Monthly Archives: December 2016

Christmas Quick Takes: ‘Lion’ and ‘La La Land’

There are few times, even when I give an A+ rating, when I think a movie is truly perfect. The first half of Garth Davis’ based-on-a-true-story Lion is as close to perfect as we’re likely to see for a while.

It begins with young Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a small boy in India trying to outrun pernicious adults and avoid becoming a street urchin. After almost an hour of screen time being lost and on the run, he is finally taken in by an adoption agency, which eventually finds him a home in Australia. His new parents appear to be the warmest and most inviting people he’s met since being separated from his biological mother and brother.

Played as an adult by Dev Patel, Saroo’s memory is jogged while at an event with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara), and his old life begins to flood his mind. This flood becomes a tidal wave as he begins to piece together his forgotten steps away from his mother.

This really is the weeper of the year, but I mean that as a compliment because the film earns every tear. Pawar and Patel are somehow both in sync with Saroo’s unfailing passion, inquisitiveness, and grace. Nicole Kidman as Saroo’s adopted mother continues to impress us with her chameleon candor. And cinematographer Grieg Fraser (who also shot Rogue One) crafts a beautiful visual language from which we infer Saroo’s pain, loss, and confusion. Lion is one of the best films of the year.

Lion = A+

As the title of one of the film’s songs suggests, La La Land is nothing if not a lovely night at the movies. Damien Chazelle put the world on notice with Whiplash in 2014. Here, he takes that same passion for music and translates it into a whipped cream delight which threatens to take over the world.

Emma Stone simply shines as Mia, a down-on-her-luck actress in Los Angeles whose spirits pick up when she meets Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). There is immediate winking-and-teasing chemistry, and after a few musical numbers (all the musical numbers in this are breathtaking, by the way) they are living together.

Sebastian wants to bring a purity back to jazz by starting his own club. Mia wants to become the next big thing in the movie business. Their dreams coincide for a lavish, luxurious while, but eventually fade. The film then bounces back with an incredible finish, showing a remarkable spirit and a true affection for the dazzling musicals of the 40s and early 50s.

I’ve heard and read criticisms that say that the film hands everything to its main characters too neatly. That’s true to a certain degree, but it was also true of the movies La La Land is paying tribute to. You’d have to be a total cynic to not at least smile at the opening number and almost every subsequent one.

La La Land = A-


Please go support these movies on and after their release on Christmas day! I promise you won’t be disappointed.

-George Napper

Why I Unabashedly Love ‘Rogue One’ (contains spoilers)

“I fear nothing. All is as the Force wills it.”

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First off, I realize that Star Wars is one of those franchises that is intensely personal and always sparks spirited debate. If you’re disappointed with Rogue One, I respect your right to feel that way.

But I love this movie with a passion.

For context, I’m 23 and I was a child in the era of the prequels. They were my first introduction to the Star Wars universe, and I enjoyed them as a kid.

Soon I started watching more movies and realized what a load of crap the prequels were. Now when I think of Star Wars, I think of the greatness of the original trilogy, which I watched for the first time after seeing Attack of the Clones.

Now, at long last, we have a Star Wars prequel worthy of being compared with the originals.

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For those of you who aren’t obsessive about this series, I’ll give my non-fanboy, totally objective review right here. Or at least I’ll attempt to:

We begin before the events of A New Hope, following Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as she lives the life of a scoundrel. Due to her rocky childhood, she is so paranoid of the world around her that she attempts to escape the group of Rebels who break her out of prison.

She realizes her destiny when she is thrust into service for the rebellion against the Empire. She must join a small group of soldiers on a mission to recover the plans for the Death Star, which her Empire-employed father (Mads Mikkelsen) informs her has a weak spot the Rebels can exploit.

This mission feels like a real war for the first time in Star Wars history. My main problem with the prequels, and indeed some of The Force Awakens, is that we never saw much of the impact of the villains’ destruction. Here, you feel every ounce of pain these characters go through in a gritty, brutal conflict. Whereas previous films have felt too pretty and clean, Rogue One re-injects pathos and consequence into this franchise.

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That feeling alone would be enough for me to recommend this film. But I’m really just getting started.


The first scene of this film is visually and emotionally spectacular. We open on the rings of a newly-introduced planet, employing a visual cue that’s deceptively reflective. We then see the backstory involving Jyn Erso’s father, Galen (Mikkelsen), who is forced to return to working for the Empire after abandoning the cause to be a simple farmer. He leaves Jyn in a bunker, where she is found by Saw Gererra (Forest Whitaker), a Rebel hermit who takes her under his wing.

Their history is elided in favor of kicking off the story of Jyn’s adult life, and while that did bother me, I thought their later scene of reconnection made up for it. There’s other story nitpicks I have, but I really don’t care about them much in comparison to how much I love the film overall, so I’m not going to dwell on them.

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Anyway, all of this expositional plotting, including Jyn meeting Rebel pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), leads us to the first test of the Death Star. Our main heroes escape its wrath just in the knick of time, but the lives they leave behind tell us very early on that this movie will have consequences besides connecting to the other films.

Jyn and Cassian eventually go to a planet called Eadu, with a gallery of great side characters in tow. Donnie Yen is a blind force cultist named Chirrut Îmwe, and his arc was my favorite to watch unfold. Alan Tudyk voices a robot named K-2SO, whose deadpan humor is at times a welcome respite from the true horrors of war we witness.

On Eadu, our heroes spy on a meeting between the Empire’s Director Krennic (an awesomely scenery-chewing Ben Mendelsohn) and Death Star designer Galen Erso. It is here the movie goes from purely viscerally entertaining into the realm of powerful for me. A Rebel fleet arrives once the ragtags alert them to Erso’s presence, but because they had promised not to kill her father, Jyn is truly heartbroken and conflicted when she realizes they had been lying.

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Her father dies in her arms, and the confrontation she has with attempted assassin Cassian thrusts the film into true-to-life themes of military strategy, right vs. wrong, and the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few. A lot of movies pay lip service to this and even spell it out for you by having characters say those phrases. But Rogue One makes it look effortless to explore these themes visually within a fluid story structure.

The Eadu scene ultimately leads to the final battle, in which not all ends well for our heroes. But they valiantly accomplish their mission. The galaxy, like life here on earth, can be harsh and unforgiving. But what guides these characters through grit and turmoil is an undying hope that the force will be with them; that all will be well.

I almost feel that this is a repudiation of almost every Star Wars film that’s come before it. By imbuing this movie with genuine conflict, not only externally but internally for almost all parties involved, director Gareth Edwards has made the best actual war film we’re likely to see in the Star Wars universe.

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The message here is to continue to strive for hope, even while all seems to be crumbling. Stand up for what is right, even though it may not always be easy.

This is why I love Star Wars. This is why it has a lasting impact in my mind. These films at their best are guideposts for positivity and balance. This is what is meant by ‘the force.’ It’s not just a cheap slogan. And in this movie, they make that concept look like a million bucks.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story = A+

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action.

-George Napper

‘The Eyes of My Mother’: Stupid, sadistic shock-shlock

“I probably could have gone my whole life without seeing that.”

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That’s not a quote from this movie. It’s the lyric that kept playing in my head once I wrestled myself into the awful rhythm of the movie. Ironically, the lyric is from a Weird Al song called ‘With My Own Eyes.’

My eyes only endured all 77 minutes of this pathetic, pretentious garbage so that I could tell you definitively that your eyes would be better off. Being a freelance critic, I often see films that I don’t feel I absolutely need to review. Right now, I am regretting that decision for films such as Demon and Green Room, because those are effective horror films that speak to real-world issues. The Eyes of My Mother makes me retroactively love those movies even more than I already do.

The movie starts promisingly enough. An interesting visual hook leads to some unsettling interactions between the eponymous mother (Dianna Agostini) and her young daughter, Francisca (Olivia Bond). Then the entire tone is derailed by a needlessly brutal murder and some unbelievably botched attempts at frontier justice. These events as written stretch credibility and mark a sharp left turn from brief authenticity, quickly careening into the loony bin.

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Kika Magalhaes plays the adult Francisca. To be fair, she’s not half bad at playing a killer, which is what Francisca becomes. But any shred of emotional involvement is flattened when your main character is a robotic, sadistic, emotionless force of nature that the story doesn’t seem to want to stop.

From the first time we see Francisca as an adult, she is an insane murderer. Even as she knows she needs to reject her own self-imposed isolation in order to actually move forward in her life, she’s literally addicted to inflicting violence and torture. So I guess you could say she’s an interesting and complex character in that way, but she’s also a completely disgusting and un-relatable one. Her actions are unfailingly vexing, gross, and shamefully fetishized by well-composed black-and-white cinematography.

I can only assume that this is a movie made by people I wouldn’t want to hang out with. The kind of horror hipsters who defend Wolf Creek as some kind of stylistic and artistic statement. Both films, in my opinion, set a dangerous precedent for what passes for entertainment in this day and age. But what is deeply troubling is that while Wolf Creek has a 53% on Rotten Tomatoes, which decries it as “tasteless exploitation,” The Eyes of My Mother has a 75% and is described as “a hauntingly hypnotic odyssey […].”

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I’d love to hear directly from someone who enjoyed this. I wonder if they’d change their tune if the film was shot in color. Then again, maybe movies like this are better kept in the fantasy realm of grayscale. Lord knows we don’t need this kind of suffering to be any more real.

The Eyes of My Mother = D

The Eyes of My Mother is rated R for disturbing violent content and behavior, and brief nudity.

-George Napper

‘Jackie’: Abnormally artistic, searingly stunning

“There’ll never be another Camelot.”

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Rarely does true acting royalty meet such an iconic political figure as Jacqueline Kennedy. It’s also rare to get a historical drama about a defining moment in American history that is directed in such a riskily artful way. But for me, the results of Pablo Larraín’s Jackie were totally worth the risk.

We open on a black screen, setting the tone with a moody and expressive musical score by Mica Levi (whose score for 2013’s Under the Skin is still a must-listen).

Then we finally get our first glimpse of Natalie Portman as Jackie. It’s a very tricky thing to get expressionism right in film, especially with a non-fictional subject, but director Larraín does it beautifully. The story isn’t told linearly at all. Instead, in editing which echoes the style of Terrence Malick, we get the overwhelming feeling of her grief rather than a minute-by-minute retelling of the events.

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The former First Lady sits down with a reporter (Billy Crudup) just a week after her the assassination of her husband, 35th U.S. President John F. Kennedy. We jump from detail to detail of the grieving process as she tries as much as possible to self-edit the interview.

From the start, Portman’s powerhouse performance carries this movie. That’s not meant as an insult to the other wonderful aspects of the film, which I will continue to address.

But it would be impossible for the film to hold a candle to the power it ultimately has if Portman had not been involved.

Within the first half-hour, there are three scenes that could easily be used as Portman’s Oscar clip for her nomination. One of them was particularly striking to me, when Jackie nimbly turns one of the reporter’s lines back at him as she dries a significant amount of her own tears.

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That moment was not only impressive because of her performance, but it’s where I started to notice the film’s impeccable writing. Noah Oppenheim has crafted a masterpiece of tone and candor. Humor and grace are injected at exactly the right times, even in a film which takes on more than its fair share of gloom.

Part of that injection of grace is helped by Peter Sarsgaard as JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy. He’s been pointed out as one of the film’s weak points, but I couldn’t disagree more. One of the few moments that stuns without the considerable help of Portman is when JFK’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson (played here by John Carroll Lynch), witnesses the murder of assassination suspect Lee Harvey Oswald on live television.

Everyone in the room stands up as the gunshot rings out. Jackie is not in the room, so Robert jumps to the TV set, turns it off, and asserts to Johnson quite bravely that he will be the first one to tell Jackie. At this moment, you could have heard a pin drop in the theater I was in.

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Given the alarming rhetoric on both sides of this recent election, it’s nice to see a movie which takes such a well-rounded, artistic, and compassionate approach to our nation’s political history.

And I know I don’t have a vote in the matter, but I’m rooting for Natalie Portman, Pablo Larraín, Noah Oppenheim, and Mica Levi to all be nominated for those coveted little gold men.

Jackie = A

Jackie is rated R for brief strong violence and some language.

-George Napper