Sunday, November 27, 2016

Moana (2016)

Director(s): Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker, Chris Williams. Voices: Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson. 103 min. Rated PG. Animation.

Frozen. Zootopia. Moana. A feisty young girl decides to break through barriers imposed upon her since childhood, and with the help of a flawed but good-hearted male side-kick, wins against all odds and brings peace to her realm. This is all good, and Moana deserves a high score if solely for its endlessly beautiful Hawaii-backdrop animation, spiced with great musical numbers (my favorite was the wacky "Shiny" sung by the evil crab). But is there any chance Disney can expand its horizons on the subject?

Mo says:

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Loving (2016)

Director: Jeff Nichols. Cast: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Bill Camp. 123 min. Rated PG-13. UK/USA. Biography/Drama.

This was a surprise. The trailer describes a formulaic heart-wrenching story about racial tension in the 1950s, at a time when the State of Virginia criminalized interracial marriage. Actually, it's a slow-burning drama, about seeping racial hatred that is faceless (now we're suddenly amazed there was an outright fascist population in America), and how the basic exchange of love between a simpleton couple can slowly erode that hatred; and build the foundations of a country (close-ups of the protagonist building a house). While Edgerton and Negga astound with their quiet performances, Jeff Nichols proves he's America's great new director.

Mo says:

Monday, November 21, 2016

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

Director: Ezra Edelman. 467 min (7 hrs 47 min). Documentary.

I know. No way I can persuade you to watch an 8-hour documentary. No way you'd allot a huge chunk of life to learn about a trial with such a well-known ending. So I'll summarize my MoMagic score to saying: the O.J. Simpson trial was far greater than a "not guilty". It was decades of racism, celebrity worship, and an American sense of entitlement, that culminated in that verdict. And also that this might win the Best Documentary Oscar. If after the November 8th election, anybody is thinking about educating the next generation, this may be a good starting point.

PS: In case I've made anybody curious, the documentary is available to stream on Amazon. Just try the first of the five 90-minute chapters, and tell me you're not hooked to watch it till the very end.

PPS: Thank you for the recommendation, Matt!

Mo says:

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Director: Mel Gibson. Cast: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths. 139 min. Rated R. Australia/USA. History/War.

Like everyone else, Mel Gibson has his personal demons, and that shouldn't affect how we judge his films ... because he's one helluva director. He tackles the true story of an WWII conscientious objector, who wouldn't even touch a gun, but enlists to save lives as a medic. The story inspires to stick with your principles no matter what, and while Gibson skillfully directs some of the most bewildering battle scenes (on par with Spielberg), this is actually an anti-war movie, comparable to Platoon and Das Boot: I cheered for the hero who helped a few Japanese soldiers along the way.

Mo says:

Elle (2016)

Director: Paul Verhoeven. Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Christian Berkel. 130 min. Rated R. France/Germany/Belgium. Thriller/Drama.

I admit: I don't understand the French. I mean ... knowingly having a pleasant dinner with your rapist? At times it's a comedy (and a very bitter one at that), but Paul Verhoeven's return to his Basic Instinct psycho-sexual thriller days was credible enough to be introduced by France as their Foreign-language Oscar competitor. With all its strange character interactions, I was still captivated by the story, and Huppert's acting and Verhoeven's direction had me hooked till the very end. This is a film impossible to predict where it's going, and that makes it most satisfying.

Mo says:

Snowden (2016)

Director: Oliver Stone. Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Chaplin. 134 min. Rated R. France/Germany/USA. Biography/Drama.

Typical Oliver Stone spoon-feeding of a historical event: this is how I see it, this is how it happened, you should think as I do. Save for some arguments between Snowden and his girlfriend, at least in movie terms, we never get into Snowden's mind on major controversies: His thoughts on treason accusations? Or on Gen. Hayden's: "He's gonna die in Moscow; he's not coming home"? That's what was I was seeking here. Gordon-Levitt's intonation of Snowden's voice is astonishing, and the appearance of "the man" is a charm. But if you just want the story, watch the exceptional Citizenfour.

Mo says:

Doctor Strange (2016)

Director: Scott Derrickson. Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong. Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt. 115 min. Rated PG-13. Fantasy/Action.

Another Marvel attempt to reformat the superhero genre, and it works. This is exactly what Thor had attempted to achieve but failed: create an alternate universe with it own rules and entities, to make it look interesting and fresh. Add some thought-provoking Lincoln-type philosophical viewpoints for young adults (break a few rules, negotiate with the devil, all for the greater good), and you have a winner. Benedict Cumberbatch is Doctor Strange from the comics, and I'm still not buying into all the Hollywood white-washing accusations, for employing the skills of the superb Tilda Swinton.

PS: Interestingly, of the two post-credit scenes, one is Doctor Strange and Thor chatting. So someone's admitting their similarities. I even got confused watching Strange, thinking Rachel McAdams already played Thor's love interest in Thor - which was actually played by Natalie Portman.

Mo says:

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Jason Bourne (2016)

Director: Paul Greengrass. Cast: Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed, Bill Camp. 123 min. Rated PG-13. UK/China/USA. Action/Thriller.

You know what? This can go on forever. Jason Bourne remembers stuff, then gets chased, then remembers more stuff, then surprisingly, gets chased, then a light-bulb goes on and he remembers more, And you know what shockingly happens then? He gets chased! There's no variability in sight for the Bourne franchise story-line, other than slightly modifying each episode to its times (this one covers Snowden-type surveillance), and play some intriguing music when people are sitting around doing absolutely nothing. They've even given up on movie title creativity, and simply called it Jason Bourne. Next one will be: Same Old S---.

Mo says:

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

Director: Mike Flanagan. Cast: Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Annalise Basso, Henry Thomas. 99 min. Rated PG-13. Japan/USA. Horror.

The original Ouija was truly awful, so only the jump from 7% to an astonishing 82% on the Tomatometer had me seek out the sequel (actually, it's a prequel origin story for the original). And while the first half lags with predictable cliches, to its credit, the second half intrigues with some tricky camerawork - specifically scenes showing the non-scary stuff in focus, while scary stuff happens in the foreground and background ... out of focus. That does lead to some effective creepiness. Still, I wouldn't call it 82% good.

PS: Nice to see a grown-up Elliot from E.T., here as a priest.

Mo says:

Friday, November 11, 2016

Arrival (2016)

Director: Denis Villeneuve. Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg. 116 min. Rated PG-13. Sci-fi/Mystery.

Alien ships arrive on Earth, and humans try to communicate with them, but then maybe the bigger challenge is for them to communicate among themselves. Favorite new director Villeneuve borrows heavily from Close Encounters, but also employs Adams to bestow upon his film an identity of its own, and creates a thought-provoking puzzle for us to solve (which includes 'communicating' after the film to translate a pivotal Chinese line of dialogue). Arrival is an exquisitely designed and executed film, but somehow didn't stimulate me to figure out the mystery the way Christopher Nolan does. But that doesn't diminish the entertainment.

PS: Haven't we seen those alien heptapods in Villeneuve's previous film, Enemy?

Mo says:

Certain Women (2016)

Director: Kelly Reichardt. Cast: Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Jared Harris. 107 min. Rated R. Drama.

Three stories, connected by supporting characters, about women playing major roles in society, but whose voices are literally "not heard". Not sure if this was intentional, but the film poses the question: Are these women truly not being heard, or do they just perceive as being ignored themselves? The main problem is, a little narrative stimulus would've helped, because the stories are so boring. (The core of one is simply a man talking to another man and ignoring a woman.) And I still don't understand why Stewart, with all her attractiveness, is considered such a firecracker at acting.

Mo says:

Monday, November 7, 2016

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (2016)

Director(s): Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady. 91 min. Unrated. Documentary.

The life story of the 92-year-old TV writer and producer Norman Lear, the Jewish kid from Connecticut, who created All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Maude, ... or virtually every important subject people laughed at on TV in the 60s and 70s - from stereotyping to bigotry to minority rights to women's rights to gay rights. Tomorrow is Election Day, and it is easy to see how what titans like Lear founded and fought for for decades, can be easily unraveled within a day. Democracy is that fragile.

Mo says:

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi) (2016)

Director: Chan-wook Park. Cast: Min-hee Kim, Kim Tae-ri, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo. 144 min. South Korea. Drama.

A young female forger is coerced into tricking a rich heiress to marry a con-artist, so they can dump her in a mental asylum and run away with the goods. If you think I'm spoiling anything ... that doesn't even scratch the surface of this convoluted tale of betrayal, suicide, perverse sex, and gruesome violence, which delivers surprise after surprise in flash-backs and flash-forwards. Add to that some mesmerizing cinematography in a countryside backdrop, and you have one memorable movie. After all, nothing less is expected from the Korean director of Oldboy - who even reminds of his fascination for octopus here.

Mo says:

Into the Inferno (2016)

Director: Werner Herzog. 104 min. UK/Germany/Canada. Documentary. 

Herzog's narrative on volcanoes sets a goal of showing us the beauty of flowing lava, exploding mountaintops, and bellowing smoke covering distances from horizon to horizon. In that, it entirely succeeds, because for some reason, one can keep watching lava rising and falling in a crater to no end. But then the films uses this to go on some tangents, for a long duration showing how excavators find human fossils, and what the inner machinations of North Korea look like. What's missing here, is some human introspection - the kind Herzog has made his own style and is famous for.

PS: Produced by and streaming on Netflix.

Mo says:

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Shivers (1975)

Director: David Cronenberg. Cast: Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry. 87 min. Rated R. Canada. Horror/Sci-fi.

Before Alien, there was Shivers. In a (for its own time) modern but isolated apartment complex near Montreal, a parasitic species transmits by sexual encounter. While Cronenberg's early feature exudes low production values, it carries an eerie 70s authenticity, and may be conceptually considered creepier than the later Alien: as opposed to the space horror, hosts here form a protective symbiotic relationship with the parasite, and while characters are not in outer space to prevent them from leaving ... they still just can't leave the apartment grounds. If you can deliver so much with so little, you've definitely got a career.

Mo says:

Sausage Party (2016)

Director(s): Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon. Voices: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Salma, Hayek, James Franco, Edward Norton, Danny McBride, Bill Hader, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd. 89 min. Rated R. Animation.

Inanimate food items in a grocery store have feelings of their own à la Pixar tradition, hoping to be bought and leave the store for the "great beyond", not knowing it's a slaughterhouse out there. The movie tries to dispel the notion of God and promote religion coexistence, but loses steam because it: 1) adheres loosely to its own rules of interaction between humans and talking/walking food, and 2) makes irrelevant use of food-based sexual innuendo and saying the f-word a thousand times to project deep philosophical content. The film-makers don't realize that religious people avoid these types of movies.

Mo says:

Desierto (2015)

Director: Jonás Cuarón. Cast: Gael García Bernal, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Alondra Hidalgo. 94 min. Rated R. Mexico/France.

Rogue "patriot" American rifleman pursues and takes out a group of Mexicans in the desert crossing the border, one by one. Made by Alfonso Cuarón's son as part of the Mexican wave taking over US cinema in the past years, the movie features superb cinematography, flimsy dialogue, and near-zero character development. While the simplistic "us good Mexicans vs. them bastard gringos" suffuses the entire film, the heart-pounding suspense is worth it all. Looking forward to watching more sophisticated films by Cuarón junior, where the political rhetoric is toned down - because he does have some directing chops.

PS: After that Walking Dead Season 7 premiere and this, Jeffrey Dean Morgan sure is building a reputation for the most hated villain of 2016.

Mo says: