Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea

December 4, 2016

Manchester by the Sea (2016)
137 minutes
Rated – R
Starring: Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

manchester-by-the-sea

Grade: A

When given the attention and depth necessary, the location of a film could be as important as any character. In Manchester by the Sea, the large city of Manchester, New Hampshire is a well-developed and integral part to the plot with its brutal winters, its steady sea, and the close-knit community that can either pick you up or kick you further when you’re down.

We meet our anti-hero from the beginning. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is caring and responsible, as shown through flashbacks of spending time with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and Lee’s nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). We also see the dark side of Lee when he angrily responds to a rude woman while fixing a leak as an apartment-complex janitor, or when he gets into a fist-fight with two men at a bar. There is damage behind those weary eyes of Lee, but we don’t find out the reason until about halfway through the movie.

What we are thrown into from the get-go is the death of his brother, Joe, who was a strong and compassionate older brother to Lee throughout his life. While Joe’s death wasn’t entirely surprising to Lee and the rest of the family, what takes Lee by surprise is what is written in Joe’s will, that Lee will be the primary guardian of Patrick. In a very revealing scene as Lee is given this news, we discover the tragedy that plagues Lee’s past and his memory of Manchester.

Watching Lee and Patrick deal with the loss of their loved one differently is meaningful to both of their characters. Patrick, a high-schooler with a kind heart but also an edge that resembles both his father and uncle, provides us with a mixed reaction to his father’s death. He’s capable of hiding his sadness with his friends, girlfriends, hockey team, and rock band, but when he’s told his father would be in a freezer for months until the ground at the cemetery is soft enough, he’s unable to accept it. But seeing how Patrick handles this situation is like how a teenager would do so, with distractions and the inability to express his feelings openly. This is also the result of being raised by his father and uncle as his alcoholic mom went in and out of psych wards.

Meanwhile, what is going on in Lee’s mind and heart is much more complex. Having to deal with his brother’s death is tough enough, but coming back to the one city he never wanted to come back to was just one grain of salt in the wound. There is plenty of salt though, like hearing that his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) is pregnant and struggling to keep up with the demands of his teenage nephew. But Lee tries his best to be there for Patrick, and he tries his best to make a life for himself in Manchester to keep things as normal as possible. But there are just some things that are too difficult to forget.

Some of my favorite moments throughout the film were the interactions between Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges, who shared great chemistry as their characters dealt with a mutual sadness but a similar personality. What Kenneth Lonergan is so great at doing during this film is displaying pure honestly within all of the characters. From Lee, who is thoroughly developed, to supporting characters like Patrick’s mom, everyone is full of incredible depth and their actions ring true to their maturation. Lonergan also tackles on themes of family and tragedy in a way that doesn’t hold back any punches, even though you might be begging for a break for the sake of our anti-hero. The strength inside of Lee may not overwhelmingly be explicit to everyone who holds a conversation with him, but the way he keeps pushing himself against all of his inner turmoil and does it without complaining shows incredible ruggedness.

This film will confront your own ideals and how you would handle what Lee is going through. We have all dealt with tragedies in our lives and the way we handle them builds us to the grownups we have to become. But in the same way we attribute certain feelings to a song, we can attribute feelings to a place and a location. Sometimes when you want to escape a situation, you walk away from it, but how is that possible when everything you see reminds you of the one thing you’re trying to forget? While they say when the going gets tough, the tough gets going, it is certain that there are situations when that is simply impossible.


Movie Review: The Edge of Seventeen

December 3, 2016

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
104 minutes
Rated – R
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Blake Jenner
Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig

edge-of-seventeen

Grade: A-

I’m sure this isn’t the first time I’m writing about this, but I love a high school drama that is done well, and The Edge of Seventeen has officially cracked into my list of favorite high school movies of all time. High school is such a complex and confusing time for every teenager to go through. It is where you truly begin on the treacherous journey to find your identity, and through this process you engage in so many new experiences that your head spins out of control. In a nutshell, this is sort of the direction that The Edge of Seventeen goes.

Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) never had much luck in her life as she always lacked the confidence and the physical appearance that her older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), had. But through her lonely childhood, she met a friend whom became her best (and only) friend, Krista. Aside from being socially awkward, Nadine’s family had a tragic turn of events when her father suddenly passes away, leaving the family without the glue that kept them all sane. Come present day, Nadine and Krista are juniors in high school and things seem to be the same. One opening scene has Nadine confessing to her favorite teacher (Woody Harrelson) that she’s going to kill herself, only to be mocked with sarcasm that he is also going to commit suicide because of her complaining. This is the type of relationship they have and it’s an important one for Nadine as the plot moves forward.

As if Nadine’s life wasn’t difficult enough, her life crumbles to a pile of rubble when it’s discovered that her best friend Krista and her brother hooked up and are dating. She is disgusted by her brother and feels betrayed by her only friend and sulks in her room, praying that things will turn around for her. As an adult, it’s easy to roll your eyes at how silly this might all sound, but if you have the ability to put yourself in her shoes it’s not that hard to understand how impactful this situation would be for Nadine. With the pressure of doing well in school, being in a relationship, finding your identity, being popular, and dealing with your parents/family, to put it bluntly life is freaking tough for a teenager. Nadine’s case is no different.

With all of my favorite high school films, this coming-of-age tale truly captures the feeling of high school from the awkward conversations to the sexual tension of newly discovered hormones. What I love about The Edge of Seventeen is how it is seen through the perspective of Nadine, and this makes a huge impact on the film. Hailee Steinfeld is remarkable as Nadine, showing off her true acting chops like she did in True Grit, but this time as a more relatable teenager. I applaud movies that take the risk of fleshing out a plot through the unstable eyes of a troubled protagonist, and Nadine sure is going through a lot to be qualified as troubled. And finally, The Edge of Seventeen is very strong with its tone throughout the entire running time. There is a very good blend of serious moments with comedy to take off the edge, and the right amount of feel-good with feel-bad scenes. Nothing is straight-forward when you’re in high school and The Edge of Seventeen makes sure to remind us all of that. Maybe it’s really not the end of the world if you get that pimple on picture day, or if you get dumped the day before the prom, but for a seventeen-year-old, it might as well be.


Movie Review: Arrival

December 2, 2016

Arrival (2016)
116 minutes
Rated – PG-13
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Directed by Denis Villeneuve

arrival-poster

Grade: A

I never like to write any kind of review and say how I cannot completely discuss it because it would spoil the essence and the experience that the film offers, but this is true with Denis Villeneuve’s latest sci-fi flick, Arrival. It starts out like many other alien invasion films. There is heightened panic and confusion when alien ships enter the Earth’s atmosphere and land all over the globe. As the audience, we share a unique perspective from other Hollywood films, which is being in the same shoes as the characters. They’re all scared and they know close to nothing about anything. Will humanity have to bond with one another to overcome the extraterrestrial? Will the foreigners invade and conquer the human race? Who will be the hero to save the day?

What is refreshing about this film is how serious it takes itself, but also remains complex enough to be truly science fiction. This isn’t your popcorn sci-fi film like Independence Day; this is more like Interstellar but with a much more satisfying conclusion. Our protagonist is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a brilliant professor of linguistics that is contacted and brought in to help figure out why the aliens are here and what they want. She pairs up with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and together they have the impossible task of deciphering the advanced alien language as time is ticking down to intergalactic warfare.

Arrival is a film that will force you to pay attention, because like those certain lessons in school that were critical tools you need for your future, Arrival throws a lot of information at you and expects you to understand. While a good majority of the film was predictable, it was still done with great precision and suspense from Villeneuve, one of the better directors of this generation. Every scene is full of excitement and mystery and even when nothing is happening, the details are worth talking about. Villeneuve always had this gift from past films like Prisoners and Sicario; he can extract the best from his actors, make a screenplay punch you in the face, and at the same time deliver an entire project that will leave you breathless at the end.

There are so many things that work well in Arrival that it’s a film I cannot wait to view for a second time. I fully expect a second and third viewing of this sci-fi gem to only enhance the experience. While Amy Adams did give a very strong performance, it was overshadowed by the intelligence of the overall movie and how realistic it all felt (a rare occasion with a sci-fi movie). And one thing that you can always anticipate from Villeneuve is that you won’t get an entirely “movie” ending with his films. For those who give Arrival a chance and accept its theories that drive the plot, it will instantly become a science fiction classic.

 


Movie Review: Tangerine

August 4, 2016

Tangerine (2015)
128 minutes
Rated – R
Directed by Sean Baker
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor

tangerine-poster

Grade: B+

If this is the movie that people talk about because it was shot on iPhones, then that’s too bad because Tangerine is truly a one-of-a-kind film. But yes, let’s address the elephant in the studio because I’ll be completely honest, this was probably the main reason why I checked out this film on Netflix a year after its release. Filming this movie on iPhones isn’t really a gimmick, it’s merely a perfect match for the style and tone Tangerine demands. It’s also an independent film, but if you can make a film at a fraction of the cost without losing anything, then why not?

There are plenty of films that want to create that edgy and grainy feel to enhance its voice as an art-house production, but that’s not the purpose during Tangerine. Using iPhones truly captures the frantic feel as we zigzag through the characters on the streets of Los Angeles. Sean Baker forces us into this tumultuous world that our main characters live in.

It’s Christmas Eve and Sin-Dee just got out of a 28-day prison sentence. She’s talking with her best friend, Alexandra, at the Donut Time and the film takes off when Alexandra leaks some information that her pimp (and boyfriend) cheated on her while she was in jail. Sin-Dee makes it her mission to find this girl and to bring it up to her boyfriend, Chester. This involves visiting everyone she knows, harassing drug dealers and defying any logic until she’s able to track down this girl that all she knows is white and whose name starts with a “D.”

Did I mention that Sin-Dee and Alexandra are transgender women? It’s not necessary to point that out, but it’s quite obvious once the movie begins and plays a very important role as the plot progresses. The amateur actresses, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, are a riot and a pleasure to watch on screen. They’re loud, profane, and full of energy while displaying incredible chemistry with one another. They carry the film with their unique and bad-ass attitudes, delivering every single line with passion as if they were speaking to a sold-out arena.

Tangerine is a sad film, but told within a plot with many funny moments and naturally hilarious characters. There is never a moment when I felt like the film was overplaying the transgender angle, or the prostitution angle, or even the low-budget/iPhone angle. With diversity being such an important issue in Hollywood, it’s a miracle that this film was made and viewed by anyone. The result was a very well-made film that made dozens of critics’ top ten lists from 2015. It most definitely deserves all of the accolades and I am more than glad to have been able to watch this gem. Tangerine might not be ground-breaking, but it supports everything that needs to be changed with filmmaking. It celebrates the potential that a powerful and entertaining story has without passing it onto celebrities and million of dollars.


Sufjan Stevens @ Loew’s Landmark Theatre, Jersey City (Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015)

November 1, 2015

Went to this concert with Vivenzio on Halloween night. We were both looking forward to this show and as we glanced at the setlist from prior shows, we knew that Sufjan would be playing every song off of his latest album “Carrie & Lowell.” This forced us to listen to the new album instead of hoping he would play tracks from his whole catalog, but this was a blessing in disguise because “Carrie & Lowell” is a masterpiece. Written about the death of his mom who abandoned him when he was younger, Sufjan addresses the pain and confusion dealing with his personal tragedies with beautifully simplistic songs, usually with just an acoustic guitar and his whispering voice. The best word I can use to describe the experience of the album is “haunting.”

To no surprise, the concert experience was the same way. In front of a sold out crowd in Jersey City, Sufjan played an amazing set, stripped down to merely his acoustic guitar and himself. He had four band members playing back-up instrumentals and vocals, but this was definitely the Sufjan Stevens show. It was also one of the darkest concerts I have attended, without a single person taking out their cell phone to take pictures or videos. Everyone was mesmerized by the magic of Sufjan’s voice and finger-picked guitar riffs. From the first song of the night, “Death with Dignity,” home videos of Sufjan’s childhood were displayed behind him. It set the tone for the night, that he was going to invite all of us to some of the most personal moments that he can remember, some being painful and others more accepting. The audience listened to every lyric and every note played with their undivided attention.

During the first 80 minutes of the performance, Sufjan didn’t speak one word to the audience. Not even a simple “hello,” but instead played his songs with an efficient light show up on the stage to a respectful and seated packed auditorium. And as incredible the album is, some of Sufjan’s live versions of his songs were even better. Those highlights include: John My Beloved, Fourth of July, and All of Me Wants All of You. These live interpretations stood out from the rest of the pack. Also, as Sufjan ended his set with Blue Bucket of Gold, this resulted in a ten-minute jam session of crasing drums, wild guitar melodies, and a never-ending synth loop with a crescendo to fill your ears of so much noise you wouldn’t think possible.

The encore had a much different tone. He finally spoke to the audience, thanking us for the applause and then telling us “Happy Halloween.” What better night is there to sing songs about death? He then dipped into his catalog and played some of my favorites such as For the Widows in Paradise For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti and John Wayne Gacy Jr. He also played an acoustic version of Chicago, probably his most well-known song. But to truly end the night on a high note, Sufjan with his opener Gallant, played a cover of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and it was both hilarious and awesome. It was really nice to see Sufjan just let loose by busting some dance moves while singing “You used to call me on my cell phone!”

Overall, this concert only fortifies my feeling that Sufjan puts on one of the best live shows in the business today. Seeing him during his Age of Adz tour and now with Carrie & Lowell, you couldn’t pick two shows more different than these two from the same artist, but both were equally spectacular. I can’t wait for Sufjan to come around again… maybe in another four or five years.

Setlist:

1. Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)
2. Death with Dignity
3. Should Have Known Better
4. Drawn to the Blood
5. Eugene
6. John My Beloved
7. The Only Thing
8. Fourth of July
9. No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross
10. Carrie & Lowell
11. All of Me Wants All of You
12. Vesuvius
13. I Want to Be Well
14. Blue Bucket of Gold

Encore

15. Futile Devices
16. For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti
17. John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
18. Chicago
19. Hotline Bling


Mr. Robot – “eps1.9_zer0-day.avi”

September 4, 2015

Season One, Episode Ten

mr-robot-s01e10

Grade: B+

Season One Grade: A

After two incredibly thrilling episodes back-to-back, it was impossible for Mr. Robot to keep its foot on the acceleration pedal through the first season’s finale. But we did get answers, and boy did they ever give us the results we wanted. Or did we? It’s easy to go along for the ride with Fsociety and say “F the world! Hack them all!” because we’re not a part of that world. If this was really a possibility, would we go along with it? That’s the dilemma here but it’s not what the main story is about during the finale.

Elliot wakes up in the driver seat inside Tyrell’s car. Apparently he’s been missing for days and whatever happened after he explained the plan to Tyrell, Elliot doesn’t remember (and therefore neither do we). What we do know is that the hack went through and the world is now in panic mode except for a few people. Let’s break them down.

Darlene is loving life right now that, and despite her other fellow hackers of Fsociety not exactly thrilled like she is, they all know what kind of difference they’ve just made. The world is now without debt and there doesn’t seem to be a way that the White House or E Corp can fix it. The global economy is a mess and everyone is now in a world where they cannot use credit cards or access their bank records. But what is there really to celebrate?

Angela isn’t exactly in panic mode, nor is she excited about what’s happening. She ends up taking that job at Evil Corp but she doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. It’s strange for her to be working in the same company that she was in a legal battle over. It’s the same company that almost directly killed her mother, yet here she is, just another part of the powerful and heartless organization. She even does her part as her heart is as hard as stone after her boss kills himself during a live interview. But Phillip Price, the CEO of E Corp, is able to influence her to simply get new shoes and attend the afternoon press conference.

As for Phillip, he is incredibly calm and collected after what has just happened. Angela even brings it up and his response was more a distraction than a direct answer. He says that people caused this mess, and he’s sure that people will turn things around eventually. The most important role we see Phillip take part in was the after-credits scene between him and the White Rose. A great way to hint that there is something we’re not seeing yet, and by we I mean Elliot and Fsociety. Could they be part of the Dark Army maybe?

As for Elliot, he goes through most of the episode trying to figure out what the hell happened and why he can’t remember anything. Last thing he remembers was telling Tyrell the whole plan, and the next thing he knows it the hack was successfully damaging. Though the world is now free of its debt, Elliot will never be free of his family, including his father Mr. Robot. It was predictable that Mr. Robot wasn’t real, but what’s interesting now is how Mr. Robot is playing the alter-ego. Elliot struggles to believe in everything that’s happening. He doesn’t want the people protesting and rioting in the streets. He doesn’t want the world to be crumbling and society to be rebranded. But Mr. Robot does and he’s just a part of Elliot’s subconscious. And like what Mr. Robot and the family said, Elliot can’t get rid of them. They’re a part of him forever.

It’s sort of a cheap trick to skip through the actual hacking that flipped the world upside-down, but it’s a useful technique to keep us invested towards the second season. We still want to know what happened during those days Elliott doesn’t remember. And to end the season with a knocking on Elliot’s door only intensifies the feeling. It has to be Tyrell though, right?

Before I go, I just want to mention that pre-opening credit scene between Krista and Lenny. He’s trying to make a case with the police to locate Elliot and have him arrested for hacking him. Sure, he’s a sleaze-bag but he does have a point, but like the police told him he’s going to need a lot of proof to put him away. Can we assume this is going to at least be one of the plots in the second season?

mr-robot-s01e10b


Fear the Walking Dead – “So Close, Yet So Far”

September 3, 2015

Season One, Episode Two

fear-twd-s01e02

Grade: B+

I’m trying my best not to compare Fear to The Walking Dead, but one thing has been a glaring similarity: the show kills off its black characters. It’s been a criticism since the second season of The Walking Dead, which has now killed off more than a dozen supporting characters (T-Dog, Bob, Tyreese, and Noah just to name a few). It’s only been two episodes for Fear to kill off THREE supporting black characters: Art, Matt, and Calvin. The show-runners have to be aware of this criticism, but have no intention of turning it around whatsoever.

Okay, now that’s out of my system I’ll say that I did enjoy the second episode. One thing that Fear is doing well that TWD also succeeds in is showing how sometimes people can be a lot more frightening than the undead. The world in Fear is still in the “confusion” state, but we’re quickly moving forward into the chaos stage a bit prematurely. The chaos is beginning not because the world is understanding what’s going on, it’s because it has no idea why police are shooting people point-blank. The reactions of the crowds certainly trigger some current events, but that’s the point.

One of the scenes worth acknowledging was when we saw a police officer filling his trunk with bottled water. It’s clear he, along with other authority, knows that something is happening. Whether he’s aware that a zombie apocalypse is around the corner isn’t relevant. It’s how things are escalating so fast that there’s not time for the world to figure out what’s happening. Just like Tobias said, how can you prepare for something catastrophic that’s happening the same day?

As for Tobias, I’m going to miss him. I really expected him to join Madison and her family but he’s likely aware that he has a better chance surviving on his own, since he’s the only one who seems to know exactly what’s going on. Still, the show could use his narration and voice of reason to speed everyone up to pace. What’s disappointing is how it seems like Travis’ ex-wife and teenage son, Christopher, is going to be around for at least a little while. Who knows, maybe they’ll actually be developed into great characters but as for right now, they’re the two I wish would get bit.

I’m not a fan of splitting up Madison and Travis so early on in the series. During the pilot they had great on-screen chemistry and the show will suffer without them together. At least Nick took a backseat during this episode as he was going through withdrawal. What Fear is doing well this early on in the season is engaging the audience despite us knowing what’s going to happen next. We’re witnessing the chaos alongside Madison and Travis and putting ourselves in their shoes, wondering if we would make the same decisions that they made. For now, this is as good as it can get, but can Fear keep moving forward before the shit hits the fan?

But while the streets have turned violent, there is the barber and his family who takes in Travis, Liza, and Christopher. There is something that tells me the barber is going to have more to play in this season. His wife seems to realize something bad is happening as she prays, but the barber is more alert, first to the strangers inside of his home and second to the madness that has erupted outside. It should be fun to watch how that plays out, but I’m hoping Travis makes his way back to Madison real soon.


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