Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Breadwinner (2017)

Director: Nora Twomey. Voices: Saara Chaudry, Soma Chhaya, Noorin Gulamgaus. 94 min. Rated PG-13. Ireland/Canada/Luxembourg. Animation.

No matter how you wrap it, no matter how enchanting the imagery, an animation about life under the Taliban is not something you 'enjoy' watching. This works like a Khaled Hosseini novel: nothing positive ever happens, and characters spiral down into the bowels of hell on Earth called Afghanistan. I'm curious why Twomey, the director/co-creator of wondrous animated Irish tales such as The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea (sad tales, nonetheless), became interested in a Middle-East country to picture tyranny, grief and death in a child's world. Hardly a method to increase awareness.

Mo says:

Early Man (2018)

Director: Nick Park. Voices: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall. 89 min. Rated PG. Animation.

It's not about Nick Park, the Wallace and Gromit creator, who again presents smart British humor through brilliant claymation. It's about watching this in America, where they mistakenly call football ... soccer. Check out the trailer. The entire film is about the crucial match that will decide the fate of stone age traditionalists against bronze age technocrats (all that in the same sentence), but there's barely a mention of the game in the trailer, and it is solely referred to as "football" in the movie. With the gradual downfall of 'American football', we may soon see it replaced by real football.

Mo says:

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Black Panther (2018)

Director: Ryan Coogler. Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis. 134 min. Rated PG-13. Action/Sci-fi.

There's no doubt the new Marvel superhero has elements that entirely separates it from others - my favorite being how it imagines those weird looking African tribes we used to see as kids in National Geographic were actually high-tech civilizations of dizzying magnitude in disguise, hiding their powers from the world. And while story-wise, it's independent from other Marvel movies, independent per se it is not: the style copies from James Bond (there's even a "Q weapon introduction" scene), and the African story follows, nonetheless, The Lion King (evil outcast relative taking the throne). Summarily, it's over-hyped, but still good.

Mo says:

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Last Men in Aleppo (2017)

Director: Feras Fayyad. 104 min. Denmark/Syria. Documentary.

An extremely difficult film to watch. We hear of a city like Aleppo, and think it's entirely demolished with no soul living there. But no. People are living their lives, dealing with day-to-day wartime shortages, while the small group of White Helmets wait for the next Russia or Assad-delivered bomb to fall, to head out and pull live and dead children from under the rubble ... just like a regular job. Superheroes do exist, because you'll see a few of them here. I feel embarrassed that the only way I can recommend such a sad movie, is with a smiley face.

PS: Also nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar, also available on Netflix.

Mo says:

On Body and Soul (2017)

Director: Ildikó Enyedi. Cast: Géza Morcsányi, Alexandra Borbély, Zoltán Schneider. 116 min. Hungary. Drama/Romance.

Probably the weirdest romance movie you'll ever see. Two very different people, an ex-womanizing loner and an autistic genius, meet at work, and wake up to their attraction for each other through the very coincidental realization that they're seeing the same dreams. This is a movie where one of the characters is committing suicide, and as the suicide is in progress, it suddenly becomes ... funny. Yeah, that weird. And the miracle is, it never misses a beat, and offers thought-provoking statements on the meaning of soul-mates, the consequences of marriage, and the feasibility of that thing called love.

PS: Nominated this year for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, available on Netflix.

Mo says:

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Hostiles (2017)

Director: Scott Cooper. Cast: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Bill Camp, Timothée Chalamet, Peter Mullan, Ben Foster. 134 min. Rated R. Western.

An appropriately long, slow-paced Western, that allows the introductory D.H. Lawrence quote sink in: "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." You think the Indians in the opening scene are brutal - just watch how the American invaders act over the two hours after that. Among them is Christian Bale in one of his greatest career performances, as the rough, ruthless Indian-killer, who's appointed to none other than escorting a murderous Cheyenne chief to freedom, and who astonishingly has a heart. Why this isn't nominated for an Academy Award, is beyond me.

PS: Here's the eulogy for the Oscar snub.

PPS: Check out the director's amazing profile so far: only 4 features (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, Black Mass, and this), each more captivating than the other.

Mo says:

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016)

Director: Steve James. 88 min. Not Rated. Documentary.

I've heard that in Iran's banks, you hand the teller your debit card, who asks for your PIN number to process transactions. Crazy, huh? Not by their standards. A similar East/West cultural misunderstanding is at the heart of Abacus: a small family-owned Chinese bank in NYC’s Chinatown becomes the sole indicted bank after the 2008 financial crisis, not necessarily because they were "small enough to jail", but because ... that’s how Eastern communities work. And in their own geography, they work fine - and the West will never get a clue. Watch this to better understand your neighbor.

Mo says:

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

Director: Dan Gilroy. Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo. 122 min. Rated PG-13. Crime/Drama.

Pure-hearted idiot-savant, more focus on idiot than savant, who acts as a behind-the-scenes law firm "esquire" (i.e., official nobody), finds himself exposed to the real world (filth included) when his front-runner partner is incapacitated by a heart attack. The amount of naivete this character displays makes it difficult to imagine how he made it this far, not only in law, but in life; and while through transformative changes in mannerisms and gait, Washington makes great strides at delivering an interesting ‘loser’ persona, the strong commanding "Denzel look" still creeps out from behind those eyeglasses. Not sure that was the intention.

Mo says:

Phantom Thread (2017)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville. 130 min. Rated R. Drama/Romance.

A fashion designer, at the top of his game, whose god complex may be a sign of weakness. A humble waitress, initially timid, who roars like a lion through her meekness. Now imagine a romance between the two. Here's where Daniel Day-Lewis, in his last masterful presence before a very unfortunate retirement, and Lesley Manville, as the domineering sister (whom I yelled about 7 years ago), work wonders. Day-Lewis' presence notwithstanding, this reminded me of Scorsese and The Age of Innocence, and how a ruthless, unforgiving director like P.T. Anderson is able to make a film of such unimaginable delicacy.

Mo says:

Friday, January 26, 2018

Strong Island (2017)

Director: Yance Ford. 107 min. USA/Denmark. Documentary.

Young director narrates the story of her brother: a 24-year-old, murdered  in the 90's by a white man in Long Island. With an opening statement like: "These people weren't wealthy; their wealth was that they were white ...", you'd think this is another story about the justice system cruelties against blacks. While that's definitely worth discussing, this goes far beyond that. The director, as opposed to her other interviewees, talks into the camera in extreme close-up, with long silent pauses forcing you to listen, and be involved. Rarely do you see total strangers so ... exposed. Obviously, she has nothing to lose.

PS: Sundance Special Jury Prize winner, nominated this year for Best Documentary Feature Oscar, available on Netflix.

Mo says:

Monday, January 22, 2018

My Top 10 (Actually 12) Movies of 2017

The year 2017 may have been a horrendous sociopolitical year, but it wasn't too bad for movies.

It was a good year for superheroes (Wonder WomanThor: RagnarokLoganSpider-Man: Homecoming), a good year for that small beach on the French coast (Dunkirk, Darkest Hour), a good year for Star Wars (finally), and a great year for Laura Dern (pivotal roles in the best movie of the year and the best TV show of the year, Twin Peaks: The Return). In 2017, I approached my usual quota of 10 MoMagics a year quite rapidly - always a favorable sign.

But most notable of all, the anti-Trump movement in cinema was born with tremendous applause with Get Out; continued with the racism-oriented Detroit, the misogyny-themed Battle of the Sexes, the xenophobia horror It Comes at Night, 'the-President-is-a-moron' Kingsman sequel, and even the Pixar statement in Cars 3; and finally received last-minute helping hands from a few grand-masters, with Ridley Scott delivering All the Money in the World, and Spielberg, The Post. It's that old adage that when the times get rough, people's creative juices start flowing; so Trump's presence may have had some rare benefit - for the film community.

On a more personal note, some of these movies were so worthy, they merited multiple viewings in the theater: twice for Thor: Ragnarok and Blade Runner 2049, and thrice for Dunkirk and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But on the same note, my tastes weren't congruent with the prevailing atmosphere, as I failed to discover the commonly-believed earth-shattering significance of Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, Call Me by Your Name, I Tonya, or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Before I post my top 10 of the year, a disclaimer. My list contains 11 items, which is actually a 12-movie list in disguise. The two additional are both incredibly mesmerizing "ghost stories", which actually aren't scary at all. They both deserved a MoMagic!, but due to certain constraints, ended up getting Mojos. Just that years from now, looking back at my yearly top 10 lists (it happens a lot), I didn't want these small gems to be forgotten.

So here they are, my top movies of 2017, in alphabetical order, and not in order of favorites:

3. Coco

9. Okja

Best Movie of the Year: If I was asked for only one reason why Episode VIII was such a grand event, I would say: Rian Johnson made it possible for a 40-year fan like me to 'love' a new Star Wars movie again. That's it. Before The Last Jedi premiered, I was undecided between Blade Runner 2049 and Dunkirk for the best movie of 2017. But then The Last Jedi opened, and that just sealed the deal.


Worst Movie of the Year: The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Square (both by rising newcomers) would've been strong contenders for this award ... but no. Darren Aronofsky, a very respectable filmmaker, became cocky and made a selfish movie for his own artistic interests, without any regard for the audience. He made a film aimed at bewildering us, so when we ask: "What the hell was that?!", he could say: "I don't know; what do you think it was? ..."  and conveniently stand aside. Even the movie's title (lowercase 'm' and exclamation mark) is self-promoting. So annoying.


Discovery of the Year: This year's discovery was neither a director, nor a running movie theme. I found this film from nearly four decades ago; a Michael Mann film as great as the best crime stories, and shockingly, the film-maker's directorial debut. Mann has consistently made one grand movie after the other, and his first was so groundbreaking, it later inspired other crime shows and even video games (watch here). Don't miss the James Caan-starring Thief.

Discovery of the Year:

The Square (2017)

Director: Ruben Östlund. Cast: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary. 151 min. Rated R. Sweden/Germany/France/Denmark. Drama.

The entire idea behind The Square is one question: how far do people go to help others ... when their own interests are jeopardized? This question, asked through numerous vignettes in the life of a Stockholm museum curator, could be interesting to explore on film. But in one instance, boasted as the movie's signature scene, the director becomes too aggressive, and forces on the viewer a prolonged and extremely disturbing situation that is already a foregone conclusion - without offering any payoff or closure at the end (a running theme throughout the movie). While a structurally sound film, sadistic manipulation is unforgivable.

PS: This is by the Swedish director of the fantastic Force Majeure, another film that explores a baffling ethical puzzle. At the time, Östlund totally lost it after watching live on TV that his film hadn't been nominated for a Foreign Language Film Oscar (insanely documented here). The Square won the more coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, but I hope Östlund is shut out of the Oscar race once again when the nominees are announced tomorrow morning - just because of pain he inflicted upon me with this one.

Update (01/23/2018): He wasn't shut out. The film was nominated.

Mo says: