Mid90s Review

Mid90s Film Review

You’re so cute. You’re like at that age before guys become dicks,” muses a perceptive partygoer to protagonist Stevie (Sunny Suljic) AKA “Sunburn,” a thirteen-year-old barnacle on the LA skate scene circa—you guessed it—the mid 1990s. Marking the directorial debut of actor Jonah Hill, Mid90s probes this adolescent inflection point. For Stevie, afternoons spent skating and shooting the shit dissolve into drunken evenings that end beneath a set of Ninja Turtles bedsheets in the suburban home he shares with his single mom (Katherine Waterston) and volatile older brother (Lucas Hedges).

If not overtly autobiographical, the film feels deeply personal. Hill himself came up on LA’s west side in the waning years of the twentieth century—and he fills each frame with authentic ephemera of the era, from Super Nintendo to Ren & Stimpy to Nirvana to Bill Clinton. Its nostalgia catnip for a certain generation, but the iconography masks an ugly undercurrent. Contrasting moments of comedy and comradery are dark hints of the tragic and the cruel. These influences snake their way insidiously into Stevie’s life, further straining his relationship with his family and poisoning his once wide-eyed worldview.

Mid90s is unflinching in its depiction of selfish and impulsive teenagers, and uninterested in tidy redemption. It can sometimes be difficult to root for the characters as they stumble from one bad decision to the next, but Hill is helped along by an incredible cast of up-and-comers who bring these flawed outcasts to life. Of particular note is Na-kel Smith as Ray, pro skater-hopeful and surrogate sibling to Stevie when he’s not at home being pummeled by his actual older brother. Rounding out the crew is Olan Prenatt as “Fuckshit” (yes, really), Ryder McLaughlin as “Fourth Grade,” and Gio Galicia as Ian. Together, they comprise a dysfunctional makeshift family whose relationships and collective behavior are equal parts endearing and alienating.

Because Mid90s is Hill’s first feature, it’s easiest to analyze his approach to character in the context of his apparent influences. Harmony Korine’s Kids comes to mind, though Hill is nowhere near as provocative or antagonistic a filmmaker. A better benchmark, maybe, is Marty Scorsese. In a seemingly throwaway scene midway through the movie, Stevie arrives home after bailing on family “Blockbuster Night.” In his absence, his mom has rented Goodfellas—another film perhaps not-so-coincidentally featuring a cast of morally dubious characters.

Yet the scene Stevie walks in on finds Joe Pesci’s character, a Mafioso with a hair-trigger temper, sitting down to dinner with his mother. “I like this one,” Pesci deadpans, blithely critiquing her art. “One dog goes one way, and the other dog goes the other way.” It’s a scene that not only establishes the distance between man and matriarch—it establishes the dichotomy at the core of his character; a murderer isn’t a murderer at dinner with his mother. Likewise, Stevie and his friends aren’t one-note ballers and brawlers. They’re kids too.

Another boon to Hill is the cinematography of Christopher Blauvelt (Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot; Meek’s Cutoff; The Discoverers), who captures a sunbaked Californian summer with uncommon authenticity. Shot on 16mm film in a tight 4:3 aspect ratio, Mid90s feels scrappy and raw, lo-fi yet lived in. From the stucco of suburban homes to the freedom of sloping city streets, the aesthetic is uncompromising and all-encompassing.

Mid90s is an accomplished if unambitious first effort for director Jonah Hill. The filmmaker shows real talent and true potential behind the lens, though it’s hard not to shake the impression that this esoteric snapshot means more to the artist than it does to the audience. Perhaps it’s a matter of setting expectations upfront. The title, aside from being egregiously generic, suggests an attempt to capture something universal about the era, yet the film reflects only a single perspective—Hill’s. Everyone else is just along for the ride.

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The Happytime Murders Review

1534182697390_219035_cops_7Sex. Murder. Puppets.” The Happytime Murders delivers on the promise of its poster—if precious little else. Judging from the outtakes reel, this one-note comedy must have been a blast to shoot; divorced from a barely-coherent plot, the prurient puppetry is an absurd and amusing achievement. But in the context of a bland noir narrative, its novelty is limited. After 90 minutes, you’ll be more than ready to stuff a sock in it.

Written by Todd Berger, the bawdy script has been wafting around Hollywood for a decade. Various talent has been attached over the years, spanning three generations of ‘in’ comic actresses: first Cameron Diaz, later Katherine Heigl, and finally Melissa McCarthy assumed the role of Detective Connie Edwards. She joins a decidedly comic cast—including Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker, and Joel McHale—which undermines the intended juxtaposition between cartoon characters and a grim, gritty world. The premise would have been better served by the supporting cast of The Sopranos.

This is a world in which puppets walk among us as second-class citizens, forced to sing on street corners for quarters and support their addictions with more demeaning services still. Against this backdrop, the washed-up cast of hit sitcom “The Happytime Gang” are on the eve of a big syndication payday when, one by one, they start to succumb to dramatic and suspicious deaths. On the case are McCarthy’s Edwards and puppet P.I., Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta). Intoning the character with shades of self-deprecation and world-weariness befitting a down-and-out ex-cop, Barretta—himself a 20-plus-year veteran performer and puppeteer with the Jim Henson Company—is one of the film’s few genuine highlights.

An earnest attempt at hard-boiled detective fiction set in this world has real comedic potential, but the humor in The Happytime Murders is too boring and boorish to elicit many laughs. The mystery too is broken, and becomes increasingly unglued as it expands—until its already elastic logic snaps entirely. This is a failing first and foremost of the screenplay, but also of director Brian Henson (The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island), who fails to generate agency or atmosphere to get the concept off the ground.

I can’t recommend The Happytime Murders, but I can suggest some alternatives. Comparisons to Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? are inevitable—and unflattering; Rabbit plays smartly off noir convention and boasts a greater command of character and tone. Consider seeking out the early Peter Jackson effort Meet the Feebles if you’ve got the stomach for some truly transgressive puppet comedy. Feebles centers around a Muppets-esque troupe of variety show stars, but is infinitely darker, sleazier, and more memorable than the slickly produced film that arrives in theaters this weekend.

Having spent years languishing in development hell, The Happytime Murders feels at once outdated and undercooked. Its outrageousness may occasionally prompt a sideways smile or light chuckle, but the humor demonstrates a distinctive lack of imagination. If there’s a saving grace, it’s the magic of the Jim Henson Company (here branded as Henson Alternative, or HA!). There’s real, tangible talent on display from the countless creature designers and puppeteers whose work shines even when the storytelling doesn’t. Here’s hoping for a future production worthy of their talents, and our time.

Isle of Dogs Review

Brody-Isle-Of-DogsAnimated or otherwise, Wes Anderson films bear an unmistakable paw print. The filmmaker’s style is by now so recognizable that his lavishly manicured sets and deadpan dialogue can grate when he’s not pushing the envelope narratively. Fortunately, Isle of Dogs—the oddball odyssey of a Japanese orphan to recover his lost pet from the Neo Tokyo-adjacent Trash Island—feels fresh and forward-thinking. The format affords Anderson a second opportunity to unleash his imagination in a playground of infinite possibility, and the director charges in with mischievous glee. Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs is quick to delight, though pushes further into territory some may find uncomfortable. Take it from gruff mutt “Chief” (Bryan Cranston) when he snarls the following two-word warning: “I bite.”

Maybe the most surprising element of Isle of Dogs is its pointed political perspective. Although production began shortly before the 2016 presidential election, the film vividly reflects the malaise of US politics today. It’s hard not to see reflections of a certain real-world villain in authoritarian antagonist Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), who campaigns on a platform of deporting all dogs. The outspoken high school students who rebel against Kobayashi’s agenda likewise invite comparison to the Parkland survivors and supporters who marched on Washington last weekend. Anchored by American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), this group must navigate a trail of deceit, corruption, and even murder that leads all the way to the major’s office.

If that sounds like a lot to unpack in a kid’s cartoon, fear not. While Anderson indeed indulges the shadier side of this vibrant world, he counterbalances it with a surplus of heart. Isle of Dogs doesn’t have a dishonest bone in its body (or mouth); it’s an affable coming-of-age comedy about friendship and family among pets and the people who love them. The breezy tale whizzes by with inexhaustible enthusiasm and earnest curiosity, driven ever onward by the thunderous accompaniment of Japanese drums. The booming percussive score by Alexandre Desplat lends a natural sense of rhythm and gravitas to the impressively expressive animation.

Isle of Dogs is an easy recommendation on the merits of its craftsmanship alone. Even (and perhaps especially) in the era of immaculate computer generated animation, stop motion still has staying power. The painstaking photographic process demands enormous dedication, and every ounce of effort is conveyed on screen. It’s a testament to the incredible team of artists and animators working behind the scenes that Isle of Dogs feels so alive. Nearly every scene teems with ingenious visual design detail, and each concept is executed with the delicate precision of fine stagecraft—from strands of cotton that billow like steam off an uncorked beaker to a kaleidoscopic enclave constructed entirely from multicolored sake bottles.

As previously evinced by Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s sensibilities suit the medium perfectly. His is the eye of an obsessive compositionist, which in his live-action efforts can occasionally feel fussy or forced. But in a fantasy world of his own design, Anderson’s all-consuming attention to detail becomes his greatest asset. Isle of Dogs, like its fantastic predecessor, is bursting with passion, personality, and purpose. Each frame exudes a mastery of the magic of the medium and the movie explodes with thousands of tiny miracles wrung from clay by a small army of enormously talented artists.

Some things never go out of style, like chess, red wine, and—well—dogs. Wes Anderson’s latest feels similarly timeless. It’s a visual showcase with universal themes and appeal that will weather generations gracefully. Years from now, it seems destined to be discovered and cherished anew, like a best friend you never knew you had.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

21-star-wars.w710.h473Rian Johnson milks it. His is a brawny, strapping Star Wars anchored by inherited strength, yet weird and wily enough to assert a sense of self identity. The primary challenge facing the filmmaker, whose small but impressive body of work includes Looper, Brick, and The Brothers Bloom, lies in establishing urgency and consequence in the middle chapter of a massive trilogy in a rapidly expanding movie universe—to that end, The Last Jedi is entertaining yet effervescent, and honestly? That’s enough.

Episode VIII picks up pretty much where J.J. Abrams’ Force Awakens left off—with hopeful hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) having at last tracked down legendary Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), now a scruffy-looking recluse whose self-imposed exile has brought him to “the most unfindable place in the galaxy.” Suffice it to say he does not welcome company. Meanwhile, the Empire—ahem—the First Order strikes back, blasting the ragtag rebel forces led by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) ever nearer to the brink of defeat. Aiding them is stormtrooper-turned-sympathizer Finn (John Boyega) and cocksure pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Repping the dark side is hapless General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), who squirms under the skeletal thumb of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his brooding apprentice, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

It’s standard Star Wars stuff, but the novelty of having the franchise back on the big screen holds steady, at least for now. Its serial-esque simplicity is a welcome juxtaposition to Marvel’s convoluted and overcrowded cinematic universe, though The Last Jedi suffers its share of plotty preponderances too. At over two-and-a-half-hours, it’s the heftiest chapter in series history, and runs at least one large-scale skirmish too long. Granted, these indulgences feel of a kind with the original trilogy, and The Last Jedi effortlessly replicates that same clumsy energy throughout.

Unlike J.J., Johnson receives sole screenwriting credit for his installment, which loosely follows the thematic arc of Star Wars’ 1980 sequel. The filmmaker faithfully ticks a number of familiar boxes, yet jukes expectation often enough to keep the film from crossing into been-there-done-that territory. He writes characters we know and love respectfully yet unexpectedly, allowing them to surprise us, to stumble, to grow. The few new faces are less nuanced and interesting, though admittedly they’re playing against some of the most cherished characters in contemporary fiction. Still, everyone is given their moment to shine as the plot ping pongs from one side of the galaxy to another—and Johnson proves expert with a paddle.

In more ways than one, Episode VIII resembles another big franchise that returned in 2017: Blade Runner. Both films were overcautiously advertised, and both excavate ancient mysteries that span generations. Without divulging the spoilerific specifics, perhaps the most interesting similarity between The Last Jedi and 2049 is the implicit suggestion that greatness is made, not inherited; that our destinies are what we make them. Both films depict conflicted characters grappling with this reality, trying to separate truth from legend. Johnson ascribes great power to the latter; his take on Star Wars is as much a space opera as it is a study of the power of storytelling to spur action, to instigate change, to bring hope. That we’re left with a story unfinished is less a cliffhanger and more a call to arms.

So where does the franchise go next? Disney has invested heavily in the stewards who have chaperoned the series this far; Abrams will return to direct Episode IX, while Johnson has been tapped to lead a new trilogy unbound from the Skywalker saga. The prospect of a Star Wars sustained ad infinitum suggests an uphill battle against creative ossification that Disney will one day have to reckon with. But for now, Johnson’s Jedi is a refreshing swig of Grade A escapism that will help keep the series strong for years to come.

Blade Runner 2049 Review

thumbnail_26562Like the marginalized replicants thrust into its dreary, dystopian world, Blade Runner 2049 shoulders a burdensome, existential weight. The sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal cyberpunk masterpiece has a daunting legacy to uphold, and the laudable effort made to contribute to that legacy is worth mentioning upfront. Beyond that, the less you know about this film—and the more you know about the original—the better positioned you’ll be to appreciate director Denis Villeneuve’s formidable attempt at an impossible sequel. So, to borrow a phrase from the late Dr. Eldon Tyrell, indulge me.

1982 was arguably the greatest summer movie season ever and a benchmark year for science fiction. Six enduring classics dropped in a span of just seven weeks: The Road Warrior, The Wrath of Khan, E.T., Blade Runner, The Thing, and Tron. Though E.T. went on to become the highest grossing movie of the year, Blade Runner may yet be the most important. In the interim 35 years since its release, the film has ascended to a position of almost unrivaled influence in the pantheon of cinema’s sci-fi greats. Its lurid neon lights and its rain-slicked, smog-choked streets have forever polluted our vision of the future.

It wasn’t a simple journey to the top. The film has been sliced and diced into no fewer than five distinct cuts; among them the US theatrical cut, marred by concessions to an anxious studio; a more violent international version; an unfinished workprint; the remedial director’s cut; and the (perhaps) definitive final cut. The making of the film, its lukewarm reception, and its unmistakable effect on the direction of the genre is a story in itself; in fact, there’s an exhaustive three-and-a-half-hour documentary on the subject, produced in 2007 as a supplement to one of the film’s many home video releases.

All of this is to say that a sequel is kind of a big deal. Set 30 years after the events of the original film, 2049 follows K (Ryan Gosling), a cop tasked with hunting down and dispatching non-compliant replicants. It’s the same job Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) had until he dropped off the map three decades ago. How 2049 picks up the pieces is best left unsaid, suffice it to say screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green aim to preserve the integrity of the original Blade Runner while expanding upon its universe, its characters, and its mythology.

Yet 2049’s most important inheritance isn’t in the script—it’s the meditative mood and hallucinatory aesthetic Scott established in 1982. Villeneuve captures the surreal yet banal vision of a dystopic future with uncomfortable plausibility, bringing the streets of Los Angeles to vivid life with breathtaking images that ride the fine line between dream and nightmare. As in Blade Runner, the dull narrative throb will sometimes subside to explore inconsequential yet emotionally evocative sequences that serve the central questions of the piece better than any dialogue: what does it mean to be human, and how do we retain our humanity as life on Earth fundamentally changes?

These respites give viewers permission to abandon the binary progression of the plot in favor of abstract introspection. Time seems to slow as Villeneuve ponders and prods, visually accentuating the loneliness of the characters who populate this ugly, artificial world. Genuine connections are few and far between, and in their absence, prejudice and resentment fester. Empathy isn’t easy in an increasingly solitary existence, yet hope remains; those of us who are most isolated may also prove to be the most humane.

Its deliberate, defiant pacing makes Blade Runner 2049 an anomaly in the modern movie sequelscape. It’s a big-budget gamble for the studios involved, and is likely to divide audiences as much or more than Ridley Scott’s obtuse, ambiguous original. Blade Runner, despite its obvious cultural impact and sterling reputation with the cineaste crowd, remains relatively little-seen and even less appreciated by the masses; modern audiences may not have patience for its successor’s protracted two-hour-45-minute runtime and fans may be disappointed by impossibly high expectations.

Neither group is wrong to be skeptical—this is not a mainstream movie, nor could any follow-up hope to immediately assume the classic status Blade Runner has slowly built for itself over five cuts and 35 years. Still, the concerted effort of Fancher, Green, Villeneuve, and cinematographer Roger Deakins elevate an unnecessary sequel into something worth seeing, worth discussing, and worth recommending to those with an open mind. Indulge at your own risk.

Baby Driver Review

baby-driver-DF-02299_rBaby Driver, like the rest of director Edgar Wright’s oeuvre, is a collision of conflicting influences. Wearing the chassis of a high-octane heist flick atop the proven comedic engine that propelled his earlier efforts, Wright’s latest cruises through familiar territory—the kinetic camera captures a few searing action sequences and the quippy dialogue is delivered by an affectionately archetypical cast of characters—but it sputters when attempting to drive at anything deeper.

In many ways, it’s the director’s most straightforward and earnest film, wholly separate from his “Cornetto Trilogy” of genre sendups (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End), and unshackled from the expectations that come with an established franchise and fan base (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and his aborted attempt at Ant-Man). As such, Baby Driver is difficult to contextualize within Wright’s career; it’s a mixed bag that showcases his strengths as a filmmaker and exposes his weaknesses as a screenwriter.

Let’s cut to the chase: Wright casts up-and-comer Ansel Elgort as Baby (that’s B-A-B-Y, Baby), an aspiring, adolescent musician who derives his incredible skill behind the wheel from his naturally honed sense of rhythm. Music is more than a passion for the character—it’s a coping mechanism. Baby carries with him at all times a collection of iPods to drown out the ceaseless ringing in his ears developed after a childhood car crash. Years later as a wayward youth, he lifts the wrong ride and finds himself deeply indebted to Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal kingpin who presses him into service as a getaway driver—and, naturally, takes a fat slice of his cut.

Baby is on the cusp of repaying Doc in full when he falls for a diner waitress, Deborah (Lily James), who shares his dream of one day leaving town—and a troubled past—in the rearview mirror. The only thing standing between the two star-crossed lovers and the open road is one last big score… and if that sounds like a half-baked premise, that’s because it is. Wright constructs a stilted, cartoon reality informed by Hollywood cliché, which is fine as long as he’s delivering full-throttle thrills behind the lens. But as the film barrels into its protracted, trite, and morally atonal third act, the wheels nearly come off.

Wright sticks the landing, but he lands hard. Baby Driver wobbles across the finish line after an entertaining but uneven hour and 53 minutes, at which point the checkered flag arrives with a wave of relief rather than revelry. Granted I’m no mechanic, but as a practiced backseat driver, I’d say Wright’s trouble stems from the gearshift. His is a cheery, lighthearted take on the crime genre delivered with gee-shucks southern sincerity by the two romantic leads. Compelling these characters to commit acts of outlandish, R-rated violence burns the clutch.

Baby’s climactic U-turn feels especially inappropriate given what we know about the character; Wright purposely portrays his protagonist as a pacifist early on, then sadistically pushes him closer and closer to the point of no return. But what should feel like a moment of cathartic empowerment instead feels unearned and unbecoming. And Baby’s not alone—supporting characters perform similarly sloppy reversals to satisfy the mediocre script. Unimaginative casting only exacerbates the lazy writing, forcing talented performers to trot out old shtick: Spacey plays yet another reptilian villain, Jon Hamm encores his drunken playboy routine, and Jamie Foxx plays a cocky thug with a short fuse. It’s not groundbreaking stuff.

Nor does it need to be. Edgar Wright can do wonders with a simple story and a surplus of style—and he leaves his energy and enthusiasm on the screen. Those qualities shine in several standout set pieces, and separate Baby Driver from the soulless dreck it will chase at the box office this summer. The film wears an almost embarrassing amount of earnestness on its sleeve, and it’s only when the director betrays that foundational positivity that Baby Driver careens off course. It’s a testament to Wright’s skillful direction that he averts an outright wreck—and as he starts to pick up the pieces for his next feature, I’m confident he’ll find a lot worth saving. Let’s hope Baby is an organ donor.

Get Out Review

lead_720_405The line between comedy and horror is tightrope thin, and sketch star Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is a nimble balancing act atop a live wire. Charged with a current of social commentary, Get Out surges along the circuits of genre convention — only to abruptly about-face, jolting the audience into frequent, giddy chaos. Emblematic of these narrative left turns is the scene that spawned the #GetOutChallenge meme, in which a character sprints homicidally toward the screen, then jukes at the last possible second. The moment perfectly encapsulates Peele’s mischievous M.O.

Right from the get-go, the filmmaker seeks to upend audience assumptions with a prologue that paints the suburbs as an unwelcoming and unsafe place — at least for an adolescent black guy. In the uncertain aftermath of this warning salvo, we’re introduced to our introspective protagonist, photog Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his Caucasian girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams of Girls fame). At her invitation, Chris reluctantly commits to spend a weekend in bucolic (strike that — waspy) upstate New York with her well-to-do parents (cue a very game Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford).

But what begins as a recipe for awkward comedy unfurls as a portentous mystery, with beguiling hints of malice that mount and mount until the film topples into its bloody, raucous third act. Peele deploys comic ballast in the form of Chris’ confidant Rob (Lil Rel Howery): temporary apartment-sitter, TSA agent, and one-man Greek chorus. As Chris relays each inscrutable encounter over the phone, Rob becomes the voice of the audience’s increasing anxiety. These lighthearted interactions keep Get Out from becoming overly comfortable in the cobwebbed entrapments of the genre and help shepherd the film safely past the pitfalls of self-seriousness.

A healthy sense of humor proves Peele’s strongest asset as a filmmaker. Like all great comedians, he’s keenly aware of when and how far he can push his audience, and that talent translates into surprisingly strong narrative instincts and an impressive command of tone. Though Get Out rarely wows in the visual department, one sequence stands out as an exception to the rule—one that exemplifies the director’s willingness to dig Under the Skin, to borrow a title to go along with the borrowed motif.

It’s the middle of the night and Chris, having slipped out to sneak a cigarette, returns to find Keener’s character — a therapist—awake in her study. She offers to hypnotize Chris to help him kick his smoking habit while not-so-subtly plying him for information about his past. Peele conveys the gradual erosion of mental resistance through the repetition of an unnerving and oppressive audio cue; before Chris knows it, he’s in over his head in the black ocean of own subconscious. The realization of this abstract, psychological hell, though familiar, is one of the film’s few genuinely awesome and arresting visuals.

Horror, like comedy, relies on maintaining a sense of the unexpected, and Get Out goes above and beyond to keep its audience guessing. Delivered with a defiant wink by a director with a unique knack for social commentary, the film slyly subverts expectation without compromising on entertainment. This darkly absurd and vitally relevant American hypothetical follows in the footsteps of socially conscious genre greats like Night of the Living Dead — but beyond its woke thrills, perhaps what’s most shocking is how little has changed in the 50 years since George Romero radically redefined the face of terror.

Oscar Spoiler: Hot Takes on the Nine Nominees

The Academy doesn’t always get it right. Okay, they rarely get it right. Still, there’s something hopelessly endearing about the inflated political theater of the evening, from the cringey attempts at comedy to the bloated acceptance speeches. This year, again, nine nominees compete in the Best Picture category—who will win? Who should win? Read on and tune in; the awards air this Sunday, February 26 at 7:00PM on ABC.Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 3.10.29 PMArrival
Sci-fi flicks are Best Picture poison, and don’t expect Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival to break the genre’s long losing streak. Fact is, no science fiction film has ever taken top honors (and until the category was expanded in 2009, they were rarely even acknowledged). Arrival follows in the footsteps of Mad Max: Fury Road, Inception, and Her as this year’s token admission and, like each of its precursors, is destined to lose to more conventional fare.

The upshot: Arrival is expertly crafted science fiction for adults—undoubtedly one of the year’s best. It has no shot at winning Best Picture.

pboxFences
Fences’ inclusion reads as a cynical placation of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, rendered all the more unnecessary by the relative strength of the other minority-centric nominees (namely Moonlight, Lion, and Hidden Figures). Marking the meh directorial debut of Denzel Washington, this paint-by-numbers stage-to-screen adaptation is overlong, overlit and single-handedly saved by Viola Davis’ remarkable turn as self-sacrificing housewife Rose Maxon.

The upshot: Davis is currently and deservedly favored to win Best Supporting Actress, but Fences should be shut out elsewhere.

1477534845_hacksawridge_D33-15411-edit_t1070_hc0370550cc1f7a590be5ff8fcaa7a7e6314a2e4eHacksaw Ridge
Mel Gibson is a filmmaker of searing passion and stunted emotional range. Hacksaw Ridge revels in that screwy dichotomy, ratcheting the digital gore up to 11 in garish tribute to veteran Army pacifist Desmond Doss. Gibson draws so lustily from the well of War Movie Clichés (including, egregiously, a caricatural drill sergeant played by Vince Vaughn) that Hacksaw Ridge makes Tropic Thunder seem positively prescient. Seek out the 2004 doc The Conscientious Objector instead.

The upshot: The Academy may have freed Mel Gibson from Director Jail, but expect him to go home empty handed on Sunday.

hell-or-high-waterHell or High Water
In at least one extremely specific respect, Hell or High Water recalls another recent Best Picture nominee. Like 2010’s True Grit, the film features an aging, mustachioed lawman elocuted with toothless conviction by Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges. As Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, he’s tasked with apprehending two brothers who take to robbing banks after their family ranch is foreclosed on. Unfortunately, the film lacks that signature Coen brothers’ crackle.

The upshot: Hell or High Water is a fun but forgettable neo-western, and probably won’t win any of the four awards it’s nominated for.

hidden-figures-hf-228_rgbHidden Figures
The portrait painted in history books of the US space race is as white and as phallic as a NASA shuttle. Hidden Figures widens that narrow perspective, admirably illuminating a few of the brilliant African American women whose unbridled ambition and expertise helped put a man into extraterrestrial orbit. Director Theodore Melfi mostly follows the Best Picture playbook, but the story inspires even when the filmmaking doesn’t.

The upshot: The Oscar odds aren’t great, but Hidden Figures is undoubtedly a true story worth telling. Plus, space is cool!

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La La Land
Conveying an infectious joie de vivre through its impressive, expressive camerawork, La La Land is a rare beast among Best Picture nominees. Director Damien Chazelle dazzles with virtuoso cinematic vivacity, mixing just the right cocktail of Technicolor optimism and modern pragmatism. Each of La La Land’s intoxicating song-and-dance numbers resonates with clear thematic purpose, while its poignant conclusion will likely stay with you for days.

The upshot: La La Land is not only the heavy favorite to take Sunday’s top prize, it’s also—arguably—the best film of the year.

1015400_1_11-23lion_standardLion
The Academy fancies itself terribly relevant, and with the heightened global controversy surrounding immigration, Lion’s nomination takes on added significance. The film depicts the true story of Saroo, a misplaced Indian boy who is adopted, relocated, and raised by a kindly Australian couple. 25 years later, he returns to his home country in search of the family he left behind. With crisp cinematography and understated direction, Lion gracefully explores themes of identity and assimilation.

The upshot: A Best Picture upset seems unlikely, but expect a politically charged acceptance speech if Lion wins one of the lesser awards.

amazon_studios-MBTS-Full-Image_GalleryBackground-en-US-1519947118002._RI_SX940_.jpgManchester by the Sea
Manchester by the Sea is also awash in controversy, owing to the sexual harassment allegations leveled against star Casey Affleck. The film casts the impeached actor as a sad sack uncle saddled with the guardianship of his teenage nephew after his older brother’s untimely demise. The lead performance is vulnerable and nuanced, and Affleck remains the favorite in the Best Actor category—but don’t be surprised if the Academy opts for a safer alternative.

The upshot: If Mel Gibson can still land a Best Director nom in 2017, don’t count Affleck or Manchester out.

moonlightMoonlight
Moonlight is a melancholy meditation on love and loneliness set in a Miami that starkly contrasts the postcard ideal. In place of swaying palm trees and neon nightlife, the film depicts an emotional shoreline upon which the tide of individuality nips at the dunes of an exclusive and indifferent world. It’s a sober story told with uncompromising honesty and empathy by director Barry Jenkins. Read our full review here.

The upshot: Moonlight has more than a shadow of a chance. Expect an all-out brawl with La La Land for the night’s top prize.

Split Review

james-mcavoy-split-imageWhat does success look like for M. Night Shyamalan in 2017? With The Visit, the excessively maligned director seemed to acknowledge a need to scale back the lofty ambition that tanked his two highest budget, least interesting efforts (namely The Last Airbender and After Earth) but Split fails to further that momentum. Despite an ace performance by James McAvoy, the film fizzles just when M. Night seemed poised to rekindle a spark of his early genius. At this point, another smash on the scale of The Sixth Sense might be too much to hope for. Heck, I’d settle for a Signs.

Split, despite its PG-13 rating, ventures into darker territory than previous Shyamalan fare, and the director struggles to balance the emotional maturity the premise deserves with the endearing, lighthearted humor he’s made his hallmark. The plot revolves around the kidnapping of three teenage girls by Kevin Wendell Crumb, a psychopath with multiple personality disorder (a committedly unhinged McAvoy). His victims include birthday-girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen), best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula, TV’s Recovery Road), and cool-headed outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch).

The terrified trio awakens in a dank, windowless room, where they’re forced to placate the myriad personas of their captor, including a lisping nine-year-old, a buttoned-up British woman, and a Walter White lookalike. The intent is pure pulp, but with its aggressive undercurrent of sexual violence, Splitoften feels flip when it should feel dire. It’s a tonal mismatch that might feel nihilistic in the hands of another filmmaker, but M. Night is nothing if not earnest. The themes he explores, however inartfully, are backed by a respect for the characters unfortunate enough to inhabit this ugly and unfair world.

Sliding in at just under two hours, Split feels oddly overlong and undercooked. The film’s belabored B story centers on analyst Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley, Carrie, The Happening) and her complicated relationship with Kevin’s constituents. Involved is a peripheral attempt to dramatize the real-world controversy surrounding the existence of multiple personality disorder (known as dissociative personality disorder in modern medical parlance) and Shyamalan posits an unconvincing supernatural explanation. Fletcher eventually becomes a key player in the film’s messy third act, but her sessions with Kevin feel especially superfluous given the nagging near-certainty that something more interesting is happening to our imprisoned protagonists off-screen.

This specific shortcoming shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; Shyamalan’s strength has never been his screenwriting. But where he committed to the grotesque, Raimi-esque comic mayhem of The Visit, Split feels constantly at odds with itself. Between the dark, erratic script and his light-footed direction, the filmmaker is forced to confront an identity crisis of his own. Is Split meant to be a fun, frivolous genre diversion, a confident comeback piece, or something else entirely? No clear answer emerges, and the question is further muddied by a perplexing postscript that reframes the narrative in the context of M. Night’s career.

Split may not provide the kindling Shyamalan needed to once again set the industry ablaze, but it’s not a bucket of ice water either. The film features a few showpiece sequences of his signature directorial panache, including the girls’ claustrophobic first encounter with McAvoy’s Kevin. With deranged determination, the actor provides a lynchpin that keeps Split together, in spite of even its most glaring flaws — flaws destined to be amplified and snidely derided by the hive mind of internet fandom, which deals only in absolutes. For now, M. Night scrapes by with a minor success and something still to prove. And it’s hard not to root for an underdog.

Moonlight Review

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Moonlight is a melancholy meditation on love and loneliness set in a Miami that starkly contrasts the postcard ideal. In place of swaying palm trees and neon nightlife, the film depicts an emotional shoreline upon which the tide of individuality nips at the dunes of an exclusive and indifferent world. It’s a sober story told with uncompromising honesty and empathy by director Barry Jenkins.

Adapted from the stage play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film follows Chiron, a gay African American adolescent who struggles to find his place in a society that seems to run perpendicular to him. It’s a triptych of episodes in which three distinct actors portray the character at critical junctures of his life. In the first, a young Chiron, nicknamed “Little” by his classmates, must navigate the conflicting influences of two flawed parental figures—his drug-addicted single mother (a volatile Naomie Harris) and her penitent dealer (Mahershala Ali), who takes him in and teaches him to swim. Wide-eyed yet wounded, first-time actor Alex Hibbert convincingly captures a child adrift, forced to fend off the stones and epithets hurled his way.

By high school, Chiron’s social discrepancies have painted a permanent target on his head. Rail thin, awkward, and outcast, he faces abuse both from bullies in the classroom and his unraveling mother at home. Amidst a daily torrent of humiliations, he finds salvation in an unexpected friendship that transforms the course of his burgeoning adult life, and not entirely for the better. In the film’s final segment, Chiron grapples with regret and reconciliation, torn between the adult persona he’s created for himself and the vulnerable kid he still is at heart.

A complex character emerges from the patchwork of these experiences, one as nuanced as it is familiar. Though Chiron represents a specific and seldom acknowledged minority, his is a quintessential coming-of-age tale that isn’t afraid to stare unflinchingly into an ugly abyss. Jenkins emerges from that void with moments of quiet humanity rooted in his deep sensitivity and compassion for his characters. Even when they fail, Jenkins doesn’t judge. He understands the emotions that pilot them, and lets them steer—for better or worse.

This naturalistic storytelling approach eschews cliché at the expense of closure. Moonlight is sparse by conventional Hollywood standards and its intimate, shallow-focus cinematography further narrows the periphery of Chiron’s isolated world. However, in illuminating the perspective of a single individual, the film reveals something universal about the malleability of the self. Chiron is a direct reflection of the people who surround him, and it takes tremendous courage to turn away from that mirror—to start a new conversation.

And Jenkins has done just that. Moonlight is an invitation to observe an often-unseen America, a country in which even one’s most innate impulse feels alien and unwelcome. It’s a journey that clocks countless miles against Chiron’s emotional odometer—but the destination is a shoreline that transcends race, upbringing, or orientation. Perhaps the takeaway is that the distant dunes are less a division between us and more a collective destination; we’re all out here in the water, struggling to learn to swim.