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Rating History

The Comedian
The Comedian (2017)
13 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

February 3, 2017

Scrolling down the repertoire of director Taylor Hackford, one finds there are more hits than misses, and a running quality throughout Hackford's films (especially his hits) is the characters never seem too far removed from reality. They talk and behave the way real people might in their given situations. This allows the corresponding story to sidestep contrivances and progress not according to what we expect from a Hollywood formula but to how things might actually take shape. Deep down, Hackford knows viewers respond more to truth than artifice.

Perhaps this seems like a rather heavy introduction to a review of "The Comedian," but it underlines Hackford's gift for earnest storytelling. His title character is a has-been comic and TV actor struggling to keep his dignity in an industry that rarely rewards age, risk or variety. Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro) is a septuagenarian who, despite his claim to fame as a TV dad on a cheesy but likable 1970s-era sitcom called "Eddie's Home," still needs to make ends meet. But Jackie has fallen so far below the respectability and public radar, his agent, Miller (Edie Falco), is only able to book him small-time gigs in places like Hicksville, a hamlet on Long Island. Miller tells him his commission in a rundown club is "Eleven dollars and a burger."

One night Jackie performs among other TV personalities (Jimmie Walker from "Good Times," Brett Butler from "Grace Under Fire") and attempts to try out new material but gets backlash from a fan who only wants him to "do Eddie." As it turns out, the raucous fan and his wife are taping Jackie's performance for their own personal webisode and this instigates a violent confrontation that eventually leads to Jackie's arrest, a 30-day prison sentence and 100 hours of community service.

All this sets in motion, you might say, the next chapter of Jackie's life and reaffirms the notion we're never too old to change and adapt, and that one's success and sense of worth, especially in show business, comes in strides and the only certainty is there are no certainties. Jackie probably never banked on having to borrow money from his younger brother Jimmy (Danny DeVito) and his disapproving sister-in-law (Patti LuPone) to stay afloat, but life can be funny that way.

It can also be funny in the way we encounter other people. While working at a homeless shelter, Jackie meets Harmony Schiltz (Leslie Mann), who must also be of service to the community after she was arrested during a relationship dispute. Harmony is about 30 years younger than Jackie, but their miseries and dysfunctional families allow them to bond, first platonically then somewhat romantically. Their relationship develops after they strike a deal: she'll accompany him to his lesbian niece's wedding and he'll accompany her to her overbearing father's (Harvey Keitel) birthday dinner, which is just one of many scenes that feels setup to play out a certain way but in fact rolls out differently. For instance, because it's De Niro and Keitel, who are close friends in real life, the conflict between Jackie and Harmony's father could have been a cheap, self-aware-type moment, but the scene (and those thereafter) stays true to the characters in this particular story and not to our knowledge of the actors' other movies.

"The Comedian" also possesses an insight into a world with which most of us are probably unfamiliar and impresses upon us that it actually knows what it's talking about. I was surprised by how genuine Jackie's trials and tribulations in the field of standup comedy came across, as when Miller gives him a list of options for his next job and tells him how little each of them pays. I guess I shouldn't be surprised by the film's savviness for the entertainment industry, though, since the four-writer screenplay includes Art Linson, who wrote a book called "What Just Happened? Bitter Tales from the Hollywood Front Line." Linson has clearly drawn upon his own observations and experiences to contextualize this story.

In addition to its knowledge, "The Comedian" also lures us in through its drama by having the characters take part in sobering experiences and allowing them to speak dialogue that sounds authentic. This was all the more surprising, I suppose, given the movie's setup, which takes a foul-mouthed, raunchy comic and pairs him with a younger, attractive woman with a domineering father. You'd expect such a scenario to yield something along the lines of, say, "Meet the Parents," "Analyze This," or "Bad Santa," which aren't bad movies, but they've been done. In fact, several scenes in "The Comedian" feel like they're on the cusp of predictability and/or low wit, but the screenplay turns them around. One of these involves Jackie honoring a legendary comedienne (Cloris Leachman) at an upscale New York club and another in which he extemporaneously performs at a retirement home in Florida. What happens during each of these may be farfetched on paper, but Hackford and his team make them credible.

"The Comedian" catches us off guard because it goes beyond mere bawdiness and actually takes itself seriously, not only as as a comedy but also as a drama and as a comment on how technology and politics shape entertainment. Because it doesn't simply write itself off as mindless fodder, we don't either, and we find ourselves getting drawn in to this latest chapter of Jackie's life. Instead of seeing him as just a smutty comedian, we see him as a human being who just happens to be a comedian. Nobody, in any profession, wants to be "typecast," or be thought of as one-dimensional and limited. "The Comedian" tells the story about one man's attempt to resist this seemingly inevitable course. It's not only funny and dramatic, but also somewhat inspiring. This isn't something I expected from the film going in, but movies can be funny that way.

Split (2017)
29 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

January 20, 2017

M. Night Shyamalan movies exist on a wide spectrum of appeal and tolerance, from the crafty and near-brilliant ("The Sixth Sense") to the downright frustrating and infuriating ("The Village"). The peculiar filmmaker may be full of himself sometimes and often exhibits poor judgment, but he can never be accused of not trying and he obviously has a lot of enthusiasm for his projects. With "Split," he continues his trend of attempting to produce something unique and mostly succeeds. This is a horror-thriller we assume is going to progress a certain way but actually ends up treading unfamiliar territory. Shyamalan seems to have done this intentionally, which makes "Split" more challenging because we're always wondering where it's going. Granted, it's not always engaging, but it's never exactly boring, either.

The setup: three teenage girls are kidnapped and held hostage by a skinny, clean-shaven man (James McAvoy) with thin-rimmed glasses who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, or DID. The man's name is Dennis, or at least that's one of his 23 personalities who chloroformed and abducted the girls from a restaurant parking lot. When the girls come to, they discover Dennis is also Patricia, Hedwig and Kevin, among others, and each of his multiple personalities wants the girls to do something for him, depending on which identity is currently calling the shots.

Dennis holds them in an underground lair of sorts, with no windows and no Internet connectivity. Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), whose sixteenth birthday brought her, Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) together, insists they try to thwart Dennis, or whoever he is, so they can escape. Marcia is on-board, but Casey, who's already the outsider of the group, has mixed feelings and tells the others she first has to determine what all "this" (with "this" being their current situation) is. It's obvious Casey has a dark history and she seems to have brought some prior survival experiences to the table, as the movie flashes back to her childhood when she was on a disturbing hunting trip with her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and uncle (Brad William Henke). How this event ties in with her present predicament, I'll not reveal, but even after the film establishes the connections, they aren't always clear.

With such a familiar setup in place, we expect the plot to transpire like most thrillers do, with the girls eventually pulling together, harnessing their wits and limited resources, and using their captor's own handicap against him in order to survive and escape. This might have made for a serviceable entertainment, but Shyamalan is smart enough to know it's been done, and he goes out of his way to shake things up a bit.

For starters, his screenplay refrains from necessarily making Dennis a one-dimensional villain whose only purpose is to torment his victims and then be killed later on. It actually develops his condition more deeply by paralleling the girls' ordeal with Dennis' sessions with a psychiatrist as he assumes the personality of Barry, a flamboyant fashion designer. He meets with Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), to whom the movie devotes ample screen time as she attempts to argue that multiple personality disorder is, in fact, real and its ramifications are so powerful that patients living with it may actually prove beneficial to the human race. She argues DID unlocks areas of the brain that yield undiscovered potential and believes a patient's physiology can change based on the personality's beliefs. At a conference, she poses the question, "Is this where our sense of the supernatural comes from?" Perhaps the supernatural isn't so "super" after all.

It's hard to say anything more about "Split" without giving away crucial plot details. Just know that it continually leads us down an uncertain path, an aspect that proved refreshing because our curiosity level remains up most of the time.

With that said, though, "Split" isn't always a captivating experience. We may wonder where it's going, but we don't always care, especially in the beginning when some scenes either feel tacked and/or are hampered down by languid dialogue, a slow rhythm, and stiff acting. It's only after the narratives starts to veer off from our preconceived notions that the energy level picks up and we begin to appreciate Shyamalan's strategy and creativity. It takes a while, but the movie gets there.

And where "Split" ends up does make it worth our while. By the end, we feel we've "put our time in," so to speak, and the payoff, or in this case, Shyamalan's signature twist, makes us glad we stuck with it. For the most part, this is an unusual and interesting thriller, but there are times when it's also a chilling and tense one, with some arguably gripping moments. This includes one of Casey's flashbacks that shows a really neat shot of a reflection in an eyeball, and another toward the end involving a coat hanger, the outcome of which I didn't expect. Mike Gioulakis' cinematography leverages the enclosed locations well and, through the use of low angles and slow tracking shots, really builds toward and heightens the intensity of the final act. "Split" may be inconsistent and questionable at times, but it's not a thriller we're likely to forget, and in this case, that's a good thing.

A Monster Calls
43 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

January 6, 2017

"A Monster Calls" is not only a touching and entertaining family tale, but also, I believe, an essential one. Don't let the name or genre mislead you-this is a challenging, heartrending and surprisingly down-to-earth drama from which adults and children alike can draw many valuable lessons, some of which aren't so obvious and actually require critical thinking, deep interpretation and thoughtful discussion. This isn't something you'd expect when the title character is a ghastly, grotesque figure made up of dead branches from a yew tree.

The monster in question comes calling to 13-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall, in a remarkable performance), who's been having the same nightmare ever since his mother (Felicity Jones) was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In his horrific dream, Conor is on the edge of a cliff in a cemetery, desperately trying to hold onto someone, lest they fall to their certain death. But the person he's trying to save is too heavy and Conor is losing his grip. He lies in bed, panting, sweating and eventually wakes up in utter terror.

In addition to his mother's deteriorating health, Conor must also bear the bullies at school who constantly torment him, both physically and emotionally. Plus, he has to deal with his harsh and difficult grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), who's come to stay with him while his ailing mother is in the hospital, and the grandmother doesn't seem to like him very much. Meanwhile, his distant father (Toby Kebbell) doesn't exactly provide ample support-he moved away with his new family to Los Angeles and Conor often deludes himself into thinking he might be able to move there too, but he never really gets the impression his father wants him.

Conor has it rough and he feels stuck, so one night, at 12:07 a.m., a monster appears outside his window. The monster (voice of Liam Neeson), who doesn't have a name, claims that Conor summoned him, but Conor has no recollection of this and it's sort of neat that there's no concrete explanation for why or how the monster appears, he just does. What's also interesting about this particular behemoth, which bears a striking resemblance to the Ents from "The Lord of the Rings" and Groot from "Guardians of the Galaxy," is that he's neither scary nor friendly. He's more of a towering disciplinarian, acting like a military general determined to get Conor to talk about his nightmare and accept a certain truth. The monster says he will tell Conor three true stories, after which Conor must tell his own, otherwise the monster will eat him.

This is no ordinary setup for a family drama, which is a good thing, but it unexpectedly adds up to a film of rich and long-lasting value, probably because Conor is such a complex, three-dimensional character with whom we can easily identify and empathize. He's not just some cute kid we feel sorry for, but a complicated young man with heavy thoughts who's prone to anger, depression and even violence. When he screams at the monster that his stories don't make any sense, we know what he means and so we're constantly on Conor's level. We don't just feel for him, but actually feel like him.

Through various animation and special effects sequences, the film brings the monster's stories to life-the first about a prince and his supposedly evil witch of a stepmother; the second about an apothecary and a narrow-minded parson who doesn't allow the apothecary to practice medicine the way he prefers; and the third about an invisible man determined to be seen and who takes drastic action to do so. Buried within each of these narratives is a useful lesson (or perhaps lessons) that requires us to alter our perspective and assumptions, which is illustrative of the the film's overall message: to not subscribe to evaluative thinking based on a single point of view. In life, there are few certainties and we have to be open to the possibility that the way we see things is wrong and probably different from the way others see them.

That's what's so refreshing and enduring about "A Monster Calls," which is based on the novel by Patrick Ness, from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd: the morals of each of its stories, and the main one between Conor and the monster, aren't so clear cut. The film puts it on us to examine them from multiple angles, consider what they're saying in regards to human nature and to the specific characters, and eventually draw multiple conclusions. There are of course parallels between the monster's stories and Conor's own day-to-day struggles, but that's why the monster tells them. His objective is to help Conor (and us) learn, grow and forgive.

Director J.A. Bayona, who also helmed "The Impossible" and the superior horror film, "The Orphanage," once again shows a deep understanding of the material he's been charged with filming, especially with regards to the complexity of Conor's situation. He doesn't simplify things in order to make it easier for the audience to digest. Bayona knows Conor's burdens are common to everyone at one point or another and because he sees them as something true and universal, he doesn't cut corners or resort to contrived narrative devices just to get through them. Instead, he lets each scene play out naturally without rushing through it (I'm thinking of a particularly quiet moment when Conor goes into his room and starts flipping through the pages of a book). By the end, we've gained a real sense Conor's pain and suffering and really listen to him when tells the monster he's just so tired. And the monster's explanation for Conor's nightmare may be short, but it's something we're all prone to forgetting.

I went into "A Monster Calls" completely cold and unaware of what it was about, though I assumed it was just another children's fantasy. I'm happy to report it caught me off guard, not only with its content but also its heart and recognition of the young adolescent experience. It knows how urgent, difficult and agonizing this time can be, but it respects it and this allows the film to earns its emotional payoff. Based what I learned from it, I look forward to the day I get to watch "A Monster Calls" with my own kids, not only because its lessons will be valuable to them, but because it's likely their interpretations of the stories will teach me even more. If ever there was a modern family picture that any family would be wise to watch together, "A Monster Calls" is it.

La La Land
La La Land (2016)
55 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

December 16, 2016

The key to a good musical is striking a balance between the ostentatious fantasy and the grounded substance (and hopefully there is grounded substance). Hollywood's "institutional" musicals, like "The Wizard of Oz," "Singin' in the Rain" and "My Fair Lady," are beloved not because of their song and dance numbers (although these certainly play a role in their appeal) but because they're actually about something when you take these elements away. Their longevity and indelibility derive from the films' strong messages and subtext, while the musical sequences provide the bells and whistles-they make the movies more fun and entertaining.

Perhaps finding such a harmony between depth and spectacle is hard to do and explains why musicals are so rare these days compared to when they dominated Hollywood's Golden Age and remained prolific up through the 1960s. But "La La Land" made me believe there could be a resurgence because its quality and craftsmanship deserves comparison to the titles I mentioned above, which is saying a lot. At its heart is a bittersweet love story that feels real and pure and it's this element that writer-director Damien Chazelle keeps coming back to in order to make "La La Land" work as a thoughtful drama, while the music, lyrics and dance sequences give it an extra kick.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star as Mia and Sebastian, the film's predestined couple who at first deplore each other but soon realize they may be soul mates. Mia is an aspiring actress who works at a studio cafe and lives with three roommates, who are also would-be actresses. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who'd rather promote classic jazz artists by opening up his own club than rehash the same old jingles in a mediocre restaurant where the owner doesn't allow him to be inventive. When Sebastian decides to put a spin on things, his tune catches the ears of Mia, who happens to be walking by. She goes in to compliment him, but he completely blows her off after his boss (J.K. Simmons) fires him.

This isn't Mia and Sebastian's first encounter-they initially crossed paths during a brief stint of road rage on a busy Los Angeles freeway, which follows the film's opening song and dance number, "Another Day of Sun," during which the motorists mitigate the stresses of gridlock by singing and swinging their bodies. Everyone takes part except Mia and Sebastian, who are too concentrated on the next moves of their careers. They meet for a third time at a mutual friend's party, and soon thereafter the wheels of romance and destiny are set in motion, as is Mia and Sebastian's willingness to breakout into their own song and dance sequences.

The movie is called "La La Land" for obvious reasons. Not only do Mia and Sebastian live in Los Angeles but they literally detach themselves from reality as they look into each other's eyes, fly through the air, and sing to one another and themselves, making the entire cityscape and the Hollywood Hills, particularly Griffith Park and its observatory, their own personal, moonlit stage.

The film is wonderfully romantic, fun and captivating as it follows Mia and Sebastian's blossoming and eventually tumultuous relationship through the four seasons of a year, but perhaps what's most enduring and surprising about it is how genuine their respective experiences in the film and music industries come across. This must stem from the fact that Chazelle himself is a young artist and it's clear his screenplay draws from his own personal experiences when it comes to the pain, frustration and financial hardships Mia and Sebastian must weather in order to achieve their hopes and dreams in show business. Their hurdles never seem exaggerated, right down to Mia's auditions and her attempting to put on a one-woman show, as well as Sebastian trying to convince himself that touring with a jazz band led by his former cohort (John Legend) is something he actually wants. We sense each character's anguish, both as career people and as one half of a couple struggling to find common ground. That brings up another surprise about "La La Land": the outcome of Mia's, Sebastian's, and then Mia & Sebastian's, stories are never certain. How things wrap up-happy, sad or open-ended-I leave for you to discover.

And discover you should, because "La La Land" is alive and magical, deep and true. It's exceptionally produced and enormously entertaining, with not one scene where the energy isn't busting. If I had to criticize it, I'd mention that Emma Stone is probably better suited for the fantasy and Gosling the drama but that neither actor is one hundred percent right for both. Stone seems confined to the make-believe cloud upon which Mia floats, while Gosling doesn't seem like he's ever able rise to it with the same enthusiasm and conviction. His singing and dancing, in particular, feel unnatural. I suppose one could argue this works in the film's favor and mirrors the characters respective natures, thus balancing things out, but when Stone tried to be dramatic or Gosling tried to perform, I was too aware of what they were doing and I ended up seeing the actors on-screen instead of their characters, which proved somewhat distracting. There's little doubt both leads will get an Oscar nomination, but to say they should win is a bit of a stretch.

Nevertheless, "La La Land" reminded me why musicals used to thrive. When they're done right, as this one is, they can be entertaining on so many levels: from their drama, comedy, and romance, to their music, songs and dancing. Of course, by taking on so much, they also run the risk of becoming overwrought and turning into an unfulfilling mess ("Hello, Dolly!"), but "La La Land" practices moderation and finds balance. It focus first on its essential human story, which is about our inherent desire to feel special among our peers and to the person we love, and then on its music, dancing and technical presentation. The former makes it great; the latter make it greater.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
2 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

December 16, 2016

Amidst the unprecedented success that was "The Force Awakens," the "Star Wars" movie franchise can now be seen as an ever-growing, unending puzzle that just keeps expanding outward into space, with the primary "Episodes" taking on most of the heavy narrative lifting and entries like "Rogue One" padding them with supplemental characters, interesting subplots and "Oh, so that's why/how"-type moments. We may not see view these "child" stories as significantly as their "parents," but they can still function as individual, standalone pieces within the greater whole. And should "Rogue One" prove to be successful (how could it not?), it means there will be others like it, and therefore a new "Star Wars" movie will always be on the cinematic horizon. My only hope is each one is well made and brings to light things we didn't already know. I have a feeling the latter will be the bigger challenge.

Fortunately, "Rogue One" is well made and it does introduce us to some interesting characters, but as a "Star Wars" movie, I didn't walk away from it feeling like it taught me anything new about the "SW" mythology or that its story was terribly special. And yet, as a science fiction adventure, it hits most of its marks. The plot, while traditional, is one we eventually come to care about (even though the mildest of "SW" fans will already know how it turns out), the characters are sympathetic and gradually become more complicated, and the action is routine but zippy. So I guess you could say "Rogue One" meets at least half the requirements to be a worthy contributor to this limitless saga.

Like I mentioned, unless you're completely new to "Star Wars," the story is one you know. It takes place just before the events of "Episode IV: A New Hope." Remember those plans Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) obtained for the Death Star and subsequently hid in R2-D2 before sending him to Tatooine with a message for Obi-Wan Kenobi: "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope."? "Rogue One" chronicles how said plans eventually ended up in Leia's hands, after members of the Rebel Alliance embarked on a mission to steal them in order to thwart the Empire.

That's the plot in a nutshell and it's pretty basic and familiar, comprised mostly of "Star Wars"-esque battles between Empire troops and Rebel soldiers; outer space chase sequences involving the Rebels' Starfighters and the Empire's Fighters; a (pretty awesome) light saber execution featuring Darth Vader; and a handful of "hang on for dear life" moments as the good guys attempt to complete their mission, which, of course, comes with its own set of hurdles and boils down to the last possible second.

All this we've seen before, and when it comes to "Star Wars," or any member of this genre really, it's to be expected. What makes "Rogue One" different are its unique hero characters, who are once again led by a woman (just like in "The Force Awakens"). Her name is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a rebellious youth whose engineer-father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), was taken hostage when she was just a child by the Empire's Commander Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who demanded Galen design and build the Death Star. When Galen refused, Jyn witnessed her own mother's murder and her father's capture before being rescued by resistance fighter Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

Years later, Jyn is sought after by a faction of the Rebel Alliance led by Intelligence Office Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who, like Jyn, has his own reasons for being bitter and angry toward the Empire. He's received word that an Imperial Pilot name Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) has defected and possess information about Galen and the clandestine Death Star project. Bodhi is also wise to Galen's deliberate compromising of the weapon in order to make it vulnerable (remember the "chain reaction" plan from "Episode IV" carried out by Luke Skywalker?). Long story short, Jyn, Andor and Bodhi ban together to acquire the Death Star files and transmit them back to Rebel leaders. Aiding them are Chirrut ╬mwe (Donnie Yen), a blind warrior and master of the martial arts who repeats to himself, "I am with the force, the force is with me," and his gruff friend, the cannon-toting Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). There's also my favorite character, K-2S0 (voice of Alan Tudyk), a reprogramed Imperial droid with an attitude.

What I appreciated most about "Rogue One" was its diverse casting, which I'm sure was no accident. It was nice to see the main characters consist of a female, an African American, a Latino, a Pakistani, and two Chinese. This assortment of different people lends the movie a vibrancy and it goes to show how diversity can (and should) be utilized to shake up a story, whether or not that story is routine. It also illustrates, just as "The Force Awakens" did, the progression "Star Wars" is making and how it could, perhaps, become a veritable platform upon which viewers can see how people of different races and ethnicities can pull together for a common cause. Okay, maybe I'm overthinking it, but the thought of millions of people around the world seeing so many different types of faces onscreen at once, and in a positive light, is a reassuring one.

In all honestly, I'm not likely to remember much about "Rogue One" as far as its plot is concerned, but I do recognize its value toward the franchise. It's the first major "Star Wars" feature that doesn't begin with the giant yellow "Star Wars" title, punctuated by John Williams' inimitable score (Williams' score is featured during the closing credits, but most of the music is by Michael Giacchino). With qualities like this, what the movie does, I think, is force fans to adjust to a new approach and entertain the notion that it's okay for a brand as familiar as "Star Wars" to skew off into new and uncharted territory. Don't get me wrong, "Rogue One" lives up to its subtitle of "A Star Wars Story" in most senses, but here and there I saw pieces of the usual mold breaking down and it got me excited about where the series will be after a few more installments. Hopefully sooner rather than later the stories will be just as unique and varied as the people who inhabit them.