Select­ed by Paul Stathakis | Feb­ru­ary 14, 2017

 

A grand musi­cal for the ages. They just don’t make pic­tures like “La La Land” any­more. There’s a lit­tle some­thing for every­one to admire here. It’s infused with ener­gy, vig­or, opti­mism, pas­sion, romance, charm, and dra­ma. It’s clas­sic Hol­ly­wood at a time when Hol­ly­wood needs it the most. It stars the charm­ing Emma Stone and the hand­some Ryan Gosling. The two are irre­sistibly in tune and their chem­istry is the biggest dri­ving force behind the film’s per­fec­tion. This is their third film togeth­er and hope­ful­ly not their last. Like Humphrey Bog­a­rt and Lau­ren Bacall in the past, this onscreen pair­ing is an endur­ing one. “La La Land”  tells the sto­ry of a jazz pianist and a strug­gling actress chas­ing love and dreams in a big city filled with many oth­er dream­ers. Behind the cam­era is Damien Chazelle who, in 2014, direct­ed the exhil­a­rat­ing film “Whiplash.” Chazelle is fair­ly young and yet he’s mak­ing the kind of films that only a mature and con­fi­dent direc­tor would achieve at the height of their career. Chazelle, besides hav­ing a pro­found love for jazz (he was a jazz stu­dent), also admires cin­e­ma. It’s not just evi­dent in the pic­tures and posters that cov­er the apart­ment and build­ing walls but there are many indi­rect homages to clas­sic musi­cal films as well like “Sin­gin’ In The Rain”, “West Side Sto­ry”, “Sweet Char­i­ty”, and “Shall We Dance” to name a few. Mak­ing a musi­cal is no easy feat. Ryan Gosling had to learn to play the piano for this part and both actors had to pre­pare vocal­ly and chore­o­graph­i­cal­ly. Add to that orig­i­nal music that is intox­i­cat­ing and unfor­get­table (you will find your­self hum­ming these tunes long after you’ve seen the film). Expe­ri­ence “La La Land” on the big screen. When­ev­er a clas­sic film would open with the Cin­e­mas­cope logo, it meant that view­ers were in for a real visu­al treat and “La La Land” hon­ors that very tra­di­tion.

 

Denis Vil­leneuve, like Damien Chazelle, is part of that group of Hollywood’s next gen­er­a­tion of big film­mak­ers. “Arrival” is his fourth Amer­i­can film and one of the best sci­ence-fic­tion thrillers we’ve seen in years. It fea­tures won­der­ful per­for­mances by Amy Adams and Jere­my Ren­ner as spe­cial­ists in their respec­tive fields (one is a lin­guist and the oth­er, a mil­i­tary sci­en­tist) who agree to help the U.S. mil­i­tary under­stand why strange space­crafts have arrive and docked on Earth. The scenes which take place inside the space­ship are visu­al­ly arrest­ing, mys­te­ri­ous, and thrilling. As view­ers we have the same fears as the mem­bers aboard. We are there with them every step of the way as they inves­ti­gate and, in the process, risk their lives for answers. This is a movie that doesn’t hur­ry to offer expla­na­tions. Real­is­ti­cal­ly, we’d like­ly move at the same pace to reach an under­stand­ing. This is a sci­ence-fic­tion adven­ture that is con­fi­dent but that requires think­ing and it hits all the right notes lead­ing up to its sur­prise end­ing. 

 

At its World Pre­miere in Venice, Mel Gib­son received a ten minute stand­ing ova­tion. It’s not dif­fi­cult to under­stand why. “Hack­saw Ridge” tells the true sto­ry of Pri­vate Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) who saved the lives of 75 men dur­ing the bat­tle of Oki­nawa, one of the blood­i­est bat­tles of World War II. What is most remark­able about Doss’ sto­ry is that he achieved this with­out fir­ing a sin­gle shot. There’s a rea­son behind Doss’ refusal to car­ry and use a weapon on the bat­tle­ground. I won’t reveal it here. Andrew Garfield deliv­ers a note­wor­thy per­for­mance (his best) as a brave and deter­mined com­bat medic. Tere­sa Palmer, who stars as Doss’ sup­port­ive wife, is equal­ly delight­ful. There are also great sup­port­ing per­for­mances by Vince Vaughn, Sam Wor­thing­ton, and Hugo Weav­ing. This is a war film. Yes, many of the bat­tle scenes are vio­lent and dif­fi­cult to watch. But don’t let that dis­cour­age you from see­ing this pic­ture. The bru­tal­i­ty of bat­tle is a sec­ondary theme. “Hack­saw Ridge” is about the absur­di­ty of war.

 

Dev Patel has come a long way since “Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire.” This is the kind of role he could only play at this mature stage in life. Gone are his boy­ish fea­tures. Instead, we have the por­trait of a man afflict­ed by his past, curi­ous about it and deter­mined to con­front it at all costs. If you’ve seen the ads for “Lion”, then you know all about the sto­ry of a boy who at a young age is lost and ulti­mate­ly sep­a­rat­ed from his fam­i­ly. Years lat­er he is adopt­ed by a fam­i­ly in Aus­tralia. But then comes a reminder which trig­gers a hunger for answers. The boy, now a man, wants to know where he came from and wants to know what hap­pened to his moth­er and broth­er. “Lion” was one of the year’s most mov­ing films. This jour­ney brings us many sur­pris­es, uplifts us, makes us feel good to be togeth­er and good to be alive. It serves as a reminder of how pow­er­ful film can be. 

 

This is America’s answer to France’s 2012 film “Intouch­ables” and it’s every bit as engag­ing, touch­ing, and fun. It stars Paul Rudd as a care­tak­er of a young man con­fined to a wheel­chair. What begins as a an awk­ward encounter quick­ly devel­ops into a strong friend­ship. Rudd is a ver­sa­tile per­former and he seems to be test­ing him­self as an actor with each role that he under­takes. He under­stands, per­haps bet­ter than any oth­er comedic actor work­ing today, the del­i­cate bal­ance of being com­i­cal and seri­ous. His tim­ing is impec­ca­ble and his co-star, Craig Roberts, car­ries him­self sim­i­lar­ly in a won­der­ful­ly chal­leng­ing role. This results in us car­ing immense­ly about the fate of these char­ac­ters. What pain are they con­ceal­ing? What has made them the strong peo­ple that they are? What is it that makes them con­nect so well? We want to know and, as the film pro­gress­es, we get sub­tle but sat­is­fy­ing answers. Sele­na Gomez, known chiefly as a singer, sur­pris­es with a gen­uine sup­port­ing role that ele­vates the film and suc­cess­ful­ly strips her from her inno­cent per­sona. In the end, the film makes the case that, sick or not, impaired or not, every­one can use a lit­tle car­ing at some point in their life to rise above strug­gles and find the strength to car­ry on. Those, in essence, may very well be the truest fun­da­men­tals of car­ing.

 

We already knew that direc­tor Olivi­er Stone wasn’t afraid to make con­tro­ver­sial films but for him to make a film like “Snow­den” this late in his career is sur­pris­ing. Joseph Gor­don Levitt stars as for­mer NSA agent and whis­tle-blow­er Edward Snow­den who, in 2009, exposed one of the U.S.‘s most con­tro­ver­sial espi­onage pro­grams. It made a lot of noise, with the pop­u­la­tion rais­ing ques­tions about pri­va­cy. It also cre­at­ed a media fren­zy which led the U.S. to essen­tial­ly dis­avow Snow­den for what they believed was an act of betray­al and trea­son. Levitt as Snow­den is per­fect, from his man­ner­isms to his voice. From cer­tain angles and close-ups, you’d swear it was the real Snow­den. The beau­ti­ful Shai­lene Wood­ley is charm­ing as Snowden’s sup­port­ive girl­friend. The scene where pho­tographs a stroll with Levitt in Wash­ing­ton is sin­cere and real. It takes us away from think­ing about the weight that Snow­den will car­ry on his shoul­ders lat­er in the film. Leave it to Stone to direct and tell a com­plex sto­ry with exper­tise, sim­plic­i­ty, and the right amount of pulse-pound­ing thrills. You can nev­er quite get too com­fort­able in a film like “Snow­den” and that’s undoubt­ed­ly the point. I assume that when you’re an NSA agent, what you learn can be prob­lem­at­ic. Para­noia is just a tiny part of the con­se­quences that come with know­ing. The film also fea­tures one of my favorite shots of the year: Snow­den exit­ing the NSA build­ing, a Rubik’s cube in hand, a smile on his face, and the com­fort of the sun­light ahead. He can see the light and, for­tu­nate­ly, so can we. 

 

This is a small but warm com­e­dy that wears its heart right on its sleeve. It’s about a New York improv troupe with each mem­ber (many of them not well-known actors) aspir­ing to land an audi­tion with Week­end Live (which real­ly rep­re­sents Sat­ur­day Night Live). It helps that these comics are incred­i­bly lik­able and fun­ny. They are hope­ful and they sup­port each oth­er even though, deep down inside, they real­ize that they won’t all find the same suc­cess. For these rea­sons and per­son­al ones which sur­face through­out, we want to see them suc­ceed. The film also makes a state­ment on how humor can rem­e­dy just about any sit­u­a­tion includ­ing some of life’s bleak­er moments. These char­ac­ters always see the sil­ver lin­ing despite the many hits and rejec­tions that they are forced to deal with. “Don’t Think Twice” is not the most orig­i­nal com­e­dy ever made but it has a big heart, char­ac­ters that we can relate to and, like a great stand-up per­for­mance, it leaves us yearn­ing for more.

 

It hap­pened on a cold Jan­u­ary day in 2009. A dis­tress call was made from a Unit­ed Air­ways pilot. He informed the tow­er of his dilem­ma. Both engines of his air­craft were struck by birds caus­ing them to fail at 2800 feet and leav­ing 5 crew mem­bers and 150 pas­sen­gers lit­tle chance of sur­vival,. It would require a mir­a­cle to sur­vive. And that’s pre­cise­ly the kind of phe­nom­e­non that occurred when Cap­tain Ches­ley Sul­len­berg­er (played by Tom Han­ks) along with his co-pilot, First Offi­cer Jef­frey Skiles (Aaron Eck­hart), safe­ly land­ed the doomed plane on the Hud­son Riv­er. “No one has ever trained for an inci­dent like that. No one,” says the brave cap­tain. No, absolute­ly noth­ing can pre­pare some­one for this kind of sit­u­a­tion. Sim­u­la­tors are use­ful for train­ing but real-life is faster, more dan­ger­ous, calls for split-sec­ond deci­sions, and offers no sec­ond chances. This is the sto­ry of how one deter­mined cap­tain and his co-pilot seized every sec­ond of their one and only oppor­tu­ni­ty to pull off a mir­a­cle. The film looks at the inci­dent but focus­es main­ly on its after­math. Pilots who have been in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions, like Com­man­der Robert Piche, are often blamed for hav­ing con­tributed to the inci­dent in some way, big or small. Insur­ance com­pa­nies, unlike the pas­sen­gers and fam­i­lies whose lives have been saved, often over­look the brav­ery of the men at work. Tom Han­ks is, unsur­pris­ing­ly, mov­ing in his por­tray­al here. In one scene where he tells his wife that he tried to do the best he could, we hear the pain in his voice and we notice the tremor in his stance. Only skilled actors like Han­ks can be this good. With “Sul­ly,”, direc­tor Clint East­wood wants the world to see Cap­tain Sul­len­berg­er for what he tru­ly is: a hero.

 

Sing Street” was one of the year’s eas­i­est films to cheer on. There’s not a sin­gle char­ac­ter in this film that doesn’t belong. And aston­ish­ing­ly enough, the lead actor is a 17 year old boy named Ferdia Walsh-Pee­lo with incred­i­ble act­ing tal­ents. This is a potent film that says a great deal about being young, free, and ambi­tious. Crit­ics have said that its style and tone resem­ble those of a John Hugh­es film and I agree. “Sing Street” is “The Break­fast Club’s” dis­tant cousin. It deals with stu­dents who are some­what, though ear­ly, at a cross­road in their life. They have their share of fears and hard­ships to deal with but, like we all do while grow­ing up, they learn to cope with them as they move along. They find empow­er­ment in music and it brings them to the real­iza­tion that if you slow down and think, you can cer­tain­ly see things and artic­u­late (through lyrics espe­cial­ly here) a whole lot clear­er. A film like “Sing Street” doesn’t need to be con­tro­ver­sial and yet it goes out of its way to address sev­er­al key issues such as bul­ly­ing, class, abuse, divorce, and that crazy lit­tle thing called love. Look no fur­ther for an intel­li­gent film that will make you smile and rem­i­nisce about how fun it was, for a time, to believe that we could be and do any­thing.

 

When we think about Dis­ney, we recall many of the films that marked our child­hood. My favorite remains “Beau­ty & The Beast.” Now comes “Zootopia”, a film so well made it’s like watch­ing Looney Tunes on a Sat­ur­day morn­ing. This is a cute ani­ma­tion film but also an intel­li­gent one that chil­dren and adults will sure­ly appre­ci­ate. Instead of try­ing to be over­ly col­or­ful from a visu­al stand­point, it places more empha­sis on dia­logue, sto­ry, and humor. And, speak­ing of humor, one par­tic­u­lar scene stands out involv­ing a sloth. It’s so good that it doesn’t lose any of its fun­ni­ness with repeat­ed view­ings. The sto­ry is cen­tered on a female bun­ny, Jud­dy Hopps (voiced by Gin­nifer Good­win), with dreams of becom­ing Zootopia’s first ever female cop. Dis­ney must be com­mend­ed for mak­ing a film that also tack­les press­ing issues like gen­der equal­i­ty, bul­ly­ing, appear­ance, and the notion of respect­ing and liv­ing in har­mo­ny with anoth­er despite our indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences and beliefs. At one point, Hopps observes that, “Life’s a lit­tle bit messy. We all make mis­takes. No mat­ter what type of ani­mal you are, change starts with you.” “Zootopia” is one of those ani­mat­ed films, like “Over the Hedge”, that attrib­ut­es great impor­tance to small smile-wor­thy details such as big store name changes like “Mousy’s” fill­ing in for Macy’s and “Tar­goat” rep­re­sent­ing Tar­get. The name changes reflect the con­text to a T. It’s rare to see it done this well. In fact, “Zootopia” wants to great­ly resem­ble real­i­ty. In one scene, a police chief (voiced by Idris Elba) claims that, “Life isn’t some car­toon musi­cal where you sing a lit­tle song and all your insipid dreams mag­i­cal­ly come true.” An ani­mat­ed char­ac­ter com­ment­ing on how life isn’t some car­toon? I can’t think of any oth­er ani­mat­ed film that’s ever tried to sep­a­rate itself from what it is. It’s tru­ly bril­liant.

 

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