Monthly Archives: December 2016

Over The Fence

Powerful leading performances move ‘Fences’ from stage to screen

FENCES

Fences
Starring Denzel Washington & Viola Davis
Directed by Denzel Washington
PG-13
In theaters Dec. 25, 2016

Fences can keep things in, keep things out, make it difficult for people to see what’s happening, and mark lines of division, separation or conflict.

Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington directs as well as stars in this big-screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 Broadway play, an epic domestic drama about a black family in Pittsburgh in the mid 1950s.

Washington reprises the lead role of Troy Maxson, a garbage collector and former baseball player haunted by his glory days in the Negro leagues. It’s a role Washington also performed on stage in the play’s 2010 Tony Award-winning Broadway revival, alongside Viola Davis, who also returns to her role as Troy’s long-suffering, loyal wife, Rose.

Much of the movie is set in the scrappy, cramped, grassless backyard of Troy and Rose’s modest brick home, in the shadows of the town’s smoke-belching factories, where Troy spends his weekends working on the construction of a wooden fence. It’s to separate his home from the eyesore of the abandoned house next door.

And it’s obviously a metaphor for much more.

Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Troy (Denzel Washington) watch Cory (Jovan Adepo) work on Troy’s backyard fence.

Troy is a fiercely proud patriarch who crows about how much he loves Rose, how hard he works, how he deserves a promotion, and how much he’s done to provide for his family. He boasts about what a great baseball player he was (better than the new black players, even Jackie Robinson), and how he danced with death more than once and lived to tell the tale.

But Troy is a jealous bully to his youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), blocking his promising athletic path to college. He’s stingy and dismissive of his oldest son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), whose easygoing musical ambition doesn’t seem like “real” work. And when his secretive philandering puts his marriage to the test, the world of which he so loudly proclaims himself to be the center begins to crumble.

In a powerful performance, Washington makes Troy both sympathetic and pathetic, a tragic character of almost Shakespearian proportions grappling with fate, family responsibilities, work, racial injustice and carnal desires. You may not like him, or love him, but Washington makes Troy a force of nature you cannot ignore.

And Davis, too, is formidable; she’s already won a Critic’s Choice award, and she’s all but certainly bound for an Oscar nomination. The emotional, confrontational scene where Rose stands up to Troy, and her wounded pride comes spilling out in a fierce spew of anger, hurt, betrayal, tears and snot, goes far deeper than any of the holes Troy’s put in the yard for his fence posts.

Mykelti Williamson plays Gabriel.

Mykelti Williamson plays Gabriel.

Familiar character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson does a great job in a supporting role as Troy’s longtime friend Bono, who serves as the moral compass Troy mostly ignores. Mykelti Williamson, best remembered as Bubba in Forrest Gump, gives a touching performance as Troy’s brother, Gabe, who came back from World War II with a metal plate in his head—and an otherworldly gift.

Sometimes Fences betrays its roots as a Broadway play, with more words than action. But any stilted “staginess” is offset by its commanding performances—especially by Washington. As the star and director, he’s created a majestic movie with both gravity and grace that feels too big, and too significant, to be fenced in by anything.

 

 

 

 

 

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Lost in Space

Chris Pratt & Jennifer Lawrence heat up sci-fi mush of ‘Passengers’

Chris Pratt; Jennifer Lawrence

Passengers
Starring Chris Pratt & Jennifer Lawrence
Directed by Morten Tyldum
PG-13
In theaters Dec. 23, 2016

A gigantic rocket ship on a 120-year journey to a faraway space colony has a glitch mid-route, mistakenly waking up one—and only one—of its 5,000 passengers from suspended-animation hibernation early.

Ninety years early.

And once your personalized alarm clock goes off on this intergalactic cruise, there’s no way hit the snooze and go back to deep sleep—you’re up.

That’s what happens, alas, to Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), who awakes to find himself all alone on a big, spinning luxury cruise liner of a spaceship auto-piloted to a lush new world, set to arrive…well, a couple of decades now after he’s dead.

Michael Sheen plays the android bartender Arthur.

Michael Sheen is android bartender Arthur.

Jim at first explores the ship and avails himself of all its amenities (holographic dance-offs, no lines in the food court, great robotic restaurant service). He finds a “companion” in the lounge’s android bartender, Arthur (Michael Sheen from TV’s Masters of Sex). But he’s smitten when he catches a glimpse of one of the other hibernating passengers, a writer named Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence).

Weighing the moral and ethical considerations against his own crushing loneliness, Jim eventually makes the decision to rouse Aurora from her hibernation—without telling her he did so. What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her, right? Right???

The starship in Passengers runs on a whirring nuclear reactor. But the movie itself is powered by two of Hollywood’s hottest, most likeable, bankable stars, and the film’s storyline bends around them and the heat they generate. There’s a genuinely creepy, unnerving nugget of a tale—of obsession, desperation and survival—in Passengers about what might happen under the futuristic circumstances it depicts, but it mostly gets lost in the sweet, sci-fi mush—and rush—of its intergalactic romance.

Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) swims...a lot.

Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) swims…a lot.

Things get better for Jim, then worse—much worse. He grows a beard. He shaves off his beard. Aurora and Jim walk among the stars—a big-ticket “shore excursion”—and make out in spacesuits. Aurora laughs. Aurora cries. Aurora rages. Aurora attacks Jim. Aurora swims—a lot. She gets trapped in a big, floating water “bubble” when the ship’s artificial gravity goes out.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, nominated for an Oscar for The Imitation Game, creates a space-station world, and an atmosphere, that feels like a cross-pollination of a Carnival Cruise, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe and The Twilight Zone. He pays attention to small details and never lets his “big” space movie get overrun and overblown with special effects.

Another big-name star, also awoken early by a system malfunction, makes a late appearance, mainly to sound the alarm that things have really taken a turn for the worse. Can Jim and Aurora right the ship—and realign their own stars?

“Lay some bartender wisdom on me,” Jim implores Arthur at one point. “I feel like I’m lost in space here.” After riding along in Passengers’ interstellar love boat for two rocky hours, you may agree that some course correction might have indeed been helpful—especially when this rocket lands on one of the cheesiest spaceball wrap-up endings of anything this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Happy Feet

Gosling & Stone sweep you away in sweet sunshine of musical movie magic

La La Land
Starring Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone
Directed by Damien Chazelle
PG-13

I remember, when I was a kid, a Mad magazine parody of the classic movie musical The Sound of Music. That film’s regal Rodgers & Hammerstein theme song begins with the lyric, “The hills are alive…with the sound of music…”

In the Mad spoof, a character all by herself on a hilltop wonders in song, “How come I’m alone—and there’s so much music?”

That’s always been the thing with musicals—stories move along, then all of a sudden characters break out into song or dance. What? Why? And where does all that music come from? It’s all so phony, fabricated, fake—and fabulous, for people who love musicals: the songs, the spectacle, the perkiness and cheer, the sense of something bigger, grander, more expansive and more exuberantly alive than ordinary, day-to-day reality can contain or mere words can express. Movies have always been vehicles for escapism, but musicals crank it up to 11, sweeping viewers away to places where dreams can come true, everyone has magic feet and music comes out of nowhere.

Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone

Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone

In writer-director Damien Chazell’s enchanted, visually stunning La La Land (which recently received seven Critics Choice movie awards, including Best Picture), a struggling actress, Mia (Emma Stone), and an aspiring musician, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), meet and fall in love in Los Angeles, where their courtship is wrapped into a tapestry of songs—composed by Justin Hurwitz, Chazelle’s Harvard University classmate, with lyrics by the Tony-nominated team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul—eye-popping choreography, a visually sprawling love letter to the city and to cinema itself, and a snazzy subplot flowing with the funky fusion-juice of jazz.

A sumptuously old-fashioned movie musical set in stylish, contemporary settings, La La Land will sweep you off your feet with every sequence, beginning with the very first one. Less than a minute into the opening, a traffic jam on a gridlocked L.A. freeway overpass suddenly erupts into a jubilant, swirling celebration of Southern California weather, outlook and optimism, “Another Day in the Sun,” with dozens of dancers and vehicles stretching as far as the eye can see. Like many of the film’s other sequences, it’s one continuous, uninterrupted take, and it’s jaw dropping.

Stone and Gosling, who’ve appeared together in two movies previously (Gangster Squad and Crazy, Stupid, Love), are perfectly cast and couldn’t be more likeable, more adorable or appear more at ease in their roles. They dazzle in a Fred-and-Ginger-esque song-and-dance number, “A Lovely Night,” set against a Hollywood sunset, and quite literally soar into the stars in the breathtakingly lovely “Planetarium.”

Suffice it to say you will not have seen anything like La La Land in a long, long time. It’s a singing, swinging, prancing, swooping spectacular, full of hopes and heartaches, uplifts and downdrafts. Majestically, symphonically grand, yet intimately, elegantly tender, it’s piercingly sweet, rapturously lovely, fancifully wistful and achingly honest.

Gosling is terrific, but Stone has never been better—and her raw, close-up performance of “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” the final vocal performance in the film, will make you want to stand up and cheer.

J.K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for his supporting role in director Chazelle’s critically lauded Whiplash (2014), appears as a nightclub owner who prefers Christmas ditties instead of jazz improv. Grammy-winning musician John Legend plays one of Sebastian’s former band mates whose offer of a gig and financial security comes with a downside of compromise.

La La Land, a nickname for Los Angeles, is a place where tradition and innovation—and dreams and reality—collide and comingle, where seasons morph into each other, where the days always seem warm and bright, but the nights can be cold and lonely.

LLL d 13 _2607.NEFIt’s a place where two people can come together, fall in love, and sing and dance and make music all over a crazy, classic town—at least in the movies.

It ends with one of the best scenes of any movie this year, bursting with emotion and built around a montage that zips through time and loops back on everything that’s gone before, and also everything that didn’t, hangs you in midair and finally slaps you back to “reality.” It’s beautiful, bittersweet and breathtaking.

La La Land is a lovely, lush reminder of old Hollywood, with a vibrant jolt of young, exciting energy, pizzazz and romance for audiences too young to remember when singing, dancing stars filled the silver screen. The (Hollywood) Hills are alive again with the sound of (new) music, and wherever it’s coming from, it’s impossible to not be swept up and away in the sweet sunshine of its movie magic.

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We Are Stardust

‘Rogue One’ is Rollicking Prequel to Original ‘Star Wars’ Saga

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luno, Forest Whitaker & Riz Ahmed
Directed by Gareth Edwards
PG-13
In theaters Dec. 16, 2016

Space, science tell us, just continues to expand—endlessly, forever.

How else would it have room for Star Wars, the multi-billion-dollar franchise that just gets bigger all the time? It’s listed by Guinness World Records as the planet’s most successful movie merchandising series, a gargantuan, ever-growing realm of films, TV shows, games, comic books, toys and other products.

It all started back in 1977, sort of. As fans know, the first movie was really the fourth—or Episode IV—in the middle of a much bigger story arc to come, one that would play out over the following four decades. And now, the rollicking eighth film takes us back some 30 years, prequel-style, before the big bang.

Ben Mendelsohn

Ben Mendelsohn

In the new Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Felicity Jones is a feisty fireball as Jyn Erso, the daughter of a brilliant scientist (Mads Milkkelsen) kidnapped by a fascist operations director (Ben Mendelsohn) of the Galactic Empire to complete his ultimate weapon of mass destruction, the Death Star. When Jyn finds out her father has built a secret booby trap, deep inside the device, by which it can be destroyed, she knows she has to help the Rebel resistance find and steal the blueprint of the weapon so the Death Star can be blown to smithereens.

These events, you may recall, preceded and set up the original Star Wars, and are summarized in that film’s iconic opening scroll: “It is a period of civil war… Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans…”

That alone should be enough to send goose bumps up and down the spine of any true fan. British director Gareth Edwards was only 2 years old when the original film—introducing the world to Luke, Han Solo and Princess Leia, and the loveable droids R2-D2 and C-3P0—came out, but he obviously immersed himself in the culture as he grew. While buzzing and humming with new characters, the visually splendid, dramatically stirring Rogue One remains steadfast to the legacy of the franchise and offers some delightful surprise appearances by “old” familiar faces—good, evil, human and droid.

Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk)

Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk)

Jyn gradually becomes part of a motley, multicultural, Dirty Dozen/Ocean’s 11-esque crew on a mission to steal the Death Star plans. Diego Luno is Capt. Cassian Andor, a veteran resistance spy, this movie’s version of Han Solo. Forest Whitaker plays Jyn’s mentor, Rebel insurgent Saw Guerra. Hong Kong action star and martial artist Donnie Yen is a blind warrior monk guided by the Force.

Riz Ahmed plays Bhodi Rook, a defected Imperial pilot seeking atonement. Alan Tudyk (the voice of the Duke in Frozen) provides the voice of K-2SO, or Kaytoo, a retooled, wisecracking Imperial droid who gets many of the movie’s best lines. Chinese actor-director Wen Jiang is fearless machine gunner Baze Malbus.

There are Imperial Destroyers, gigantic AT-ACT Walkers and fleets of Jedi Interceptors and X-Wings in pounding, eye-popping sky and land battles. Much of the action has strong military vibes, such as a rousing speech to the “troops” before a beach landing preceding a blistering assault with guns, grenades and aerial bombing. Filmed in the tropical island atolls of the Indian Ocean, the sequence is like a gritty, futuristic throwback to classic WWII cinema.

Off the battlefield, Rogue One works the themes of family, camaraderie and loyalty, and how—throughout time—the heavy hand of rule and repression has masqueraded as “peacekeeping.” When Jedha, a Jedi holy mountaintop city and rebel base, is attacked by the Death Star, it’s no stretch to think of the ancient Roman hammer coming down on Jewish cities like Jerusalem or Masada.

“We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon,” wrote Joni Mitchell in her 1970 song “Woodstock,” her anthem for the hippie generation about how everyone is basically—elementally—connected. Science tells us stardust, originated from explosions billions of years ago, zillions of light-years distant, continues to swirl throughout the cosmos, regenerating in everything in the universe.

In Rogue One, “Stardust” is the nickname given to Jyn as a little girl by her father. It takes on a much deeper meaning as the movie progresses, and especially—quite literally—as it ends.

Who would have thought that a rollicking space opera so “long ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” back in 1977, could make such an impact, such a cultural explosion, still expanding and spreading? The next Star Wars, Episode VIII, is slated for December of next year, another—starring Alden Ehrenreich as young Han Solo—is tracking for spring 2018, and Episode IX is on the launch pad for May 2019.

In space, and just about everywhere else, the Star Wars stardust just keeps spreading, indeed. “We have a long ride ahead of us,” says Capt. Andor as he, Kaytoo and Jyn buckle up when their adventure gets underway. Fans will giddily enjoy every minute of Rogue One’s rousing journey spanning both yesteryear and tomorrow. And when it’s over, they’ll be ready to hop aboard again and again and again, for a ride that may just go on forever.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Night Howl

Masterfully unsettling ‘Nocturnal Animals’ really gets under your skin

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Nocturnal Animals
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhall, Michael Shannon & Armie Hammer
Directed by Tom Ford
R
Wide release Dec. 9

Have you ever read a book that really got to you, got under you skin and burrowed into your head?

Well, the book Amy Adams’ character devours sure does that to her in Nocturnal Animals, a chilling, neo-noir psychological thriller that explores the fine lines between love and brutality, art and life, regret and revenge, and having it all and losing everything.

Based on a 1990s novel and adapted for the screen, directed and co-produced by Tom Ford, the chi-chi clothing designer who was once the fashion director for Gucci and Saint Laurent, the film begins when Susan Morrow (Adams), a wealthy but unhappy owner of a tony L.A. art gallery, receives a package in the mail. It’s the manuscript for a novel from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhall).

Tellingly, Susan gets a paper cut on her finger opening the parcel, drawing blood.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALSAs Susan begins to read the manuscript—titled Nocturnal Animals—the movie quickly takes its basic shape: a story within a story, cutting back and forth between the events of the book and Susan’s reactions to it. There’s a third storyline, as well, about Susan’s flashbacks to her previous life with Edward, whom she met as a college student more than a decade ago, and whom her parents implored her not to marry.

Edward’s book is about a young family—a couple and their daughter—who run afoul of two carloads of brutish men on a dark West Texas highway one fateful night. For the father (also played by Gyllenhall), it becomes a quest of justice that turns to vengeance.

The movie gradually reveals how all three stories interweave and intersect, why Susan is so deeply interested in the tale, why things went south between her and Edward, what all that has to do with Edward’s book—and why he sent it to Susan.

Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal

The movie looks arty and often gorgeous; you can tell the director—whose resume also includes the critically acclaimed A Single Man (2009)—comes from world of high fashion. But this isn’t a happy, uplifting tale. A Hitchcock-ian sense of malice and dread pervades every scene, swept along by the haunting classical score by composer Abel Korzeniowski. Award-winning cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Anna Karenina, Atonement) depicts Los Angeles as a chilly, post-modernist fortress of sharp, cold steel edges and soulless night; Texas is a harsh, merciless wasteland of tumbleweeds, sun and grit.

Naked corpses dissolve into a shot of nude, intertwined bodies of sleeping lovers. There are visual clues of distress and malaise everywhere, from the dead bird Susan discovers outside her window to the grotesque, disturbing “contemporary” exhibits in her museum—naked, obese, slow-motion baton twirlers; a life-size sculpture of a bison, punctured with arrows; an oversize, ominous-looking photo of a man in a field pointing a rifle at another man, point-blank, execution-style.

Think No Country For Old Men meets CSI: West Texas, by way of Twin Peaks.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Michael Shannon (right) is terrific in a supporting role as a local detective.

Gyllenhall gives (another) great performance; he’s essentially playing two different roles. Michael Shannon, who adds a live-wire spark to anything in which he appears, gets one of his best supporting roles yet as Det. Bobby Andes, who’s assigned to the fictional case but willing to bend the rules when time begins running out. Armie Hammer plays Susan’s philandering second husband. Laura Linney has only one scene, as Susan’s Texas socialite mom, but it’s pivotal.

Edward dedicates his book to Susan and titles it after his nickname for her—a night owl who had trouble sleeping. After seeing the impressively crafted but intentionally haunting Nocturnal Animals, you might have a bit of trouble dozing off for the next few evenings, too.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

O, Jackie

Natalie Portman drills deep to the dark, complex core of ‘Jackie’

image-04afa3ee-f8cc-4059-8c62-8208612a44bc-72

Jackie
Starring Natalie Portman, Billy Cruddup, Peter Sarsgaard and Greta Gerwig
Directed by Pablo Larraín
R
In theaters Dec. 2, 2016

More than 50 actresses have portrayed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on TV and in the movies, including Jacqueline Bissett, Blair Brown, Katie Holmes, Gennifer Goodwin, Roma Downey, Minka Kelly and Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live.

But everyone else might as well just put away the pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat, because now Natalie Portman owns the role.

In the simply titled Jackie, the Oscar-winning actress delivers a powerful, awards-worthy performance as the former first lady, focused on the days after the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy, in November 1963. The movie unfolds through the framing device of Jackie’s flashback recollections, as told to a Life magazine reporter (Billy Cruddup) interviewing her for an exclusive after the event, during which she reminds him that “people like to believe in fairy tales.”

image-31f4e978-7411-4519-9780-0c990636519eThe movie dives into the mind of the grieving Jackie as she deals with the emotional fallout of the loss of her husband, his legacy, and of her place in a world—now without him—as a Kennedy-in-law. It’s not a conventional biography, or even a historical drama. It’s deeper and darker than that, and Portman bores down to the complex, most challenging parts of its core.

Portman anchors every scene, surrounded by an exceptional supporting cast. Peter Sarsgaard plays Bobby Kennedy, her grieving brother-in-law. Greta Gerwig is Nancy Tuckerman, Jackie’s loyal White House social secretary. John Carroll Lynch does a fine job as Texan Vice President Lyndon Johnson, swept into the Oval Office after the tragic campaign motorcade in Dallas, Texas. Beth Grant is his wife, Ladybird.

John Hurt, as a priest at a cemetery, gets to the heart of the movie, and Jackie, in a conversation during which she reveals her fears and anxieties.

Danish actor Caspar Phillipson plays JFK, and he’s well cast, but you don’t see very much of him. This is Portman’s film, and the camera locks onto her like it doesn’t want to let her go.

image-14ab5e32-76ca-4363-b8d8-01408dbdf553The movie does a terrific job of recreating scenes that live in history from newspaper photos and newsreels, such as the swearing in of President Johnson aboard Air Force One and Kennedy’s funeral. Moments of Jackie alone, removing her bloodied pantyhose, looking for Kennedy’s burial site in the rain and mud at Arlington, smoking cigarettes she didn’t want the public to see, or simply wandering around her empty bedroom, alone, are haunting.

The “fairy tale” that Jackie lived at the White House, the movie suggests, was like the one depicted in the legends of King Arthur and his legendary castle, Camelot—noble, idealistic and romantic, laden with symbolism, and potent with the stuff of myth. In one moving and melancholy scene, Jackie tries on several outfits—and gets progressively more inebriated—while the iconic theme from the classic Broadway musical Camelot plays on her stereo.

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“Don’t let it be forgot,” she tells her interviewer, “that for one brief, shining moment, there was a Camelot.” She pauses before adding, “There won’t be another Camelot.”

And there won’t be another Jackie like Natalie Portman, at least anytime soon.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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