Category Archives: 2016

Best Films of 2016

2016 went by in a flash but some of its films have still left an impact. Yes, it has been a while since the year ended, but this list’s lack of timeliness means many of the movies discussed here are now available on streaming services.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was not just the quality of films but the strength of new filmmakers. Several of the films below are made by first-time directors which bodes incredibly well for the industry as a whole and means there will be even more impressive films sure to release in the future.

15. Nocturnal Animals

The framing narrative can be stale at times with unneeded avant-garde flourishes, but the inner story is thrilling. Tom Ford’s take on a Deliverance-style encounter is a frightening look at the fragility of one’s existence. Seemingly perfect lives can be destroyed in an instant and even deep affections can turn into resentment.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

14. Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson has never been one for subtlety and Hacksaw Ridge is no exception. The character development is saccharine but earnest and the action is gratuitous but visceral. He is a visual director whose skills come through in the wordless action scenes. Gibson deftly stages the many moving pieces of combat to create a deliberately disorienting chaos. The violence may be too gory for some, but he captures the pandemonium of battle with great success.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

13. The Witch

Stark and slow-moving, The Witch is a film that uses the bleakness of its period to full effect. It’s a horror film about the paranoia of a pilgrim family. When things don’t go according to plan and mutual mistrust builds, every character’s behavior becomes suspect. Even when the facts aren’t there to support assertions, it’s their perception of others and need for an easy explanation that leads to their downfall.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

12. Maggie’s Plan

Despite her busybody nature, the titular character is never anything but endearing. Greta Gerwig’s performance shows that her meddling comes from the best of intentions. As Maggie pulls strings in the relationships around her, the genuine affection she feels for her loved ones and sacrifices she makes for their benefit make her a lovable presence. Even as she fumbles her plans, her actions are filled with a palpable warmth.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

11. Love & Friendship

Who knew Whit Stillman’s arch humor would translate so well into a period piece? His clever phrasings and prim tone mix perfectly with the haughty manners of the setting. Kate Beckinsale as the deceptively loquacious widow is entrancing as she talks circles around her friends and family to get her every wish fulfilled. The swirling verbal dance she plays is a joy to behold, even when you know of her calculating nature.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

10. Hell or High Water

Hell of High Water is a film that strips a genre down to its core. It’s a modern western presented as a low-scale heist movie. Instead of relying on elaborate staging, it leans on the terse dialogue and body language of its characters. The acting is so expressive in its own subtle way that a brief conversation becomes as thrilling as a police shootout.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

9. Eye in the Sky

Drones have been a hot topic in the media lately, but Eye in the Sky is more than topical. It evaluates the minutiae of several stakeholders in each military mission. Politics, infantry, pilots, and data analysis all play a part in actions that have good intentions but inherent, often fatal, tradeoffs. The film succeeds by creating tension at each stage of decision-making and driving home the moral complexity behind every order.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

8. The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook is known for his often transgressive plotlines but with The Handmaiden he adds a more playful tone. Returning to Korea after a brief foray into English language films, he is clearly enjoying his freedoms back home. The story swivels through different perspectives, each revealing new, film-altering context. Every twist is a face-slapping surprise as the director expertly – and repeatedly – flips over audience expectations.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

7. Wiener-Dog

Director Todd Solondz has created another world of marginal characters locked into stagnant existences. Like Robert Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Balthazar, it follows one animal as it travels in and out of the lives of its owners. The overwhelmingly depressing tone may be too much for some, but there is truth behind each person’s failures. Their missed potentials or bleak futures are products of their unfortunate situations. Even as the characters sink further into their miserable realities, their plight is deeply sympathetic.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Balancing over the top antics with a heartfelt message of belonging, Taika Waititi has created his best film to date. The unlikely duo of a 13-year old ne’er-do-well and a grumpy old man mistakenly becoming the center of a nationwide manhunt is an endless source of humor and only buoyed by an eccentric supporting cast.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

5. Girl Asleep

Set in an elaborately designed 1970s, Girl Asleep is a fresh take on the coming-of-age movie. The first half is a vivacious look into a teenage girl’s interactions with her quirky classmates and family, overflowing with panache, and the second half is a surreal exploration of the pressures she faces as she tries to reconcile changing expectations in her transition to womanhood and independence. It’s an original experience that is as flamboyant as it is honest.

[Currently available on Netflix}

4. Swiss Army Man

While it will most definitely turn off viewers with its aggressively weird premise and moments of gross-out humor, Swiss Army Man is an incredibly emotional journey. It looks at the value of friendship from the angle of outcasts and examines the nature of conformity with Daniel Radcliffe’s talking corpse as the mouthpiece of the directors. It’s a call to break free from our own inhibitions and an indictment of the self-doubt that prevents us from being happy, filtered through the minds of two strange filmmakers.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

3. A Monster Calls

Movies are rarely more honest about grief than A Monster Calls, especially from a child’s perspective. At every turn, it eschews easy answers and delves deeper into the emotions behind the pain of watching a loved one suffer. Using beautifully rendered fairytale stories and a lifelike tree monster voiced by Liam Neeson, it tackles the seldom touched upon topic of guilt with uncommon sensitivity and insight.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

2. Sing Street

Sing Street is the most infectious movie of the year with an incredible original soundtrack and endearingly oblivious characters. As the kids start their own band in 1980s Dublin, their tenacious spirit and adorable naivete is irresistible. Whether it’s writing the next hit song or winning the affections of a certain someone, anything is possible. Director John Carney has proven once again that he is the master of the modern music movie.

[Currently available on Netflix}

1. Under the Shadow

Blending physical and supernatural dangers, Under the Shadow creates tension with every scene. The unexplained missing items, freak occurrences, and ingrained superstitions escalate into an unbearable level of suspense without ever resorting to frequent jump scares or cheap gore. I have never been more terrified of a piece of fabric in my entire life.

[Currently available on Netflix. DO NOT watch the dubbed version. Please change your settings to watch in the original Farsi.}

Special Mention: Pure Pwnage Teh Movie

Its appeal is incredibly small, but if you are in the specific demographic that grew up with the original web series, Pure Pwnage Teh Movie is going to be an unexpectedly successful modernization of an early-internet-video classic.

[Currently available for VOD rental on Vimeo]

Best Music Moments of 2016

Whether it’s used to enhance an emotion or add an interesting contrast, music has always been intertwined with movies. Some of my favorite scenes in all of cinema rely heavily on their music and last year’s lineup was no exception. Here are the best musical moments of 2016, in no particular order. Some minor spoilers follow, but will be called out before each movie as needed.

Captain Fantastic – Sweet Child O’ Mine

Beginning with gentle acapella vocals, this rendition of Sweet Child O’ Mine starts out as an elegiac goodbye to a lost loved one and the past they carried with them. The children in the film are about to start a new chapter of their lives, but before the melancholy sets in they switch to a rousing, upbeat, acoustic sing-a-long. The jump in tone exemplifies the family’s resilience as they quickly move beyond their sorrow to face the future ahead, remembering the joy their mother brought them rather than their sadness at her absence.

Sing Street – Up

This is probably the most difficult film to pick an entry from, but also the most deserving. Like John Carney’s previous movies, Sing Street is filled with amazing original music. The film is an ode to the music of the 80’s and its songs come straight from the youthful hearts of the band members. Up may be my personal favorite from the soundtrack. It’s a boy basking the ups and downs of his first love. The vocals lift off to new heights as the singer experiences his first feelings of romance. His genuine naivete and joy are infectious. Be sure to also check out the other songs from the film.

Everybody Wants Some!! – Rapper’s Delight

The characters’ aggressive hypermasculinity of Everybody Wants Some!! was often repulsive as they continued to turn on each other for the slightest appearance of victory. However, their one moment of unity was in a short car drive. Between trading insults, they take a break to sing when the Sugarhill Gang comes on the radio. Their playful handoffs finally reveal the deep comradery hidden underneath the insults they normally hurl at each. It’s a welcome, exuberant expression of male friendship.

Girl Asleep – You Make Me Feel

An unwanted birthday party with everyone in your school invited is a wallflower’s worst nightmare. As the film’s shy lead stands in fear, the celebration ends up being something far beyond the normal. The party becomes surreal as each classmate dances their way in and drops off their gift. Just when it feels like things are back to normal the entire crowd erupts into an unexpected, synchronized dance number. It might be far-fetched but the 70s spirit is too contagious for anyone to care. This scene is a glorious abstraction and one of the grooviest moments of the year.

Hardcore Henry – Don’t Stop Me Now

As if Hardcore Henry’s action scenes weren’t exaggerated enough, the director uses Freddie Mercury’s bellowing vocals to take the film to the next level. Caught in a state of weakness and surrounded by enemies, Henry double fists shots of adrenaline and jumps back into the thick of it. The Queen song best exemplifies the film’s gleeful take on violence and has oddly appropriate lyrics. This isn’t about serious fighting. It’s a respite from the gritty realism of many modern action movies and a celebration of the euphoria that can be created with well-choreographed violence.

American Honey – American Honey

When the titular track finally plays, it’s more than background music, it’s a culmination of the lead’s aimless life. The song’s sweet, nostalgic vocals reminisce on a past long gone. For Star (Sasha Lane), it creates a moment of realization of what her journey has been and will continue to be. It’s a redefinition of what the American Dream is to young people like her. Not a path of upwards mobility, but a horizon of limited opportunity. As she looks around at the troubled youth just like her, the song becomes a farewell to her aspirations and an acceptance of her constrained future.

Swiss Army Man – Montage

Last year’s weirdest film also came with the most meta musical moment: a montage featuring an acapella track titled “Montage”. The strangely anthemic vocals underscore an uplifting spirit and narrate the actions onscreen as we discover just how many odd uses the corpse of Daniel Radcliffe has. It’s the arts-and-crafts quirkiness of Michel Gondry combined with Spielberg’s sentimentalism as the bond between the two leads grows and allows them to escape their own loneliness – and use a dead body as a machine gun. Honorable mention must be given to the film’s use of the Jurassic Park Theme. Remember: “If you don’t know Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit”.

Toni Erdmann – Greatest Love of All

A series of increasingly uncomfortable interactions created by an eccentric father trying to be involved in the life of his stressed out straight-laced daughter build to a moment of what could be pure embarrassment. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is forced to sing in front of strangers, something she is completely unprepared for and her performance is as cringe-inducing as it is funny. Her singing begins shyly as it takes several intros for her to even start but she unexpectedly escalates into a full, committed performance. Each note belted out and every sassy expression on her face is a masterclass in awkward amusement.

La La Land – Audition (The Fools Who Dream)

My opinions on La La Land were much more lukewarm than most, but the real standout moment of the film is during a crucial audition. Mia (Emma Stone) has been crushed by her constant rejection as an actress and only returns to Hollywood at the behest of her boyfriend. Instead of being guarded, she opens herself up and delivers a personal tale. The background fades to black as Stone’s increasingly mournful expression dominates the frame with a painful ballad of pursuing one’s dreams at all costs. The vulnerability and reflection of her unsuccessful career turn the song into an aching eulogy for her own failed aspirations.

Star Trek Beyond – Sabotage (SPOILERS)

Director Justin Lin brought a fun, frenetic energy to the action of Star Trek Beyond and nowhere is this more apparent than in the finale. After being attacked by a horde of interconnected spaceships, the only solution is to beam low-tech radio at the frequency of their communications and disrupt their flight patterns. Instead of some forgettable signal, the only available transmission is a Beastie Boys song. Their anti-establishment spirit and the silly setup make the film’s climax a playful wave of explosions that stick it to the man (err…bad alien).

Hidden Figures (2016)

For each individual’s success there are dozens of people who helped them get there. In many cases, these people never receive credit for their efforts. Hidden Figures, is the story of how three black women contributed to NASA’s early programs. Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), and Mary (Janelle Monae) are “computers” in the early 60s, meaning the perform the complex calculations needed by the engineers and scientists. Katherine has been assigned to a special task group, but has to deal with being the first black person working there. Dorothy is trying to get promoted to supervisor, a job she is already performing, but can’t win the respect of her boss. Mary wants to apply to become an engineer, but doesn’t have the required education and isn’t allowed to attend the only school that offers it. Each of the stories follow the women as they deal with prejudices against their race and their gender.

The writing is surprisingly sharp. There are plenty of witty exchanges between the women as they comment on their managers and the difficulties they have to face. Monae is particularly funny as the unfiltered, sassy member of the group. Her barely contained anger and judgmental stares lead to several amusing scenes. The film also handles quieter moments well. Katherine is courted by a charismatic military officer played by Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and their growing romance is both sweet and comical. The screenplay adds some much needed flavor to the otherwise well-trodden narrative.

The couple’s interactions provide a welcome tenderness to the film.

The actresses are clearly enjoying themselves in their roles. Playing technical characters is something many actors struggle with (think Mark Wahlberg in The Happening), but the cast here is believable as talented mathematicians. Spencer is sympathetic as the den mother of the group who tries to ensure jobs for her team in the face of impending obsolescence by technology. Monae’s rare moments of politeness are enjoyable as she navigates through the labyrinthine rules preventing her from reaching her desired profession. Even Henson is charming as her character’s intelligence and work ethic outshine her supposedly superior bosses. She definitely continues her signature “stink look” throughout the film, but that subsides in favor of the story.

Special note needs to be given to the soundtrack. Most period pieces rely on music of the era to help embed the audience in the past, but composers Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch decided to go in the opposite direction. They use selections or original songs that are deliberately anachronistic, but instead of feeling jarring they add a modern sensibility to the film’s retro setting. This injects energy into what could have been an otherwise stuffy environment.

The real Achilles heel is that the plot is too predictable. Every potential conflict and every subsequent outcome can be guessed 30 seconds into the trailer. This isn’t a film that is trying to do something new on a story level. It’s not what happens, but who it happens to that is important. The goal of the film is to provide some much needed praise to this often overlooked demographic and celebrate the strength of women in general. That intent deserves commendation but the straightforward story diminishes the drama. There are several moments where the film attempts to create tension, but they have no real effect. We already know where the conclusion is headed and can’t get invested in the potential crises. Without that investment, the movie can only impact on a surface level. Hidden Figures is an uplifting tribute to forgotten women held back by its commonplace narrative.

3/5 stars.

Lion (2016)

A Weinstein backed film based on a true story getting Oscar buzz is nothing new, but in this case the real facts are actually stranger than fiction. Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a young boy in India, travels with his older brother to a train station. Feeling tired he falls asleep on a bench while waiting for his brother to return. When he wakes up his brother is nowhere to be found and he steps onto a nearby train only to get stuck onboard as the train starts to move. Days later he wakes up in a different part of the country unable to communicate where he is from. He is eventually taken into an orphanage and adopted by Australian parents. As an adult, Saroo (Dev Patel; Slumdog Millionare) is haunted by memories of his childhood. Using the newly created Google Earth, he tries to map out the potential train stations and cities he might be from using the few vague details he is able to recall.

Director Garth Davis effectively creates the fear of being a lost child. Although he is a first time actor, Pawar is able to carry the film by himself. He is beyond cute and his winning smile, resourcefulness, and desire to do things despite his tiny size are incredibly endearing. Davis makes full use of his stature as he shows the world from young Saroo’s perspective. After arriving at the foreign train station, Saroo is lost in a sea of bodies. The camera is placed at his eye level as he is knocked around by the lower halves of the people around him. He can’t even reach the counter of the train station to ask for help. Unlike many other countries, India has several regional languages and Saroo isn’t able to speak the language of his new location which creates additional complications. As he wanders the unknown city by himself, Saroo’s plight is palpable.

Pawar is captivating as the young Saroo.

It’s the story of the older Saroo that doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. Dev Patel has proven himself as a talented actor in other roles, but doesn’t act believably here. As memories of his past become more prevalent, he pushes out the people in his life. He has loving parents that only want the best for him, but keeps them out of the loop. Nicole Kidman as his adopted mother is deeply sympathetic as the woman trying to hold her family together, but Saroo doesn’t confide in her until much later. Even his caring girlfriend (Rooney Mara in a severely underwritten part) is forced out of his life. This should be a role that inspires compassion, but Patel’s portrayal feels more like childish moping than traumatic grief.

As the film comes to a close, it is sure to elicit an emotional response. The details of the events are too extraordinary for it not to. Credit has to be given to the filmmakers for their work on the first half, but the majority of the film’s strength comes from the setup. Lion has a strong start but is unable to maintain the momentum as it relies on its true story origins to deliver an impact.

3/5 stars.

Fences (2016)

Broadway to big-screen, Denzel Washington directs and stars in his adaptation of August Wilson’s hit play. He is Troy, a former minor league baseball player now working as a garbageman. He lives with his wife (Viola Davis; The Help) who takes care of him and his teenage son. The film centers on Troy as the bombastic patriarch of the family. He prattles on about his failed career as a professional athlete and lectures, or in many cases berates, his son for no apparent reason. His existence is fairly routine until key events change his relationships and his life forever.

At its heart, Fences is an acting showpiece. Washington and Davis have both performed these roles on Broadway many times and their experience is obvious. They know these characters inside and out and could deliver their performances in their sleep. Fortunately, their familiarity doesn’t lead to any complacence. Washington is obviously having a good time playing Troy. He happily rambles on telling the same pompous stories he has told a thousand times over. His only disruption is Davis interjecting truth into his tales. “That didn’t happen” is her most common line. Yet, as he incessantly continues, Washington hints that there is something deeper that leads to his behavior. That there are failures that require him to overcompensate. Even as the character becomes increasingly unlikable through his actions, Washington prevents him from turning completely unsympathetic.

Troy delivers several unwanted and uncomfortable lectures to his son.

Viola Davis is the real standout of the film. Her task is probably the most difficult as she has to balance the roles of loving homemaker and fed-up wife. Either could easily descend into caricature, but she easily balances the two with nuanced acting. Her scenes as a caring mother still show signs of a tough, no-nonsense woman that make her character’s growth believable. In climactic moments, her performance easily topples Washington’s and proves that her skill can imbue even the showiest scenes with veracity.

Beyond its acting, Fences doesn’t have much to offer. Washington has stated in interviews that he did not want to change much to adapt the play to the screen, but the end product suffers for this decision. Instead of taking full advantage of the format, the film is little more than recorded version of a well-acted play with decent production design. As a director, Washington offers no new insights or unique takes on the material with no particular panache to be found. The entire film takes place in one house with meager variation to the staging. Each scene is filmed plainly to prevent anything distracting from the performances. With so little added, it’s curious why this adaptation was even necessary. The play was already popular and the new format isn’t bringing any further value. The emphasis is so heavily placed on the acting that it can at times be a detriment. Washington’s performance can veer into “look at me!” territory where his confidence becomes irksome self-satisfaction. The story and the majority of the acting are strong, but, as a film, Washington’s banal direction prevents Fences from eclipsing its theatrical origins.

3/5 stars.

Microbe & Gasoline (2016)

Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is back for another tale of misfits making their way through a normative society. The titular characters feel out of place at school and at home until they meet and befriend each other. Microbe (Ange Dargent), named for his small size and often mistaken by others for a girl because of his hair, and Gasoline (Théophile Baquet; War of the Buttons), named for his scent at school after helping his dad work on cars, decide they’ve had enough of their town and that they will go away together for the summer. They start to build a lawnmower engine-powered car together only to learn they can’t to afford the required registration fees so they come up with a diversionary tactic. Design the outside of the car to look like a house and stop on the side of the road if the police show up. Houses don’t need to be registered with the DMV.

The old saying goes that it’s about the journey, not the destination. The trouble is that it takes too long for the journey to begin. Gondry spends an inordinate amount of time with the boys in school, around their classmates, and with their parents. While this is likely done to establish their need to escape from home, none of the surrounding characters are interesting. They don’t add depth to the leads and are either unsympathetic or make the boys seem unsympathetic for not listening to their parents. If anything, the early section of the film makes their departure more confusing because their families are perfectly reasonable. Instead these scenes weigh down the pacing and unnecessarily distract from the more exciting trip ahead.

Their improvised transportation is one of the most enjoyable parts of the film

When the journey finally begins, we get the Gondry experience his fans appreciate, albeit in a more muted fashion. The director is known for his makeshift arts and crafts aesthetic and that inclination is best exemplified in the car the boys build. They go to the scrapyard and pull bits and pieces of other vehicles, doors, windows, and whatever else they can find to make their escape vehicle. It is Gondry’s little touches that make this process so winning. They add shutters for their windows and even a droppable board to hide their wheels from authorities. These details showcase the director’s acute imagination, but to a lesser degree than his previous films. There are a few examples, but the film would have benefited from more of the zany contraptions, like the olfactory instruments of Mood Indigo, that he is known for.

As their car is assembled we see glimpses of Gondry’s greatest strength. His elaborate production design is the most visible aspect of his style but is actually second to the innocent spirit of his films. To anyone else, disguising a car as a house is a ridiculous idea, but to Gondry characters it is perfectly reasonable – as long as they add some flowers under the window. This sweetness was especially evident in his film Be Kind Rewind where normal people shoot their own no-budget versions of Hollywood classics, but isn’t as prevalent here. The endearing nature of two kids building their own car to get away for the summer is marred by their conflict. When the boys deceive each other it detracts from their appeal. They appear less innocent than we originally thought and it breaks the believability of their whole escapade. If they are capable of lying to even their best friend to get what they want, why would they not be able handle themselves at school or with their families? With characters that eventually lose their endearing nature and early pacing issues, Gondry’s latest effort only charms in passing.

3/5 stars.

A Monster Calls (2016)

Watching a loved one battle with cancer is harrowing experience, but a child supporting their parent through the disease is even worse. A Monster Calls, based on the acclaimed young adult novel, takes the perspective of a boy named Conor (Lewis MacDougall; Pan) whose single mother (Felicity Jones; The Theory of Everything) is in the middle of chemotherapy. At school Conor is bullied and at home he has to deal with his controlling grandmother who wants him to live with her. As his mother’s condition worsens, Conor is faced with possibilities he has done everything to avoid. Then suddenly, in the middle of the night, a monster (Liam Neeson; Schindler’s List) appears. The monster tells him stories of the past and asks that Conor repay the favor by telling his own story.

The monster feels surprisingly tactile. Unlike most directors, J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage) chose to use a significant amount of practical effects including animatronics to bring the monster to life. The sound design furthers this representation. Each step of the monster comes with the heavy creaking and groaning of normally static wood being contorted against its nature. The result is a ferocious beast that moves with a heft rarely found in computer generated imagery. Neeson’s voice is the perfect fit for the monster. His normally raspy tones are boosted with base that booms with ancient power. Despite the monster’s strength, size, and appearance, Neeson underscores his dialogue with a subtle kindness, like a parent nudging their child in the right direction. His voice acting and the stunning effects create the imposing presence needed to make the otherworldly monster feel natural.

The monster moves with an incredible physicality.

Punctuating the real life events are animated sequences. The monster’s stories are realized through vivid watercolor-like images that illustrate narratives beyond the typical fairy tale. The screenplay, also written by the book’s author Patrick Ness, uses these stories to emphasize the complexity of life. As the monster says, “There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between.” Ness chooses to explore the messiness of life and the inherent contradictions in the way most people behave. His parables reinforce the difficulty of Conor’s situation and hint at the truth behind his feelings.

Few films are able to capture grief without being manipulative. The sight of someone suffering is enough to produce an emotional response, but what separates great films is understanding the nuances of the pain. Bayona goes far past the obvious. As Conor watches him mom deteriorate, his worst fears are never far from his mind. MacDougall’s body language and sunken eyes show his weariness and pent up frustration. He has seen her suffer for months and has had to endure the constant pity of others without being able to do anything to help her. The decision to focus on the boy’s struggle rather than images of his mother failing health may slow the movie’s pace early on, but it makes for a much more emotionally complex and effective angle. The film is able to delve into the psyche of someone caring for a cancer patient and explore the repressed feelings that cloud their mind. Conor’s fear, his anger, and, most of all, his guilt are heartbreakingly human.

4/5 stars.

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.