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The Shack – A Movie Review

 


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The ShackI had a number of reactions to The Shack, almost all of them positive, but my first reaction struck me very early on in the movie. The voice-over narration (provided by a very much in-his-element Tim McGraw) speaks of the family at the center of the film, of the religious devotion of the mother, Nan Phillips played by Radha Mitchell, and how she has such a close relationship with God that she calls God “Papa.” It goes on to tell of the church going habits of the Phillips family and then settles into a lingering shot of the family in church, praying and singing hymns.

I turned to The Cinnamon Girl, my all-time favorite movie-going partner, and said “people will accept all kinds of things in movies: superheroes, elves, hobbits, the undead, but throw a church scene in and people stay away in droves.” This is no great insight, but I do think it is a true observation. Audiences are highly uncomfortable with depictions of normal, every-day faith on television or in film. Audiences can suspend all kinds of disbelief, but do not expect them to stomach and kind of actual belief.

If you are reading this review, you know that The Shack deals with a lot more than ordinary belief. The film centers on a very solid Sam Worthington as Mack Phillips, a man who has suffered much tragedy in his life (and has caused some, too). The final straw that breaks his relationship with God happens in a shack and the shack becomes the place where Mack will have to wrestle with his faith. As he meets the Trinity in physical form, Mack must decide if what he is experiencing is real and if, at the end of the day, that matters. Mack is so distant from God, encountering God in the flesh, as it were, may not be enough to fix what is broken inside him.

The Shack is a very good movie. In moments where I suspected it would disappoint, it did not. The movie actually asks some very big questions and provides very few answers. It tackles issues of the problem of evil in the world, the question of how an all-knowing, all-loving god can allow suffering and the tension between religion and faith. Rarely does the movie take the easy way out of these questions and it should be commended for this.

The film’s success rests squarely on the chemistry between Worthington and the ever wonderful Octavia Spencer. She is terrific here. In a role that could become tiresome and preachy, Spencer finds humor and a character arc. That is saying something considering the character she is playing. She and Worthington do fine together. He is very buttoned down for most of the film, but that is what the story calls for. Much like other actors with whom she is paired, Worthington comes to life in scenes with Spencer. Their chemistry is the second best part of the movie

The best part is Avraham Aviv Lalush. Playful, magnetic and, yes, inspiring, Lalush takes a character who has been portrayed time-and-again and makes him his own. The movie is better ever time Lalush is on screen and I wanted to see much more of him.

Not everything works and director Stuart Hazeldine is asked to capture on film things that are almost impossible to capture, but he does a fine job. The movie he has crafted is unapologetic, moving and spiritual. Adapted from the novel by William P. Young, The Shack is not always easy to watch, but it always has something to say. I have yet to read the source material so I do not know whether it was director or author who chose to have God represented by an African American woman, an Asian woman, a Muslim man and a Native American man but well done! Very, very well done!

I would be leaving something out of this review if I did not mention that I was moved by the movie. It does have emotional heft and spiritual resonance.

It deserves a wider audience than it is likely to get.

THE SHACK receives FOUR NOTES IN A MAILBOX out of a possible FIVE.

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Beauty and the Beast – A Movie Review


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Beauty and the BeastLavish, breathtaking, stunning and engaging, Beauty and the Beast is more than a frame-by-frame, live action rehashing of the animated 1991 Disney classic. A lot more. Try to ignore the haters.

While the movie does, retell that same story with much of the same music, it does so with great charm. Bill Condon was an inspired choice to direct as he insert just enough edginess into the film so that it rises above being a simple adaptation of its source material and becomes a movie that stands on its own. The eye that he has for staging grand spectacle is matched almost entirely by his inspired choices in casting.

At this point, it can be argued that the most talented (and most successful) of the three actors who grew up on screen before our eyes in the Harry Potter movies is Emma Watson. She does nothing to counter that notion here. Commanding in performance and enchanting in song, her Belle is another in what is becoming a welcome line of so-called “Disney Princesses” who are not damsels waiting for male characters to rescue them or needing male characters to define them. Watson’s Belle is interesting from the moment we first see her on screen (one of the plot changes from the original that assists here is making Belle, not her father, the intellectual powerhouse inventor of the piece). Emma Watson handles all aspects of the role extremely well, including the musical requirements. She has a very good voice and shows it to great effect here.

Though his voice may not be quite up to par with his co-star, Dan Stevens does an excellent job as the Beast. With his face entirely covered (and, later, CGI-ed) by his beast costume, Stevens is left to other devices in his performance and he uses them very well. His beast is less menace and more grumpy, perhaps, than the animated version, but that plays very well in the context of this film. Resigned to his fate, the Beast seems as surprised as Belle when he begins to feel love for her. Though Watson is a better singer than Stevens, he does hold his own here, too.

The rest of the cast is truly delightful and it is real fun to see them (spoiler alert for those of you who have, you know, never seen a version of this movie!) revert to human form at the end of the movie. This is a powerhouse and incredibly talented cast. Emma Thompson, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Luke Evans, Gu Gu Mabatha Raw, Josh Gad and Ian McKellan – all of them are wonderful.

Much has been made of Josh Gad’s performance as LeFou, the first openly gay Disney character. Unfortunately, many reactions have been much more about the issue than the performance. To the issue: anyone who did not realize the animated LeFou is gay was not paying attention and the fact that Disney has committed to this character being gay is a good thing. A very good thing. The performance, too, is terrific. Bravo to Gad and Disney.

The set pieces are wonderful and the music soars. When Be Our Guest stops the show and this number, in-and-of itself, feels worth the price of admission. The addition of a couple new compositions do not seem out of place, nor do they stand out as such. This is a musical and the music works. The cast is up to the challenge.

If there is anything that annoys about the movie, frankly, it is just how talented the cast is. Hey, you are some of the best actors on the planet! Do you have to be terrific singers and dancers, too?

Beauty and the Beast is a splendid movie that should leave audiences smiling. If all of the proposed live action remakes of animated Disney classics are as sweet as this movie, I say bring them on.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST receives FOUR AND A HALF BE OUR GUESTS out of a possible FIVE.

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Kong: Skull Island – A Movie Review


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Kong-Skull-Island-poster-fullIs Kong: Skull Island a work of high art, deserving of award nominations and lavish praise? No. It is a hell of a fun movie that is more thoughtful than one might be expecting? Yes. Definitely.

This movie is a companion to the 2014 Godzilla directed by Gareth Edwards (ever heard of him? He directed a little thing called Rogue One). There are giant monsters which originate from Skull Island. Humanity would be well served to leave the place alone.

Of course, we will not do that.

Smartly, the movie opens with an exciting action scene that introduces the audience to Kong right away. Hiding the big gorilla from the audience is not the point. Wowing the audience with stunning visuals is. The movie’s prologue does just that: it wows us. The prologue will play into the overall plot of the film later on, so pay attention.

Pay attention, too, to the opening credits. This is a terrific sequence and sets up this alternate world in which monsters walk. Eagle-eyed audience members will pick up a thing or two about the upcoming movie if the watch closely enough.

John Goodman and Samuel L. Jackson are introduced as Bill Randa and General Preston Packard respectively. Both actors are at the top of their games here and both know that that game is: play the type, sell the monkey. Randa is a conspiracy theorist (with a hidden agenda) looking to prove the existence of the creature. Packard is a dedicated military man in search of one last mission to validate his service to the country. Yeah, the do not get along but, man, are they fun to watch.

John C. Reilly is in great John C. Reilly fashion as Marlow, a man who has been marooned on Skull Island for a long, long time. He interjects just the right amount of comic relief when comic relief is needed.

Along from the ride is the excellent Brie Larson as Mason Weaver, a Life Magazine photographer. She is an antiwar protester, an accomplished journalist and key to what happens when monkey meets humanity. Have you seen a King Kong movie? Then you likely know what is coming.

Also joining the fun (I think that is the fifth time I have used that word in this review) is the always enjoyable Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston plays an ex-British Intelligence officer named James Conrad who is something of a solider for hire and expert tracker. Oh, and he gets one absolutely bonkers, over-the-top action sequence.

In fact, the proceedings are entirely bonkers. There are some jaw-dropping effects and some pretty grisly deaths. There is a very nice plot twist in terms of the Kong character and the creature itself is utterly believable. He is actually pretty incredible. There is even an after credits sequence, so stay in your seats until the end.

What is surprising about Kong: Skull Island is that there is a little thematic depth. There are some themes – light themes, to be sure, but themes nonetheless – that play out through the movie. Also worth noting is the film’s treatment of women. They are treated very well here.

Additionally, the movie fashions itself as something of an homage to The Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now and damn if it doesn’t kind of work. Note the “Marlow” and “James Conrad” names we have here.

Kong: Skull Island is an enjoyable romp. It actually has some points to make and it has a lot of fun making them.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND receives FOUR SKULL CRAWLERS out of a possible FIVE.

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And They Will Come Together – Unite the League


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The trailer for this year’s Justice League movie is here and it’s pretty damn good! It’s been online for about 2 hours as I write this so, surely, the complaints are about to roll in about it being too dark, too moody, too bleak…, but let’s enjoy it right now for what it is: a terrific preview which I hope indicates a terrific movie.

Justice League Logo.gif

Oh, and note that early production materials were using the phrase “Unite the Seven.” Current materials say “Unite the League.”

And there is no mention of a certain Man of Steel anywhere…

For a deeper dive, here is last summer’s New York Comic Con footage as well…

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Logan – A Movie Review


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logan-imax-posterTouted as star Hugh Jackman’s last turn as Wolverine, everyone’s favorite, violent, foul-mouthed mutant, Logan was under substantial pressure to deliver something truly remarkable in this final chapter.

Rest assured, it does.

From the moment the first black-and-white, Johnny Cash scored preview premiered, audiences knew that Logan was unlike any other X-Men movie that proceeded it. Previews are tricky things and can strike tones or allude to stories that the final films do not deliver. That first look at Logan indicated a movie that was moody, dark and laden with heavy themes. If anything, the actual film is more moody, dark and theme heavy than anything the trailer promised.

If we want our Wolverine violent, we have a hyper-violent take on the character here. If we want him foul mouthed, be aware that one of the first words he speaks is the F-word. If we want him unrelenting, well, you get the drift.

Logan tells the story of a Wolverine who has given up superhero-ing and has become a Uber driver in a semi-post apocalyptic south western American wasteland. Supporting and bickering with an ailing Professor X (played with tragic comedy by the always impressive Patrick Stewart), Logan has turned his back on his past and is simply looking for a way to survive his present – a present that sees his mutant healing factor failing and his dependence on alcohol growing. While this life is not what anyone would consider peaceful, its predictability is disrupted when Logan crosses paths with Laura, a young girl who may or may not be the first mutant in the world since an unnamed, but darkly referenced, event wiped mutant-kind from the map. How Logan is changed and what he discovers within himself following his contact with Laura is what drives the film.

Laura is played by Dafne Keen who turns in the third of three remarkable performances by children I have recently seen (the other two being Sunny Pawar in Lion and Alex Hibbert in Moonlight). She is magnetic, energetic and engaging. She is also a bit hard to watch as the film has Laura do some decidedly unchildlike things. Her chemistry with Jackman’s Logan is perfect and their relationship is the underpinning for both the plot and the themes of the movie.

Jackman is terrific in this role and has been since 2000’s (can it be that long?) X-Men rocketed him to fame. What is very smart about this movie, and Jackman had control over this direction, is that this version of the character is different that the other ones audiences have seen Jackman play. We have seen the berserk Wolverine, the anti-social Wolverine, the comic Wolverine, the heroic Wolverine. What we had not seen before Logan is the essence of the character: the Wolverine who never wanted to be a hero and would do almost anything to escape people’s notice, to live out of the spotlight, to flee any recognition.

If only his past would allow it.

Logan is a brutal movie. It is violent and dark and, while there are glimmers of hopefulness, it plays far more like Unforgiven than it does like X-Men: Days of Future Past. This is a good thing. It allows Jackman to reinvent the character, if only for one last ride.

And it is a very good ride, indeed.

Do not try too hard to figure out where in the canon of the X-Men movies Logan fits or how those films fed in to this one. Logan exists in something of a tangent universe to those movies, and it is all the better for it.

Superhero franchises are developing a tendency to be too interconnected and are beginning to show signs of sagging under that weight. James Mangold, writer and director of Logan seems to have said, “I’ll make the movie but I get to ignore almost everything that’s come before it.” Good call.

There were a lot of kids in the screening of Logan The Cinnamon Girl and I attended. Parents, beware: this is an R-rated movie for a reason. This is not about off color language, though there is plenty of that. Logan has the most bloody and violent battles in any superhero movie. Ever. Be warned.

If this is truly Hugh Jackman’s last time as Wolverine – and all indications are that it is – he picked a winner to finish up his work. Though not entirely hope-filled (but it does have its moments) and not entirely cheery (though there are laughs to be found), Logan is thematically rich, deeply felt and wonderfully complex. It is a very good movie.

LOGAN receives FOUR AND A HALF POPPING CLAWS out of a possible FIVE. 

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Moonlight – A Movie Review


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moonlight
I really love stories with something more than a straightforward narrative structure. And, though Moonlight, told in 3 vignettes in the life of Chiron (its protagonist), does not boast the most complex of narrative tricks, I appreciated and enjoyed this part of the film very much.

Landing on 3 separate parts of his life, his childhood, adolescence and adulthood, Moonlight tells the story of a man who, at an early age, realized he was gay. The first two chapters of the film deal very directly with the challenges of a poverty stricken African American growing up gay in a brutally harsh and unforgiving environment.

As a child, Chiron, called “Little” during this time of his life, is mentored by the strangest of all people – the most well meaning and least menacing drug lord recently put on film. His mother, played by a strong and Academy Award nominated Naomi Harris, descends into addiction and Chiron, terrifyingly bullied at school turns to Juan, the drug lord, after a chance meeting. The reasons why Chiron’s mother becomes an addict are never made clear (and, perhaps, that’s the point), but the void in his life is filled by Mahershala Ali as Juan.

Ali is mesmerizing and goes left whenever the audience assumes he will go right. He is quiet when expected to be loud, calm when expected to be wild, comforting when expected to be demeaning. His role is the talk of critics and his Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role is almost assured. His chemistry with Alex Hibbert, who plays the young Chiron, is undeniable and I found myself wanting more of this story as the movie moved into the other parts of Chiron’s life. Of all the great scenes on film this year, I defy anyone to find a better one – one that is more thematically and metaphorically central to the movie it is in – than the swimming lesson scene. What a beautiful moment.

The first chapter is, far-and-away, the best chapter of the film.

In the second chapter, Chiron is a high school student still struggling with his identity. It is clear, though not shown on screen, that Juan wanted to shield the boy from a life on the streets – the life of Chiron’s mother – and we encounter Ashton Sanders in the role now. Sanders is good and takes the audience through more of Chiron’s story, but the impression of Hibbert remains strong. Too strong. As new revelations – terrible ones – are unfurled, Chiron is left at a significant crossroad. What happens next is lost to a decade long break in the movie.

The third chapter picks up with Trevante Rhodes as Chiron and revealing much about this chapter would take away from the surprises the film has in store. Suffice it to say that Chiron as an adult remains very affected by the events of his early life.

The character arc in Moonlight is well told. And the movie does a wonderful job of wrapping up Chiron’s story without being too pat about the task. The movie, while leaving plot threads hanging, thematically concludes and that closure is most satisfying.

Of all the nominees for Best Picture (and Moonlight has a great chance of winning), this one is the most poetic and lyrical. Writer/director Barry Jenkins has an emotional attachment to this story which is, in part, autobiographical, but, rather than dwell in every event of Chiron’s life, Jenkins lets the audience in on the formative events of that life. He shows, he does not tell, and he trusts his audience to fill in the blanks.

It is an arrangement that works beautifully.

Moonlight is a terrific movie, a potential Best Picture, and one that contained my favorite scene of the year.

MOONLIGHT receives FOUR AND A HALF SWIM LESSONS out of a possible FIVE. 

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Manchester by the Sea – A Movie Review


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manchesterWe are, all of us, in some ways trying to deal with the past events of our lives, trying to understand them, trying to beat them. Manchester by the Sea gives us a very up close, very personal look at one man for whom the events of his life may well be too much to handle. The film is a brilliantly acted, very well directed and intimate portrayal of Lee Chandler, a man whose life has given him far more tragedy than any one person should have to face. It is a surprisingly delicate movie. It is fragile and brittle and, in that very fragility and brittleness, lies the heart of its genius.

I was prepared for the movie to be an incredibly sad affair, draining to watch and, while there are surely moments of tragedy that deeply affect the characters and are deeply affecting to the audience, I was surprised by the humor that writer/director Kenneth Lonergan found in the story. There are some wonderfully entertaining and funny moments in the movie and they break through the proceedings intentionally, reminding us and, to a certain extent, the characters that life, through all its darkness, also has moments of great light.

When his brother dies, Lee is called home from his Boston life and returns to Manchester – a town that holds for him an almost unbelievable pain. His is shocked to discover that he has been named the guardian of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (a very good and Academy Award nominated Lucas Hedges). The town is populated with people who remind Lee of the terror he left behind when he departed Manchester and the movie chronicles Lee’s reconnecting with his past.

This is an excellent movie that makes very few missteps. In fact, the only thing I did not enjoy about the movie was the score. Whatever Lonergan and composer Lesley Barber were going for, they missed. Each time the funereal notes began to play (typically as Lee drives about Manchester), I cringed and was completely taken out of the movie. I don’t know why, but the music just did not work for me.

Casey Affleck, in a well-deserved Oscar nominated performance, imbues Lee with a haunted desperation so finely tuned that, at times, Manchester by the Sea feels more like a documentary than a work of fiction. His Lee is an unappealing character – angry, withdrawn and off-handedly cruel – and it takes an actor of Affleck’s ability to carry a movie like this. In the hands of a lesser talent, Lee would be an off-putting jerk about whom no audience would care. In Affleck’s hands, Lee becomes a character to care about and to root for. This is one of the best performances of the year.

Affleck’s chemistry  with Hedges is remarkable and the scenes he shares with Michelle Williams (also Oscar nominated, sensing a theme?) are harrowing and clinics in fine acting. In fact, the cast overall (including Gretchen Mol, the underrated Kyle Chandler and Matthew Broderick) seems as though they just stepped out of the Actors’ Studio.

Manchester by the Sea is a complete movie. It creates an emotional texture that is affecting and it does not let itself off any narrative hooks. It also does not take short cuts. Watching the movie feels as though one is stepping into the most intimate and most significant moments of someone’s life.

When the movie ends, it is difficult to step back out of those moments.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA receives FOUR AND A HALF FECKIN’S out of a possible FIVE. 

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