Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Director: Antoine Fuqua. Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard. 133 min. Rated R. Western.

They saw the Fast and Furious formula's success, and thought: "Let's pick a classic and do the same." So for the remake, instead of an all-white cast of seven cowboys in the 1960 movie, they plant a Latino gunslinger, a Native-American archer, an Asian knife-thrower (in the wild west!), all lead by a Black leader - and probably sell it as Hollywood's heroic struggle for equal opportunity and fight against racism. Considering the villains here are government officials, not sure what kind of violent upheaval message the movie is sending, at a time when America has subscribed to a tyrannical regime.

PS; With this and The Girl on the Train, Haley Bennett is the new star-in-the-making.

Mo says:

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Girl on the Train (2016)

Director: Tate Taylor. Cast: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramírez, Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow. 112 min. Rated R. Mystery/Thriller.

The movie (and novel) that tried to win in the wake of Gone Girl's success. I'd read both novels before the movies, and knew the ending twists. In Fincher's case, I marveled at the superb job he'd done to reach that already-known ending; his viewpoint was ... "interesting". In the meantime, 'The Girl on the Train' novel, while memorable, was less engaging than 'Gone Girl', and Tate Taylor's movie even bogs that a few notches down. I didn't care for the characters, no matter how hard Emily Blunt tried to keep the film alive. Sequels (or pseudo-sequels) rarely out-do their originals.

Mo says:

Monday, January 23, 2017

Lion (2016)

Director: Garth Davis. Cast: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara. 118 min. Rated PG-13. Australia/USA. Drama.

Two brothers, travelling together. Usually the younger one gets lost, and we panic for his life. Here, the teenager gets lost, and since we relate to a 5-year-old's innocence, we understand his harrowing journey from Calcutta's perilous slums, to adoption in Australia. But he's detached from his identity - so decades later, he comes back, searching for his roots. The bitter truth of immigration is: the man would be extremely lucky to find anything familiar back home. Brooklyn was the last movie I remember playing out the cruelty of immigration. But any movie pales compared to this masterpiece of a story.

Mo says:

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Director: Ken Loach. Cast:  Dave Johns, Hayley Squires. 100 min. Rated R. UK/France/Belgium. Drama.

I've seen a few Ken Loach films, and never understood why the non-British are so crazy about him. His films are social commentaries, somewhat confined to the English community. But this was different, and that's not because it won this year's Palm d'Or. How the old cannot keep up with the rapid trends of globalization, and how the poor lose their identity and dignity even with an established social infrastructure, is a message everyone on the planet can relate to. With heart-breaking performances by both Johns and Squires, this is the story Dickens would've written if he was alive today.

Mo says:

Hidden Figures (2016)

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali. 127 min. Rated PG. Historical/Biography.

Don't get me wrong. This is an energizing story about how genius African-American women, against all racist odds, advanced NASA in the 60's, and helped get an American into orbit. But some scenes prove the writers enjoyed true freedom at dramatizing the material (Octavia Spencer walking up to the room-sized IBM and fixing it at a glance sealed the deal for me). I enjoyed this star-studded film, especially that watching Taraji Henson and Kevin Costner back in true form was a delight. But at the end, I didn't know which part of "based on a true story" to believe.

Update: Looks like there were quite a few liberties taken while writing the script.

Mo says:

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Christine (2016)

Director: Antonio Campos. Cast: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts. 119 min. Rated R. UK/USA. Biography.

Okay, let me commit some blasphemy by spoiling the ending: this is the true story of Christine Chubbuck, the 1970s TV reporter who committed suicide on live TV. I spoiled it, because this is not about that ending. It's about a person, whose opening scenes do not offer any forewarning of such a tragic ending, but by the end of the movie, you say: "Oh, of course she would commit suicide". And that plausibility arc solely rests on Rebecca Hall's powerful performance. This is her movie, and I hope this coming Tuesday, she's nominated for an Oscar for it.

Mo says:

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (2016)

Director(s): Alexis Bloom, Fisher Stevens. 95 min. Documentary.

A love letter to the mother-daughter relationship of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher - becoming ever more poignant by their sudden deaths three weeks ago, just one day apart. But I'm not sure whether this would've still received an astonishing 100% score on the Tomatometer, if the recent tragedy was taken out of the equation. After all, this shows a mother and daughter who only think and talk about money, material, and fame, and who cling onto one another, because nothing else concerns them. We never hear them talking about anything ... "important". Take-home message: never get close to your heroes.

Mo says:

Conspiracy (2001)

Director: Frank Pierson. Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hiddleston, Ben Daniels, Colin Firth. 96 min. Rated R. UK/USA. History.

In this historical drama, a who's who of all the actors who'll become famous in films and TV shows of the next 15 years, in 1942, when the tides are starting to turn against Hitler, high-ranking Nazi officers sit around a table in 12 Angry Men style, to come up with "the final solution": how to exterminate the millions of Europe's Jews as fast as possible. This will remind you of your workplace's business meetings, where the mandate has already been decided by the higher-up, and you're just there to approve (or else ...). Memorable performances, especially by Firth.

Mo says:

Queen of Katwe (2016)

Director: Mira Nair. Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong'o. 124 min. Rated PG. Biography.

Supposed uplifting real-life drama of a teenage Uganda girl who rises in the international chess arena. It's probably targeted towards younger audiences, so expecting conceptual or narrative complexities would be unfair. But not only does longtime director Mira Nair avoid taking any chances, she makes mistakes: we never learn how this girl affected the national conversation in Uganda (which must've been big) about women or the underdog, and the climactic sequence of the girl's final dual with another player is absurd, as you can't create dramatic tension by showing side-views of chess-pieces moving on a board - even for chess grand-masters.

Mo says:

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Silence (2016)

Director: Martin Scorsese. Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Ciarán Hinds, Yôsuke Kubozuka. 161 min. Rated R. Mexico/Taiwan/USA. History.

The priest-wannabe-turned-master-director Martin Scorsese updates the doubts he provoked in The Last Temptation of Christ. He first asks: "Why is God 'always' silent to our prayers?" (something I unashamedly declare is on every believer's mind), then raises the stakes by asking: how far will you go to sustain a belief system that is generally met with silence? Of course, everybody has a limit. But Scorsese's magic is, of all places, he sets his drama in 17th century Japan, with cinematography that'll take your breath away. Competes with Manchester by the Sea as my best movie of the year.

Mo says:

Friday, January 13, 2017

American Honey (2016)

Director: Andrea Arnold. Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, Will Patton. 163 min. Rated R. UK/USA. Drama.

A teenage girl joins a door-to-door magazine sales group, crossing the country with her wild newfound friends. With all their delinquencies, these kids are fairly innocent, and therefore you expect something awful to happen to any of them any minute. And while I wasn't bored watching this near 3-hour road movie (with Will Patton popping up as a mid-movie charm), the heroes were hard to relate to, and there wasn't anything new or unexpected about such free-roaming people's lifestyles. The film's numerous Cannes and BAFTA wins and nominations are beyond me.

Mo says:

Seoul Station (2016)

Director: Sang-ho Yeon. 92 min. South Korea. Animation.

By the director of this year's smash zombie hit, Train to Busan, this is another zombie story set in Seoul that does not indicate any obvious relation to the movie, as it could be a prequel or a sequel to that movie, or even be happening during the movie's same timeline. As such, it doesn't add much to the zombie genre, and if you've seen Train to Busan first like I have, you'll notice the intense thrill of the movie is entirely lacking here. Long story short, you won't miss anything if you don't watch Yeon's animated feature.

Mo says:

Monday, January 9, 2017

My Top 10 Movies of 2016

I can summarize the 2016 movie year (not taking into account all its other tragedies) in three concepts: a perfect year for kids, a great year for horror (both literally and figuratively), and an awful summer.

There were many good movies, and a few masterpieces in between, for kids. The year started out with the superb Zootopia, continued with The Jungle Book, Finding Dory, and Moana, and amazed with Kubo and the Two Strings. I ended up with 12 movies for my top 10 list, with both of Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings among them. With all of Kubo's beauty, I had to let it go, because Zootopia delivered such a complicated social message to children in such conventional form, I could not imagine how else one could educate the next generation during the peak of our xenophobic, Trumpist times.

And the horror genre had an amazing boost also. Both The Witch and The Invitation took us back to the roots of the genre, instilling a long, slow-burning creepiness to end in very disturbing climaxes; Don't Breathe was supposed to be a regular throwaway thriller, which turned out as a tense shocker; The Ouija sequel was significantly better than its original; Under the Shadow made perfect fantasy horror from everyday life in Iran; and two horrors from South Korea (they're always good at horror), The Wailing and Train to Busan, did not let go even for a minute. Both these latter films again should have been in my top 10, but to round up the list, I left The Wailing out, because I realized other than the terrifying ending, I couldn't remember much about the rest of the film, while nearly every moment of Train to Busan has stayed with me to this day.

But forget the summer. The sequels (Independence Day: Resurgence and Star Trek Beyond) were either stupid or unsatisfying, the remake (Ghostbusters) was useless, and the superhero movies (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, X-Men: Apocalypse, Captain America: Civil War) were either junk, or looking back, didn't add anything in the first place. Ironically, not even Spielberg, the old grandmaster of summer blockbusters, was able to cause a groundbreaking effect in such climate with his BFG return to kids movies. And the only innovative superhero flicks, Deadpool and Doctor Strange, were actually screened before and after the summer season, respectively - meaning movie executives didn't want to risk testing summer audiences with creative superhero material (they prefer feeding them the usual). The year 2016 was the highest grossing movie year on record ... but that 'probably' wasn't from its summer box office.

So considering I didn't get to see Lion, Paterson, and Scorsese's Silence yet (in hope of an Oscar, the wide release of some films is so late ... you don't get to see them!), my top 10 movies of 2016, in alphabetical order, are as follows. Curiously, the list includes 4 foreign productions, and 2 documentaries - one a relentless 8-hour biography:

1. Hacksaw Ridge

2. Manchester by the Sea

3. Midnight Special

4. O.J.: Made in America

5. The Salesman

6. Toni Erdmann

7. Train to Busan

8. Under the Shadow

9. Zero Days

10. Zootopia

Best Movie of the Year: None of the 10 is an obvious standout as my favorite of all, but if I had to choose based on which film affected me the most (or the hardest), I would go with Manchester by the Sea.


Worst Movie of the Year: Rarely have I 'hated' a movie for manipulating the audience ... and laughing at them in the process. But this movie achieved that status. And I'm sure this is exactly what the director wanted, so the likes of me would say this here, and the likes of you would be curious to see what the anger is all about, and watch the movie. But we have directors like Scorsese or Fincher or Cameron who slowly, year after year, create their own style and build their own kingdom. Then we have a director like Nicolas Winding Refn, who wants to become really famous, really fast, really dirty.


Discovery of the Year: Hands down, it's Jeff Nichols. The director had already proven himself to be 'interesting' talent, but in 2016, he made one good movie (Loving), and one great movie (Midnight Special). The latter film actually started the recent nostalgic 80's Spielberg resurgence, which peaked during the second half of the year with Netflix's show, "Stranger Things". Can't wait to see what he has in store next.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Fences (2016)

Director: Denzel Washington. Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo. 139 min. Rated PG-13. Drama.

Black man has been wronged by the White man all his life, so he takes it out on his family. From the very opening scenes, it's obvious this is based on a stage play, and while the play must've been brilliant, the translation from stage to cinema has not occurred: characters think out loud, and the neighborhood is almost entirely devoid of people - exactly like a play. So if you watch this, don't watch for Washington's direction, or the playwright's (in)ability to adapt his own material to screen. Watch to experience the acting powers of Washington and Davis. Especially Davis.

Mo says:

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Land of Mine (Under sandet) (2015)

Director: Martin Zandvliet. Cast: Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman. 100 min. Rated R. Denmark/Germany. History/War.

Another foreign-language Oscar shortlist film. Around 2.2 million mines were buried by the Nazis along the Denmark coast during WWII, and after the war ... German POWs (many of them teenagers) were forced to dismantle them. So the setting is ripe for a great story: nasty Danish Sergeant supervises "innocent" German boys, scouring the beaches, at risk for blowing up any second. And the screenplay is magnificent at prepping the explosions to happen at the most unexpected moments, even though you're expecting them. But the final closing moment is so preposterous, in addition to the mines, the entire movie is dismantled.

Mo says:

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove) (2015)

Director: Hannes Holm. Cast: Rolf Lassgård, Bahar Pars, Filip Berg. 156 min. Rated PG-13. Sweden. Comedy/Drama.

A strict, grumpy old man who lost his wife a few months before sees no reason to go on, and attempts to let go of life - but then, life won't let go of him. I was expecting this comedy/melodrama (currently on the 9-film Oscars shortlist competing to become one of this year's foreign-language nominees) to end similar to Abbas Kiarostami's more serious Taste of Cherry, where the suicidal hero decides life is worth living. But the film ends on a somewhat cheesy note, unbecoming of the high expectations the rest of it had already created. Still, worth the trip.

Mo says:

Deepwater Horizon (2016)

Director: Peter Berg. Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson. 107 min. Rated PG-13. Hong Kong/USA. Drama/Thriller.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, which ended with spilling more than 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over three months in 2010 as the worst oil spill in US history ... overshadows everything else we know about it. But on the day of the disaster, there were real heroes and real villains on the rig. Innocent people died, and other risked their lives to save the rest. This film tells the story of that day's forgotten players, with great actors and mind-blowing production values. Reminded me of this year's other engaging disaster movie, The Finest Hours.

Mo says: