Back in 2014 Michael Keaton came back to film in a big way, creating an unforgettable character in what is an unforgettable masterpiece of a film in Birdman. When he lost the Best-Actor award to a much deserving Eddie Redmayne, which I thought he’d win, it made us wonder how Keaton would get back to that Oscar contention again. Thankfully, his run since then has been pretty stellar to say the least thanks to Spotlight which ended up taking home the gold for Best-Picture making it the second film Keaton has been a part of within only three years. Unfortunately, The Founder went unnoticed by audiences and Academy members alike this time around, but that doesn’t take away the effort brought into this astonishing true story about the genesis of the global fast food chain that is McDonald’s.
Keaton plays Ray Kroc, a smooth talking, unsatisfied salesman in the 1950’s, traveling the states to sell products of all types, but it’s when he gets a chance to sell his milkshake makers to a couple of friendly New Hampshire born brothers by the name of McDonald does he see, and manipulate the potential that be. John Carroll Lynch and an outstanding Nick Offerman play the tender, morally strong brothers that Kroc tries to take advantage of which leads to some of the most potent scenes of betrayal that only add to the treachery of what really happened. Biting at the toes and hands of the audience, the dialogue is purposeful, and about as sour as a lemon in some scenes.
Keaton proves to us again that there is power in range and there is a fine line between protagonist and antagonist of a story, and this film is no question about a pretty bad man whose selling out of two good people created a billion dollar franchise that would pollute the world globally in ways you may not have realized. To see the transformation of the company through John Lee Hancock’s directing is riveting, but can sometimes be a little dull in the grand scheme of things. Thankfully, his eye for understanding what to show and what not too show between the characters makes for a stronger delivery of emotion as the story progresses.
Laura Dern, Patrick Wilson, and Linda Cardelini make strong appearances that bolster the acts that happen between each character as Kroc commandeers an empire that was never meant to be, and that’s exactly what Kroc was, a pirate that had the smooth talking of Jack Sparrow, and the lack of empathy like a Blackbeard. Keaton just magnifies an already fascinating person in history by giving us that calmness that you’d get from his Bruce Wayne, but also the insanity of a Beetlejuice without ever being a cartoon or mockery of himself. It’s a character driven story that does a great job handling the treachery, the intellect, and the overall controversy of the man who stole the McDonald’s brand and company for his own selfish gain.
Ben Affleck has not had an easy time in the last few months, with all the Batman drama at Warner Brothers and DC don’t help anything, but after seeing his latest directorial effort, I may see why he didn’t want the stresses of directing another big film for a little while. Affleck transports us into the roaring 20’s in Prohibition-era Boston and Tampa in his latest crime drama where he brings an ensemble of talent who get lost in the shuffle of a film that focuses too heavily on Ben Affleck rather than the character he is portraying. Instead of getting lost into a period of rich mythologies, you are stalled by Ben Affleck seducing beautiful women in a fedora that feels like a parody of itself more than a legitimate style choice.
The story in of itself should be a sweeping epic through a period in time whose natural flare is rarely seen done well on screen. Instead, Affleck puts himself front and center in what felt more like an exercise of ego instead of a role to get lost into a character with. As an auteur thus far, there’s nothing wrong with Affleck trying to find a balance as a writer, director, and actor, but there’s a time when you have to realize that films are a collaborative medium and can’t be created by just one person’s biases and visions. There’s a level of arrogance in the lead role than nuance and subtly that the role was likely better suited for. This is a violent, corrupt ecosystem that feeds off of itself and others alike, I wouldn’t imagine after getting beat up, you just rise from the ashes so easily, but that’s where the film quickly ends up going with Affleck’s character. For me, it feels more like ego getting in the way of the performance which for future films he directs can easily be solved by just taking himself out of the starring role, and letting his actors do the literal talking.
Instead of getting an actor who can show us the fear and danger of prohibition era criminals, Affleck stands awfully comfortably as Joe Coughlin, quickly proving that this was more of a miscast that he may have hoped. His prowess as a crime-thriller director is set, nowhere in trouble nor will it be tainted by this attempt, but it may be time for Affleck to focus on one whether he’d prefer to direct or act in each project he takes on. His work in Gone Girl under David Fincher proved to be a landmark of his acting ability while still being in his realm of familiarity for him while still grasping the character he was portraying. Sadly, Affleck drops that same Boston accent we’ve heard since Good Will Hunting without any real differentiating factors to set his character apart from other roles he’s done.
For a film that was only two hours long, the editing made it feel incredibly dull and boring at times then entirely too quick at others, leaving you nausiated by the lack of focus the film seemed to not bring in the editing room. Quick cuts to montage or to cheaply move sections of a story along that could have just let the images do the talking, I got taken out of the film early on rather than honing in on the details. Affleck is a man who is best when he is pulling the strings – like a director and the characters he’s played before – like Geppetto only to be gobbled up by a whale sized level of monosyllabic flatness that hurts the overall production. Affleck will recover very quickly and having such great vision for films whether good or mediocre is as clear as day, I’d hope he figures out that he needs to be the world class director that he is, and let the other actors do the acting to carry the films.
You may have heard about a little film recently that centers around what may be one of the more surprising subjects in history that has never been told. You have NASA, the iconic space program that advances almost everyday in the hopes of traveling beyond our atmosphere and exploring planets, stars, and galaxies far far away, but beyond the men in suits there are women making sure they hold down the fort the best they can. Starring Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner is unabashedly uplifting, warm, and overall empowering.
Some of you will scoff at the idea of a film depicting women, in this case black women, succeeding because you haven’t dropped your spears yet, but for the rest of us, there is a film that shows us that film-making in the realm of drama doesn’t always have to be depressing. Based on the astounding true story of three women who defied the odds with their intellect, perseverance, and the desire to better themselves and the American people. Leading the film is Henson as math genius who must figure out how to make it in a program dominated the white men, but contrary to popular belief, not all of them are so bad. Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer play Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, respectively, in ways only they can, with charisma, heart, and a genuine fire that you know burns through them both.
While the racially segregated 1960’s weren’t the prettiest of times, director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) doesn’t choose to give us that rugged look like we’ve seen in other movies of that, but rather a more lightly colorized depiction of what is very much an optimists look at the hardships these women of color faced at NASA, and beyond. There will be scenes that satisfy your squishiest of muscles and joints, as what happened to me, with certain scenes that confirm that Melfi is a man of happiness and romance without draining it of it’s honeymoon like bliss. It’s only fitting that the music makes you feel the same way. Thanks to super producer Pharrell – a Virginia native himself – produced the music, and the main theme for Katherine Johnson (Henson) which will be sure to give you a vibe that will make you want to groove in your sticky theater seat.
Even through the killer soundtrack – that also throws in some Ray Charles for good measure – you resist the charm these women use in order to cope with the realities of their struggles as not just women, but working mothers of color in a time when bathrooms and water fountains become the most unbearable and inconvenient delays in a time when they want to work on their assignments, only to be ignored through ignorance, and condescension from their white colleagues. There’s a great scene involving Octavia Spencer and her boys that will hopefully perk you up like it did me. No spoilers of course, but it does make you appreciate a certain inconvenience we all can obtain nowadays.
All in all, this is such a charming and inspiring film that is unapologetic for being sensitive and bathed in warmly conceived emotions while being, motivating, and lighthearted all at once. It’s a film that will make you wonder who and where else these “hidden figures” are in our histories and why we haven’t made films on them either. The team for this film brought a film that you can all watch without the stresses of something like 12 Years A Slave or give the overly realistic view of what life was really like for these brilliant women. It makes it’s points and entertains you with ease thanks to a snappy, but never preachy nor pretentious manor, thanks to former NASA employee and screenwriter Allison Schroeder. The box office hasn’t lied thus far, people want to see this film, and you should follow suit.
You may be wondering about how this film challenges you physically, but it’s not that deep of a concept, this movie is almost three hours long with no real “action” or Scorsese flare you may be used to. Scorsese is this reviewer’s all time favorite film maker without question, but it’s because of my love for the man that I have to provide you the honest truth about his latest project Silence. Considered yet another passion project by the director, Scorsese adapts a book of the same name that chronicles the trials and tribulations of two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) as they trek through a Japan that will kill and capture Christians to maintain Buddist beliefs.
One of the things you can guarantee from a Scorsese film is tremendous acting, stellar visuals, and a story wrought with thought provoking, often conflicting messages, that will at least make you leave the theater pondering the concepts littered through his stories. These are all elements to film making that should equate to a great film, right? Well technically, and Silence is a magnificent film, but when talking about the high bar Scorsese gets you will understand why this isn’t his best work. That’s probably not fair, but as the film maker behind Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed, and Taxi Driver, there a standard the audience expects. With Silence, do not expect the anti-hero like story you are used to seeing.
This is a spiritual exercise that Scorsese is fond of creating. His strict Roman Catholic upbringing always finds its place somewhere in most of his films and for Scorsese himself, this was probably a film made to test himself more than audiences, but in the process will touch audiences too. The violence of the film doesn’t get a Tony Bennett soundtrack to juxtapose the horrors of the film, but instead exactly what the film’s title wants to convey. You feel the horror that Garfield and Driver face and witness in hopes to bring their faith to so many frightened Japanese people like a missionary would. Garfield’s solo performances make you feel as helpless as he does with what feels like no solution in sight. It’s an idea that lingers with you for so long that it ends up staining you heart with a guilt you probably never had before. The questioning of faith, whether you have it or not, will shake your nerves to the core with the tragic imagery Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto present astounding cinematic language that eloquently contrasts or exaggerates the emotional depth you need for each scene.
It’s a film that, while quite long, is exceptionally well edited to make the time flow smoothly with transitions that make sense as well as fit the story that is trying to be told. If there are Oscars to be had from this film, you could say the editing is the prime choice of them all, but the acting is superb per usual, and the cinematography with Prieto’s 35mm choice is breathtaking. It’s not a film for everyone, but I think if you are okay with being mentally and spiritually challenged you will admire what question Scorsese has for you the audience. The story is interesting, heartbreaking, sometimes soul shattering, but above all else, compitent and respectful.
There are just certain performers that resonate like a choir in a perfectly acoustically sound church and with their performances ringing through our senses we can only sit in awe. That is what you are going to get from the cast of Fences, a stage play turned film directed by and starring the one and only Denzel Washington, the star of the Tony-winning play. This stark adaptation presents an African-American family working their way through, poverty, family struggles, separatism, and the harsh realities of imperfect people. Denzel directs and acts out a winner with his cast doing just the same as you’d hope and expect when acting beside such impeccable talent.
Set in 1950’s Pittsburgh, we see Denzel and Viola Davis as a traditional, while charming, black couple making their way through the struggles of a black family in the 50’s. Through some of the best dialogue in film this year, with Oscar caliber performances to match, Viola Davis and Denzel hit it out of the park with the emotional tension that follows. Bringing up topics such as living for yourself or trying to shield those around from the mistakes you’ve made, it becomes a transcendent ideology through the lenses of film cameras, and the honest eyes of its actors. It helps that most of the stars of the film have done the play on stage hundreds of times and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t show. Unflinching, powerful, raw performances project the film into a stratosphere all on it’s own and show our actors in ways not many of us have truly seen.
If you haven’t seen of the play or know enough about the script itself then you are in for a real treat. The power of the film and it’s story is that it uses minimalist story tropes beyond it’s dialogue through endlessly interesting characters. Taking place mostly on the porch and kitchen of the main characters’ home, it uses cinematic language to the fullest that would make the play proud. It’s painful, frustrating cinema in the best ways, tangling your emotions like a bunch of electric chords until it all finally starts to spark. It makes you angry it’s catching fire, but you won’t want to put the fire out either. The performances are majestic, cryptic, and fascinating to watch unfold.
I don’t know if this makes me a masochist, but the way I felt was like when I got my first tattoo. It’s not that I wanted to like the pain, but there was this weird satisfaction of getting something permanently imprinted on my body and soul for the rest of my life, and maybe I’m being dramatic, but that’s exactly what I felt like after Fences. This conflict of interest when watching Denzel’s Troy Maxson come to life was so hard to pinpoint, but in the end, I think that’s the point. There is so much to be said in Fences and maybe it will feel a little drawn out for most of you, but there is one thing I can say that you all have to agree with, and that is that Fences is a powerful triumph in acting.
Indie cinema has been the powerhouse in recent years when it comes to the most daring and gripping cinema if you ask me. The sheer volume of newcomers to the world of directing and writing have proven to be worth our while when the sequels and remakes end up being just too much. Well, something that is just right comes from the mind and eye rookie writer/director Barry Jenkins in his debut film Moonlight which may go down as one of the most powerful films of the year.
Set in Liberty City Florida, a young African-American boy embarks on an unimaginable journey that sets in motions three portions of his life has he grows up with an abusive parent, bullies, and soul shattering violence. Jenkins illustrates the taboos of a culture within our country that is rarely seen or discussed. The tender love and care of Jenkins direction and writing set up a coming of age film that mirrors as a coming out party for a type of character we rarely see. His progressive story works because he let’s we the audience determine what is going on exactly how it’s shown. There are no layers we need to peel back to hone in on the central themes of the story nor does it degrade it’s audience as well get engulfed in these character’s lives.
Intimate and emotional, the all around cast give off the truest of feelings to their characters in a way that makes it feel more like a documentary than it does a feature length movie. We are taken into a different realm of the gangster or the drug addict in an impoverished area which becomes a breathe of fresh air as well as a wake up call to the other stories you can tell when trying to paint a vivid picture. The scope is small, the heart is huge, and they only balance out as the three part story goes along to chronicle the life and times of our main character Chiron. Give it to Jenkins and his casting crew for finding such similar actors for each age group that the characters become because not once does it seem like any of the actors are in the wrong spots.
To just describe the basics of Moonlight is unfair and almost misleading. The film touches on so much more than the hardships of poverty or being gay and black in a setting that wants nothing to do with gay people in a world of over-masculinity. It’s a story about people that flood each other with life lessons, experiences, and near regrets, but not once will it ever be less personal than the previous portion. It’s a film that teaches you the joys of swimming and staying afloat during times that may feel like they are only trying to drown you. There aren’t too many films such as this one and it shows from the storytelling to the material it’s set around. Jenkins provides us with one of 2016’s best films and possibly a film that we will look at as something ahead of it’s time.
Stories within stories can be either the coolest cinema experience or the most convoluted, but they’re always daring to say the least. Fashion designer turned director Tom Ford definitely keeps his roots in creating gorgeous art intact, but with Nocturnal Animals being only his second directorial effort, how does he fair? The film stars Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Iala Fisher, and Laura Linney. The film is gorgeously shot which is clear from the make-up, the art within the film, and of course the cast and the clothes on their backs. Of course, that’s not what makes a terrific film.
To try to explain this film is like trying to examine how one solves a rubix cube and unless you know how to solve a Rubix cube already, I would best not bother wasting your time with the detailed explanation. What you need to know is that Amy Adams delivers another terrific performance with subtlety, suspense, and vibrancy all at once. Susan Morrow (Adams) is a successful artist living with her second husband Walker Morrow (Hammer) in what looks to be a wondrous mansion, but it’s when Susan gets a book titled “Nocturnal Animals” by her ex-husband does the story within a story truly begin. Dripping with suspense as it leaves you with an unquenchable curiosity for answers, Ford feels like he’s experimenting with conceptual storytelling as if the film were made by a young film student who read too many James Patterson novels in between.
One thing doesn’t falter through this experimental narrative is the outstanding acting by the entire cast. One in particular who excels beyond our lead is Aaron Taylor-Johnson who many know from being Kick-Ass or Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but clearly this is where the young actor excels the most in his craft. Gyllenhaal is also impressive as a few characters in the film, but that’s for you to discover, and Michael Shannon continues his reign of excellence with every passing role he gets. As a good ol’ West Texas police officer (sheriff?), Shannon just steals his scenes without us ever questioning it when it happens. When you can take the spotlight away from a world-class actor such Gyllenhaal, you ascend into something more impressive than world-class.
I will warn you all, this is a grim film at times with thematic elements that definitely make me uncomfortable, but it’s that feeling of discomfort that made me realize this is a terrifically executed production from beginning to end even if I think that the story feels like I am driving around a neighborhood with no intent on knocking on anyone’s doors. It almost doesn’t feel like a movie, but rather a mental exercise that helps you sweat out those deep rooted emotional angsts that you didn’t know you had. Tom Ford definitely has the skills to make outstanding films if he so chooses and this is a testament to his abilities at producing engaging pictures for an adult audience who won’t be able to stop watching to find out what is coming next.