10 Best Movies of 2016
by Philip Price
10. “Everybody Wants Some!!”
I think I've finally come to the realization that I really, really love Richard Linklater movies. After first being introduced to the filmmaker without knowing I was being introduced to him in 2003's “School of Rock,” I slowly became more of a fan as I discovered that not only did he and Jack Black create that insanely re-watchable and universally loved comedy, but that he had his own strange franchise of sorts with “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” that he was diverse enough to try something like “A Scanner Darkly” before capping off his ‘Before’ trilogy with “Before Midnight” and then re-teaming with Black for the highly underrated “Bernie” in which he uses skills he no doubt honed in his 2006 documentary, “Fast Food Nation,: to blend the documentary and feature into some kind of hybrid true story tale that was both unique and contained just the right amount of kitsch while still being of a respectable quality. All the while creating something of another experimental masterpiece that culminated with 2014's “Boyhood.” So, where would the director go next? Well, that his career kicker, “Dazed & Confused,” has not yet been mentioned is not without purpose as this tale of students on their last day of high school in 1976 feeds directly into “Everybody Wants Some!!” as Linklater's latest chronicles the first weekend of a college freshman at his new school in 1981. Though this latest effort didn't immediately strike me as a great film I couldn't stop thinking about how much fun it was. Even now, over seven months later, I've re-watched the movie two or three more times and despite those I've shared it with not immediately sharing my adoration for it I can only expect/hope they can't shake the experience and come to realize the skill it takes with which Linklater seems to so effortlessly craft his dialogue.
Director Denis Villeneuve's previous three films (“Prisoners,” “Enemy” and “Sicario”) have each landed within the top 15 on my list of their respective years, “Prisoners” ranking as high as number five in 2013, on my favorite movies of the year lists. With the rapid rise of this seeming auteur it was with both great anticipation and anxiety that I awaited his 2016 release. Being that news broke this year that Villeneuve would be directing a sequel to Ridley Scott's 1982 cult hit, “Blade Runner,” starring Ryan Gosling and the return of Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard it seemed this direction in the entertainment news cycle signaled a gloss over of Villeneuve's alien invasion tale titled “Arrival” that was based on a short story by Ted Chiang. Fortunately, this preconception couldn't have been more wrong as “Arrival” turned out to be one of those movies where you understand you're waiting for the resolve to see if it justifies the journey you've taken to (pun intended) arrive there, but where that understanding still doesn't render the one hundred minutes prior unnecessary. Every moment of Villeneuve's meditation on time and interpretation via the guise of an alien invasion film is fascinating and worthwhile. Though it's clear we're ultimately waiting to see what bigger picture these pieces are painting. Villeneuve has proved himself a master of restraint and the slow burn, but “Arrival” may be his most accomplished work to date as not only is it visually enrapturing, but the larger ideas the film has on its mind are applied to its precise visual sense giving the experience an all-around aura of awe.
8. “Manchester by the Sea”
“Manchester by the Sea” is the film on this list I'm least likely to watch again, at least for a while. That said, it's also the film that elicited the biggest emotional response from me in terms of depicting a tragedy I personally haven't experienced, but still being able to transcend such barriers. I went into Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's latest more or less blind as to what the film carried in terms of narrative and with only the buzz it garnered out of Sundance earlier this year to signify that it was one worth watching. No matter if you know the basic premise or not though, one thing is for certain: one cannot know the whole of the story the film is telling and it is in how Lonergan sets up the present scenario for our characters to operate in and then how he slowly peels back the layers of each of their pasts that helps us to understand not only why and how these people have become who they are, but also giving us a glimpse of how far they can go and what the future might hold for them that makes the experience so simultaneously simple yet equally involving. It's a powerful piece of human drama to say the least with bare bones emotions bleeding through on the face of Casey Affleck who will undoubtedly garner and maybe even win a Best Actor nomination at this year’s Oscars. As a writer, Lonergan is clearly interested in digging into the psyches of those who have dealt in tragedy and analyzing the different ways in which we as human beings deal with such surreal, life-altering events. With “Manchester by the Sea” the writer/director tackles permanent heartbreak to grandly moving results.
“Zootopia” was great, “Finding Dory” was fine enough, “The Secret Life of Pets” was average at best, and ‘Kubo’ outranked “Zootopia” fairly easily due to the pure craft on display not to mention the rather affecting story it told, but then along came “Moana” and it was clear to see that not only was this the best animated of the film in my opinion, but one of the very best films of the year. Being an audience member who grew up in the ‘90s with some of my fondest Disney memories being those that include “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Hercules.” Well, wouldn't ya know it? “Moana” directors Ron Clements and John Musker just so happen to be the same guys who crafted all of those classics among others and thus know a thing or two about what it takes to craft a classic Disney animated film in terms of what I think of as classic. Moreover, Clements and Musker are well-aware of the anatomy of a Disney movie and how best to perform such a feat as creating something that is both fun yet familiar. “Moana” is very much an amalgamation of all that has come before it while encapsulating all that Disney's brand of animation can be moving forward. Taking cues from those that have come before, acknowledging them in humorous ways, and then going on to execute them in exceptional ways “Moana” is something of a treasure that never slows down and continues to surprise by not necessarily going in any unexpected directions, but more by being as creative as possible in the approach it takes to those directions. I was unable to drop the smile and/or awestruck expression from my face for the entire runtime; for this and for its keen sense of when to borrow and when to innovate “Moana” is easily my favorite animated film of 2016.
6. “Midnight Special”
“Midnight Special” is a precisely paced and methodical piece of work from auteur Jeff Nichols who only continues to impress with each new film. While many will place Nichols other film this year, the more awards friendly Loving, on their list I found his exercise in genre filmmaking to be more affecting this year if not telling as important a story. There is something beautiful about Nichols attempt at creating a sci-fi film that reminds him of his own childhood with feelings of innocence and of attachment, of love and love as an obligation all expressed in subtle and nuanced ways that leave the viewer feeling almost spiritual. I may be of a slight bias considering Nichols is from my hometown of Little Rock, Ark., but I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who goes to the movies quite frequently that disagrees with the fact “Midnight Special” is an impressive achievement if not a special kind of something. Every aesthetic choice helps to inform the interpreted meaning behind the narrative. With the score from David Wingo and the cinematography by Adam Stone aiding the emphasis on the Spielberg/Carpenter influences as well as the juxtaposition between the mundane world of the southern region of the U.S. and the magic of Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) the film is not only one of great beauty, but an immersive experience that will be difficult to escape even weeks after seeing the film.
5. “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”
Save for maybe ‘Batman V Superman’ or ‘Civil War’ I hadn't walked into a movie prior to The Lonely Island's “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” with bigger expectations. Needless to say, it was The Lonely Island who disappointed the least. It just so happened I was at the perfect age of 19 when Andy Samberg and his crew debuted their particular brand of viral comedy on “Saturday Night Live” in 2006 and I've been a fan ever since. Whether it be their collaborations with Justin Timberlake or their ability to make a song sound insanely credible while being equally ridiculous there was always something to be entertained by, to laugh at, and to marvel at. The Lonely Island may put on a goofy and juvenile persona, but they are commentating and highlighting on timely societal issues and constructs. After three albums and a slew of directing jobs for Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone The Lonely Island have come together to bring us what feels like, in many ways, what they were always meant to create. With ‘Popstar,’ the trio have created a Timberlake/Bieber/Macklemore hybrid called Conner4Real who is the star of his own popumentary that goes south when it becomes clear that his second solo album will be a massive commercial and critical failure. With new original songs like "I'm So Humble," "Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)" and "Mona Lisa," combined with some of the most observational and consistent humor I've seen in a comedy this year ‘Popstar’ is as re-watchable (noticing a theme?) as it gets and more fun than you might imagine if you think this isn't your cup of tea. Despite the fact the film flopped and virtually disappeared from theaters less than a month after release I can only hope this thing will garner a following much like its spiritual cousin “This is Spinal Tap” did back in the ‘80s.
4. “La La Land”
I'd been looking forward to writer/director Damien Chazelle's follow-up to “Whiplash” ever since the credits rolled on that one and so, when I heard the young, but ambitious Chazelle would indeed be following up that more than impressive debut with an ode to Hollywood musicals of years past and that it would star as close a screen duo we have these days to something like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone it was impossible to not be excited. When the film was pushed from its original theatrical release date in the dead of summer where it would have faced off against the all-female “Ghostbusters” to the mid-December date it more or less confirmed that Summit Entertainment knew they had a serious Oscar contender on their hands. Of course, the fact it was pushed back five months wasn't pleasing news to me as it was clear the region of the country I'm settled in wouldn't be receiving the platform release until late in December if not until January. Thankfully, Summit decided to go wide on Christmas Day thus making “La La Land” my final theatrical experience of 2016. Not a bad note to end on. This movie could very easily go as high as number two on my list as everything except for my number one is pretty much interchangeable and while I'd hoped for a little more choreographed song and dance from the picture as a whole the opening number is a true stunner and one would be hard-pressed to find a film that is as joyous an experience as it is an honest one. With “La La Land,” Chazelle isn't simply looking to recreate images and feelings afforded him during his youth as he watched Gene Kelly dance across the screen, but more he is interested in exploring the consequences of having such aspirations; the dark side of fame that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with addiction or other harmful habit forming activities, but more with the decisions such individuals have to make without knowing the answer as to what they'll regret more 20 years down the road. Can I be the person I want with the person I want? Is it worth more to make a life as I so desire or with the one I desire?
The simplest way to put it is that “Moonlight” feels important. It unfortunately feels necessary. It feels vital. Adapted from the unproduced play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" by MacArthur Fellow winner Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” takes us through three stages of the life of Chiron. As a young boy, a teenager, and a grown man director Barry Jenkins (who also adapted the screenplay) chronicles the life of Chiron in a way that both simply and oh so complexly transcends all barriers of politics and beliefs and presents a bare bones human story that just so happens to deal with being black and being gay. More than this though, Jenkins and his incredible cast that includes Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and André Holland as Chiron as well as the impeccable Mahershala Ali, the glorious Naomie Harris, and the on the verge Janelle Monáe (just wait until you see her in “Hidden Figures”) allow “Moonlight” to address the long existing stigma that to be hard or worthy of being a man one must be largely indifferent to those things that naturally give us weakness in the world. By tackling this idea and how it affects the growth and development of one underprivileged youth is at one time to present exactly what it promises while at another painting a much broader picture of this toxicity that has been constructed by society for which many young men are led to believe there are certain actions that have to be taken or certain attitudes that must be adopted in order to make them worthy of being a man. “Moonlight” is a film that, anytime you think about, are reminded of, or even consider the ground it covers and the essence of what it embodies not only in its ideas and themes, but in its nearly flawless execution, inevitable feelings of great sympathy and understanding come with them. More than anything, Jenkins understands the human element at the core of these issues and by parlaying as much through the single perspective of Chiron at three different stages of his life we are delivered a fleshed out portrait of the true internal tendencies versus the ideals we're taught we should become.
2. “Hell or High Water”
I only gave out two five-star ratings in 2016 and so naturally, those two films are what make up the gold and bronze of my favorites of the year list. After a second viewing of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and director David McKenzie's collaboration this week that is “Hell or High Water” it is only all the more clear how well constructed and executed a modern Western this film actually is. With four outstanding co-lead performances from Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, and Gil Birmingham “Hell or High Water” is both, as John Legend in “La La Land” would phrase it, "traditional yet revolutionary." The film is very much steeped in the archetypes and beats of any Western from the illustrious genre, but it deals in contemporary and relevant themes and ideas that propel the film into a modern day setting with a modern day mentality. Most revealing in Sheridan's piece though is the moral ambiguity that Mackenzie and both Pine and Bridges convey through their opposing positions in society despite the honor of their intentions being very much the same. Combined with cinematographer Giles Nuttgens beautiful photography, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' original score as well as several appropriate soundtrack selections, and a surprising amount of humor exemplified through lines such as, "On your last day in the nursing home you'll think of me and giggle," to even landing a "That's what she said," joke “Hell or High Water” literally packs in everything one could hope for in a piece of entertainment. It delivers an emotional payload, it's funny, and it talks about something bigger than itself while perfectly encapsulating those bigger ideas in its small story. Unable to find anything wrong with the film and having no complaints, it's easy to see why this is one of my favorite films of 2016.
1. “Sing Street”
Director John Carney's latest music-infused narrative about a boy growing up in Dublin during the 1980s who escapes his strained family life by starting a band to impress the mysterious girl he likes is pure magic. “Sing Street” not only appeals to the re-watchability factor I tend to find necessary (it's easily the film I've seen most this year), but it also connects with the soul inside me that always yearned to be a musician and songwriter. Part of me knows and fully understands that I love this film for the personal connection I've created with it and the landslide of an emotional impact it had on me. Seriously-I was in tears as Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and Raphina (Lucy Boynton) sailed off into the mist leaving Jack Reynor's Brendan behind to never fully realize his potential. My mother grew up in England (which I know isn't Ireland, but close enough), I heard about "Top of the Pops" my entire childhood, I ate Mars bars until my heart's content, and as my mother was a teenager of the early ‘80s I felt like, in many ways, I was taking a trip through what it might have been like to be her at a younger age than even I am now. There is also the factor of once being in a band with my own brothers and being willing to create our own music and put it out there for the world to listen to, enjoy, and criticize. The relationship between the two brothers at the core of the film is key to the heart of Sing Street and it spoke volumes to many a personal experiences I've had in my own life. I'm not saying I connected with this film more than others will be able to because I've had these experiences, but for these reasons specifically I feel a deeper relationship to this film than with anything else I've seen this year.
Is 'Die Hard' a Christmas Movie?
by Preston Tolliver
“Die Hard” is a movie about a New York cop named John McClane who flies to Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife, Holly, and their two children, but instead finds himself having to rescue said wife and all her coworkers from a group of terrorists. On its surface, it seems like your run-of-the-mill action movie, but its setting and certain plot points beg the question: Is “Die Hard” a Christmas movie?
The most thorough way to determine this is to figure out exactly what elements make a film a “Christmas movie,” and whether or not – and to what degree – “Die Hard” possesses these elements. The first and most obvious – and the one central to most arguments that the movie does qualify as a Christmas film – is that the movie must be set around Christmas time. But not only should the movie take place somewhere in the vicinity of Dec. 23-26, but it should also be visually clear that the holiday is being celebrated in the movie. We do see this throughout “Die Hard” in a variety of scenes – the Nakatomi Christmas party, of course; the multiple scenes of Argyle chilling in the back of his limousine with the giant teddy bear gift; and on a grimmer side, McClane’s dress-up of Tony in a Santa hat, with the words “Now I have a machine gun, Ho Ho Ho” written on his sweatshirt. So, while an argument might be made that being set on Christmas Eve doesn’t alone make “Die Hard” a Christmas movie, the film’s producers do constantly remind its viewers that the plot is occurring during Christmas.
However, that still doesn’t justify calling “Die Hard” a Christmas movie, because as a rule, Christmas movies have much more to do with plot than a setting. So, while that timeframe is almost mandatory, any Christmas movie should possess one or both of the following elements:
A strained family relationship becomes healed: The best Christmas movies really hone in on the whole “family bonding” part of the holidays. “The Santa Clause” wasn’t just a movie about Tim Allen gaining weight and unpaid overtime. It was about him reconnecting with his son. We saw a similar plot in “Jingle All the Way,” an upper-echelon Christmas film that showed Howard (Arnold Schwarzenegger) fight with a postman (Sinbad) to not just save Christmas for his annoying turd of a son, Jamie, but to also save his marriage. By mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, Ted had his hand’s in Howard’s wife, Liz’s, cookie jar. Where do you think it would have been by Christmas morning had Howard not gotten (and then turned into) Turboman?
In “Die Hard,” you don’t have to pay attention to see that John McClane’s marriage is on the rocks. He lives in New York, working as a beat cop, and she works for a corporation in Los Angeles. She doesn’t even use his last name anymore and turns their family photo away in her office. It’s a foregone conclusion that had John not come home for the holidays, Ellis would have had his hands in Holly’s cookie jar by New Year’s Eve.
But by the end of the movie, John had won Holly back. She took his last name again, and he was returning her home to their kids (which is a way better gift than some crappy Turboman doll, Jamie). Sure, John and Holly were divorced by like the second or third movie, but Christmas was saved.
Because of the holidays, a central character learns selflessness, and/or a lesson that stays with them forever: This is where “Die Hard” falls short in the Christmas argument. By the end of the movie, John McClane is basically the same person he was at the beginning of the movie, only with more scars on his feet. He’s not a changed man. He didn’t learn what’s central to many Christmas movies, and that’s a sense of selflessness. In “Elf,” buddy’s father, Walter, is a Scrooge. By the end of the movie, he’s come around, and is like 1,000 times better for it. In “A Christmas Carol” (or for people who prefer better storytelling, “A Muppets Christmas Carol”), the protagonist is THE Scrooge. By the end, he sees the error of his ways, and his life takes a complete 180. Sure, John McClane risked his life like 80 times in that movie to save people, but he would have done that anyway. And as we saw by ‘Die Hards 2-5,’ his marriage still failed, and his kids ended up in the same crap situations their dad did.
Based on this, I would argue that “Die Hard” isn’t your “typical” Christmas movie, but it does fall within those lines. However, to further solidify this argument, let’s make a comparison:
We have a movie about a male protagonist, who has a specific set of skills equipped to take down physical threats. At the beginning of the movie, it’s clear that his family’s love for him is suspect at best. Unwillingly, he gets thrown into a situation on Christmas Eve in which he becomes embattled with multiple criminals so that he can see his family again. In doing so, by the end of the movie, he’s earned his family’s respect and saved Christmas.
“Die Hard”? Nope. That’s “Home Alone.” In it, an industrious little psychopath named Kevin finds himself having to protect his home and himself from two robbers, played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. For fairness, let’s run it through the three criteria above.
Set during the holidays? Check.
A strained family relationship becomes healed: Yes. Absolutely. But I’m not talking about Kevin’s family getting back home to him. He had crap parents in the beginning of the movie, and he had crap parents at the end. He also had crap parents at the beginning of “Home Alone 2,” and at the end of “Home Alone 2.” But the most important part of the movie wasn’t that Kevin was left home alone, or that he employed some near-psychotic means to punish his intruders, or even that his family came home and was suddenly nicer to him than they were in the beginning of the film. The most important part of “Home Alone” is when in the end, after helping Kevin, Old Man Marley calls his daughter and mends their relationship. That’s a lasting fix to a strained relationship. Further, sure, the McCallisters are reconnected for what, one year? Then Kevin’s lost in New York? Which leads me to:
Because of the holidays, a central character learns selflessness, and/or a lesson that stays with them forever: A year later, Kevin’s family lost him again. Gtfo.
So, if “Home Alone” is going to be considered an all-time Christmas movie, based on these criteria, it’s evident that “Die Hard” must be in that discussion as well. Because while it may lack some of the themes that are central to some Christmas movies, other commonly-recognized Christmas films lack some of those same things, if not more. Sure, “Die Hard” may lack some of the inspiration that you get from watching other holiday films, but that doesn’t discount what it is: “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
by Philip Price
"It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet." It is with these words that the original ‘Star Wars’ introduced fans to a galaxy far, far away nearly 40 years ago; despite the nearly four decades between then and now though, those words couldn't be more relevant today. It is in these two short, but descriptive sentences that one can understand the basis of where ‘Rogue One’ comes from and its relevance in setting up the dots that will be connected throughout the original trilogy of films. For a ‘Star Wars’ fan, this is nothing if not incredible-that the smallest of details from within the universe can be fleshed out so as to expand upon the rich layers of the world George Lucas created all those years ago seemingly opens up endless possibilities. For writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy though, one could see how this might be more than a little intimidating to take on. As one might be inclined to do in such a situation Weitz and Gilroy have more or less crafted an old school genre film out of a franchise brand that has more or less become a genre of its own. And so, ‘Rogue One’ is a genre film executed in a film universe that has defined the science fiction blockbuster genre since its inception 40 years ago. That may sound inherently disparaging, but it really isn't. Rather, adjusting the ‘Star Wars’ universe to fit that of a "(wo)man on a mission" template is rather inspiring and director Gareth Edwards has skillfully adapted the rich and textured aesthetic of 1970s sci-fi to this story that takes place just before Princess Leia sent her trusty droids to seek out an old Jedi friend. Though ‘Rogue One’ may not ultimately break any new barriers and will undoubtedly serve more as the rule than the exception when it comes to this new breed of ‘Star Wars’ stories we'll be receiving consistently for as far as Disney's bank accounts can go (hint: they go really far) it is still a more than competent action/adventure story that introduces a few new memorable characters, worlds of which we've never seen before, and a narrative that despite every single person in the audience knowing where it's headed still manages to keep us on the edge of our seats.
Beginning by detailing the origins of our protagonist, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), as a young girl who sought solace on an otherwise uninhabited planet with her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) and mother Lyra (Valene Kane) we watch as they are discovered by this installment’s big bad in Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). Krennic is a Lieutenant Commander for the Galactic Empire who seeks out Galen for his scientific expertise and talents that will aid him in crafting and building the greatest of all weapons-a "planet killer" as they refer to it. We deduce that the elder Ersos have worked under Krennic's iron fist before and have no desire to return, but they are left little choice in the matter forcing their daughter to flee as Krennic captures Galen. The young Jyn is left hidden until family friend and extremist within the rebellion Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) arrives to pull her from the depths and train her in the ways of self-defense and being a soldier. The film doesn't rest on the adolescence of young Erso though, rather it jumps forward 15 years to show us Jyn has obscured her identity and become little more than a common criminal. It is when a Republic pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), goes (ahem) rogue and seeks the now hermit-like Gerrera out at the behest of Galen to deliver a message of how the Rebels might defeat this "planet killer" that Jones' Erso is brought back into the fold as not only is she discovered to be the daughter of the leading engineer for the Death Star, but also one of the few individuals Gerrera might be willing to take an appointment with and open up to. Naturally, the initially defensive and somewhat insolent Erso cares little for the rebellion's cause and even less about the state of her father as she believes he turned his back on her and their family in order to ultimately fulfill every demand Krennic places on him. Teaming up with Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Republic droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Jyn and her comrades she picks up along the way including Jedi admirer if not Knight Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and sharp shooter Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) begin the journey of recovering both the plans for the Death Star and Galen himself before things become fully operational.
A trend in film throughout 2016 has been that of these rather straightforward genre exercises getting off to confident and engaging starts only to flounder where it really counts. What is at first concerning, but ultimately the most rewarding thing about experiencing ‘Rogue One’ is that it delivers more in its third act than one could hope for despite getting off to something of a rocky start. Within the first half hour to 45 minutes ‘Rogue One’ is weighed down by the stop and go nature of its pacing that has the script introducing a new planet and new set of characters and circumstances every two minutes while the story itself seems to have become stagnant if not undetectable after a rather sterling pre-credits sequence. This sidestep for the sake of set-up and plotting over a more natural flow of narrative causes the tone of the first act to feel more sporadic than that of extraneous events happening in a vacuum clearly destined to intertwine and form a cohesive whole. It is once the exposition has been completed and the objectives set that Edwards' film finally begins to settle into a groove though the lasting effect of this disconnect is that we never really connect with and/or feel a great amount of sympathy for the heroes of the story. Rather, it is the actions being taken more so than those who are taking them that become worth investing in especially given the fact most audiences will recognize the ramifications of what Jyn and her company are up to. This to say that despite Jones and Luna giving commendable and capable performances as the rebels within the rebel base there is nothing they nor the script brings to the table that allow them to stand-out or remain memorable in any way other than the fact they turn out to be solid human beings willing to make certain sacrifices for the greater good. There is nothing overly endearing about the performances or the characters and that causes a fair amount of disconnect between the plight these heroes take and our compassion towards that plight. Saving the day is that of Tudyk's derisive new droid who provides the amount of laughs Jar Jar Binks was always intended to deliver with none of the desperation. Yen's Chirrut is the other standout as not only does Chirrut make good on the promise of his Jedi-like skillset through some exquisitely choreographed action sequences, but the actor lends what could have been a throwaway supporting character depth through the small ticks and trusting nature the actor conveys through what are supposed to be empty eyes.
In this current cinematic landscape of brand recognition and contained universes it is vital to acknowledge that good can indeed come from re-visiting the same worlds again and again. This proves to be a part of the charm through which one can choose to view ‘Rogue One’ if in need of a way to make sense of how such a product can be genuinely justified. ‘Rogue One’ is more or less a heist movie of sorts in that a band of heroes must take on a mission to infiltrate the bad guys lair and steal something very valuable to both sides, but that is better off in the hands of those more rational than the guys who desire to build a planet killing weapon. This movie could essentially exist in any world or any time period with natural tweaks for such amendments, but the fact it exists within the Star Wars universe and that it uses this fact to expand upon some of the lore within this universe shows the real advantage to such movies being produced. In any other film the plot strand concerning the Empire mining a city on the planet Jedha for something referred to as "kyber crystals" in order to power the Death Star would be seen as little more than a maguffin, but as it is used in the context of the ‘Star Wars’ universe it deepens the mythos around the ever-fascinating lightsabers that only Jedi masters are able to wield. Details such as this enrich the film through the years of mythology that have been built up around the ‘Star Wars’ brand. Some of the giddiest and more substantial moments in ‘Rogue One’ come from seeing connective tissues tie together. An example of such is seeing Jimmy Smits walk on screen as the older and still wise Bail Organa who has no idea the fate he faces, but given we do his presence signals an admirable yet somber tone that would be rendered moot without the influence of the surrounding films. Of course, it is easy to argue that a film that relies on outside influences in order to be more effective isn't really a successful film within its own contained narrative and it's hard to disagree with that, but that simply isn't the world we live in now. We're existing within a world of serialized features. We're at a point where it is more common for writers and directors to find new ways of packaging familiar characters than inventing new ones. It is how well the re-packaging is executed that determines how much juice is left in the engine and Edwards delivers enough new locations and familiar imagery through fresh eyes that the visual aesthetic of ‘Rogue One’ is arguably more impressive and affecting than that of the jumbled character arcs.
Talk of the context in which ‘Rogue One’ exists though doesn't necessarily pertain to the quality of the final product that is the subject of this review and so, while there is much to admire in the scope and visual prowess of the film especially in its blending of CGI and practical effects in some of the more breathtaking space battles we've ever seen in a ‘Star Wars’ film there is just as much that detracts when we see the effects that have been used to bring Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin back to life. They are so distracting as to take one out of the film completely for a handful of minutes before adjusting to the fact that this is what they decided to go with. There was also hope Michael Giacchino's first original score for a new ‘Star Wars’ film might be, well, more original, but it's a difficult line to walk and being the first to attempt such a high-wire is a losing battle that to simply come up short is to be expected of not considered a win. And yet, it is in its final act that ‘Rogue One’ shines most; taking all that has come before it and funneling it into a climactic sequence of evenly paced action across multiple storylines only to culminate in a "worth the price of admission" sequence that is as tense as anyone could hope for given you know exactly what happens next ‘Rogue One’ delivers on what its sets out to be. That said, while it is flat-out cool to see Darth Vader both on the big screen and operating in his prime prior to the beginning of the end if Vader is what you're going for prepare to be disappointed as sparingly is an understatement. While it's easy to admit ‘Rogue One’ becomes a rollicking good time and is a pristine piece of popcorn entertainment it is ultimately a solid first step in what will no doubt come to be countless "Star Wars Stories" that will flood theaters over the coming years and if that is to be the case one can only "hope" each of them carry as much promise and vision if not a more focused narrative as ‘Rogue One’ does in its attempts to both extend and expand.
Manchester By the Sea
by Philip Price
“Manchester by the Sea” is a simple film made from a rather simple story. Meaning that the narrative is straight-forward and wholly based in the everyday lives the majority of us tend to lead. These factors certainly make it more relatable than say, something along the lines of “Allied,” which is technically based in reality, but from which we are so far removed at this point it almost feels not of this world. All of this is to say that in our current plane of existence, “Manchester by the Sea” feels personal. It is a movie that creates an authentic environment from the world in which it exists. It feels lived-in and to that point we are not necessarily welcomed as much into this half-hearted existence that comes to be the subject of the film as we are wedged into the ongoing crap show that literally and figuratively seems to make up Lee Chandler's (Casey Affleck) life. I find it best to go into most films without much of an idea as to what exactly one might be getting themselves into and while it may be difficult to do that in terms of major blockbusters when living in a world that offers teasers for teaser trailers it is with movies such as “Manchester by the Sea” where this practice can be exercised to its full effect. And so, I went in more or less blind to what “Manchester by the Sea” carried in terms of narrative and with only the buzz it garnered out of its Sundance premiere earlier this year to signify that it was worth watching. No matter if one knows the basic premise or not though, one thing is for certain: one cannot know the whole of the story the film is telling and it is in how director Kenneth Lonergan sets up the present scenario for our characters to operate in. Then, it’s how he slowly peels back the layers of each of their pasts helping us to understand not only why and how these people have become who they are, but also giving us a glimpse of how far they can go and what the future might hold for them. This makes the experience so simultaneously simple yet equally involving. It's a powerful piece of human drama to say the least with bare-bones emotions bleeding through on the face of Affleck and every other actor in any significant portion of the movie. Lonergan, as a writer, is clearly interested in digging into the psyches of those who have dealt in tragedy and analyzing the different ways in which we as human beings deal with such surreal, life-altering events. With “Manchester by the Sea,” the writer/director tackles permanent heartbreak to grandly moving results.
We meet Lee Chandler as he is working day to day through several apartment buildings as a maintenance man in Boston. He sleeps in a small, single room apartment of sorts that is more or less the basement of one of the buildings he tends to. He doesn't require much to maintain his lifestyle and seems to be doing the work so as to keep his mind off other things. Lee isn't one for conversation. He isn't even intrigued when he overhears female tenants discussing how they are attracted to him or what they might do to have him notice them. Rather, Lee goes about his business and doesn't do much else besides sleep, watch sports on television and drink beer. It's evident early on that Lee and pretty much everyone around him drink to take the edge off of their otherwise stressful lives, but more times than not this ends up in some kind of confrontation involving Lee and his short temper. Change comes swiftly when Lee receives a call telling him his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died of a heart disease they've long known he had. Despite the fair warning Lee is naturally taken off guard by the news and undoubtedly somewhat regretful he hasn't been around or in the same town as his brother in recent years due to reasons not yet known to us. At this news though, Lee packs his things and heads to Manchester which is situated on the north shore of Massachusetts. Lee learns that his brother has made him the guardian of his son and Lee's nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), whom Lee has no interest in raising. We can glean from the actions of the deceased Joe (and even more so as the Chandler brothers’ past is revealed) that he has forced Lee into this predicament for a reason. Joe's ex-wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol), is out of the picture due to insanity whereas Lee has only moved to Boston for reasons of distancing himself from his past. As much as the film comes to be about the give and take dynamic that develops between Lee and Patrick and how these individuals who have each seemingly lost so much in their lives can help one another in gaining their footing back to some type of normalcy, “Manchester by the Sea” is just as much about acknowledging that some things can never be fixed, that most things must be accepted, but that working through such pain rather than against it is what's ultimately best for the soul.
What is unique about this film in particular though, is that it doesn't care to be artistically striking or largely inventive in any way. Moreover, Lonergan's directing style is that of something that is so subdued it relies solely on the story that is being told to move you, emotionally affect you, to bring about moments that are beyond comprehension in what exactly they mean, but that you know are significant in more ways than your heartache can handle. This is both admirable while bringing into question just how much of a choice it is over inexperience. Lonergan, while a veteran writer, has only directed three feature films with ‘Manchester’ being his first in five years. It's not that the film is sloppily shot or even that it feels amateurish in its compositions or execution, but more that it is simply competent in its technique. There seems to be little more to the way in which Lonergan has shot the film than simply having his director of photography set the camera up where they thought would be best and starting to roll. There is no visual reinforcement to the ideas or themes that are being considered within the text or dialogue. By keeping things on a basic level in terms of filmmaking, Lonergan more or less allows his camera to become a lingering eye; deciding in the editing bay to let shots last just a little longer than we might expect and structuring the scenes in such a way that the ever-increasing pathos is elicited with each and every scene as they build on top of one another as more information becomes available. In other words, Lonergan keeps his framing invisible and his cuts so precise that what we're left to truly admire is the work of the actors with whom much of the heavy lifting automatically falls when telling a story of this nature. At the heart of this is Affleck's stunning turn as a man who we initially don't care for. We don't know Lee and we don't know why he is the way he is, but Affleck brings an assured yet closed-off exterior to this man who, as far as he's concerned, is no longer living, but simply existing. In smaller parts, Chandler, Michelle Williams and C.J. Wilson shine in their quaint, but vital roles that play into what shapes Lee's perceptions of the world after losing his brother.
Affleck is a pro in this line of isolation for the sake of sanity. As such, these tendencies are only dismantled when he comes into contact with ex-wife Randi (Williams) and everything he has suppressed under this facade comes boiling back to the surface. In the two scenes Affleck and Williams share I don't know that I was able to pry my hands away from my head as the full ramifications of the weight of every word they exchanged washed over me in deep, deep heartache. These two scenes are by far the most beautifully tragic aspects of the film making it impossible to not submit one's self to the level of performance and raw emotion on display. I can't even imagine. Bringing around the structure of the film, as we come to learn the history of Affleck's Lee we come to see the character in a different light though Affleck isn't necessarily doing anything different as far as his performance is concerned. And yet, somehow he's changing and without making any major shifts in his actions we can see the light is a little brighter and the optimism a little larger. As the relationship between Lee and Patrick evolves from one of complete disdain for each another to that of Lee feeling a responsibility for the actions of his nephew and Patrick coming around to understand if not comprehend the full effect of what Lee has been through, there comes to be slight alterations in the outlook each of these guys has on their life from that point on and obviously one another. There is brought up that "just enough" to keep them waking up the next morning, looking forward to what the day might potentially hold, and it is in this authenticity of the relationship between uncle and nephew that “Manchester by the Sea” earns its sly optimism despite being surrounded by shrouds of bleakness. As Patrick, Hedges is a fully dimensional teenager and not an archetype of any sort with his playful demeanor masking the torment of losing his loving father. This dynamic that is filled with concealed emotions and harsh judgments is one that grows to be that of understanding even if such understanding is never verbally communicated. It is a relationship that mends as much as any permanent heartbreak can be mended and it is in this simplicity with which Lonergan acknowledges these complex and rather nuanced relationships that “Manchester by the Sea” draws its beauty.
Office Christmas Party
by Philip Price
What is there to say about a movie that knows exactly what it is and executes itself in competent fashion? Turns out, not too much really-especially when one is talking specifically about something as frivolous as “Office Christmas Party.” After watching this hour and 45 minute comedy my friend summed up what we'd just experienced perfectly. Describing the "here for a good time" flick that actually ends up overstaying its welcome as a raunchier version of one of those holiday themed, multi-plotted, department store advertisements as directed by the late Garry Marshall, “Office Christmas Party” piles on the recognizable names and faces (Hey! There's Jennifer Aniston again!), juggles a handful of plotlines, and ultimately comes off as trying too hard to have some kind of genuine heart when we all know the only reason it actually exists is to cash in on certain weekends of the year when viewers seek reminders for how they should/would like to feel around the holidays. This wouldn't be so bad considering “Office Christmas Party” has a more than capable cast and isn't nearly as hokey as those aforementioned Marshall pictures, but the film ultimately tries to do too much with very little when it would have been fine had it simply allowed its talented comedic ensemble to feed off one another. While Marshall's films more or less turned a holiday of its choosing into a combination of “Crash” and any Hallmark movie ever, “Office Christmas Party” at least has a driving plot that keeps the focus on only the characters involved in the central narrative and has each of them chasing and contributing to the same goal. There are no extraneous stories that have to strain to connect all the random characters together, but that doesn't mean every subplot should have been kept either. It is in its inability to restrain from both following one too many superfluous factors as well as devolving into something it clearly had no intention of being until it realized the credits had to roll at some point that “Office Christmas Party” suffers, but when it is having fun, making jokes, and letting the comedic talent it has enlisted to roam freely it's a consistently hilarious time that delivers on what its promotional campaign promised.
Strangely enough, Office Christmas Party has a little too much plot for its own good. The set-up of Clay (T.J. Miller), the clueless but good-hearted son of the founder of a profitable tech company who now manages his father's favorite branch in Chicago, is set to throw the annual Christmas party in a fashion his old man would have appreciated. That is, of course, until his sister Carol (Aniston), who is serving as the interim CEO in light of their father's recent passing, comes in and threatens to shut the branch down due to their poor performance over the last quarter. Josh (Jason Bateman) is Clay's best friend and more or less the guy who is actually running the branch of Zenotech in which they both work. Given Carol is threatening to shut down the branch it seems a given the Christmas party is also canceled as it is deemed an unnecessary expense. Clay and Josh, being desperate to save the company by any means possible are only given one option by Carol and that is to convince Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance) to choose Zenotech as the vendor for his company's $14 million server deal. This is a long shot to say the least as Zenotech has been in something of a holding pattern on developing any new technology over the past few years, but Tracey (Olivia Munn) who is the head of development and may or may not have a thing for the newly-divorced Josh has a few ideas that could save the company if they can in fact get Mr. Davis to listen to them. This is where Clay hatches the plan to show Davis the time of his life by going the complete opposite of his sister's instruction and throwing the biggest office Christmas party ever hence the title. Simple, right? Had directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck simply allowed the film to ride out this objective while filling the remainder of the running time with little asides about those who work within the office as it admittedly does to some effect things would have been fine and about 15 minutes shorter. Rather, the movie abandons the titular party with half an hour left and goes off the rails to the point it has to swing so far back around to get to a logical stopping place it can't help but feel overly long and overly convoluted.
Naturally, the highlights here are in the casting. The remainder of the typically tame office environment is filled to the brim with both established and upcoming comedic personalities that find enough fun and hilarity in the moments they're allowed that the constantly interrupting pieces of plot don't always seem as glaring as they likely will be on repeat viewings. The MVP to this whole shindig is Kate McKinnon though, who somehow seems as if she gets to stretch her comedic muscles more here than she did in this summer's Ghostbusters despite arguably playing more of a "type" in this film. As Mary, the high-strung head of the HR department, McKinnon plays the part as a woman whose uptight personality is due more to the desires she's repressing than any morals she's upholding. To watch this unfold as the night goes on and as the party gets more and more crazy is to see the ‘SNL’ star deliver consistently in both lines designed to be jokes as well as a slowly deteriorating facade that by the end of the night allows McKinnon's Mary to be the employee Clay always knew she was inside. And while Aniston and Bateman are more or less doing what they do best (Bateman can still deliver a deadpan punch line like nobody's business) it is Miller that really has an opportunity to shine here and he takes full advantage. Though I haven't seen a single episode of “Silicon Valley” Miller's supporting bits in the majority of the films in which he appears never seem to fully utilize the guy's strength as a genuinely charismatic performer. As something of the lead here, Miller takes the reigns of his spoiled, but well-intentioned character and allows the audience to build an empathy for the guy in what could have otherwise been a role played strictly for the absurdity of Clay's tendencies and not for the heart behind such actions. Still, “Office Christmas Party” is more about the laughs than the emotions it means to conjure up in viewers and this is where Miller is really able to pull his weight as the pairing of his more outlandish style of improv meshes well with that of Bateman's subdued approach giving way to a consistent stream of humorous back and forth. Speaking of Bateman, one might not immediately think of placing the 47-year old actor with that of the 36-year old Munn, but they produce some solid chemistry here that feels as inevitable to the audience as it has been for these characters that have seemed to anticipate the hook-up for some time
Furthermore, the likes of Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park, Rob Corddry, Sam Richardson, Karan Soni, and Jillian Bell are each fun to watch as they fill in the caveats of story around and within the party. Bayer and Park lather on the awkward as a single mother and the new guy in the office who somewhat feel pushed together by the conventions of their lives and roles at work; the fruits of which come crashing down when Park's fetish-driven Fred can't hold back his sexual fantasies. Corddry does his shtick where he gets short-fused and yells mean things at suspecting victims, but he gets a nice payoff through that of McKinnon's character and the "opposites attract" relationship they share with one another. Soni's nerdy Nate can't stop going on about his supermodel girlfriend so as to assure everyone in the office that he does in fact have a girlfriend, but when it comes time to bring reality to all the hype he's been building Nate has to rely on an egomaniac of a pimp in Bell's likely schizophrenic Trina to get him through. Bell, like McKinnon, could likely say anything in her own particular way and some humor could be derived from it. While Bell is mostly short-changed in terms of screen time here I can only hope she'll soon get a vehicle for her talents much the same way “Office Christmas Party” proves a worthy machine for Miller's raucous persona. Bringing a dose of weight to the proceedings is that of Vance who, while little more than a humorless plot device, is able to make the events that become the main subject of the movie worth the investment of time it ultimately requires. Should “Office Christmas Party” have been slimmer and less plot heavy? Absolutely. Is there anything that detracts from the titular party in such a fashion as to be completely devastating to the overall quality of the comedy? No, not really. “Office Christmas Party,” the end result, is very much in line with what one would likely suspect they're getting themselves into if purchasing a ticket. If one is indeed purchasing a ticket for an R-rated, holiday-themed comedy than they will likely be happy with that purchase as “Office Christmas Party” features a bunch of really funny people playing off one another to hilarious effect consistently enough that the laughter rarely dies down despite the plot doing its best to distract from the laughter.