Film Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

Release Date: May 16th, 2016 (Cannes)
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Music by: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey

Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, OddLot Entertainment, Film 44, LBI Entertainment, Lionsgate, CBS Films, 102 Minutes

Review:

“I know their faces was covered, but could you tell their race? Black, white?” – Marcus Hamilton, “Their skin or their souls?” – Elsie

Hell or High Water was a Picture of the Year nominee. It doesn’t seem to be all that well known, however. It was incredibly overshadowed by the other nominees that year: La La LandMoonlightManchester by the SeaFencesArrivalHacksaw RidgeHidden Figures and Lion. In fact, out of all the fanfare for the others, I forgot this was in the discussion.

It also saw nominations go to Jeff Bridges for Best Supporting Actor, as well as nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. It also had three Golden Globe nominations. Still, when I’ve brought it up to people, it’s virtually unknown.

That being said, I’m not sure why it got overshadowed. It’s a damn fine film. It is a neo-western with a subtle neo-noir touch to it. It’s got some stylistic similarities to No Country for Old Men, granted it isn’t that good. Still, it’s a solid contemporary western tale with a great cast.

While Jeff Bridges rarely, if ever, fails to be great in a role, it was refreshing to see Chris Pine actually get to do something at this level. He doesn’t work as much as I’d like and I do enjoy him as the modern incarnation of Captain James T. Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek film series but it’s rare that I get to see him do something exceptional and at the level where I feel his talent lies. He also got to play opposite of Ben Foster in nearly every scene he had. Foster is another guy that just nails every role he is in and man, does he nail his role here.

To summarize the story, Pine and Foster play two brothers robbing banks in western Texas. The reason behind their motivation isn’t clear in the beginning but the way they hit the bangs is unusual and draws the attention of Jeff Bridges, an old Texas Ranger that makes it his personal mission to catch these culprits.

The story almost has the makings of something you’d read in a Cormac McCarthy novel but without an overabundance of violence. This film does have violent moments but nothing on the scale of No Country for Old Men or Blood Meridian.

The picture is accented and strengthened with incredible cinematography by Giles Nuttgens, who has a few dozen films under his belt already. The landscapes are just vast and beautiful, especially with the wide shots capturing the vehicles moving about in the countryside.

The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis has a good emotional impact and just added to the film’s visual allure.

The high octane moments in this picture are exciting and energetic. There is a moment where Foster’s character finally goes over the edge, unloads a machine gun at good Samaritans tracking their escape from a robbery and gets himself caught up in a standoff with the law in an effort to allow his brother to escape. It’s an emotional and action packed high point in the film that was well worth the wait, as you knew the character would eventually become fully unhinged.

I really enjoy that this film is not predictable. It has some twists and surprises that just sort of happen. It doesn’t follow a traditional narrative for this type of story and ultimately, that makes the plot feel much more authentic and realistic.

I wouldn’t quite call this the film of the year for 2016 but it is pretty high up on my list for motion pictures that year. A good solid cast, great direction, wide open landscapes and a good amount of action all come together to make this maybe the manliest and ballsiest film of that year.

Film Review: Moonlight (2016)

Release Date: September 2nd, 2016 (Telluride)
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Written by: Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney
Based on: In Moonlight Black Blues Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Music by: Nicholas Britell
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali

Plan B Entertainment, Pastel Productions, A24, 111 Minutes

Review:

“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” – Juan

I didn’t get to see this last year, as it was only in my local theaters for a blink of an eye. Now that it is streaming on Amazon Video, I finally got to see the film that derailed La La Land‘s beeline to Oscar glory. I didn’t really like La La Land, so I was pretty okay with it getting knocked off of its pedestal.

But is Moonlight a better picture? I’d say so.

Strangely, this is the first motion picture to win the Oscar for Best Picture that has an all black cast, as well as being about LGBT issues. It probably won because of industry politics and Hollywood’s need to redeem itself due to pressure from those social justice warriors that have an opinion about everything. Regardless of the politics, this is a fine film. It probably isn’t the best of 2016 but it is certainly in the top ten.

The one thing that stands out the most is the acting. Everyone in this film just existed in it, as real characters. Sure, I know Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Janelle Monáe but they really just melted into their roles quite fabulously. Ali was deserving of the Oscar that he won for this and really, I just wish we got more of his character but his fate was important to the overall narrative of this coming of age story, that sees a young boy grow into a man, sort of lost in the world.

While the plot can feel slow moving at times, this is a very human story and driven more by emotion than action. All three actors that played Chiron at different points in his life, were stellar. The last act of the film is a mixture of sadness and hope but it is satisfying and anyone who has lost a friend, only to reconnect in some way, years later, can relate to it.

Other than the acting and the well constructed narrative, the cinematography of this film is spectacular. The lighting is perfect, the shots are pristine and meticulously orchestrated; even if this was a picture that was shot on location in short bursts, it turned out magnificently. I really loved the way the camera moved around characters in several scenes, especially during conversations or conflicts on street settings.

Moonlight is well crafted and its real purpose is to show that finding your own identity isn’t an easy task. Life throws its curveballs and isn’t fair. But whether you’re white, black, gay or straight, I think we can all relate to Chiron’s need to find his right place in the world.

Documentary Review: 24×36: A Movie About Movie Posters (2016)

Release Date: September 23rd, 2016 (Fantastic Fest)
Directed by: Kevin Burke
Music by: Steve Damstra II

Snowfort Pictures, Post No Joes Productions, 82 Minutes

Review:

24×36: A Movie About Movie Posters is exactly what the title implies but then it is more than that.

The film is about how great the art on film posters used to be and how, since the ’90s, that great art has been pushed aside in favor of photographs and giant images of famous actors’ faces in an effort to sell the movie.

As this film evolves, it goes into talking about how a new generation of poster artists have emerged and are working towards bringing back the old style, which was more interesting and a lot more dynamic than a closeup of Half of Tom Cruise’s face accompanied by a bold font.

This documentary seems to do what a lot of documentaries are doing as of late. It promotes itself as one thing but then veers off in a different direction. While going from the history of poster art into the modern era where new artists are trying to breathe life back into the classic style, it kind of catches you off guard. I like both sides of the coin here but I feel like this could have been a two-parter or that the history stuff could and should have been expanded on, as it is the most interesting part of the film.

Sure, I love seeing what artists are doing now and I hope they succeed in bringing the old art style back but it didn’t need to take up the bulk of the film. It could have been streamlined quite a bit and made up a nice final act to this feature.

Still, this is a fairly solid and informative documentary. I’m more of a history buff, especially in regards to aspects of the film industry and wish there had been more of that story told here.

Documentary Review: You’re So Cool, Brewster! The Story of Fright Night (2016)

Release Date: December 2nd, 2016
Directed by: Chris Griffiths
Music by: Lito Velasco

Dead Mouse Productions, 217 Minutes, 146 Minutes (Condensed version)

Review:

If you don’t like Fright Night, we can’t be friends. I mean, seriously, it’s a hell of a good time and was a much needed return to traditional monsters in a decade ruled by slasher films.

This long documentary covers everything you could ever want to know about Fright Night and it even goes into its mostly unappreciated sequel.

The coolest thing about this film and what I love about these modern documentaries about old horror franchises, is getting to revisit the cast and creators all these years later.

It may seem bizarre to have a documentary that is much longer than the subject matter it is discussing but a lot goes into filmmaking and this documentary doesn’t leave a single stone unturned. You get candid looks at the special effects, props making, creature makeup and how certain sequences were shot.

The interviews with the cast, the director and all the other key people were really the best part of this film though. It was especially cool seeing William Ragsdale, Chris Sarandon, Amanda Bearse and Stephen Geoffreys in 2016. Geoffreys’ bits I liked because it showed the man himself and how different he is from the Evil Ed persona. He also discusses how he was apprehensive about performing certain aspects of the character.

Tom Holland, the director, discussed at length about how the whole project came to be, as well as shedding light on what lead him to it.

If you are a fan of the original Fright Night or you’re hardcore and love the whole franchise, this is certainly worth checking out.

TV Review: Stranger Things (2016- )

Original Run: July 15th, 2016 – current
Created by: The Duffer Brothers
Directed by: various
Written by: various
Music by: Mac Quayle, Heather Heywood, Alexis Martin Woodall
Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Cara Buono, Matthew Modine, Noah Schnapp, Joe Keery, Sadie Sink, Dacre Montgomery, Sean Astin, Paul Reiser

21 Laps Entertainment, Monkey Massacre, Netflix, 17 Episodes (so far), 42-62 Minutes (per episode)

Review:

I became a really big fan of Stranger Things the moment I watched the first episode, last year. I wanted to review it after season one but I decided to wait until after the second season, at least. Reason being, as great as this was from the start, greatness has a really hard time maintaining over the long haul. I wanted a larger sample size but now I’ve gotten it.

So now that I have seen season two and know that I’m halfway through the series, as The Duffer Brothers have said it will end with season four, I thought now was a good time to talk about what is currently one of my favorite shows. In fact, out of what’s on TV in 2017, this and Mr. Robot are the only shows that I really even care about on more than a casual level.

The thing is, Stranger Things, at least by the end of season two, has done the impossible. The show has maintained its greatness. The high precedent set by the first season was not a fluke, Stranger Things 2, as they call this season, is on the level. It may even surpass it, to be honest.

A quality that the show has that others don’t, is that it doesn’t constantly churn out a set number of episodes. The Duffer Brothers don’t want to be confined in that way. They write the story and however many episodes they need to tell it, is what they make. It isn’t a show bogged down by filler episodes or dragging its ass because more episodes mean more advertising revenue. I hope all other streaming shows follow suit and realize that this is probably the best way to present a show. I mean imagine if a movie just introduced a random character out of nowhere and then distracted you for a significant amount of time, disrupting the overall narrative? (*cough – Matt Damon in Interstellar)

I’ve never been a big fan of kid actors, especially in ensembles. It barely ever works out but the 1980s were a strange decade where a lot of child ensemble films just worked. This show is a true throwback to that because these kids are magic together. And maybe we’re coming into some child actor renaissance, as It also featured a great young ensemble cast. That film also featured Finn Wolfhard from this show, so maybe he is a magic ingredient.

Stranger Things is three parts 80s Stephen King, two parts John Carpenter, one part The Goonies, one part Monster Squad, one part E.T. with a John Hughes floater. This is probably why it is such a popular show with people my age, those of us who were the age of these kids in the same decade it takes place. The show also resonates with a younger generation too but that’s probably because this is a real 80s throwback and the 80s were infinitely cooler than today’s pop culture. Hopefully, the show’s popularity has inspired younger people to look at this show’s influences because I’d rather watch anything this is an homage to than Scream Queens or the television remakes of Teen Wolf or Scream.

This is a stupendous show. Really, it’s fucking amazing and even that feels like an understatement. It was a breath of fresh air that entered our pop culture scene a year ago and hopefully, stays fresh over its upcoming final two seasons. If not, I’ll have to adjust my rating and express my loss of enthusiasm. But, at the midway mark, it deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Film Review: The 20th Annual Manhattan Short Film Festival, Part II (2017)

Having participated in the 20th Annual Manhattan Short Film Festival, I wanted to shine a light on the ten finalists. I’ll break this review into two parts, covering the first block of films before the festival’s intermission and then the second block of films after the intermission.

What the film festival does, is it takes thousands of short films from all over the world, narrows it down to ten finalists and then lets the audience from all the participating venues vote on the winner for best film and best actor. Currently, there are more than 250 venues from six continents that participate.

Just Go! – action, adventure – Latvia (2017):

Release Date: September 28th, 2017 (Manhattan Short)
Directed by: Pavel Gumennikov
Written by: Pavel Gumennikov
Music by: Michael Bahnmiller
Cast: Aleksandrs Ronis, Toms Velicko, Jana Herbsta

11 Minutes

Review:

This wasn’t one of my favorites of the film festival but it was a lot of fun.

The story follows a teen who lost his legs. He is smitten with a girl around his neighborhood. While he is talking to her, she has her purse stolen by two thugs. Without hesitation, the legless teen flies after the thugs in hot pursuit. First he uses his wheelchair, then his car, then moves with just his quick hands, then uses a skateboard and does everything he can to keep up with the thugs until finally being cornered by them in an alley.

The point of this short film is to show that there aren’t really disabilities but just abilities. It is a good representation of this idea and pretty much proves its point while being fast paced and exciting.

The teen wins out, the thugs are defeated and we get a happy ending with a little funny extra scene in the credits.

The teen in the film is actually a player on Latvia’s sitting volleyball team.

Mare Nostrum – drama – Syria (2016):

Release Date: October 26th, 2016 (France)
Directed by: Rana Kazkaz, Anas Khalaf
Written by: Rana Kazkaz
Cast: Ziad Bakri, Zayn Khalaf

Georges Films, Syneastes Films, Philistine Films, 14 Minutes

Review:

At first I didn’t like this film. But the ending and the added context brought everything together like a finely woven tapestry.

Taking place in Syria, on the Mediterranean coast, the film sees a father basically terrify his daughter by throwing her off of a pier, again and again, trying to force her to learn how to swim.

You feel for the girl and understand her pain and the horror that this puts her through but you don’t fully realize why the father is doing this until you get to the end. It is really hard not to hate the father for what he is doing but it makes you understand what a parent’s tough love is and how he only wants his daughter to have a better life.

It also humanizes the struggle of those who are good people that are demonized as enemies because they just so happen to live in a part of the world that many consider a threat. But ultimately, the good people of these faraway lands are victims themselves.

Mare Nostrum is well shot and beautiful. It’s a short film that hopefully gets its message out to more people who might need a reminder that we’re all human beings with our own adversity to overcome.

Viola, Franca – drama, biography – Italy (2017):

Release Date: May 30th, 2017 (Poland)
Directed by: Marta Savina
Written by: Andrea Brusa, Marta Savina
Cast: Antonio Bruschetta, Carlo Calderone, Claudia Gusmano

15 Minutes

Review:

Viola, Franca was damn good and it is almost tied for first place overall with 8 Minutes, but I liked 8 Minutes just a bit more.

That being said, this is the more important of the two pictures and it tells the story of the real Sicilian women that fought against social injustice perpetuated by the Italian government and the Catholic church.

This is Franca’s origin story on how she came to resist what her church and her community tried to impose on her.

In the story, she rejects a despicable local man’s advances. He then waits for her father to go into town and he rapes her. Being that she is now seen as impure by the Catholic church and the community, she is pressured into marrying the very man that raped her. She decides that this is not the course that her life will go and she refuses to conform to the outdated and archaic ways of her culture.

Viola, Franca is the only period piece out of all these films and it feels like it has the highest production value. It employs stock music but the selections work well for the film and the landscape of Sicily is a breathtaking backdrop.

Claudia Gusmano gave the best acting performance in the entire festival.

In A Nutshell – animation – Switzerland (2017):

Release Date: June 9th, 2017 (Japan)
Directed by: Fabio Friedli

5 Minutes

Review:

In A Nutshell is the shortest of all the films in the festival. It is a scant 5 minutes but that’s all it needs to work.

There isn’t a story or actors or anything really, other than everyday objects being animated in an interesting way, showcasing their relation to one another. There isn’t much point to this other than showing these objects evolve from one thing to another forming a perfect metaphorical circle.

The film looks good and is well animated for what it is. But what it is a forgettable art piece reminiscent of a quick time killer segment from a public access children’s show.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot to walk away with.

8 Minutes – sci-fi, drama – Georgia (2017):

Release Date: September 28th, 2017 (Manhattan Short)
Directed by: Giorgi Gogichaishvili, Davit Abramishvili
Written by: Zaza Koshhadze, Mari Bekauri, Giorgi Gogichaishvili
Cast: Slava Natenadze, Ani Bebia, Giorgi Sharvashidze, Donara Gvritishvili, Zanda Ioseliani

12 Minutes

Review:

This ended up being my favorite film of the festival and not just because it went on last and was the freshest in my memory.

8 Minutes told an interesting tale and it really pulled you in.

The film is primarily about a father reconnecting with his son. The father is a career magician. However, the film is set in a time where the sun is about to burn out. In fact, the sun has already burnt out but it takes 8 minutes and 33 seconds for the effects to reach the Earth. This all takes place in that time frame.

The father and the rest of the world know that it is the last moments of life on the planet but the man’s son, who is off on a scientific expedition in the wilderness, doesn’t know what is about to happen. The man doesn’t tell his son but uses the final moments to try and touch him over the phone and to pull of his last great magic trick.

The film is sweet and well acted. It also utilizes some great cinematography and pulls off some magic tricks of its own.

As the world is crumbling and chaos ensues, a father and son find peace.

8 Minutes was fantastic.

Film Review: The 20th Annual Manhattan Short Film Festival, Part I (2017)

Having participated in the 20th Annual Manhattan Short Film Festival, I wanted to shine a light on the ten finalists. I’ll break this review into two parts, covering the first block of films before the festival’s intermission and then the second block of films after the intermission.

What the film festival does, is it takes thousands of short films from all over the world, narrows it down to ten finalists and then lets the audience from all the participating venues vote on the winner for best film and best actor. Currently, there are more than 250 venues from six continents that participate.

Do No Harm – action, drama – New Zealand (2017):

Release Date: January 20th, 2017 (Sundance)
Directed by: Roseanne Liang
Written by: Roseanne Liang
Cast: Shan-Mei Chan, Mana Hira Davis, Steven A. Davis

Bebe Films, 11 Minutes

Review:

Do No Harm had an interesting premise and ultimately, it is about what a woman is willing to do if her daughter’s life is in danger.

The premise sees a female surgeon in Hong Kong working on her patient when a group of thugs barge in with their sights on that very same patient. They take out the rest of the medical staff, leaving just the surgeon. She refuses to step aside because of her oath to her patient. Her oath and her morals are tested and all the while, she shows that she is pretty much a martial arts badass.

The film is very confined and takes place in one room, and then a hallway, at the very end. But the tight space adds a little something to the narrative.

This is a brutal and violent short film.

In the end, it is a bit one-dimensional but it peaked my interest for the 11 minutes it ran.

Behind – horror, fantasy, drama – Spain (2016):

Release Date: May 1st, 2016 (Spain)
Directed by: Angel Gómez Hernández
Written by: Angel Gómez Hernández
Music by: Óscar Araujo
Cast: Macarena Gómez, Javier Botet, Ruth Díaz, Lone Fleming

Producciones Diodati, 15 Minutes

Review:

Behind was my favorite film of the first block of shorts in this festival. I went into it blindly, as I did with all of these pictures.

This was the only horror film of the bunch and that was kind of exciting because I expected these films to mostly be short character studies.

Most modern horror is pretty crappy but there does seem to be a small resurgence in quality over the last few years. While I don’t think this could work, stretched out over a 90 minutes picture, it really made the most of its 15 minutes.

The film builds suspense like nothing I’ve seen in a long while. And then the big horrific payoff is incredibly satisfying and I was legitimately frightened by it. It’s best not to know much more and to just experience it, as I did.

The main actress, Macarena Gómez, puts in a stellar performance.

Fickle Bickle – comedy – United States (2016):

Release Date: September 28th, 2017 (Manhattan Short)
Directed by: Stephen Ward
Written by: Stephen Ward
Cast: Kimberley Joseph, John Fulton, Randy Rackson

11 Minutes

Review:

This was the only US film out of the ten finalists, so I was hoping that it would be pretty good. It wasn’t.

It also wasn’t bad, it just didn’t do anything for me.

It’s a comedy and it focuses on a guy who tries to woo his high school crush, a girl that never gave him the time of day because she’s a gold digger. Being forgotten in a rich guy’s mansion, where he was fixing the plumbing, he calls the girl and invites her over.

It was lighthearted and a bit funny but there wasn’t much of anything that made it standout. Americans are obsessed with status and money, yada, yada, yada.

The actors were decent enough and the main guy was amusing but this film is pretty forgettable.

Hope Dies Last – biography, drama – United Kingdom (2017):

Release Date: August 10th, 2017 (Holly Short)
Directed by: Ben Price
Written by: Ben Price
Cast: Tarek Slater, Andrew Grose

Bolo Films, 8 Minutes

Review:

Hope Dies Last was the shortest picture of the first block of films. It also just falls short of Behind, as my favorite of this bunch. It makes the best use of its time, at just 8 minutes.

Emotionally, this film has the most impact. It is also based on a real person.

The picture showcases a haircut. But as the film rolls on, you realize that something is wrong and that for some reason the barber is terrified of his client. It is revealed that he is a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz and that the man getting his haircut is a Nazi officer. The barber was forced to cut the hair of this man, weekly. With each cut, he was terrified that it would be his last.

There is no dialogue but the attention to detail and the cinematography really work in providing the context for the narrative. Everything is revealed at the end but the suspense is built up well and you want to understand what is happening.

Tarek Slater was impressive as the barber and with the emotions he was able to convey without dialogue.

The Perfect Day – comedy – Spain (2016):

Release Date: July 15th, 2016 (Spain)
Directed by: Ignacio Redondo Gutiérrez
Written by: Ignacio Redondo Gutiérrez
Music by: Sergio Fernández-Sastrón
Cast: Pedro Freijeiro, Paula Sancho, Pep McCoy

12 Minutes

Review:

Somehow this has won over 30 awards, or so the poster and the website for this short film claim. Truthfully, it was my least favorite film of the entire festival. In fact, I had a hard time believing that this could even be a finalist.

It is a comedy story but it is derivative, in the worst way and something I’ve seen countless times as dream sequences is just about every sitcom that has run a long time and ran out of fresh ideas.

The story follows a guy who has a “perfect day” only for it to be a dream and then to relive the same day and have everything go wrong. Truthfully, so many other people have made this story and done a much better job with it.

There wasn’t really anything to learn here, the egotistical director puts himself in the film, as himself, and none of it works.

At least it is a Spanish film with a lot of Spanish hotties in it, though. That’s about all I can really get behind.