Archive for February, 2017

teaser_poster_for_2017_film_get_outGet Out (2017)

Starring- Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Root, Lil Rel Howery

Director- Jordan Peele

R- violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references


Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) heads to the countryside with his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), to spend a weekend meeting her parents and other family. He expects awkwardness, but what he finds is much, much stranger — and may even be sinister.

Someday, our children won’t believe us when we tell them Jordan Peele started his career as one half of a sketch comedy duo. That’s my main takeaway from Get Out, one of the strongest directorial debuts — and horror movies in general — in recent memory.

This movie is entirely Peele’s baby — he wrote it and directed it, and given how weird and bold it is, it’s hard to imagine there were any studio people trying to wrestle it out of his hands. It’s a horror movie, and it’s the brainchild of a guy mainly known for making up silly names for NFL players. Get Out should not be as good as it is — it’s a first-time director entirely out of his wheelhouse given what appears to have been substantial control over his project. That’s normally a recipe for disaster.

Except for one thing: Key & Peele were never just dumb funnymen, they just played some on TV. I don’t know of anyone else able to bury as much intelligence underneath as much comic stupidity as they did. It was a gift: Their sketches were incredibly simple, but they played beautifully off of audiences’ social and political expectations. And while they weren’t personally directing them, absolutely no sketch comedy in history has ever been as cinematic as their show. They shot their dumb, five-minute bits like serious films; the cinematography, the editing, the lighting, all of it seemed to belong on the big screen. Their sketches covered a variety of genres, too — horror included — and the visuals always adjusted to match the expected aesthetic of the types of movies they were parodying.

And so here we are: Get Out exudes the confidence of a seasoned director who’s been making horror movies his entire career.

And what he’s given us here is a true original — Get Out wears a number of its influences on its sleeve, but it takes the old genre conventions and combines them with fresh ideas, the result being a film that doesn’t feel exactly like anything else. It’s new, it’s weird, it’s exciting, and it’s surprisingly well-done in almost every respect.

What it really offers is its unique perspective. Horror movies have always worked by plugging into our social, personal, and political anxieties and ratcheting them up to a terrifying worst-case scenario. What we have here is extraordinarily rare — a horror movie made by and about black people, which as a result has access to an almost entirely unexplored world of social fears. The best horror movies bind their audiences together in mutual fear, and few use that power as constructively as Get Out. It sets itself within a specific scenario — in this case, meeting the white girlfriend’s family — and then tries to make it universal. It’s been described as a comedy, and for the sake of moderating your expectations, I’m going to attempt to explain that. There is some overt humor in the movie, mainly in the form of Chris’s friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who was a big hit with my audience (and is an effective comic relief character all around; he’s funny, but his antics are never so far removed from his reality as a character that it starts to jar with the more serious film around him; more importantly, the movie uses his humor to put the entire plot in context, essentially to let the air out and show that it knows its social satire is over-the-top); however, most of the comic elements are subtle, ingrained in the premise. The humor is derived from the sheer outlandishness of the premise, as well as the melodrama that informs the satire — it takes something relatively small, the anxious awkwardness of certain racial encounters, particularly the accidentally condescending self-consciousness of the white liberal trying to prove he isn’t racist, and blows it up into a terrifying plot that culminates in the gory excesses of modern horror. Simply put, the film itself is the joke — one can imagine Peele having the idea while laughing with friends about the origin of certain weird social behaviors. And Rod is the way the movie lets you know it’s in on that joke.

However, for the most part, Get Out is a fairly straightforward domestic thriller/horror movie, albeit one that takes the premise to completely absurd extremes. It creates a world in which this sort of madness is possible, then allows its characters to take it seriously and respond to what happens in a way we can relate to on a human level. One of its great strengths is that it’s a horror movie that doesn’t dumb down its characters in order to ensure that they keep blundering into dangerous situations. The decisions they make are understandable given what they know about the situation and who they are as people. Like most movies of its type, Get Out has to allow Chris to gradually figure out what’s going on, and it has to do that without reaching a point where any person of intelligence would remove himself from the situation, and also without feeling like all of the interesting things happen exclusively during the climax, after the movie’s played its hand. Most movies fall apart trying to maintain that balance, but Get Out navigates it almost effortlessly. Because the satire — and the premise itself — is rooted in mundane social awkwardness, the movie is able to sell Chris’s increasing suspicions without ever bringing him to where he’s an idiot for not getting out of there immediately. It isn’t a series of big reveals but the gradual accumulation of small but strange things, few of which are all that suspicious on their own. It’s always allowing Chris, and, by extension, the audience, to wonder if it’s all in his head — which ties wonderfully into the satirical elements, since it’s concentrating on the sort of social “microaggressions” that occur subtly enough for the recipient to question whether he’s really being treated differently or if his own cultural expectations are shading the way he interprets what’s said and done to him.

In case it hasn’t become clear at this point, Get Out has a stellar script; I’m almost more impressed with what Peele has accomplished on that front. Everything that happens in this movie — every character, every dialogue exchange, every throwaway reference, every plot setup — has a purpose. It all cycles around the central point — the story drives the satire, which develops new elements that feed back into the story, which informs what we know about the characters, which affects their actions, which alters the story, repeat from step one. Even now, as I talk about this movie with other people, I’m noticing things that I missed on the first viewing, subtle setups and payoffs that slide beneath the larger plot developments. Everything is connected, everything matters, the drama works, and the themes hit home.

It isn’t perfect — I don’t think the resolution to the mystery is as strong as I hoped it would be (mostly in that the motivations behind it seem a bit flimsy to me), for starters; I also think it allows for too many coincidences in order to move the plot along. But again, this is a directorial debut — many of the all-time greats didn’t get off to starts this strong. If that’s all Peele has to work on, he’s set.

Get Out is smart, funny, tense, thrilling, and thoroughly satisfying. It’s a fantastic ride, and an original one to boot. It has vision and knows how to execute it. I couldn’t be more excited to see where Jordan Peele goes from here.

the_lego_batman_movie_promotionalposterThe Lego Batman Movie (2017)

Starring- Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Zach Galifianakis, Jenny Slate, Jason Mantzoukas, Conan O’Brien, Doug Benson, Billy Dee Williams, Zoe Kravitz, Kate Micucci, Riki Lindhome, Eddie Izzard, Seth Green, Jemaine Clement, Ellie Kemper, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Adam Devine, Hector Elizondo, Mariah Carey

Director- Chris McKay

PG- rude humor and some action


Batman (voice of Will Arnett) has to find a little maturity after he accidentally adopts an orphan Robin (voice of Michael Cera) and his obsessiveness hands the Joker (voice of Zach Galifianakis) an evil army from another dimension.

The Lego Batman Movie is what we thought would be the best-case scenario for The Lego Movie — harmless, mostly brainless fun to occupy the kids while the grown-ups catch a quick nap. It’s an entertaining waste of ninety minutes. I’m not sure it means to be a whole lot more than that.

It’s the first good evidence of my suspicion that sequels to The Lego Movie aren’t the best idea — artistically, at least, since I’m not here to champion commercial decisions. They’re all going to make head-exploding amounts of money. It’s been long enough that I think people have started to take The Lego Movie’s inexplicable greatness for granted — we’re slowly forgetting that it was lightning in a bottle. Maybe we didn’t completely write it off — we knew it could be funny, we knew it could be visually impressive, we knew it could be silly fun. We just figured the story wasn’t going to be there — how could it be? What are we supposed to feel toward a bunch of plastic brick people?

We owe its success to Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who knew exactly where that emotion was going to come from and hit us with one of the best third-act reveals in recent memory, one that fundamentally altered what we thought the story was about. It changed the movie’s center and made the lighthearted Lego adventures the foreground of a larger story about childhood and family. It was brilliant — a word we never thought we’d use in description of The Lego Movie, but here we are.

It also sort of broke the mold. Lord and Miller played a card that could only be played once. There’s no easy way to revisit that twist, and no easy way to achieve the same level of resonance without it.

But it was a massive hit, based on a property that has near-limitless franchise potential, so sequels, and a lot of them (there’s another one slated for this year alone), were inevitable. And they were sort of left hanging. The original already used up all of the obvious storytelling potential, so all The Lego Batman Movie is able to do is meet the expectations we had for its predecessor — after its predecessor raised those expectations considerably.

It’s silly, it’s fun, it has some good laughs and plenty of cool visuals, and it’s otherwise pretty unremarkable. The story, when it tries to have one, never quite gets off the ground. If the first Lego movie had been this good, we’d probably call it a pleasant surprise; since the first Lego movie was fantastic, the sequel can’t help but feel a bit disappointing.

The script mostly ignores what happened at the end of the first movie. That doesn’t create any plot holes; you can still see how it fits in the “canon,” as it were. It just doesn’t engage or acknowledge the more complicated parts of the world the first movie created. I don’t blame it. I have no idea how I’d follow up on that ending either.

So The Lego Batman Movie chooses to be its own thing, which is fine; it’s just a lot simpler and only invests its storytelling energy in the Lego characters, treating them and their motivations as essentially “real,” where its predecessor revealed them as mere toys through which a child was acting out his relationship with his father. This installment instead focuses its themes and emotions on Batman’s loneliness and his tendency to drive people away for the (mostly unstated) reason that he doesn’t want to endure what we went through with his parents again, which is…weirdly weighty stuff to express through Lego people? Of course, the movie tackles this subject in a roundabout sort of way that never interrupts the incessant stream of over-the-top, proudly immature humor. And it’s obviously one of those subjective lines not everyone will cross and that I can’t even define: I can feel deeply about the plastic objects in Toy Story but not the Legos in this one, and I don’t have many compelling explanations for why that is. Nevertheless, it held me at arm’s length.

I’ll aim for a more general criticism — I don’t think the humor is as strong here as it was in The Lego Movie. Both movies don’t go longer than thirty seconds without a joke; they just fire off one after another after another. The Lego Movie stayed surprisingly nimble given the pressures of its pacing; some of the bits didn’t work, but most of them did — enough of them to be impressive given the sheer volume. And that comedy was mostly for kids — usually well-done enough to get a guilty laugh out of the adults as well, but it knew its audience. The Lego Batman Movie’s humor is broader and feels really “kiddie” — there are a lot of scenes where the entirety of the joke is “someone just said ‘butt,’” where it feels like it’s taking the easy way out because it figures it’s gone too long without a laugh but doesn’t have any ideas.

Make no mistake — this movie is very, very funny on occasion. We are two months into the new year, and last year’s Oscars aired last night, and I am already insistent upon the new Batman song scoring a nomination at next year’s ceremony. The movie’s generally pretty good at finding humor in Batman himself — it’s taken the egotism, forced coolness, and melodrama of the character up to an absolutely absurd level, maybe even by comparison to The Lego Movie. His strained attempts to look cool, his beautifully terrible one-liners (“Dr. Batman!”), his inability to stop talking about how amazing his abs are — the movie’s parody of the character is loving but absolutely merciless, and after a few too many years of self-consciously dark Batman movies, I needed it badly.

The movie just struggles to find humor anywhere else. Robin is kind of funny, albeit in an obvious sort of way. Everyone else is just there, either as a comparatively serious foil for Batman’s antics, or as one of the three million Batman villains who attach themselves to the plot and therefore never have time to assert any identity despite all of them being voiced by celebrities (seriously, the entire Batman rogues gallery is here — nothing about this movie amused me as much as finding out that Condiment King is a real character and not something the movie made up as satire). The Joker feels strangely muted — we’ve had so many live-action incarnations, and it’s the Lego version that tones him down? I think the movie needs a villain who matches the protagonist’s energy; it certainly can’t go too far in the opposite direction. This Joker is just too ordinary.

Which is maybe the problem with the movie as a whole? The Lego Movie was extraordinary; The Lego Batman Movie is fun but largely disposable. The visuals are, of course, impressive, and the movie’s freewheeling, anarchic tone is infectious, but it’s hollow and not quite funny enough to make up for that. It’s what we thought The Lego Movie was going to be. As such, it can only ever live in that shadow. But hey, Batman likes shadows. It’s fine for the kids.

Aw, yeeeeeeaaaaaaah, you know what it is! The liveblog I do entirely for my own amusement because I’m pretty sure no one reads it! Oh, you guys are so not prepared for how completely wrong I’m going to be this year. I’ve invented entirely new ways to be wrong. You have no idea.

Quick reminder of predictions:

La La Land wins absolutely everything.

Okay, okay, for real:

Best Picture: La La Land

Best Director: Damien Chazelle

Best Actor: Not sure. Part of me wants to stick with the published predictions of a week ago, but I said Casey Affleck then. I’m starting to wonder about Denzel Washington now. Whatever, I’m honorable, I’ll stick with Affleck and take my licks.

Best Actress: Emma Stone

Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali

Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis

I’ll add my other predictions as those categories arise.

Anyway, liveblog time. I am so wrong, everyone. So wrong.

8:35: My knowledge of Jimmy Kimmel is restricted almost entirely to videos of bands I like performing on his show, so I have no expectations here. What can I say? I’m not a connoisseur of talk shows.
8:39: First Trump joke. Don’t do a drinking game with this, anyone; you WILL die tonight.

8:42: There, there, Mr. Mortensen. I saw your movie.

8:43: Respect to Meryl Streep. She’s taking this like a champ. It’s weird that the Academy self-flagellates every year for nominating her for absolutely anything she’s in and then nominates her anyway. She’s a wonderful actress, but for crying out loud, they nominated her for Into the Woods.


8:45: Okay, here we go. Best Supporting Actor. Note for the record that Daniel Radcliffe was robbed for Swiss Army Man, and I’m still not sure how serious I am about that. Looks like we’re spoiling everything mercilessly again, sorry if you haven’t seen Hell or High Water yet. I’m just praying I’m not learning anything untoward about Lion and Nocturnal Animals right now.

And the winner is… Mahershala Ali, Moonlight. No arguments here. Ali’s only in the movie for fifteen minutes or so, and he somehow commands the whole thing.

8:55: …Is that an orchestral version of “Everything Is Awesome”? What the…

8:56: Makeup and Hairstyling. Prediction: Suicide Squad. No real reason, just a hunch.

And the winner is… Suicide Squad. Henceforth, I shall refer to it exclusively as Academy Award winner Suicide Squad.

Costume Design. Prediction: Jackie.

And the winner is… Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Huh.

9:08: Best Documentary Feature. This one is unusually competitive this year. I feel like most of these could win without surprising me. Prediction: The 13th. It’s a hard choice, though.

And the winner is… O.J.: Made in America. I’m sort of doubtful about that. It’s eight hours long. Realistically, how many Academy voters have seen it? Anyway, that’s a miniseries, not a movie; I’m not sure I think it should qualify for Oscars. It’s basically working in a different medium.

9:22: I’m still here. I don’t know what to do with the songs. Sorry.

9:23: I’m sure everyone’s going to be mad about all the Trump jokes tomorrow. I will not be one of those people. Just let me have this.

9:26: Andrew Garfield awkwardly catching candy and throwing it at people is my spirit animal.

9:27: Yeah, sound awards! I don’t know a thing about these and yet repeatedly get them right every year. Now that I have said this, I am about to be extremely wrong. Sound Editing. Prediction: La La Land.

And the winner is… Arrival. Told you I’d be wrong! Let’s keep this train rolling.

Sound Mixing. Prediction: La La Land. I fully intend to go down with this ship. And the winner is… Hacksaw Ridge. So…the musical did not win either of the sound awards? Um…Going well so far!

9:40: Best Supporting Actress. Prediction: Viola Davis. This one feels like a done deal.And the winner is… Viola Davis, Fences. I was right about a thing!

9:57: Best Foreign Language Film. Prediction: The Salesman.And the winner is… The Salesman.It’s a bummer that Asghar Farhadi isn’t here. He’s one of my favorites. Such an incredible filmmaker. I’m glad he stuck by his principles, though. This statement is exactly the sort of thing I expected he would deliver: a plea for empathy, an an emphasis on storytelling as one of the best tools for it. I can’t wait until I finally get to see The Salesman.

10:07: Best Animated Short. I’ve never heard of most of these. This isn’t my category. Prediction: Piper.

And the winner is… Piper.

That’s three in a row! That’s it, I’ve got my mojo back now.

Best Animated Film. Prediction: Zootopia.

And the correct winner is… Kubo and the Two Strings.

But the real winner is… Zootopia.

I don’t know. I liked it; I just haven’t been able to sign up for the full extent of its acclaim. It dramatizes its themes awkwardly. I maintain that the metaphor is too literal, to the point that it sort of undoes itself. But I’m happy for everyone who worked on it.

10:13: Dakota Johnson is taller than Jamie Dornan, and I’m not sure why that amuses me. Anyway.

Production Design. I’m never sure what to make of this category; it feels so subjective. Prediction: Hail, Caesar!

And the winner is… La La Land. Oh, come on, the first time I switch to another movie, that’s when you win?! Anyway, I think this movie may have won on the strength of one scene.

10:18: I love this guy from the tour bus who’s just completely made himself at home. Everyone else is totally starstruck, and he’s just walking around like, “Hey, this is cool.”

10:20: And then he just handed a cellphone to Academy Award-winning actor Mahershala Ali and asked him to take a picture of him holding his Oscar. Put this man in the movies immediately. I love him.

10:30: Reading online that Mahershala Ali is the first Muslim to win an Oscar. That’s a cool thing to have happened when it did. Especially since his religious faith isn’t a huge part of his public image, and his ascension to Academy Award winner didn’t feel like an intentional political statement.

10:31: Visual Effects. Prediction: The Jungle Book.

And the winner is… The Jungle Book.

Super innovative and completely deserved, though I’ll confess to thinking Rogue One had the year’s most convincing effects. But it was less ambitious with its effects, so I understand why it didn’t take the award.

10:34: I don’t fully understand the need for all these “movies are awesome and magical” segments. I mean… Yeah, we’re watching the Oscars, you don’t have to convince us.

10:35: Film Editing. Prediction: Agh…taking a risk and saying Arrival. If La La Land wins, I will pick it for every award after this.

And the winner is… Hacksaw Ridge, who, what, where, when, why, feel like this is winning much bigger than I expected, are we in for a shock come Best Picture time, probably not, why am I SO BAD AT THIS?!

10:43: Documentary Short. The live-action shorts are not my area of expertise, so I’m pretty much just going to throw a dart again. Random guessing! Prediction: The White Helmets. That seems topical!

And the winner is… The White Helmets! YAY RANDOM GUESSING!

Live Action Short. More random guessing! Silent Nights! I can spell that one!

And the winner is… Sing. Dang! The other one I could spell!

10:53: I like to think they actually handed the awards to the cameras and the animatronic horse.

10:58: Cinematography. Prediction: La La Land.

And the winner is… La La Land.

I actually wouldn’t have minded it if Moonlight had won. But yeah, the scene in the planetarium alone locked this up for La La Land.

11:04: I love hearing everyone say La La Land tonight. Somehow always ends up Lalalalalal Land.

11:06: I’m not too surprised that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are sitting out their songs. Some of the musical numbers in La La Land, Gosling’s in particular, sounded like the time in the studio was a little arduous.

11:13: Don’t introduce Samuel L. Jackson as the “hardest-cursing man in show business” unless you’re about to let him unleash.

Original Score. Prediction: La La Land. It would…have to be, right?

And the winner is… La La Land.

Also, here is your reminder that Passengers is a multi-Academy Award-nominated film. I don’t know why I’m mocking it. I haven’t seen it.

11:16: Best Original Song. It’s going to be something from La La Land. Prediction: “City of Stars.”

And the winner is… “City of Stars.”

11:20: Oh, good. In Memoriam. This isn’t going to be utterly soul-shattering after the system purge that was 2016. Be right back, going to cry in the corner.

11:24: Carrie Fisher truly was a unique loss for me. It’s the first time someone that integral a part of my childhood died — at least, the first who died young enough for it to be tragic (Christopher Lee, for example, was tough, but he was in his nineties, which took some of the sting off it). It was like seeing a friend pass, in a weird way. For the In Memorium segment to close on her and Debbie Reynolds in sequence… Yeah, I can’t deal.

11:29: What did Matt Damon do to Jimmy Kimmel? He’s not even nominated this year…

Best Original Screenplay. Prediction: Manchester by the Sea. Going out on a limb here.

And the winner is… Manchester by the Sea. Deserved win. It seems like a simple movie, but it actually exists in violation of just about every traditional rule of good storytelling — it’s just conscious of the rules it’s breaking, knows the effects of those decisions, and uses them to incredible effect.

Best Adapted Screenplay. Prediction: Arrival.

And the winner is… Moonlight. The script was pretty good, but as I said in my review, I think it kind of wobbled in the third act. I was hoping for Arrival; I absolutely loved that script. But I’m cool with Moonlight taking this.

11:36: I am extremely disappointed that they did not, in fact, release the coffee.

11:41: Director. Here we go — time to find out the shape of the rest of this night. Prediction: Damien Chazelle.

And the winner is… Damien Chazelle, La La Land. Looks like we’re on track for La La Land to fulfill the inevitable. I don’t know why I’m being cynical about this. I loved La La Land. I’m even in the increasingly awkward position of making peace with the fact that I might have liked it more than Moonlight. Don’t hurt me. But everybody wants to root for the underdog, I guess; rooting for a musical at the Oscars is like rooting for the New England Patriots. It’s bad form. But this is that weird time when the Oscar bait actually kind of deserves it. So people like me don’t know how to feel. We’re rooting against one of our favorite movies of the year.

11:48: Best Actor. Ugh, I’m basically sticking with my prediction out of obligation. I kind of want to change it. Can I get partial credit if it’s Denzel Washington?

And the winner is… Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea. Phew! All that hand-wringing for nothing. Affleck was tremendous in Manchester by the Sea. The definition of living in the character rather than playing him. Kenneth Lonergan’s script is great, but it puts a ton of trust in its lead actor to convey a lot of the nuances the writing couldn’t. It’s a phenomenal performance.

11:54: Best Actress. It occurs to me that, once again, very few of these nominations are for films in the Best Picture category. Still have some work to do here. Though the problem is at least in part due to the Academy snubbing Amy Adams in favor of yet another Meryl Streep performance in yet another largely mediocre movie. Sorry, Mrs. Streep, I love you.

And the winner is… Emma Stone, La La Land.

I like Emma Stone, but I think there are a number of people who deserved this more. I don’t think her performance in La La Land is going to be one of those career-defining moments. Honestly, she was better in Birdman. I’m not at all opposed to the concept of her having an Oscar; I just think this shouldn’t have been the year. I still don’t understand how Amy Adams didn’t even get nominated for this. Her work in Arrival is outstanding. But I’m happy for Stone. She’s a star.

12:01: Why are these ceremonies always so long? It feels like they cut things every year and still can’t trim the length at all. That seems like it shouldn’t be possible. Anyway, Best Picture: I did pretty well this year. Lion and Hidden Figures are the only nominees I haven’t seen yet; usually, I’m lucky to have caught half of them in time for the ceremony. Of the nominees, Arrival remains my favorite; I’m a science fiction junkie, and its script is the one I’m most jealous of as a writer.

The nominees are pretty strong, though. Arrival, Moonlight, La La Land, all three are top five contenders for my year-end list. Hell or High Water is great, too. Mainstream movies were pretty terrible in 2016, so the Academy was forced to go with the great stuff that would usually fly under the radar and just one or two mediocre Oscar fluff pieces. This is about the best list we could expect this year.

And the winner is… La La Land.

Not a surprise. This was genetically engineered to win Oscars. Film snobs like me have to feign displeasure, but ignore us; we all secretly loved it. It… Wait. Hold on. What’s happening? Just a second.

Moonlight? This is a joke, right?

Is this real?

Did this actually happen?

I’m still halfway skeptical of this.

Warren Beatty read the wrong one? Why did he have Emma Stone’s card?

Holy crap. You have your headlines for tomorrow.

They split picture/director again?

The Best Picture winner will not have won the majority of awards again?

Whoa. Wow. Well, this got interesting. I was about to write a big thing on the La La Land crews’ empathy speech, but now I’m just kind of shellshocked. The little indie movie that could actually did it. This is extremely weird. I’m still waiting for some weird twist where the movies tied. How do you screw up that card? How does Warren Beatty end up with the wrong envelope?

So, uh… Interesting ceremony. Memorable. I’m pretty impressed with Jimmy Kimmel. He struck more or less the right tone, was genuinely funny on occasion, generally moderated the awkwardness inherent to this kind of thing, kept on his toes about the inevitable politics of the whole thing without turning the ceremony into a massive protest. Excellent work. Honestly might have done the best hosting job of anyone since I started doing these liveblogs.

Anyway, with that madness having ended… I bid you good night. Happy 2017, everybody. For the love of all that’s holy, please be better than 2016.

This time of year is a bummer for me. Other film bloggers get to release their year-end lists, and I can’t help but want to join in. However, unlike the majority of them, I live in the middle of nowhere and don’t have access to many of the year’s most acclaimed films until they’re out on DVD, sometimes as late as August the following year. Right now, it’s going to be at least May before I’m able to see everything from 2016 that I want to, and that’s speaking generously. A few of the foreign language films I missed could push that back months.
So by the time I’m ready to celebrate the year, everyone else has already moved on. But this year, I got to thinking. What’s something to which everyone has equal access, regardless of where they live? Music. That shows up on your computer the day it releases. So I thought maybe I’d do something a little different and talk about my favorite music of 2016.
First things first: I’m no music expert. Far from it, in fact. I know very little about music history, I’m poorly equipped to discuss the technical components of any given song (I don’t even know what instrument is playing half the time), and I generally struggle to critique it in any meaningful way. I just like what I like. And I’m not all that educated on what’s out there. This isn’t a list of my favorite overall albums of 2016 as it is an account of all the music I purchased this year and what I thought of it, arranged somewhat in order of favoritism. And what I’m about to say about it is likely to sound pretty ignorant. That’s fine. I’m not looking to go in-depth or to change anyone’s mind. I just want to share what I enjoyed last year and maybe introduce you to something you’d enjoy, too. That’s my only purpose here: enjoying things.
So, without further ado, here’s my first-ever musical year in review!

“Awaken, My Love!” — Childish Gambino
This album really came out of nowhere for me. Donald Glover has always been somewhat off my radar — I know who he is, obviously, but I’ve never watched Community (I want to, don’t yell at me!), have only seen him in two or three movies, and generally found his rap career under the name Childish Gambino wasn’t really my thing. So I didn’t really pay much attention as his latest album was announced and then released. But the day it came out, I opened my social media profiles to a collective freakout about how great it was, some of those accolades coming from people whose opinions I very much trust. I decided to give it a look. All I did was open it up on iTunes and listen to the little 30-second samples of the different songs. I hadn’t even listened to all of them before I clicked the “buy” button.
Even if you’re a fan, this came out of nowhere. He’s been a rapper. How often do they decide “nah, I’m a soul/R&B singer” and drop something like this? Much less be good at it? Glover is a bonafide genius; he is unfairly good at everything he touches. He’s a stand-up comedian, now he’s an actor in a sitcom, now he’s a serious actor, now he’s a critically acclaimed rapper, now he’s writing his own shows and winning awards for it, now he’s a friggin’ R&B artist. I have spent my entire life working exclusively on one passion, and I’m not sure I’m as good at it as Donald Glover is at everything.
“Awaken, My Love!” is easily the most diverse album I listened to in 2016. It’s basically a tour of black music throughout history — soul, R&B, funk, jazz, a touch of gospel on tracks like “Have Some Love.” And yet the individual songs still feel like part of a larger whole, right in place within the context of the album.
It’s a touch too long, and that’s mostly what keeps it at the back of the list. Glover has good ideas for each song, but not enough to sustain the six-minute run-time attached to several of them. The song “California” also knocked it back a few spaces. I like it musically but have absolutely no idea what Glover’s trying to do vocally on that one. I’m also not sure how much I like the instrumental track, “The Night Me and Your Mama Met.” I think the last two songs flow much better without it. Picking a favorite was tough — I have a ton of love for “Zombies” and “Redbone” — but I ultimately have to go with the much-too-short “Riot,” the purest blast of energy on any album I checked out last year.

The Hope Six Demolition Project — PJ Harvey
I’m a new fan of PJ Harvey, by which I mean The Hope Six Demolition Project was more or less my introduction to her (I knew who she was at that point but had only heard two or three songs). I loved it from the first listen. I actually think it’s even better than its relative critical acclaim would suggest. Most of the criticism has centered on its similarities to her previous album, Let England Shake, but I think they’re largely superficial — it still represents an evolution in sound and has different musical themes guiding it. Let England Shake was an album full of dark, almost apocalyptic folk music; The Hope Six Demolition Project takes Harvey’s alt-rock stylings and filters them through a jazz/blues sound. It has the sound of Woodstock-era protest music; songs like “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln” remind me a bit of Jefferson Airplane. Anyway, they’re very different records, in my opinion, and I wouldn’t part with either one of them. The album’s greatest strength is that I like every song on it; there isn’t a weak link in the chain. They’re varied and represent a series of really interesting ideas. Its weakness, though, is that I’m coming to realize that there are no songs here that I’m head-over-heels in love with either. It’s a collection of very good songs that makes for a very good record, but it’s missing that spark that would earn it a place in music history. Because I like every song about equally, it’s hard to isolate a favorite. I’ll go with “The Wheel,” which has the emotional urgency and stadium-filling composition that define many of my all-time favorite songs.

We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service — A Tribe Called Quest
This is the first rap album I’ve ever owned (unless you consider MIA a rapper, which I don’t, or you think the three or four rap songs per Gorillaz album is enough to qualify). Told you I’m no music expert! Truth be told, rap has never been my genre of choice. I’ve tried to get into it, but it hasn’t paid off. Generally speaking, I like rap in small doses, two or three songs and that’s enough for the moment. I can fall head over heels in love with an individual rap song but won’t want to listen to many more in that sitting.
So the fact that my first rap record is a 16-track double album has to be some kind of testament to its quality.
Previously, I was aware of the existence of A Tribe Called Quest and not much else. Even now, I couldn’t name a single song on one of their other albums (I’m planning to check them out, though — see if I like them as much as this one). I couldn’t tell you the names of the full-time members of the group (much less the litany of guest stars). I just know that I have a deep and abiding love for this album that I can’t fully explain.
I think my problem with rap generally is that I’m stuck between two worlds: I like new-school rap vocals and old-school rap music, so there isn’t much out there that appeals to my taste. A Tribe Called Quest hit the mark for me with this album: A retro sound, the verses rapped over guitars, real bass, real drums, I’m told Jack White did the music for some of these, which surely doesn’t hurt (disclosure of bias: I may or may not own literally every album by every band White has ever been in…yeah, even the Raconteurs); mixed with a style of rap that isn’t quite 2017 modern — these guys are forefathers of the genre, after all — but still feels fresh and attacks the lyrics in more of a freeform way that allows the vocalists to really play with the way the words sound. And it’s delivered by a group of considerable talents, not only the members themselves (it’s a total bummer to discover a love for Phife Dawg immediately after his untimely death), who range from Kendrick Lamar to Anderson Paak to Elton John for some reason. There’s a diversity of musical influence here, all of it united by its rappers’ individual styles. It’s sort of the rap version of “Awaken, My Love!,” a tour of the genre’s history.
It’s also possibly the most of-its-moment album of the year. In 2016, we saw members of Public Enemy, Audioslave, and Rage Against the Machine team up to recapture some of that old glory and kind of fall flat; meanwhile, in their weirdly laid-back sort of way, A Tribe Called Quest arrived with a fiercely political album that took me right back to the good old days. It’s clear the members had their eyes open throughout 2015 and 2016, and the politics of those years are pretty difficult to miss, whether it’s Q-Tip’s repeated references to female leadership or, you know, the fact that one of the songs is called “The Donald” (it’s actually a tribute to Phife Dawg, a.k.a. Don Juice, but come on, they knew what they were doing). As someone who’s yearned for music to be political again — every now and then, I listen to Bob Dylan singing in no uncertain terms about the civil rights movement and wonder where that passion is today — and left 2016 in desperate need of whatever catharsis I could find, it’s just what the doctor ordered.
With this many songs, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I love “Whateva Will Be,” “Solid Wall of Sound,” “Black Spasmodic,” and “Lost Somebody.” I tend to prefer picking favorites that are a little off the beaten path, but I have to say it’s still the lead single for me — “We the People.”

You Want it Darker — Leonard Cohen
I’m not going to say much about this one, and I don’t want you to take that as a sign that it’s mediocre or uninteresting. It is neither, and by a comfortable mile. As swan songs go, I think the late, great Leonard Cohen can rest easy with this one. My brevity is more an acknowledgment of what we’ve always known about Cohen — he’s a poet first and a musician second. His albums aren’t surprising; you always know what you’re going to get musically. You’re here for the words and the power Cohen’s bass rumble brings to them. The music, of course, is good; it’s softly moving, a bit darker than usual, but par for the course overall. But we all listened to hear Cohen’s thoughts and stories, and he delivered. I’m of the opinion that age has been good to just about every musician who is not Bob Dylan; Cohen’s voice has gone even deeper and turned rich and ragged. It really is like listening to an old man putting his last words on the record.
I’m a big fan of the title track, but I think it’s since been surpassed by “Treaty” and, my current favorite, “It Seemed the Better Way.”

A Moon Shaped Pool — Radiohead
Radiohead is the sort of band whose latest album can simultaneously be classified as a disappointment and one of the year’s best without any cognitive dissonance whatsoever. A Moon Shaped Pool was the only album I bought this year without having listened to any of it (other than the singles, anyway). Even legends like Bowie and Cohen required a few listens before I was willing to commit. Radiohead is just one of those bands for me.
A Moon Shaped Pool is, to be clear, a good album — a very, very good album. It just doesn’t represent the kind of career trajectory I expect from Radiohead at this point. I think it’s a lateral step from King of Limbs, an album I’m not particularly fond of to begin with. It’s an improvement, but not in the ways I’d hoped.
Radiohead’s career has not seen them getting better and better with each album. Sometimes, the latest release is a step down; sometimes, it’s a step up. But that’s a factor of ambition rather than inconsistency — this is a band caught in a constant state of reinvention. They started out as a pretty standard 90s rock band no one really cared for, then abruptly became one of the best alt rock outfits out there with the complex but accessible arena rock of The Bends and OK Computer (one of my all-time favorites). Then, just as abruptly, they turned into an experimental art rock group with Kid A, which is great, and Amnesiac, which is probably great but has plenty of tracks even I struggle to make sense of. Hail to the Thief was something of a bridge between the art rock and the alt rock, covering the spectrum from beginning to end. And then In Rainbows was a heavily electronic record so artsy and weird it approached the point of madness. They sort of doubled down on that sound with King of Limbs but maybe crossed the bridge too far — their mellow artsiness became so detached that it sometimes failed to register a pulse. But with every single one of those records, they were pushing boundaries; each one of them had its own distinct sound, and yet all of them were identifiably Radiohead albums. They’ve managed to preserve the core of their music across so many different sounds.
A Moon Shaped Pool is the first time it feels as though they’ve retreated to their comfort zone. It’s a lesser Hail to the Thief, half alt rock and half art rock. And the tracks here all sound really similar; I still haven’t listened to the album enough to be able to summon most of them to mind. I don’t remember the album as a collection of songs I can start humming right now but as a single hourlong song with some variation but fundamentally the same premise. Compare that to the variety of Hail to the Thief (which I think might be their best work; fight me), an album where almost every track is entirely its own thing without betraying the record’s overall sound. Admittedly, it doesn’t bother me that much; I’m a much more album-oriented listener. I absolutely never download individual songs that I like. They need context.
But if it’s a lesser Hail to the Thief, please keep in mind that I absolutely adore Hail to the Thief. So I at least kind of adore A Moon Shaped Pool. It might not be anything particularly new by Radiohead — the band paints vivid landscapes with off-kilter rhythms and minimalistic, atmospheric instrumentation, while Thom Yorke’s voice dances all across it — but that’s what we love about this band, right?
And there are a few standout tracks despite the surface similarities. The lead single, “Burn the Witch,” is likely the album’s most distinctive song. I also like the quiet intensity of “Glass Eyes,” but it’s the closer, “True Love Waits” — likely the record’s most accessible song — that really moves me. I wanted to post that one but couldn’t find any high-quality versions on YouTube, so here’s the video for “Burn the Witch.”

Schmilco — Wilco
I’m new to Wilco. I got into them the way you probably expect I did — they released 2015’s Star Wars for free, so I figured why not? And I really liked it — it’s been a grower, actually; I’ve come to appreciate it more with repeat listens. The same thing has happened with 2016’s Schmilco. It’s typically quiet and understated work from them, so it doesn’t immediately announce itself as great music; it just lodges itself in your brain and surprises you a week later when you unthinkingly start singing one of the songs while you’re driving somewhere.
It’s sort of a miracle album. I was told they recorded this at more or less the same time as Star Wars, so there was reason to fear it would essentially be a collection of B-sides from that session. The end result, fortunately, was anything but — Schmilco is a complete, cohesive album with a sound distinct from Star Wars, even though both are identifiably Wilco (really, does anyone else sound quite like Wilco?). I read one review that described Star Wars as the party and Schmilco as the afterparty, and that really nails it — Star Wars leans into the rock n’ roll elements; Schmilco goes spare and largely acoustic. It’s more personal and emotive.
But it’s the band itself that’s truly miraculous here. I was listening to this album just a few days ago, and there was a moment where I briefly detached my emotions from the song that was playing and just focused on the quality of the music. And it occurred to me that if you told me no one in Wilco actually knew how to play their instrument, I might believe you. It’s incredibly mellow, but it’s also pure chaos. I paid attention to the song and noticed a guitar out of tune, instruments all being played just barely out of step, with a few breakdowns here and there where everything just went nuts — people pretty much just banging on guitars and tossing discordant notes left and right. And of course, Jeff Tweedy’s voice is so thin that you half-expect him to choke on it any second. And somehow…it all works. This band has somehow figured out how to take independently “bad” sounds and assemble them in a way that they no longer sound bad but rather honest and true, weathered but soulful. Some of the songs embrace that chaos a little more openly than others, but elements of it can be found in just about all of them. If any other band did this, we’d say they were being weird for the sake of being weird. With Wilco, it all comes across as some grand experiment you don’t understand but you kind of enjoy. They have an atmosphere all their own.
Schmilco has more great songs than just about any other album this year. There are so many I love — “If I Ever Was a Child,” “Cry All Day,” “Happiness,” “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl).” So many to choose from. My favorite at the moment is a pretty close race between “Someone to Lose” and album opener “Normal American Kids.” Think I’m going to go with the latter. It’s a personal track, rich with emotion, but strangely catchy despite its minimalism.

Skeleton Tree — Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
There were two high-profile spoken word albums this year, and Leonard Cohen’s was not the best — or at least my personal favorite. Actually, “favorite” is the operative word here — there seems to be a general consensus that Skeleton Tree is 2016’s best album, and I don’t particularly disagree. It’s a contender for sure. It’s also difficult to call it my favorite, however, for the purposes of a list like this — it’s emotionally intense and kind of depressing, and I really have to be in a certain mood to listen to this. Other than the lettering, the album cover is nothing but formless blackness, and that’s the color I see while listening to it.
This is a dark album, festering in the worst parts of the human experience — sadness, loneliness, anger, the impotent rage of a man shouting into the void, his pleas for the pain to stop falling on the deaf ears of an uncaring universe. It ain’t road trip music, is what I’m saying. And it isn’t something I can put on any old time and find enjoyable.
And it probably shouldn’t be. There’s no mystery where this emotional weight comes from — Nick Cave and the band didn’t wrap up the recording process until some time after the sudden death of his teenage son in an accident. I’m told most of the songwriting had been finished at that point, but it’s difficult to imagine that event not clouding everything as they went into the studio. And whenever they were written, the lyrics are at the very least prophetic — it’s a record about loss and devastation. It’s punctuated by momentary joys, but they’re the exception.
Cave said he gave up his usual narrative approach to songwriting, and that’s plain to see — the lyrics here are significantly more oblique than is normal for him. They’re somewhat difficult to decipher. And yet, sonically, this feels like his most narrative album yet — the way it works from darkness to light, from joy to suffering, from the beginnings of love to the end, and culminates in the bittersweet hope of the title track never fails to move me.
It’s that track that most stands out in my memory, at least in part because of that context, so that’s the one I’ll share. It feels weird to take a spoken word album and choose one of the few songs that isn’t spoken word as my favorite, but it’s the truth. If you want me to pick my favorite of the spoken word tracks, I think I’ll go with “Rings of Saturn,” which is strangely hopeful and uplifting in the context of the album as a whole.

22, A Million — Bon Iver
I did not know what to make of this one as its release date approached. I really like Bon Iver’s previous work — in case you can’t tell, nothing moves me quite as deeply as the bittersweet, and Bon Iver fits that description perfectly; his music is sad but hopeful and glides from darkness to light and back again, and through it all, it’s unfailingly beautiful.
But the first singles from 22, A Million were…strange. It was clear Justin Vernon wanted to do something different from his usual M.O. It was pretty experimental stuff. I wasn’t sure I liked it. He’d gone from the earthy instrumentation of his previous albums to the arhythmic bleep-bloop that so often bothers me about music today. It felt as though he was trying to be weird just so he could label this album unique. It wasn’t just the intensified focus on the electronic elements (which I’m not opposed to; there are a few bands I like who do most of their composition inside a computer); it was the bizarre way he was using them. Repetitive notes that terminated in strange places, musical elements that didn’t seem to quite gel, the vocal manipulation that on occasion took Vernon’s lovely falsetto and turned it into Alvin and the Chipmunks, the complete lack of structure in some of the songs. It was difficult to get used to.
I’m not sure what compelled me to give it a whirl in the first place, but I’m so glad I did. All I needed was context. For some reason, what didn’t work in short iTunes samples worked in a full-length song, and what didn’t work in a full-length song worked in a full-length album — and those elements fed one another over the course of repeat listens until I found myself enjoying the individual songs and moments as well. I started to see structure where they appeared to be none, focus in the moments where it seemed as though the instruments were just spiraling off into the stratosphere, beauty in the computerized madness, and beneath it all, the trademark bittersweetness that immediately marked it as a Bon Iver record.
I heard something organic, almost like breathing, in the weird electronic noise that cuts in and out of the backdrop of “22 (Over Soon)” seemingly at random. In the autotuned insanity that is “715 – Creeks,” I suddenly became aware of the way he had layered his vocals and manipulated them with electronics to create a full sound despite the complete lack of instrumentation. I found propulsion in the unusual structure of “33 ‘GOD.’” What was once impossible to understand soon seemed like the only way it could ever have been done. It’s an experiment that paid off in the best way. Regardless of ultimate favorites, I’m pretty sure 22, A Million is the album I’ve listened to the most since its release. Its thoughtful beauty is appropriate for any occasion; I’m always in the mood for it.
I’m dying inside trying to come up with a favorite. I’m going to go with “00000 Million.” “666” is a close second.

Blackstar — David Bowie
Who didn’t know this was coming? It was a great album when it was released — and an even greater one, just a few short days later, when we were suddenly given the key to understanding its lyrics.
Everyone seems to understand Blackstar as a colossal achievement, but even then, I think we have yet to process exactly how colossal it is. With this album, David Bowie, one of the last of the musical legends, presented his entire life as a work of art. In so doing, he made one of the most moving and inspiring artworks of 2016 — not albums, artworks more generally.
I listen to this album, and all I can think is how much I hope to have even a fraction of Bowie’s perspective someday. I hope to face my own death with as much courage. I hope to face it standing up, boosted by the confidence of a life well lived. When he learned that he was dying, what did he do? He carried on. He hit the studio one last time — knowing he was recording his swan song, his last message to the world. He wrestled with his own mortality and reflected upon the measure of his life, its value, and what it all meant in the end.
Here, Bowie isn’t lionizing his life such much as seeking to understand it within the context of everything it led to. There’s pain here, fear, longing, but he places it all inside the framework of what he learned from it, how it changed him, what beautiful things it allowed to him understand and appreciate.
Blackstar is only eight tracks long, but it somehow feels like a summation of Bowie’s storied career. It weaves from the spacey joys of the Ziggy Stardust days to the thoughtfulness of his later recordings without skipping a beat. In the nearly ten-minute title track alone, he somehow covers at least half the emotional spectrum of his life — it’s dark, it’s enchanting, mystical, it turns light for a moment, then sad, then winds its way back around to darkness. The album goes from the mournful “Lazarus” (which itself does not stay mournful throughout) to the vibrancy and sheer weirdness of “Girl Loves Me” with no difficulty whatsoever. It’s equal parts silly and solemn, and always poetic. Bowie knew he wasn’t just recording an album about death, he was recording an album about life and everything in it. He had one thing left to tell the world, and he decided it would be about hope — that he would die gracefully and hopefully give everyone else the means to do it as well.
The last song, “I Can’t Give Everything,” is one of the most emotional moments on any record last year. I don’t even know how to respond to it half the time. It’s solemn but uplifting, mournful but strangely at peace. I listen to its soft energy and can imagine flashes of everything Bowie ever did — his wild characters, his constantly changing sound, the lights shining down upon the stage — flickering through his mind. It’s a man reflecting on his life and smiling as he closes his eyes.
And even then, I’m still declaring “Lazarus” my favorite. It’s so raw, one of the few tracks to let in any sense of fear of what’s to come, but also one that starts looking backward on the life that led to it and seeing beauty in every success and every failing. I come right to the edge of tears every time I listen to it.
RIP David Bowie. Gone but never forgotten.

hacksaw_ridge_posterHacksaw Ridge (2016)

Starring- Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Corr, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths, Richard Roxburgh, Luke Pegler, Richard Pyros, Ben Mingay, Firass Dirani, Damien Thomlinson, Matt Nable, Robert Morgan, Nathaniel Buzolic

Director- Mel Gibson

R- intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images


Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) voluntarily joins the U.S. Army during World War II — despite being a pacifist — and is deployed in Okinawa as an unarmed combat medic universally hated by his brothers-in-arms.

Hacksaw Ridge is, on occasion, absolutely gripping, and also deeply flawed, and this is my best attempt at accounting for it: Desmond Doss’s story is extraordinarily powerful, and Mel Gibson is the wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong person to tell it. And we probably should have seen that coming.

It makes sense of you think of Hacksaw Ridge as a war movie — Gibson has plentiful experience in that genre, is one of the prototypical masculine directors (and has an old-school sensibility that harkens back to the stoic Americanism of the Golden Age, married to modern directorial stylings), and has proven more than capable of staging thoroughly impressive battle scenes. And for what it’s worth, Gibson is at least a competent storyteller — not a great one, and his approach is a little simplistic, but he can get the job done. So if you need a big war movie, you could do a whole lot worse.

But a war movie is not just a war movie, not if it’s any good, anyway, and Hacksaw Ridge, at its core, is really a drama wrestling with the complexities of pacifism in wartime. Framed that way, it’s easy to see how Gibson’s sensibility might be, uh…imperfect.

I’ve said in the past — recently, in fact — that I’m not fond of attempts to psychologize someone on the basis of their artwork; at the end of the day, it’s just too complicated. You have to parse the accidental messaging and the intentional messaging and then filter it through the myriad difficulties of telling a good story; and that’s before you account for the fact that movies are made by a whole lot of people, all of whom are coming at it from different angles. However, with Gibson, we have an extensive body of work with pretty consistent themes, as well as some real-world context that sheds further light, and while I’m not going to attempt to probe the depths of his worldview based on that, can we all at least agree that he’s probably not a pacifist? Which doesn’t disqualify him from making this movie, for the record. For starters, how many directors — how many people — are true pacifists to begin with? I’m guessing not many. And moreover, plenty of great art has been made by people trying to understand something that’s foreign to them. However, it’s also fair to say that most people at least have questions about violence in wartime — the real world doesn’t make it easy to separate sides into good guys and bad guys, and even in the rare instances when it does (and it’s not far-fetched at all to argue that World War II was one of those times), some of the good guys will do bad things, and everyone is going to disagree about where to draw the line that you can’t cross. There’s a reason for the old warning about fighting monsters, after all. In short, most people aren’t committed pacifists by Desmond Doss, but most of them can at least be said to have a stance on violence that’s complicated and frequently prickles the conscience.

Maybe the same is true of Gibson, maybe it isn’t. I’m not here to talk about him. His movies, on the other hand, have tended not to view the subject with a lot of nuance. I mean, have you seen Braveheart? That movie is first on the list of acclaimed classics I despise, and that’s primarily because of its insistence that violence is the most awesome thing ever, except when it happens to you. That movie is a combination of revenge and torture porn that disguised itself as a historical epic and somehow rode that wave to awards success. If you remade it as science fiction, we’d call it a B-movie. It combines an inspiring, uplifting, heroes vs. villains tone with incredibly brutal, realistic, and relentless violence, and there’s never a sense that the disconnect is intentional — except for when the heroes are dying, you don’t get the sense that this disturbing violence is actually supposed to be disturbing.

Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t fall into that trap. It’s sober about the realities of war and usually doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be a good time. Its inspiring moments are, for the most part, rooted in its protagonist saving lives rather than taking them. However, it’s — somewhat unsurprisingly — ill-equipped to actually address its central themes. And that results in a movie that’s much, much less interesting than it could have been. Like I said — most of us have a troubled relationship with the ethics of war; I certainly do. It is, to an extent, an unanswerable question, and therefore one with which a movie can do a lot, regardless of its angle of approach.

But Hacksaw Ridge seems as though it doesn’t quite understand the moral underpinnings of pacifism. It struggles to root Doss’s conscientious objection in actual conscience — it doesn’t stand on moral principle, his appreciation for the value of human life, or other philosophical notions. Its foundation, instead, is exclusively religious — Doss does not commit violence because God told him not to. The movie seems unable to articulate any other reason why someone might choose the path of the pacifist. Doss, as portrayed here, seems like someone who wouldn’t think twice about joining the war effort as a soldier if he was exactly the same person but non-religious. It’s just God’s rules. And like any rules people follow exclusively because of a belief that God said so, they turn out to have a lot of loopholes. Desmond Doss cannot kill people, but he can shove someone into another soldier’s line of fire. Desmond Doss cannot kill people, but he can act as a distraction so others can pinpoint and shoot a sniper. He practices a very technical form of pacifism — a form that’s actually kind of irritating, because it comes across as a person who’s okay with profiting from others’ violence and just doesn’t want it to hang over his own conscience. (Again, talking about the character here, not the real Desmond Doss.)

This sounds like philosophical criticism, but I’m actually speaking almost entirely from a narrative perspective. The decision to root Doss’s objection in religious convictions and little else means that the character fundamentally isn’t wrestling with anything interesting — his worldview isn’t challenged because it isn’t really a worldview, or at the very least, it’s a worldview that he’s simply borrowed from other sources. He and the other characters can’t debate the morality of what he’s doing; they question him, and he just says, “Eh, God said so, whatcha gonna do?” (In fairness, there are scenes toward the end of the movie that suggest a moral passion for the lives of others, but it’s much too late to have any substantive impact on the film as a whole.) And the movie also takes his faith as a given and so doesn’t dive into potentially interesting religious questions either.

Instead, the movie centers its arc externally — Doss doesn’t change; his comrades do, coming to see that his pacifism (however technical it may be) is not cowardice but the polar opposite. And dramatically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with that decision. It works. Seeing Doss save his fellow soldiers at great personal risk, seeing them go from despising him to viewing him as a hero and good luck charm of sorts, is uplifting and makes for some quality cinema. But it’s an arc that completes itself after the characters’ first combat engagement, when they finally see how far he’ll go to save any one of them, and there’s still an hour of movie left after that. It’s worth mentioning that the battle of Hacksaw Ridge comprises most of this movie, and once the soldiers come around to Doss’s heroism, there is very little to sustain that. Past a certain point, it all turns into noise. So my problem with the film’s inability to grapple with pacifism and violence and the ethics of both is, ultimately, only partially philosophical; it’s mainly because strength on that point would make the movie much more interesting and memorable. It would give Doss something to wrestle with; it would increase the stakes in his ongoing debate with the other soldiers; it would make every decision a challenge, every lost life a reason to reflect upon his moral code. The movie seems like it’s at war with itself — its ending has two triumphant moments, the first derived from Doss saving his comrades’ life and the second sweeping spectacle celebrating the violent overthrow of the Japanese on the ridge — and expanding upon those themes might make that effect seem intentional, a deliberate effort to pull viewers apart over what they’re seeing, to force them to think about the complicated questions it’s asking. Instead, it navigates around the difficult stuff in favor of something that’s mostly effective but simple, and a far cry from what it could be.

It has other problems that mostly aren’t worth elaboration — the usual war movie problem where a dozen soldiers are introduced to us at once and then lost in the fog of war to the point that no one other than Doss (and, depending on the extent of the chaos, sometimes not even him) is even capable of mattering; the way it keeps leaving its perspective character for minutes at a time because it’s more interested in the larger spectacle of the battle; the way it sets up this complicated (and actually interesting) family drama and then abandons it. It has strengths, too — Gibson’s direction remains strong, Andrew Garfield is pretty good (not good enough that he’d make my Oscar shortlist, but good enough that I can’t complain — although being nominated for this and not The Social Network is one of those things I suspect history will look back on with some small amount of confusion), its most basic storytelling interests are solid enough even if they don’t quite make it the extra mile.

Hacksaw Ridge gets far enough that I can confidently call it good. Modern war movies tend to be arty or bad, with not a lot in the middle, so I can see why audiences are so enamored with Hacksaw Ridge — it’s solid and essentially popular in its style. I just don’t think it’s great, and it’s close enough to the line to become a bit frustrating — you can see a much better movie trying to escape from its confines. But it’s an impressive calling card as comeback projects go. Maybe you think he deserves it, maybe you don’t; either way, Mel Gibson is definitely back.

manchester_by_the_seaManchester by the Sea (2016)

Starring- Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, CJ Wilson, Tate Donovan, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, Heather Burns, Eric McDermott, Matthew Broderick, Oscar Wahlberg, Stephen Henderson

Director- Kenneth Lonergan

R- language throughout and some sexual content


When his brother dies of a heart condition, a Boston handyman (Casey Affleck) unexpectedly finds himself the legal guardian of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges).

If you need your daily dose of emotional devastation, here you go. Manchester by the Sea is absolutely brilliant, one of the year’s finest, but it’s very much a once-in-a-while sort of movie. We use the arts to express and explore our questions and problems and hopefully arrive at a solution, the light at the end of the tunnel; but sometimes, we need to grapple with the possibility we fear most — maybe there isn’t one. Life is messy and complicated, people even more so, and maybe there are some wounds that will never heal. Maybe things will get bad and they’ll stay that way. Maybe there’s nothing you can do about it other than figure out how to live with it.

Manchester by the Sea is out for empathy and understanding, but not so much reassurance. It knows existence is usually too complex for happy endings, or even meaningful endings; it’s often a long stream of incidents that don’t culminate in anything, that often aren’t teachable moments. It just goes on. Normally, I’d be tempted to criticize something like Manchester by the Sea for the fact that it’s essentially formless and doesn’t satisfy many of the fundamentals of drama, but make no mistake, it knows what it’s doing here. It isn’t a story, because stories resolve; life, for better or worse, doesn’t — there’s always something after the credits. Instead, it circles around its characters like a vulture. It lives in and attempts to understand their suffering and maybe to help others understand that suffering as well.

So, yeah, it isn’t the feel-good movie of the year. It isn’t the feel-bad movie of the year either. It goes up and down the spectrum as needed. There’s never a sense that it’s aiming for happy ending or a memorably tragic one, because it isn’t. It’s just living in this situation, alongside these characters, until it feels as though it’s said all it needs to say. Like I said — life doesn’t resolve and neither, particularly, does this movie. It never comes across as though it’s trying to make you feel a certain way (though, as with any other film, it is); it simply establishes its characters and trusts that your empathy will do the rest of the work. And its character work is detailed enough — and its performances strong enough — that it’s absolutely right to do so.

Kenneth Lonergan, both the director and the sole writer, trusted quite a lot of this movie to his cast. The script is strong on its own, but it could never be sufficient for the complexity of the emotions the movie is capturing; you need actors who can convincingly externalize their characters’ inner lives. And absolutely every single one of them delivers.

The burden falls mostly upon the shoulders of Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges; plenty of other characters wander in and out of the story, but only theirs (Lee and Patrick Chandler, respectively) carry through from scene to scene (even Michelle Williams, in her Oscar-nominated role, only has two or three scenes of any significance). They play off one another brilliantly, and the movie never has to say out loud what makes this relationship tick. Both characters are struggling with grief, and because of that, they willingly become one another’s punching bags. Both of them are stubborn and sarcastic (and the movie, despite its dour tone, manages to find a lot of dry humor in those interactions), both of them believe they have a good reason to be standoffish and temperamental, and each of them is aware that the other believes that. As such, they grin and bear one another’s unpleasantness, knowing that the tables will be turned sooner rather than later. Patrick just lost his father, and his alcoholic mother abandoned him years ago; it’s only natural that he’ll lash out. And Lee never recovered from a personal tragedy years ago — it’s another respect in which the movie manages to get away with breaking the rules; it buries the nature of that tragedy for at least half an hour, but it paints such a vivid portrait of the character’s life that the eventual reveal plays as an inevitability rather than a surprise. The characters need each other because they understand each other. Whatever their flaws, each is a judgment-free zone where the other can act out his pain however he needs to. They’re frequently horrible to one another, but the next time we see them, the relationship has reverted to normal — they forgive and forget the unkind things they’ve said and done because they know where it’s coming from and that neither actually means it. The relationship is incredibly dysfunctional, but it’s strangely good for them — they need it, in a way. Patrick needs someone who understands what he’s going through and won’t insult him with the usual empty platitudes people revert to when interacting with someone who’s grieving. He needs someone who gets that it sucks and won’t try to convince him otherwise. And Lee needs someone who won’t judge his constant self-flagellation — the fact that he can’t overcome his grief because a part of him doesn’t want to; he feels guilty about his past and thinks that to heal and move on would be to deny justice to the dead. He was never punished for his mistakes and so has decided to do it himself.

The movie never tries to solve their problems, whether for better or worse. It offers no hopeful reassurance that these two eventually will recover and find some measure of peace in their lives. It also offers no condemnation, no warning that they’re bound to repeat this cycle forever. All it says is that this is complicated. Maybe they’ll heal, and maybe they won’t; most likely, they’ll end up somewhere in the middle, the same place most of us end up. No one lives without pain. No one ever becomes happy that their loved ones are gone. They just deal with it in their own ways.

Manchester by the Sea is about little more than the way its characters are doing exactly that. Some of it’s natural, some of it’s healthy, some of it may lead to healing, some of it may ultimately destroy them. The movie isn’t here to judge the way its characters grieve. Sometimes, we need films that resolve, that try to tell us something, that look for the choices and practices that might lead us out of our problems. Other times, we just need to know that someone understands — or, if the situation is not our own, to look through a window that might allow us to become the person who understands. Manchester by the Sea isn’t easy, but few of 2016’s films have been as boldly empathetic. It’s the reminder of our shared humanity that we all need right now.

moonlight_2016_filmMoonlight (2016)

Starring- Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Patrick Decile

Director- Barry Jenkins

R- some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout


A coming-of-age story that follows its protagonist, Chiron, from childhood (Alex Hibbert) through high school (Ashton Sanders) and then to adulthood (Trevante Rhodes) and details the relationships that shape him, from his addict mother (Naomie Harris) to the compassionate drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) who takes an interest in him.

Is it weird to be disappointed that I merely loved Moonlight rather than left it staggering in mind-boggled astonishment? I am a victim of the hype machine. This morning, I sat down convinced by the reviews I’d read that I was queuing up my favorite film of 2016. Instead, I queued up a Top 5, and for some reason, that’s bumming me out right now. I think I’m still trying to persuade myself that I loved Moonlight more than I did. Which was a lot, for the record. In retrospect, I’m not sure what I was hoping this movie would do to me. I just wanted it to be the cinematic equivalent of finding Jesus; is that so wrong?

At the very least, I wanted to love it enough to preserve my film snob reputation by declaring it far superior to La La Land — one most always root for the scrappy indie over the crowd-pleasing musical about Hollywood, after all — but actually… Hoo, it’s close. I think Moonlight may be the better film overall, in the sense that its weaknesses aren’t as pronounced, but I also think La La Land’s highs are almost untouchable. The key may be that the movies have opposite trajectories — Moonlight starts very strong and doesn’t lose its mojo until the end, while La La Land starts weak but gets better and better, culminating in one of the year’s best third acts. So Moonlight is more consistent (and its weak portion is never quite as weak as La La Land’s), but La La Land leaves you walking on air while Moonlight sort of stumbles across the finish line. These two movies are going to cause me a great deal of consternation when it comes time for my 2016 Top 20 list.

Moonlight is very clearly subdivided into three acts, marked not only by the sudden passage of time but in chapter headings that appear on-screen — childhood (“Little”), high school (“Chiron”), and adulthood (“Black”). Even then, it isn’t all that narrative — the segments are only connected in the sense of (often loose) character development, with few central conflicts or concerns that carry through from one to another. It’s been described as a black Boyhood that wasn’t in production for twelve years, and that’s pretty apt. It just follows its protagonist through the various stages of his life and examines the way his circumstances and relationships affect him over the years. There’s no villain to fight and no obvious moral, philosophical, or existential revelation to reach. It’s just everyday, average life.

The first two segments are fantastic. I spent the majority of Moonlight’s run-time convinced I was watching the movie I expected — the masterpiece I would fall instantly in love with and declare one of the best films of the decade to date. That’s partly because of the way the movie handles Chiron as a character — which is also, ironically, what I think goes wrong toward the end. Among the film’s few detractors, I’ve seen a common criticism that Chiron just isn’t a very interesting character — he’s a bit of a blank slate who doesn’t appear to have much going on in his life other than what we’re seeing right now. They aren’t wrong, but I think it works to the movie’s benefit at the start.

For starters, that’s because he’s a child for the majority of the film — a blank slate somewhat by nature, absorbing what he sees and hears and experiences, reshaping himself in accordance with the expectations, both real and perceived, of those around him, learning how to socialize and interact with others, finding his place in the world. He begins as something of an empty vessel but develops characteristics organically based on what happens to him, how he’s treated, and what he learns about the world — particularly the defense mechanisms he finds best protect the more complicated parts of his life, chiefly the fact that he’s gay and starting to realize what that means. That input shapes and reshapes him, and it’s a process we see almost in real time. He begins as a child who simply absorbs everything and gradually becomes a recognizable person.

The movie still takes a fairly limited approach — the three segments are years apart, but each one takes place over the course of a few days at most, so you don’t actually see a whole lot of Chiron’s life, just a handful of key moments. And as a result, his character remains defined by the scope of the plot. But it works as long as the main conflict is external — we understand him well enough to empathize with the decisions he makes to resolve those problems, because most of what we know about him has been defined in direct relationship to them. The “Chiron” segment follows him in high school, when he’s a more complete person with a clearer personality who can’t just be a sponge anymore, but because it fits perfectly with the conflict in that part of the story, the resulting character development is compelling and true. And I love that it isn’t rooted in overly complex — or overly simple — messages and isn’t really moralizing at anyone. What can I say? The awards circuit has trained us to expect something specific from the movie about the gay, black man. But Moonlight isn’t trying to make an argument for Chiron’s humanity; rather, it expects, as it should, its audience to have already arrived there. And it doesn’t hone in on Chiron’s minority status to the extent that it feels like the point of the whole affair — Chiron is the movie’s point, not any one thing about him. Chiron is not a tool the movie is using to send a message about one part of who he is; rather, the parts of who he is are the tools the movie uses to paint a full picture of Chiron.

Call it storytelling via Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The first two segments are effective because they’re rooted in simpler things that don’t need to be defined as thoroughly. There isn’t a lot of nuance in the basic physiological and safety needs; it isn’t hard to empathize with being hungry and needing to eat. The next steps — love and belonging, and esteem — are also fairly universal, but those concepts mean different things to different people, and in order to empathize properly, we need to know something about what it looks like in this specific context. And Chiron is well-defined enough that as the movie proceeds through these steps, it’s clear what he needs, what threatens that, and how he’s responding to that threat. The movie is a moving portrait of the already-confusing years of childhood and adolescence made more complicated in the case of a person society doesn’t completely accept and often fails to understand.

But the movie largely spends its time detailing Chiron almost exclusively in those terms. And that becomes a problem when, in its last half hour, it enters what we might call the self-actualization part of the story — the part when the conflict is internal, Chiron at war with himself as he decides what he wants out of life. It occurred to me as the movie entered that phase that I knew almost nothing about this character other than how he deals with struggle — which was sufficient when the movie was about struggle but isn’t when its focus becomes more intimate. I realized that I didn’t know what Chiron wanted, in just about any respect — what does he want to do with his life, is he lonely, does he want to fall in love, have a family, what does he do for fun, what is he good at, when is he at his happiest, when is he at his most miserable? And for me, the absence of any answers to those questions meant that the last third of this movie followed an indistinct character with vague needs and motivations to which he responds in somewhat noncommittal ways. I didn’t know Chiron well enough to be able to get inside his head — even after the plot starts taking place almost entirely there.

It doesn’t help that, in my opinion, the third act also removes the interesting surroundings that buoyed the other segments. This movie has an excellent supporting cast, most of which isn’t a meaningful factor as it enters its last leg. On paper, its characters all adhere to types — the crack addict mom, the drug dealer who tempts our innocent protagonist toward his dangerous livelihood — but the movie never allows them to play out as Hollywood stereotypes. Naomie Harris is fantastic as Chiron’s mother, a bundle of contradictory traits that become more or less exaggerated depending on how far under the influence she is in any given scene. She’s desperate, clingy, and verbally abusive when she’s in withdrawal and scraping for a fix; she’s flighty and absent when she’s under; and she spends her sober hours trying to work and build a life for her family, and trying to steer Chiron away from becoming anything like her, encouraging him to read in his spare time and do well in school. No matter what her mental state, her love for her child is always trying to fight its way to the surface. Sometimes, it succeeds; sometimes, it doesn’t. And I cannot say enough about Mahershala Ali. There’s a reason he’s a frontrunner for that Best Supporting Actor trophy despite his screen-time in this movie amounting to maybe fifteen minutes. Despite the brevity of his part, he’s almost the star, and there’s definitely an excellent movie to be made about the drug dealer with a moral compass that he both finds and sort of loses after he’s moved on the behalf of a little kid whose mother ignores him and whose peers beat him up for being a bit effeminate. His character, Juan, is wise and caring despite his profession. He runs his home like a traditional family man and keeps his work as separate as possible; he’s a different person in each environment. At home, he’s an ordinary man; on the streets, he’s dangerous, someone you don’t mess with if you know what’s good for you. And he becomes increasingly conflicted as the story plays itself out, seeing everything that unfairly weighs down on Chiron and threatens to break him, and realizing that the drugs he sells enable much of it. But it’s also the only life he knows.

Neither character factors significantly into the movie’s final third (and when they do, not in particularly memorable ways), which leaves Chiron largely bereft of anyone interesting to interact with. Most of it centers on him and a former childhood friend, neither of whom are all that well-defined or easy to empathize with in anything more than the most basic sense. You just don’t know them well enough. And it leaves that last half hour feeling dry and distant where the rest of the movie is powerful and immediate.

So much of Moonlight is brilliant, enough that I can say, without qualification, that it’s one of the year’s best. But it makes the final stretch that much more disappointing — it’s so, so, so close to being the next Her, that movie I immediately appoint to my personal all-time list and declare a future classic. Maybe it is, and maybe I’ll change my mind about it in the future — believe me, no one wants that more than I do. I’m desperate to love this whole movie as much as I love most of it. At its best, it’s one of 2016’s most beautiful offerings, visually and otherwise (tangent — La La Land is going to get all the attention because it’s so much showier, but Moonlight is a gorgeous film with visuals perfectly calibrated to its narrative needs; it’s at least La La Land’s equal, and in a number of respects, I’d argue it’s better). At its worst — aw, screw it, it’s still pretty good. It’s always good. It’s usually great. How significant, really, are the moments where it’s the former rather than the latter?