Hell or High Water (2016)

While most heist films tend to increase tension by involving several moving parts like in Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels or by adding a new dimension like in Inception, Hell or High Water eschews these additional layers in favor of a stripped down look at a series of small-scale robberies. David Mackenzie (Starred Up) deftly executes on the familiar premise. Two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine; Star Trek) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster; Warcraft), plan a series of bank robberies on a local chain to gather enough money to cover their late mother’s reverse mortgage. Jeff Bridges (True Grit) plays the almost retired Texas Ranger tasked with catching the two.

The morality of the crimes is deliberately kept ambiguous. The brothers stealing from a bank is clearly wrong, but the story takes place shortly after the 2008 financial crisis. Graffiti lines the walls of banks with phrases like “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us”. The screenplay almost places as much blame on the insatiable greed of banks as it does on Toby and Tanner. Many of the citizens seem to share the same sentiment and feel little compassion for the robbed branches. Furthermore, Toby’s reasons behind the crimes, trying to preserve the family house so he can have something to pass down to his sons, is relatable and the film takes a sympathetic stance towards him. While not a political film by any means, placing equal emphasis on this populist stance allows the audience the make their own judgements on the actions of the characters.

The film is steeped in the honeycomb yellow of the scorching Texas sun.

Mackenzie is able to draw uniformly strong performances from his cast. Jeff Bridges is great as usual. His seen-it-all Ranger displays the logic of a seasoned professional and the sharp jabs at his longtime partner add light humor while establishing the depth of their bond. As he pursues the brothers, his commitment overwhelms him and Bridges is able to convey the subtle instability. Foster is cast as the reckless brother. He takes some stupid risks that could easily have made him irritating, but through the clear affection he has for his younger sibling, Foster is able to make the character acceptable. Even Chris Pine, a serial offender in wooden acting, is able to hold his own against Bridges. This is easily Pine’s finest role to date and it shows what he is capable of when working with a talented director and a character that aligns with his innate stoicism.

While the plot is simple and recognizable, the realization of the film sets it apart. The director wraps its story in the trappings of a western. The cinematography highlights the beautiful but harsh landscape of small town Texas. Like in a western, characters are slow talking and terse. Their subtle motions carry as much weight as the few words the say. The screenplay is without filler and Mackenzie’s solid staging turns small interactions into big moments. A distant cousin would be the movie Drive. Both films feature straightforward stories, but deliver by committing to their personal style. While this film can’t match Drive’s arthouse action, it is able to succeed in its own right. Hell or High Water is an effective crime drama boosted by laconic writing and strong direction.

4/5 stars.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016)

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising has all the hallmarks of a comedy sequel. It basically repeats the same plot as the original and tries to outdo previous gags. Mac (Seth Rogen; Pineapple Express) and Kelly (Rose Byrne; The Meddler) are selling their house and have finally found a buyer. The catch is that they are in escrow for 30 days, meaning that the buyers can check in at any time and withdraw their offer if they see something they don’t like. This isn’t an issue until the previously abandoned frat house next door is rented by a group of college girls led by Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz; Kick-Ass). The young women are fed up with official sororities and the debasement of frat parties and want to break out on their own. Teddy (Zac Efron; High School Musical), the frat leader from the first film, joins forces with Mac and Kelly to get girls kicked out of the house before they scare off potential buyers.

Despite the familiar setup, the film uses the gender swap to approach the story from a different angle. They do an incredible job of skewering the Greek system. Sororities are shown as superficial with cult-like rules and rituals and fraternities are portrayed as cesspools of objectification. At their first frat party, Shelby is horrified to learn that the party is just a way to get them drunk enough to have sex. The film is able to evaluate this with humor. There are signs that read “NO MEANS YES” and frat guys shouting “You wanna go upstairs?” to anyone that will listen that are hilarious but also resonate because they are based in reality. These are only slight exaggerations of things that happen at real fraternity parties and the film is able to balance its comedy with criticism.

The critique of sexism inherent in Greek organizations provides a unique source of humor.

Many of the jokes rely too heavily on improv. This has become somewhat of an epidemic in modern comedies, particularly those starring Seth Rogen. Instead of using written and rehearsed lines, the director allows actors to ad lib several takes and compiles the results in post-production. This method can sometimes lead to spontaneous gems, but relying on it misses the essence of good comedy: timing. There are several scenes where the cast is clearly making up their lines as they go along, hoping that overacting will lead to some laughs. However, this typically only leads to failed jokes and in some cases racially charged remarks that don’t have a place in the film. The movie is at its funniest during the elaborate, planned, set pieces. These sequences allow the likeable cast to show off their comedic talents and have the required timing necessary to succeed.

It would have been easy for this film to fall into The Hangover 2 category. A by-the-numbers sequel relying on the success of the original, rather than its own quality, for box office revenues. The humor does not live up to the first film but even as many jokes miss their mark, it’s difficult to dislike the movie. The cast is eminently charismatic and even their failed attempts don’t become irritating. Instead, the surprisingly well realized feminist theme adds depth unusual to the genre and is able to eclipse the uneven humor and elevate the film.

3/5 stars.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Coming off of the major success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Disney followed through with their plan to release spinoffs that would feature new characters and viewpoints within the Star Wars universe. The first of these films is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla). Set prior to the events of the original 1977 film, the plot centers on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones; The Theory of Everything), the daughter of the architect of the Death Star, who has been captured by rebel forces to help them find a way to destroy the superweapon.

A prequel always creates the urge to heavily reference the existing films, but Rogue One is able to avoid many of those mistakes. When developing the prequel trilogy, series creator George Lucas was unable to resist this temptation. He wrote characters that were either younger versions of existing characters or new ones that were basically stand-ins for those you already knew. The key difference here is that Rogue One answers one of the franchise’s lingering questions: why was there a spot on the Death Star that would immediately destroy it? This necessitates the film to focus on an entirely new cast in a very different situation.

Edwards deliberately separates his film from the mainline entries. Each production detail is selected to contrast with what we expect from the franchise. Camera movements are often shaky and focus on the perspective of the ground troops rather than sweeping shots of the greater battle area. The final action scene has moments that mimic the Normandy Invasion scene from Saving Private Ryan. The lighting also reflects the clandestine nature of the characters. Many rooms are poorly lit, implying these rebels don’t have the money or the time to stay in any location and build a base. Even the normally pristine Stormtroopers are speckled with debris. Everything feels grimy with an air of desperation.

The rebels in Rogue One focus on the end, not the means.
The rebels in Rogue One focus on the end, not the means.

The screenwriters are able break away from traditional formula of the franchise. Previous films focused on the Jedi which made morality simple. There was no question of who to root for when it was the monks versus space fascists, but Rogue One takes a different approach. The rebels fighting here are not waging a war of ideologies, they are the people that need to make the hard decisions to win battles. That means lying and killing if it moves their position forward. The added complexity is refreshing in the otherwise simplistic universe, but, perhaps fearing public reaction, this is relegated to the periphery. The film instead chooses to focus on the action rather than the choices behind it. Exploring this ambiguity would have further distinguished the film and balanced out the pacing that drags early on from the repeated action sequences.

The filmmakers take full advantage of the freedom that not needing the set up future installments affords them. The major downside to the franchises that dominate cinemas today is that they lack tension. Even as characters are shown in perilous situations, it doesn’t produce the intended effect. Why should we be worried when we know that sequels are already in the pipeline? Captain America and Iron Man can’t kill each other when the next Avengers movie is just around the corner, so their battles don’t have any meaning. That is not the case for this spinoff. Characters are expendable and the writers aren’t afraid to prove it. The new perspective and narrative turns make Rogue One an exciting change to the standard Star Wars tropes.

4/5 stars.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

The reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise was never as successful as its box office results would imply. The first film was a passable start but the second was mostly a retread with a blundering plot. Both film’s suffered from director J. J. Abrams’s (Lost) biggest flaws: overreliance on nostalgia and initially appealing but ultimately unsatisfying mysteries. After Star Trek Into Darkness recycled the plot of its predecessor, it had seemed that the writers were out of ideas, but the series returned this year with Star Trek Beyond. The Enterprise is sent on a rescue mission to an uncharted nebula only to soon be destroyed a swarm of spacecraft controlled by an alien named Krall (Idris Elba; Prometheus) forcing them to abandon ship to the nearby planet. Split up, the crew has to find each other and stop Krall before he finds an ancient device on board that would allow him to use his swarm to attack bases and planets.

The films are increasingly feeling like extended $150 million dollar television episodes. That has both benefits and downsides. It frees the movies to be relatively independent of each other but has also leads to a significant amount of repetition. The sources of conflict are the same: Kirk doesn’t think he lives up to his father, Spock doesn’t know how to manage his duty to his people, and Uhura and Spock’s relationship is still “complicated” even though they break up at the start of the film. The plot is overly familiar and the relationships don’t show growth from the previous entries. It’s difficult to avoid the thought that the producers, and possibly the fans, value familiarity above all else.

Pegg's dialogue is barely intelligible.
Pegg’s dialogue is barely intelligible.

The script tries to bring an even lighter tone to the series. Co-written by Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz), the screenplay incorporates jokes throughout the film. However, these attempts at humor are almost always the same jokes made in the previous films (Spock doesn’t understand emotions, etc.). Repeating the same punchlines means few of the setups actually produce any laughs. They aren’t helped by the acting either. Chris Pine as Kirk (Hell or High Water) continues his typical stiff performance, vainly attempting to show charisma and Bones (Karl Urban; Dredd) delivers all his lines as if starring in an early 1930s talkie, overacted with shtick to spare. Even the minor roles do not hold up with several actors using irritating speech choices. Anton Yelchin’s (Green Room) Russian accent as Chekov appears to have been based off a comedian’s standup routine and Pegg as Scotty sounds like he is auditioning for the part of Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons. The weak script combined with worse acting thwart the desired humor.

With a different director at the helm, the film’s action has a new look. Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 6) has handled large scale action many times before and his experience shows off. Set pieces are more clearly composed and more playful than ever before. In particular, the film’s climax relies on a plot device that will annoy some, but for the rest leads to an uproarious and gleeful display of demolition. Even though the majority of the effects appear to be computer generated, Lin is able to keep them exciting with his quick pacing. Thanks to Lin’s efforts, Star Trek Beyond’s spirited action scenes outweigh the poor writing and wooden performances, producing an adequate  entry in this middling franchise.

3/5 stars.

The Hollars (2016)

If film festivals can be epitomized, then The Hollars is Sundance in a nutshell. John Krasinski (The Office) directs and stars as John Hollar, a New York City office worker making a graphic novel in his spare time. He lives with his pregnant girlfriend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick; Pitch Perfect) until he finds out his mother Sally (Margo Martindale; Million Dollar Baby) has a brain tumor and needs surgery, requiring him to go back home for the first time in years. He returns to find that many things have changed and that his mother’s health isn’t the only problem his family faces.

Despite a talented cast, the performances are unrefined. Each actor is committed to their part and goes through the required motions, but the acting lacks precision. The cast needed more takes or a more demanding director to push them beyond their initial efforts. Particularly bad is the otherwise talented Sharlto Copley (District 9) as the divorced older brother who now lives with his parents. His acting is overly eccentric and his accent is distracting. Many foreign actors are able to imitate an American accent without notice, but Copley’s South African intonations are jarring when compared to his supposed family. The exception to this is the female cast. Martindale is captivating as the stern but caring matriarch. Her tough love is often hilarious and its clear why she is at the center of the family. Kendrick shines as well in her limited role. She manages to gently push John to move forward with his life without falling into the trap of becoming the whiny girlfriend character. Martindale’s and Kendrick’s acting is welcome, but it only puts their co-star’s shortcomings in further relief.

Martindale's sharp wit is incredibly endearing.
Martindale’s sharp wit is incredibly endearing.

The film checks off a list of tropes from festival darlings of the past 15 years. Almost every story beat or production choice can be guessed beforehand. The main character is stuck in a rut living in a big city, they feel like a stranger in their own hometown, and every character has been dusted in a healthy helping of quirk. Even the soundtrack follows the Sundance manual by only featuring tracks by indie folk singers. Movies like Garden State have already employed many of these features and Krasinski doesn’t attempt to grow beyond them.

There is an old saying that “you can’t go home again”, meaning that your memories of a place or time are static and will never match up to your new experiences if you try to revisit them. John’s trip home shows him how much his family’s situation has changed. The people he is close to have moved on with their lives, often to worse outcomes, while he was living in a vacuum, delaying change and avoiding risk. He hasn’t taken the next steps with his graphic novel or advanced his relationship with his longtime girlfriend because of his fear of failure. In many ways, this concept applies to the filmmakers themselves. Instead of attempting something original, they returned to a formula they knew. By strictly treading on common ground, The Hollars is an agreeable but forgettable comedic drama, barely distinguishable from its peers.

2/5 stars.

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

Finally rounding out the year’s lineup of video game adaptations is Assassin’s Creed. The popular video game franchise launched in 2007 and sparked eight mainline sequels and several more spinoffs selling over 90 million copies across the games. Unlike many adaptations, the premise, while far-fetched, provides an intriguing setup for a blend of sci-fi and historical action. After he is executed by lethal injection, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender; Shame) wakes up in a strange research facility with Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard; Midnight in Paris), a scientist leading the Animus project. The Animus, a giant mechanical arm that connects to the spinal cord of the user, taps into data stored in DNA to relive the memories of ancestors. Sophia and her father want to use Callum to find the Apple of Eden, a mysterious object that can control humanity, through his ancestor Aguilar (also played by Fassbender), an Assassin during the Spanish Inquisition who is the last person they know to have had it.

The film spends far too much time on exposition. This is a common mistake in storytelling in interactive entertainment but ironically it was never an issue in the early Assassin’s Creed games. The games would have the player in the historical setting for at least 80% or more of the time, but the screenplay calls for the majority of the film to be in the present so they can explain the adversarial history of the Assassins and the Templars. The games threw you into the action and let the player, along with the main character, discover the greater story as they played, but the screenwriters here instead opted to stuff in as much setup as possible for the sequels that were clearly in mind at the film’s conception. The movie opens with an explanatory text crawl that is groan-worthy and further exposition is always just around the corner. Unfortunately, all this additional explanation only weakens the story. Each further detail creates plot holes rather than filling them. If the writers had been willing to leave more unanswered, the backstory would have been intriguing rather than perplexing or, in many cases, silly.

The film spends too much time in the present trying to rationalize its setup.
The film spends too much time in the present trying to rationalize its setup.

Justin Kurzel (Macbeth) is able to fluidly adapt the series’s action. Known for incorporating an acrobatic style based on using counter attacks, the fighting could have easily felt distant without the interactive element. This happened in 2010 with Ubisoft’s other major film production, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where the signature parkour didn’t translate to the big screen. Combat is clearly sped up, but the increased speed isn’t overly disorienting. Kurzel also makes the unexpected decision to transition back and forth between Aguilar fighting in the past and Callum fighting through the same experiences in the present. Doing so adds an extra dimension to the action (literally) as we see how Callum is affected by his time in the Animus.

This is the second time this year we’ve had a talented indie director take on a large video game movie and the result is again a moderate success. Kurzel was able to maintain some of the harsh realism found in his previous work as he moved to this larger project. The historical scenes don’t try to emulate the lighthearted tone of Marvel films or the self-seriousness of the DC extended universe. The world feels dirty and unforgiving. He also has the benefit of an incredibly talented and, more importantly, committed cast. Even minor roles have their moments with actors like Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) stopping by to add gravitas to the screenplay. Kurzel isn’t able to escape the forced exposition typical of the genre, but the unique premise combined with his gritty staging of action scenes make the film stand out in the crowded blockbuster space.

3/5 stars.

La La Land (2016)

The musical genre has been in decline for decades. There have been a few exceptions like Into the Woods and The Last Five Years, but the majority of music-heavy films have shifted towards movies like Pitch Perfect that feature music, but not as a means of narrative progression. Following up his successful Whiplash, Damien Chazelle seeks to curb this trend with La La Land, a modern day musical. Based partly on his time as a struggling artist, the film stars Emma Stone (The Help) as Mia, a part-time barista trying to become an actress, and Ryan Gosling (Drive) as Sebastian, a jazz pianist who wants to open his own club. The two have their own meet cute on a crowded LA highway and quickly enter a relationship. The film follows them as they pursue their passions with, or without, each other’s support.

Where Chazelle succeeds is balancing the tone of the regular and musical parts of the film. The musical numbers, while larger than life, seem slightly more grounded than a classic musical. Stone and Gosling are not professional dancers and their well-practiced but noticeably imperfect steps add a touch of realism. To contrast this, the non-musical scenes are heightened to a state of near-fantasy. The film blends retro stylings in the form of outfits and props with the modern setting and uses saturated cinematography (purple is a common color of the night sky here) to accentuate a dreamlike quality. Combining this with the long takes used in the songs, the film is able to move back and forth between its show tunes and dialog smoothly without creating a jarring disconnect. Both the music and the characters seem like they can exist in the same world.

The film surprises with its unexpectedly gorgeous backdrops.
The film surprises with its unexpectedly gorgeous backdrops.

There are many more technical marvels. The dance numbers can be epic in scale with dozens of performers each and the kinetic camera movements add a frenetic energy. Lighting will change at a moment’s notice, pushing a character from one of many to the sole focus of the viewer. Instead of just dancing in the streets, Chazelle adds welcome variety by shooting his characters ascending into the sky or in silhouette. His command of the screen and ingenuity during these sections is laudable and the inventive visuals are often mesmerizing.

The obvious influences here are the works of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Chazelle is going for the same memorable routines that burst out of any emotional peak. The ending sequence in particular is reminiscent of the finale of An American in Paris. Of course, expecting Stone and Gosling to rival the grace and charisma of Astaire and Kelly is unreasonable, but the unfortunate reality is that none of the numbers in La La Land have the staying power of its predecessors. Despite the panache on display, the biggest tunes are forgotten as quickly as they arrived. The only standout song is an aching ballad sung by Stone during an audition. The rest of the tracks are loud, but without feeling. The best comparison of the musical scenes isn’t their counterparts in a Vincente Minelli movie, but rather the explosions in a modern action flick. They are flashy, look expensive, and take a tremendous amount of coordination to pull off, but like in a Michael Bay film, they lack impact. La La Land is a well-intentioned throwback that showcases expertly staged but emotionally hollow musical numbers, bound to quickly fade from memory.

3/5 stars.

Your Name (2016)

What if you woke up in someone else’s body? And what if, like a dream, you later woke up back in your own? Anime director Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters Per Second) tells the story of Taki, a boy in Tokyo, and Mitsuha, a girl in small-town Japan, who suddenly find themselves in each other’s bodies seemingly at random. Shinkai’s reputation as the next Hayao Miyazaki is becoming increasingly accurate as Your Name was a mega-hit in Japan and became the second highest grossing domestic production ever. As usual his film features gorgeous renderings of both city and country life with plenty of endearing humor. Taki and Mitsuha have never met so the awkwardness of their sudden displacement brings a plethora of situational comedy. The leads act out of character to the confusion of their family and friends and even more culturally specific jokes, like the misuse of gender-specific pronouns, still carry to an English-speaking crowd making the film much more approachable to a wider audience than most anime.

Your Name is able to take on its subject matter from a unique perspective. Body-swap narratives have been done many times over in movies like Freaky Friday, but Shinkai doesn’t focus on his characters learning empathy. He is more interested in the bond that forms between Taki and Mitsuha. Because their swaps are temporary and unpredictable, they leave notes to each other describing the day’s events and begin to take risks that make small improvements to each other’s lives. Mitsuha flirts with Taki’s boss on his behalf and Taki connects Mitsuha to other students at school. In the course of these small gestures, a romance begins to form. Taki and Mitsuha want to meet each other but aren’t in the same part of Japan and are unable to reach each other. Their longing becomes the emotional core of the film.

Taki and Mitsuha try (unsuccessfully) to create ground rules for how to live their lives.
Taki and Mitsuha try (unsuccessfully) to create ground rules for how to live their lives.

The trouble is that their romance stretches belief. While their attempts to better each other’s lives are genuinely altruistic, the leap to romantic is difficult to make. Particularly in the case of Taki who is already pursuing a relationship with someone else, the love doesn’t make sense. What makes them desire more than an understanding of the supernatural events that are happening to them? Their interactions don’t paint them as particularly lovelorn individuals, just regular teenagers. Maybe because of the director’s previous work we are expected to naturally assume a romance will develop, but the film itself doesn’t provide enough evidence to support it.

Shinkai uses Taki and Mitsuha’s relationship to revisit his favorite themes. Like in 5 Centimeters Per Second, he explores the idea of connecting with a first love. He draws heavy influence from authors like Haruki Murakami and continues the motif of estranged characters walking past each other only to realize they are somehow connected. In Shinkai’s world, love is ethereal. Feelings, however old, never truly die and the connections formed between two people don’t require face-to-face interaction. It is their love that transcends their physical forms, not their role reversal. It’s a shame that this original take on a body-swap story hinges on an undeveloped romance. Without a plausible relationship supporting it, Your Name is unable to fully reach its lofty goals.

3/5 stars.

The Accountant (2016)

With a strange premise and what has to be the least interesting title in recent memory, The Accountant starts out walking uphill. It features Ben Affleck (Argo) as Christian Wolff, an autistic man who works as a CPA for dangerous organizations, often killing as needed. He is hired to sort through the records of a biotech company after a bright, young staff member (Anna Kendrick; Pitch Perfect) finds something that doesn’t add up. What follows is the aftermath of the conspiracy he discovers that puts him and Kendrick’s character on the run from an unknown party looking to end their interference.

The film deserves significant praise for its portrayal of autism. Most films do not feature characters with disabilities that are able to live independently. Even Dustin Hoffman’s Academy Award winning role in Rain Man portrays the character as a tragic figure, brilliant but ultimately useless. Director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior) is able to successfully balance the effects of the disease. He doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of children with autism and the stress it puts on their families. In flashbacks of his childhood, Wolff’s parents are at a loss when trying to raise him as he doesn’t interact with other children and frequently has uncontrolled outbursts to the point that his mother leaves the family. Yet, the film shows how he is able to manage his difficulties. Through discipline and both medical and behavioral treatment, Wolff is able to become a successful adult, choosing a profession that utilizes his extreme attention to detail. His autism is still clearly present, but he is cognizant of his triggers and mitigates them. Affleck conveys his character’s situation with commendable nuance.

Both Kendrick and Affleck are convincing as accountants.
Both Kendrick and Affleck are convincing in their professions.

The tonal mix may be jarring, even excessive to some. The Accountant wants to be both a procedural thriller as well as an action movie. Like its lead, the film splits its time between the close examination of financial records and hitmen assassinating loose ends. To his credit, Affleck is believable in both situations, but the premise alone strains the film’s credibility. There is a backstory to support Wolff’s dual life, but it’s difficult to merge the disparate connotations of accountants and assassins. Fortunately, O’Connor is equally adept in staging someone poring over t-accounts and infiltrating a heavily guarded home. The action scenes are surprisingly tense. Affleck’s fighting style reveals the methodical, emotionless nature of his character and Kendrick’s resistance shows her resourcefulness even in the face of danger. They may seem far-fetched but the set pieces are always entertaining.

With Affleck as the lead, it’s hard to avoid the obvious comparison. Wolff could be viewed as the autistic Batman, doing taxes by day and fighting criminals by night. Yet there is a practicality to Wolff’s lifestyle that sets him apart. He isn’t trying to be a hero or be a villain. He is only taking advantage of his particular combination of skillsets. He has an innocence that makes him more sympathetic. His actions aren’t right or wrong, just necessary for him to complete his assigned task. The unique character backstory and effective action make The Accountant a refreshing spin on the typical hitman narrative.

4/5 stars.

Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall (2016)

After detailing the production of the hit album Bad, Spike Lee (Chi-Raq) delves into Michael Jackson’s youth as he moved from the lead singer of the Jackson 5 to his solo work. Lee is clearly a fan and was a close friend of Jackson’s. He and his team have collected previously unseen concert and recording footage and interviewed several music industry professionals and celebrities to explore this section of Jackson’s life.

Michael Jackson’s music and performances are timeless. Whether as a beaming child or a suave young adult, Jackson always displays a vivacious charisma. His lanky body is a vessel for the rhythm of the music and he steals the show any time he is on screen dancing. Lee takes care to expose the intense practice that went into making his performances seem so effortless. As an interviewee states, black performers are often credited as having innate gifts rather than talent from hard work. Lee is clearly interested in dispelling any similar thoughts. Even at a young age, Jackson is shown to have a fierce desire to excel, spending time with established songwriters to learn their craft and practicing dance moves without end. His commitment and grit allowed him to improve from a child prodigy to one of the greatest performers of all time.

Jackson's music and energy are without equal and the interviews suffer in comparison.
Jackson’s music and energy are without equal and the interviews suffer in comparison.

The energy of the concert footage overshadows the interviews. While these sections are necessary to provide insight into the background behind the productions, they pale in comparison to the actual music. This is further exacerbated by Lee’s choice of interviewees. There are key players like the head of Motown Records and other important collaborators who knew Jackson and were a part of his creative process, but many seem unnecessary. Is Kobe Bryant, a basketball player, really needed? This applies to almost all the commentators that are contemporary. Jackson’s influence is obvious to anyone, especially to the audience who would watch a documentary about him, so having modern singers like The Weeknd praise his impact on music is redundant at best and irritating at worst. It seems as if Lee pulled in his celebrity network to offer their perspectives, but they only pad the runtime without adding depth to the conversation.

With so much other media available, the question of necessity has to be raised. Did we need another Michael Jackson documentary? Is it telling us anything new? The answer to both questions is not really. The film is of two minds. It is trying to exhibit unseen footage of Jackson’s concerts for hardcore fans as well as understand the man himself. Lee’s goal may have been to understand how Jackson progressed his career during this time period, but he loses sight of this in favor of heaping praise on his subject. Even the interviewees that would have the deepest knowledge of how the music was made focus on complimenting Jackson above all else. Their constant kudos is deserved but not value-added. The film proves that the best Michael Jackson film might just be selected recordings of his shows. Because of its divided scope, Lee’s documentary dampens the electrifying performances with earned, but superfluous adulation.

3/5 stars.