and how they think it will; only here that’s parcelled out over a lot of characters, many of whom could get axed without damaging the film. I’m looking squarely at Rob Corddry’s perpetually stand-offish and pessimistic customer service rep and Randall Park as a co-worker with an unusual sexual fetish. They’re talented performers, but they have nothing to do here. More successful supporting turns come from Karan Soni’s lonely, nerdy, programmer who hires an escort (Abbey Lee) to be his date to the party, Vanessa Bayer’s single mom accountant, and Jillian Bell’s gleefully unhinged pimp, who hatches a scheme to steal a bunch of cash from Clay. Also, it should go without saying that McKinnon can get literally more mileage out of a fart than most of these cast members can get from a speech.

As wonky as everything is, however, there’s a spirit of good cheer that shines through here. As revelations about some of the characters come to light, Office Christmas Party transitions nicely into a balanced sort of yuletide redemption tale that taps into what makes the film work even during some occasional poorly written scenes. With the exception of Aniston, Corddry, Bell, Lee and a few bit players, the primary characters are all likeable in their own way. While Aniston can play evil well, it’s a refreshing change of pace to see Bateman and Miller retain their penchant for sarcastic deadpan while playing genuine, nice people trying to do the best they can. Individual scenes where two cast members are allowed to interact with each other one on one are the high spots of the film because everyone here has remarkable chemistry with their fellow cast members. While there’s too much plot, there are just enough of these kinds of scenes to make Office Christmas Party entertaining.

Review: Allied

Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is a Canadian spy and fighter pilot loaned out to the British RAF in the early days of World War II for a dangerous mission in French Morocco (Casablanca, to be exact). He’s teamed up with Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard), an undercover French resistance officer, to play socialite husband and wife in order to get close to a major Nazi target and assassinate him. Their plan goes smoothly, and in the process Max and Marianne develop romantic feelings for each other. Upon heading back to England, the pair marries and have a child together, but when key information about Marianne’s past surfaces, Max is forced to question if his new wife is who she appears to be.

Yet another film where Pitt plays a World War II Nazi hunting heroic type, Robert Zemeckis’ Allied entertains in its second half, but never feels like a fully cohesive final product. The spy mission that brings Max and Marianne together in the first place is dishwater dull and takes up the entire first half of the film. The second half of Allied, where Max’s superiors suspect Marianne of being a Nazi mole is a lot sillier of a film, packed to bursting with red herrings and obvious plot holes, provided by prolific hit-or-miss screenwriter Steven Knight who’s great when he’s on top of his game (Locke, Eastern Promises) and dreadful while off it (Burnt, Pawn Sacrifice).

The first hour of rather generic tropes where Marianne basically has to talk Max through the motions of being a spy has more obvious action beats, but also underwhelms in every other respect. Partly to blame for the early overall stagnancy of Allied is Zemeckis (whose C.V. should need no introduction by now). The director clearly wants to mount a classically influenced World War II drama, doing his best to emphasize the look of smoky nightclubs, dusty marketplaces, and good looking people that are far too old to be playing these characters captured in soft focus to distract from the amount of make-up they’re wearing. None of it is particularly entertaining, and the phase where Max and Marianne are getting to know one another is positively somnambulant, with the audience learning precious little about each character, save for the fact that Max has an obsession with retiring early and buying a ranch in Medicine Hat. Zemeckis has always had a sometimes annoying knack for placing his own technical desires for a film over the emotional needs of the material, and the first half of Allied might be one of the worst examples of this tendency.

Also, for all the hemming and hawing that gossip rags have done about a potential fling between the two stars, it’s equally disappointing to note that for the first hour the actors have as much chemistry together as a snow plow and a Rubik’s Cube placed side by side on a beach completely out of context. Neither of them is particularly bad on their own, but they never feel like they’re in the same film. They barely ever make eye contact, their personalities are way off from how the characters are written, and Pitt often plays like he’s too cool and suave for her, which again, isn’t how this is written to be played. There should be some shred of attraction, and by the time the couple finally hooks up (somewhat hilariously having sex in a car amid a sandstorm) the viewer has little clue why they would hop into bed with each other outside of the fact that they could end up dead the next day, which is a classic World War II picture trope, but makes no sense here.

But once the action shifts to Pitt and Cotillard’s martial and familial bliss at their North London estate, Zemeckis, Pitt, and Cotillard ditch the stuffiness for a fun, but highly illogical yarn. The chemistry between Pitt and Cotillard strengthens here because Knight’s screenplay finally incorporates a healthy dose of levity into the material that the actors seize upon immediately. The start to embrace the silliness of it all, and Zemeckis gives them plenty of colourful, potentially suspect supporting characters to surround themselves with (including Jared Harris as Max’s constantly glowering superior and Lizzy Caplan as his lesbian sister and fellow soldier). A scene where a worried Max awaits a phone call while staring at what might be the world’s loudest ticking alarm clock is particularly silly, but I get the sense that it’s meant to be. That silly tone is also more suited for the kind of film that Zemeckis is trying to make. He’s awful here with the romantic elements, but just fine with the goofy popcorn theatrics.

The set-up is too serious for its own good, but the second half offers up some much needed camp relief to send the film out on a relatively high note; one that’s never really in doubt and is predicated upon a plot hole so maddening that the mind boggles as to how it was left in there. Still, in terms of entertainment value, it works just fine. That still doesn’t justify the languorous opening hour that thinks its developing character, when in reality it’s just wasting a lot of time because none of it will matter and very little of it will come up again. The first half wants to be Casablanca styled prestige picture so badly that everyone involved feels the need to underline it. The second half wants to be a lightweight B-picture from a bygone era. The best thing I can say for people who want to see Allied is that you could probably walk in an hour late, enjoy what you see, and not feel like you remotely missed anything.

Review: Bad Santa 2

When Bad Santa was released in 2003, we hadn’t seen anything quite like it. No film had quite as much fun bastardizing the Christmas genre with such filthy glee. Billy Bob Thornton’s lewd Santa Claus remains a Christmas classic that many return to yearly, much like the more sanitized classics like Home Alone. This is why a sequel is particularly tricky: it’s such a beloved, unique film that its sequel was bound to have a tricky time filling those boots. And this is the case occasionally with Bad Santa 2, which is definitely an inferior film.

Bad Santa 2 resumes 13 years after we last saw Willie (Thornton), the washed-up, alcoholic conman. We learn that in the last 13 years he hasn’t done much. He still keeps in touch with that adorable kid from the first movie, Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), all grown up now and clueless as ever. Unfortunately, Willie is single, hopelessly drunk, broke, and suicidal. Without any other prospects, he agrees to reunite with his old partner Marcus (Tony Cox) to help with another big heist that promises a huge 2-million dollar payout. So Willie travels to Chicago with Marcus, Thurman in hot pursuit, where he dons his Santa suit once again. Major cameos in the movie include Kathy Bates, who has an occasionally creepy/occasionally funny turn as Willie’s crass mother and partner, and Christina Hendricks as Willie’s ample-bosomed love interest.

The tone of Bad Santa 2 is pretty similar to the first one, if slightly less edgy and less mean. It’s cleaner, if that makes sense. The jokes all revolve around a few central things: Marcus’ height, Willie’s love for anal sex with larger women, and Thurman. Some of them are pretty funny, though Thornton seems like he’s half-hearting it. There’s also plenty of Christmas music and whisky. Overall, this is a sometimes weak sequel that relies on the same types of jokes as the original; for some this may be good enough.

Review: Rules Don’t Apply

Where has Warren Beatty been? Even for Beatty, who often has long gaps between films, 15 years is a long time since his last on-screen appearance (Town and Country). But with his newest cinematic effort, Rules Don’t Apply, Beatty is back to old form, writing, producing and directing a film in which he again places himself in the central role.

Set in 1958, Rules Don’t Apply follows Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), a young aspiring actor placed under contract by eccentric businessman and film producer Howard Hughes (Beatty). When she arrives in Hollywood with her mother (Annette Bening), she is escorted by limo driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), an ambitious young man who hopes to pitch a grandiose real-estate scheme to Hughes. There is an attraction between Marla and Frank, although neither can act on it, in part because they are both devoutly religious, in part because Frank is already engaged, but mainly because Hughes strictly prohibits dating and sexual contact between employees. That same rule doesn’t seem to apply to Hughes himself, as he eventually seduces Marla in his weird, eccentric manner. Hughes’s seduction of Marla puts a roadblock in her already complicated yet unconsummated relationship with Frank; they have already gone to great lengths to hide their flirtatious banters. Frank, in the meantime, rises to become both a business aide and confident to Hughes.

It’s difficult to understand what Beatty’s intentions were with the film. At the core, the film is about Marla and Frank, and it’s their story around which most of the action of the film revolves. And most of the film’s secondary characters (both fictional and historical), played by well-known, older veteran actors, including Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen and Steve Coogan in incidental cameos, serve mainly to support Marla and Frank. Yet a large chunk of the narrative is devoted to Beatty’s interpretation of Hughes, and this may be where the film falters. It’s not that Beatty’s performance is bad–it’s not–but Beatty, who’s about 25 years too old to play Hughes, who would have been around 52 during the timeline of the film, seems to be building a film around his go-to formula of casting himself at the centre of attention.

Who can knock Beatty for being seemingly narcissistic? Beatty, long rumoured to be the subject of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”, has been in front of the camera since he was 20. He produced and acted in the revolutionary Bonnie and Clyde when he was 29. And think of all the successful movies he’s directed, produced or written in which he’s been the star: Shampoo (in which he played a womanizer), Heaven Can Wait (he’s a football quarterback here), and Dick Tracy (he’s a comic book hero for this one!) But in these movies, many of which also feature a large ensemble cast, it was clear that he was playing the central character. In Rules Don’t Apply, he’s playing a supporting character who’s given the starring role. Many scenes cut from Marla and Frank to Howard, who, in his nutty paranoia, plots to seduce Marla, manipulate Frank and avoid investors from possibly committing him to a psychiatric hospital. Beatty does a fine job performing the quirky Hughes, and he seems to be having fun. It’s too bad Beatty had a difficult time sharing the limelight. Marla and Frank’s romance was as interesting as Hughes’s manipulation of the young couple. It’s too bad he didn’t focus on one story more.

Review: Moana

On the island of Motunui, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) lives a quiet life. Ruled by her father Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), with Moana next in line, the islanders have thrived for years. Chief Tui has forbidden anyone from ever sailing beyond the reef of their island though, and Moana has always wondered what lies beyond. When the island begins to wither under a curse, created when demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of Te Fiti, Moana feels called to action by her ancestors and sets out to find Maui and make him return the heart of Te Fiti.

That brief synopsis is only scratching the surface of what Moana has to offer viewers. Filled with the kind of culture you’ve never witnessed in any animated feature before, this is a film that embraces its story, background, and characters. Honestly, the trailers just aren’t selling this one enough. There’s a rich history to be found within the film, all beautifully explored in its setup. Stories of gods and legends fill the opening frames, all leading up to a perfect merging of the stories with the reality that Moana lives in. It’s exciting to watch, beautiful to look at, filled with some great laughs, and most importantly, has a lead character that finally leaves the trends behind.

Don’t be mistaken, Moana is an amazing animated film. It’s fun and exciting, with just enough tension to keep you watching to see what happens, but that’s not why the film is so incredible. This film succeeds where so many others have failed, and will hopefully mark a turning point for films in the future. Moana is the most amazing character to grace a Disney film, whose history of offering princesses to the world has left some wondering why there wasn’t more to the characters.

Moana isn’t set to marry someone. She’s not searching for her true love either. Nobody questions how a young woman can do any of the things she does. She’s the next in line to rule the islanders, and nobody says a word about the fact that she’s a woman. She is simply Moana. She is able to do what she does because she is a person, not because she’s a woman. When she fails at something, it’s not because she’s a woman, and when she succeeds, it’s not looked at like an accomplishment because a woman has done it. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to sit down and watch a film that doesn’t involve some kind of romance at the heart of it. It’s the reason I tend to steer clear of Disney films to be honest. This changes things. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

The performances are wonderful, from Auli’i Cravalho’s portrayal of Moana and Dwayne Johnson’s overly confident, slightly egotistical, and always funny Maui, down to the less seen roles like Moana’s grandmother Tala (Rachel House) and a hilarious sequence led by Jemaine Clement’s jewel adorned giant crab Tamatoa. The animation is incredibly well done, offering up swirling storms on the ocean, and some rather creative villains standing in the way of Moana and Maui. The music just adds another layer of perfection, and the songs will leave you singing your way out of the theatre.

That’s all just icing on the cake though. The reason to see Moana is because of the outstanding female characters they’ve created here. Little girls finally have a hero to look up to that isn’t out searching for a man. Little boys will realize that girls can do everything they can do, and that it’s not a shock when they do it. The world has shown that values and ideas are hard to change when we’re older. Moana couldn’t have come at a better time. This is a message that kids need to learn, so that perhaps they’ll be able to live in a world that is vastly different from where we are right now. See this because it’s a wonderful film that the whole family will love, but also because it’s a film that will teach kids the way things should really be in the world.

Review: Bleed for This

Providence, Rhode Island’s own Vinny “The Paz-manian Devil” Pazienza, played in writer-director Ben Yonger’s biopic Bleed for This by Miles Teller, was an unlikely boxing success story of the late 1980s. Winner of various titles in both lightweight and middleweight divisions, Vinny Paz had a lackadaisical, devil-may-care persona outside the ring, but the heart and drive of a champion inside. But just as Pazienza’s career was achieving new heights, a near fatal 1991 car crash left the boxer with a broken neck and a spinal injury that threatened to derail the champion’s future in the business.

Anyone who knows the story of Pazienza knows that Bleed for This will become yet another comeback sports story, but I guess it’s a credit to Younger that he waits nearly a full hour for tragedy and setback to kick in. And anyone who does their research into Pazienza knows that a considerable amount of this is being told with rose coloured glasses (since the charismatic boxer really isn’t that likeable outside the sport) and with an eye towards as many high-spot feel good theatrics and montages as possible. It’s a well made film, and certainly an entertaining one that boasts lovely period detail and game performances, but it’s an easy one to successfully mount.

It’s all very well steeped in Stallone’s Rocky Balboa efforts, but with a protagonist with decidedly less humility. Vinny has a grizzled, alcoholic trainer with a hair trigger temper, played nicely by Aaron Eckhart in the best role he’s been given in the past several years. His father and manager (Ciarán Hinds) is a flashy dresser and big personality, so you can see where Vinny gets his swagger from. Katey Sagal looks like she’s having a blast as Vinny’s mother. Vinny has demons of his own, and he struggles when forced to think about what his life would be like if he didn’t have boxing to fall back on. Teller’s performance in the lead is the right amount of transformative dramatic work and subtly goofy character beats.

Those who’ve never experienced a Rocky film or any of its like minded brethren and those who’ve never heard of Pazienza will know exactly what to expect from Bleed for This. It’s just another one of those “athletic hero of the working class” tales. Nothing strikes as particularly surprising because the film wouldn’t be pitched at the tonal level it aims for if things weren’t going to work out more or less okay in the end. It’s a good time movie directed with the élan of a two hour music video from a bygone era, but since that’s what it aims to be, that’s the mark that gets hit. Sometimes one can’t entirely fault a film for being predictable if the final results are as successful as Bleed for This.

But outside of the credible performances from a cast of heavy-hitting pros, the biggest asset here is Younger, a talented filmmaker who doesn’t work nearly as often as he should. Younger has only made two features prior to this: the cult classic stock trading flick Boiler Room in 2000 and the underrated romantic comedy Prime in 2005. He’s an energetic director well steeped in Hollywood convention, but capable of pulling back the reigns to allow a great deal of subtlety and performance to shine through.

If the first half of Bleed for This documenting Pazienza’s rise to prominence is decidedly unsubtle, it’s the film’s second half where the boxer mounts his comeback that feels like a refreshing take on time tested material. Amid the standardized training montages, Younger allows for contemplative moments where the characters dwell on their past decisions, almost existentially wondering aloud where they’re all going to end up. It doesn’t lose the crowd pleasing feeling, however. Those subtle character beats are what make Bleed for This a 12th round, split-decision winner. It’s an easy film to watch and enjoy with just enough meat left on the bones.

Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

In Ang Lee’s almost experimental melodrama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, newcomer Joe Alwyn stars as the titular character, a 19-year-old specialist from small town Texas serving in an airborne division in Iraq circa 2004. Billy’s returning home to his family briefly on Thanksgiving weekend to participate in a press tour tied to a heroic act of hand to hand combat against an enemy combatant that has culminated in his entire unit becoming part of a halftime show during a professional football game in Dallas and a potential film deal, spearheaded by a slick agent played by Chris Tucker. As soon as the game ends, the press tour is over and they all get shipped back to Iraq. Amid all the attention, Billy wrestles with the memory of the deceased Staff Sergeant he tried to save (played in flashbacks by Vin Diesel, a man so sweet and thoughtful that he takes time to tell each member of his squad he loves them before they go into battle), and Billy’s sister (Kristen Stewart) worries that her little brother might be suffering from severe PTSD.

There’s something decidedly unreal and almost hypnotic about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and I’m not referring to Lee’s decision to film in hyper-realistic, previously unheard of 120 frames per second 3D. The press screening I attended was in regular, everyday 2D, but clearly Lee made the film with the technology specifically in mind. Things are constantly flying at the camera, and many of the film’s numerous soliloquies are delivered in tight close-ups with actors almost directly addressing the audience instead of the character they’re supposedly talking to. This adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel doesn’t feel quite like a literary adaptation, often gets pitched at the tonal level of a stage play, and looks like the panels of a graphic novel come to life before a viewer’s eyes.

I mean all of these points as good things. With Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Lee has crafted something that could have been a rather stereotypical coming home narrative and turned it into something that’s never been seen or attempted before. While the mileage of some will undoubtedly vary, I appreciate and, quite frankly, adore the effort that Lee and first time screenwriter Jean-Christophe Castelli have put into their work here. It emphatically shouldn’t work on paper, and yet in practice I was visually enthralled, emotionally engaged, and constantly invested in what happened to these young men.

Bouncing back and forth between their time in Iraq, Billy reconnecting with his dysfunctional family, and their time spent being paraded around like a patriotic side show at the big game, Lee seeks to find deeper meaning between the expectation of a hero soldier and the reality of their existence, forever doomed to get ego boosts from people who would never in a million years have the guts to actually join the military. Billy isn’t nearly as jaded as most of his unit members, and he’s certainly not as sarcastic and surly as his commanding officer, Dime, played by a scene stealing Garret Hedlund in the role he was practically born to play. Billy, like most 19-year-olds, barely has an idea of who he is, and is understandably uncomfortable with all of the attention.

It helps to have a newcomer that’s as strong of a performer as Alwyn anchoring the material. The viewer has no misconceptions about the person playing the character, so it makes all the attention and praise lavished upon Billy harder to understand. The decision to cast a newcomer in the first place seems like the lynchpin for Lee’s overall vision for the film, even more so than his stylistic gambits. We want to care about Billy because he seems so normal and out of place amid his increasingly outlandish circumstances.

It’s an approach that Lee took with his last successful feature, Life of Pi, but despite similarly groundbreaking technology being employed in the making of his latest film, the storytelling of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is more indebted to the filmmakers work on Hulk or The Ice Storm. Lee, with varying degrees of success, has always reveled in taking worn out genre tropes and making them into something poetic and spiritual. Here, Lee’s work comes deeply indebted to William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, and not so much the recent glut of returning soldier films like Stop Loss, The Lucky Ones, or The Messenger. He’s concerned about how soldiers are treated in a respectful manner on a thematic level, but the narrative cadence strives for something a bit more classical, and Lee remains unafraid if his material comes across as stilted or unrealistic. Through the eyes of Lynn – who truly is the audience surrogate visually and narratively – everything seems like a hyper-realistic, sometimes nightmarish fever dream that moves faster than 120 frames per second.

Whenever Lee goes into close-up mode, he does so because he wants the viewer to feel Billy’s sense of growing discomfort and unease about everything. I never got the sense that Lee wants the viewers to get any sense of comfort out of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and that’s a bold decision. It makes what could have been a standard tearjerker and heartstring tugger into something that borders on confrontational. It’s literally an in-your-face kind of picture. Whether or not his experimental shooting style and technological bent plays into that well is something I can’t judge. All I can judge is that there’s a great movie in here.

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Bestselling author and Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling makes her screenwriting debut with the tangentially Potter related spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but that’s hardly the greatest appeal of this fantastical wizarding adventure. Rowling’s greenness as a screenwriter often runs afoul of her skills as a storyteller. Without having to adapt her own previously existing material, Rowling has to create something more or less from scratch (with only a textbook written by a character that never actually had a life of its own) for a medium she hasn’t attempted before. While she flounders as a first time feature screenwriter, the film benefits from an injection of fresh blood and some old collaborators who understand the beats of her writing very well.

Scholarly eccentric Brit (and expelled Hogwarts student) Newt Scarmander (Eddie Redmayne) has devoted his life to the study and collection of endangered magical beasts; creatures feared and misunderstood by both humans and wizards alike. His travels bring him to New York City circa 1926 where he runs afoul of not only a culture clash, but a dark force that has been wreaking havoc on humans and threatening to uncover the secret wizarding world. After accidentally switching his bottomless briefcase of wonders (complete with its own various ecosystems) with that of a kindly human named Jacob (Dan Fogler), he runs afoul of a go-getting, fallen from grace detective with the Magical Congress of the United States of America named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Together, they have to recover the missing creatures that have escaped from Newt’s case and save the world from a dark, uncontrollable force of unknown origin.

I understand that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the beginning of a franchise, but with only a set amount of screen time to work with, Rowling’s ideas are often crashing into each other haphazardly, all while trying to mount a conventional sort of popcorn blockbuster. Newt has his own motives for his trip. Jacob develops a verboten, but adorable romance with Tina’s mind reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol). Tina constantly finds herself at odds with her obviously somewhat evil boss, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, who gets the short end of the stick here because he’s almost immediately shown as being up to no good, so there’s no ambiguity or suspense to seeing him turn up) and the president of the magic police (Carmen Ejogo, mostly glowering and always sounding dire and humourless). There’s a newspaper baron (Jon Voight) whose son is mounting a senate campaign. There’s talk about a heinously evil wizard who has been missing for quite some time. Then there’s the matter of “The Second-Salemers,” a religious organization whose organizer (Samantha Morton) beats her shy, magic curious son (Ezra Miller) mercilessly and regularly, and who wants to start up some brand new witch trials.

I kind of had an idea of what was going on, but I was never sure when the film would ever get around to settling on a single plot of any kind. Some of this all ties together, but most of it gets wrapped up so neatly that these elements aren’t even setting anything up for a sequel. By the time the film pole vaults into its own relatively disappointing climax and into more endings than the final Lord of the Rings film, it turns out that almost all of it doesn’t matter, making it either filler or very lightweight seeds being sown for future installments. It doesn’t help that Rowling consistently sabotages her easy to follow but labyrinthine narrative by stopping things every ten minutes or so for elaborate set pieces where Redmayne, Fogler, and Waterston have to capture a beast (like a kleptomaniac platypus looking thing or trying to tame a particularly horny rhino thing in Central Park). The set pieces are a lot of fun, but whenever they came up – which was often – I was always in danger of retaining everything the film told me to keep track of.

Her vision, however, remains astounding, just in need of some paring, pruning, and tasteful restraint here and there. It all works, but it could work so much better if Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them wasn’t trying to cram three films of material into one entry. She’s enough of a big shot to pretty much earn a blank cheque from Warner Brothers at this point, so she could have taken things a bit slower, and hopefully if this becomes the megahit it’s purported to be, she can rectify it in future entries.

One thing that comes through expertly is her ability to create fascinating characters that dole out little bits and pieces of their lives through actions and casual chats rather than exposition packed speeches or unnecessary narration. Her ability to create likeable characters, ambiguous middlemen, and loathsome supervillains has always seemed effortless, and that comes through here with performances that the cast can sink their teeth into.

Redmayne makes for a likeable hero, making Newt just skittish and awkward enough to be engaging instead of off putting. He has wonderful chemistry with Waterston and Fogler, both of whom deliver the best and warmest performances in the film alongside the thoroughly charming work put in by the scene stealing Sudol. Much like with the Potter films, these are characters that I wouldn’t mind spending more time with in the future.

Another major asset is the return of frequent Potter director David Yates, someone who understands Rowling’s blend of character, drama, whimsy, and action almost innately. Yates wants to make this a showstopping film on a visual level, constantly staying in motion and panning around the scenery to show the grandeur, wonder, and period detail of every bit of production design. He knows when things need to be sped up, and with the exception of the overlong coda and final battle sequence, he knows when they need to be slowed down. He’s able to bring out the best in Rowling’s material, even if the successful scribe is still getting a handle on the screenwriting thing.

Review: The Edge of Seventeen

The debut directorial effort of screenwriter Kelly Fremon CraigThe Edge of Seventeen marks the first unequivocally exceptional teen dramedy of the post-John Hughes era. At turns broadly funny and heart-wrenchingly serious in its approach to one girl’s awkward teenage years, The Edge of Seventeen feels like a classic in the making that will be embraced for generations to come. Even people who have long thought that they’ve outgrown teen flicks will find that Craig’s efforts can stir huge feelings in even the most jaded of hearts. It’s one of the rare films in the genre to cast teens not as stereotypical archetypes, but as the awkward, intelligent human beings they are

Hailee Steinfeld, giving her best performance since True Grit, stars as Nadine Byrd, a high school junior several years removed from the death of her father, trying to come to terms with her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) dating her fitness obsessed older brother (Blake Jenner), her increasingly flighty mother (Kyra Sedgwick), and figuring out her feelings towards a bad-boy crush (Alexander Calvert) and a kindly, awkward artistic friend (Hayden Szeto).

Craig, who previously penned the script for the underrated comedy Post Grad, teams up with veteran producer James L. Brooks (As Good as It Gets, Jerry Maguire), and the material here fits perfectly into the producer’s wheelhouse. Much like many other films Brooks has produced, The Edge of Seventeen boasts a protagonist that’s well meaning, searching for a greater purpose, and at times is hard to like. The viewer wants Nadine to experience some sort of peace in her life because the form of social anxiety she’s experiencing feels painfully real, but at the same time one really does wish she’d just chill out and assess a situation before going nuclear on everyone around her.

While Nadine exhibits plenty of character traits that people will remember experiencing during their teenage years, viewers will likely see more of themselves in the supporting characters. The best friend role, the sage older brother, and the nerdy character have all matured to a point where they still aren’t adults, but they’re more open to the world around them than Nadine is, and Craig has cast the perfect actors to be the foils for Steinfeld’s sometimes surly barbs. The true audience surrogate here comes in the form of Woody Harrelson’s terrifically dry turn as a sarcastic, but sympathetic history teacher who always finds himself in the unenviable position of talking Nadine down from every metaphorical ledge she finds herself on.

Craig casts Nadine as the type of person for whom everything is a world ending disaster, but Steinfeld imbues the character with a large amount of intelligence beyond her appropriately youthful hyperbole. Much like those around her, Nadine has been given a wealth of subtle reasons for acting the way she does, so even at her most callous she feels understandable even if her actions and reactions aren’t justified.

There’s a remarkable amount of narrative depth being shown here by Craig, even if the film doesn’t offer much to talk about in terms of technical complexity, often presenting small town Oregon life as a “take it or leave it” sort of thing, which still serves the material well. She has clearly studied teen movies of the past, learned from their mistakes, and put a lot of her own heart and soul into each of the characters to create realistic conflict. The interplay between these characters can often delightfully feel like one’s own internal monologue, constantly questioning if correct decisions have been made or if something comes across as an overreaction. Teen films aren’t know for balancing young adult emotions with grace, subtlety, and a lack of stereotypes, so The Edge of Seventeen feels like a true cause for celebration.

Review: Nocturnal Animals

Fashion designer, filmmaker, and screenwriter Tom Ford returns in a big way with Nocturnal Animals, his first feature since his debut with A Single Man. It’s a dazzling, visceral, and often satirical look at the link between an artist and their art. What’s even more spectacular about it is that the artist isn’t really shown all that much in the text of the film, but Ford’s adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan” says plenty about the artist that made the film. There’s a lot to unpack here, and a lot of it will probably spark a lot of discussion and debate over the artistic merits of Nocturnal Animals, but that just makes the final results all the more fascinating.

Unhappily married visual artist Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) has just received a package from novelist Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal, playing this character in only a small handful of flashbacks), her ex-husband. It’s a novel dedicated to her, despite the fact that they haven’t spoken in almost twenty years. The mysterious novel tells the story of a family man named Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) who watched his wife and teenage daughter get kidnapped on a rural Texas highway by a pack of homicidal good ol’ boys (led by Aaron Taylor Johnson, playing one of the year’s best villains). The wife and daughter turn up dead, and a local lawman (Michael Shannon) leads up the investigation and helps to bring the grieving man some sense of peace and justice. As Susan reads the novel, she flashes back to her past relationship with Edward and wonders how she ended up in her current situation.

Ford has delivered not only a gorgeously composed film, but also one of the most artfully entertaining stories of the year. It’s a blend of lowbrow pulp and a sharp stick in the eye of artistic elites. It’s about how sometimes trashy material like the novel Edward has penned  can be far more cathartic and illuminating than the kind of “honest,” pretentious, prestigious art Susan has been unhappily creating and curating. It’s a sometimes messy, but consistently engaging and wildly entertaining screed against materialism and how the wealthy and sheltered often confuse sentimentality and emotion for weakness. At turns, it’s also deeply problematic, dancing dangerously close to sexist territory the more the film takes on the trappings of a revenge narrative. It’s a mean, nasty film, but one where the darkness of the material makes for a more intellectually engaging experience.

It’s one of those films that I think more traditional and academic minded critics will scoff at because Ford’s purposefully heavy-handed use of symbolism, foreshadowing, colour grading, and penchant for matching shots are all obvious. I would suggest that the obviousness of Nocturnal Animals remains its greatest appeal. The audience is in on a twisted joke that Susan can’t quite grasp and never fully does. Both of the worlds created by Ford are obvious ones with different sets of dangers and fears. The fictional world of Edward is a gorgeous, picaresque one (highlighted by Seamus McGarvey’s stunning cinematography) with life or death consequences lurking around every dusty mesa; a place without a sense of justice. The “real” world of Susan is wholly artificial, packed with largely inconsequential pitfalls, cattiness, and a selfish drive towards self-preservation. Clearly, Ford stakes a claim via Wright’s material that he would rather die in the fictional world than live in the real one.

It’s a strange stance for a fashion designer, screenwriter, and filmmaker to take, since Ford occupies three of the most privileged jobs on the planet, but in some ways he’s a better critic for this way of life. Nocturnal Animals comes across as an angry film made by someone that share’s literary antihero Holden Caufield’s disdain for phonies. It’s a film about an unseen writer guiding a story out of anger made by an unseen (but loudly heard) filmmaker who’s all too keenly aware of how great he has it in life. It’s a conflicted film, but that conflict that Ford exhibits towards material he feels such a personal and artistic investment in makes Nocturnal Animals so dazzling.

I can’t say much more about Nocturnal Animals without giving away every little detail of the film, but I will say that the meaner the film gets, the funnier it becomes. On a second viewing, I wasn’t nearly as enamoured with the film as I was the first time I saw it, but I was left with a lot more to think about, including how problematic it becomes upon closer inspection. But as a purposefully unsubtle take-no-prisoners satire and artfully pulpy revenge thriller, Nocturnal Animals remains satisfying and almost immune to criticism or scrutiny. It’s exactly the film that Ford intended to make about the world these characters intended to create for themselves.

Review: Shut In

In the snowy horror thriller Shut In (which opened today without the benefit of advance screenings for critics), Naomi Watts stars as Dr. Mary Portman, a clinical psychologist specializing in kids and teens in a rural Maine community. Portman has personal problems with an adolescent of her own. Following a horrific car accident that claimed the life of her husband, her troubled son who was about to be shipped off to a boarding school, Stephen (Stranger Things’ Charlie Heaton), has been left paralyzed and catatonic. Only leaving her house to go to her office next door, Mary’s life has become consumed by the feelings of guilt she has towards her son’s condition. The doctor’s life takes an unusual twist, however, when one of her patients, a deaf nine-year-old foster kid named Tom (Room standout Jacob Tremblay), turns up at her house in the middle of the night. Just as soon as Tom arrives, he vanishes again without a trace. A manhunt begins to find Tom and bring him to safety while the harsh New England winter weather rages on, but Mary keeps seeing Tom in her dreams and in her home, making her wonder if she’s crazy or she’s seeing a ghost.

Shut In is a stupid movie about supposedly smart people doing incredibly stupid things that are out of character for most smart people simply because the wafer thin plot requires it of them. British filmmaker Farren Blackburn delivers a competent enough product, always looking like a glossier production than it actually is, but never to a point where he can inject any life or actual scares into this repetitive and borderline slow film that reeks of a maximum amount of directorial effort for increasingly diminished gains.

Roughly 75% of the film consists of Watts, acting as professionally as she can in something this silly, inspecting spooky noises coming from throughout the house. It’s a stalling technique because Christina Hodson’s dreadfully underdeveloped script doesn’t know how to go from scene to scene without a jump scare. After only thirty minutes of the audience questioning Dr. Portman’s sanity, Shut In becomes such a chore to sit through. It’s the kind of horror movie that won’t scare anyone other that the jumpiest of human beings (who still won’t ENJOY it, but will at least react), but its so workmanlike in its construction that you could practically set a watch to it.

There are some side characters scattered about, including David Cubitt as a potential love interest for Mary, Clémentine Poidatz’s concerned secretary, and Oliver Platt, playing Mary’s shrink and looking in the final act like he’s trying to stifle laughter at the lines he’s been tasked with delivering. None of them matter. They’re only on hand to make it seem like less of a three hander between Watts and her younger co-stars. Those three are the only reason to see the film since they’re the only characters that matter, and yet, none of them can make it worth watching.

Everyone who walks into Shut In will know only seconds into the film that Blackburn and company are building towards some sort of grand reveal as to what’s going on. The one offered up here isn’t only predictable and so easy to see that Mr. Magoo would tell everyone involved to tone it down, but isn’t designed to make a lick of logical or narrative sense. That twist is also tied into a thirty minute long climax where Watts’ doctor makes increasingly poor decisions, and yet somehow the culprit behind all of this turns out to be dumber than she is and it all works out.

But perhaps worst of all, Shut In is the worst kind of movie because it’s forgettable through every frame; the worst thing any film can be. It’s assuredly idiotic, but never in a fun, suspenseful, silly, or crazy way. Shut In just sits there and hopes that by banging some pans and creaking some floorboards that it can get a rise out of you. You could stay home and unwittingly spook yourself on a larger level for free.

Review: Arrival

For two thirds of Arrival, the latest film from Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, it feels like a well produced, exceptional looking bit of things we’ve all seen before in the sci-fi genre. It’s a story of first contact along the lines of the final act of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, focusing on the mutability of language and the different forms it could take. It’s a ticking clock countdown where the heroes have to stave off what might be a cataclysmic decision for mankind in the name of peace and understanding. Then for the final third, the film finally comes into its own and explains that all of the generic bits that came before actually served a purpose. It’s all tied to a well telegraphed twist that might leave some viewers divided, but even if one sees the twist coming, it makes Arrival a better film for having it.

Respected linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has been called into service of the U.S. government after twelve, half-egg-like spaceships have landed around the world, and instead of communicating with language they converse using symbols unlike anything ever seen. She’s shipped out to a Montana landing site alongside a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) to determine who the Lovecraftian looking aliens are, how they got to Earth, and why they’re there, before some of the world’s more trigger happy countries (Russian and China, predominantly) decide to go on a military offensive against invaders that might be peaceful in nature.

Working with the biggest palate and canvas of his career, Villeneuve’s direction doesn’t disappoint. He’s assisted nicely by stunning camerawork from perennially underrated cinematographer Bradford Young, delivering some of the warmest images of the filmmaker’s career. It’s all in service of the most openly hopeful film of Villeneuve’s carrer. There’s a good deal of darkness on the margins of Arrival, but unlike all of Villeneuve’s other efforts (Enemy, Sicario, Prisoners, Incendies), this film is unabashedly about embracing the good and bad of life. The material is definitely a step in an interesting direction for the filmmaker, and one that he hopefully follows in the future instead of mounting another bleak tale. There’s still a certain sense of ambiguity – one helped greatly here by the coy production design – that he retains from his other films, but it’s tempered this time by an unexpected amount of warmth.

The script from Eric Heisserer (Lights Out), adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” falters a bit at first, offering up two standard, not particularly exciting plot lines. It’s hard to get excited about the same alien invasion tropes that most studio blockbusters trade in. There’s a villainous CIA operative, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who comes straight from a stock background. The countries one expects to blow things out of proportion invariably try to ruin it for the Americans and the rest of the free world. The head of the military operation is played by the master of glowering, Forest Whitaker, and remains cautiously skeptical at all times. While watching these archetypes play out, at first I worried that Arrival had nothing new to offer.

But then the film gets to its big reveal, and the character dynamics, direction, and performances all change around it. Anchored by an increasingly soulful and sympathetic turn from Adams, whose performance could accurately be described as a necessarily slow burn, Arrival and Villeneuve have a new sense of purpose going into the climax, and while some might find it slightly corny, it makes the film better as a whole around it. It becomes a personal story with global stakes, but not a terrifying one. It’s a more delicate film than it initially lets on, and it definitely gets better with a second viewing.

Review: Almost Christmas

Almost Christmas strenuously, but genially and often amusingly toes the line set out by a litany of holiday comedies made about dysfunctional families trying to keep it together and get through “the most wonderful time of the year.” Walter Meyers (Danny Glover) is doing his best to get his large brood of kids and grandkids together for the first Christmas following the death of his beloved wife and the last before he intends to sell their childhood home in a Montgomery, Alabama suburb. Daughter Rachel (Gabrielle Union) is a strong willed, independent, single mother still reeling from a divorce and struggling in her attempts to pay her way through law school. Rachel has beef with her older, belittling, successful sister Cheryl (Kimberly Elise), who’s married to an obnoxious loser (J.B. Smoove) who thinks he’s a big deal since he played a single basketball season in Seattle before burning out and winning a championship in Croatia. Oldest brother Christian (Romany Malco) is running for Congress, but he’s having a crisis of conscience when it comes to raising money for his campaign. Younger brother Evan (Jessie T. Usher) is a blue chip college football prospect trying to prepare for a big bowl game following an injury that has quietly left him with a painkiller addiction. Walter’s well intentioned, but scatterbrained backup singer sister-in-law (Mo’Nique) tries to keep things in order, but the family seems as determined to pull each other apart as much as they come together.

Almost Christmas writer and director David E. Talbert (Baggage Claim, First Sunday) and producer William Packer (Ride Along, Think Like a Man) aren’t working with any new material here, but films pitched squarely at the yuletide crowd have a low bar of difficulty. As long as the film spreads a considerable amount of holiday cheer, warm, fuzzy feelings, and some life lessons, the audience will probably like it. There are very few moments of ingenuity in Almost Christmas, but there’s also nothing particularly wrong with it, either.

There are some scenes that emphatically don’t work because they’re trying far too hard to rip and render the heartstrings, especially a horridly unsubtle late film epiphany that Christian has about his campaign. Every time someone remembers the memory of their wife/mother/sister, Talbert makes sure the score swells for maximum wistfulness. The characters are well fleshed out and fun to follow around (except for the usually reliable Smoove, whose boorish lout is a bit much here), but there’s never any doubt where their storylines and subplots are headed. Talbert doesn’t ask much of the audience, content to give them more of the same for 112 minutes. There’s a football game designed to show the competitive nature of the siblings, several scenes of cooking mishaps, the requisite trip to church, repairing faulty Christmas decorations. Any beat that could be pulled out of the Christmas movie bargain bin gets trotted out here, and usually to decent effect.

Films trafficking in holiday cheer don’t always have to be original to work. Almost every Christmas movie gets by on nostalgia and warm feelings. As long as at least one character in a holiday comedy learns something about the spirit of the season, viewers are likely to forgive any number of clichés and sappy story beats. If one thinks not too long and not too hard about it, Christmas might be the most clichéd holiday in existence, but what sets the charming Almost Christmas apart from painfully unfunny and downright unwatchable trainwrecks like Love the Coopers or Christmas with the Kranks is that Talbert never plays things wackier than they need to be, therefore never fully underlining how contrived everything appears on the surface. I think Talbert knows that audiences have seen this kind of film before, and to the credit of the cast and filmmakers, they never pretend that Almost Christmas is something it isn’t. It isn’t a technically challenging film that needs a lot of style to succeed in its goals. It just needs to be competent and never awful. It sounds like faint praise (and it might be), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

The cast has more than a few standout performances that make the sugary sweetness go down like a cup of hot cocoa. Union further proves her constantly underrated comedic and dramatic talents, often doing more with facial expressions and body language to convey confusion, disgust, or awkward tension than any line of dialogue could. Glover, who hasn’t been getting the best roles as of late, grounds the film with his loving patriarch, constantly reminding the viewer that the family isn’t merely dysfunctional, but also wounded and grieving. Mo’Nique takes what could have been an annoying caricature and turns her into one of the most likeable and relatable members of the family. And with the exception of not exactly nailing an emotional moment during the film’s climax, Usher steals every scene by being the perfect mix of likeable, sympathetic, flawed, and goofy.

On paper Almost Christmas is undistinguished, but in practice that doesn’t hurt the film much. I didn’t have too many big laughs, but I was smiling throughout. While watching the film, it felt like Christmas. Sometimes that’s all a film like this needs to succeed. I wasn’t beaten over the head with cheer and left in an alley to rot amid tossed out trees and half eaten candy canes. I felt like I watched a crowd pleasing Christmas film that I didn’t regret sitting through, and in this day and age, I mean that as high praise. Maybe I liked this because the bar for this sort of thing has been set so low in recent years, and memories of it will probably be fleeting, but in the moment I had a fine time. If you find yourself similarly looking for something to ease you into the holiday season, Almost Christmas should fit the bill just fine.