Thursday, January 12, 2017

A return to form, and this blog...

I’ve been off my blog for a year, and damn it I’m determined to remedy that. I am back. I know I am no Ebert, but this is fun and keeps my non-work writing up. If only to amuse myself. Here are a few full 200-word takes on films, followed by quick hits on others I’ve seen further back. Other movies from my year away will just go unremarked upon.

Manchester on the Sea (2016)
There’s something about Kenneth Lonergan’s films -– “Margaret” in particular –- that feel as if the lives you’re watching on screen are actually happening in their own plain, funny, sad realities. “Manchester by the Sea” is Lonergan’s latest and maybe best, following Boston janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), crushed by past traumas and facing a new punch, the death of his older brother (Kyle Chandler) and a new inheritance, a 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hodges). Lonergan has created a deeply authentic film that is no easy watch. Answers don’t come easy, if at all. But it’s a must-see that rewards. Affleck soars here by doing seemingly very little “ACTING!,” especially when Lee is confronted by his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) and Lee can’t even form words to respond. Lonergan knows what we know, sometimes you can’t move on, you cannot escape your past. Be it “Manchester” or “Margaret,” one watches a Longergan film and feels these people exist, his films stay in the gut and brain for days, weeks after. A tough, rewarding, great film. A

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Many longtime “Star Wars” fans thought 2015’s “Force Awakens” hit the same notes from 1977. I didn’t mind. Fantasy stories always fold back on themselves. “Rogue One” is the first non-“Episode” film in the “Star Wars” universe and suffers no such fate: This story leans more World War II mission flick. This is the prequel I’ve been looking for. Felicity Jones is Jyn, an orphaned criminal by standards of the Galactic Empire (Darth Vadar’s bosses), tasked with stealing blueprints to the “That’s No Moon” Death Star we all know. If the plot sounds familiar, that’s because every Jedi fan knows it as the opening plot-setter crawl of the 1977 classicDirector Gareth Edwards gives us heroes that don’t fit pure-good action figure molds, and that notion re-shades all the previous films in new, fascinating ways. The third act is ballsy. Darth Vader breaks bad. The pace is relentless. I wish one classic character was left alone, CGI resurrections are no-go for me. But this entry goes back to the past to show the future of a film series that defined my childhood. A-

Grand Prix (1966)
John Frankenheimer is my favorite director, flat out. His “Grand Prix” is a sprawling international cast drama about European Formula One race car drivers, driving hard and dangerous on the track and in life. At three hours, it is too long with one too many story lines, but Frankenheimer puts us in the driver’s seat like no other film before it, and few since. (You see how Ron Howard was influenced on “Rush.”) We get cameras attached to car fronts, seats, and just off the tire, and follow in first-person perspective as a car tears down a city street. Split screens and layered shots pop up again and again, putting the audience off kilter. James Garner is the lead, an American racer in Europe determined to shake off a rough-patch career. Eva Marie Saint is also in the cast as a journalist who falls for a French driver (Yves Montand) who claims a loveless marriage. That’s the plot that stumbles, maybe from the French guy stereotype. “Prix” zings and is daringly frank with its sexuality. Hell, we get Toshiro Mifune, but –- damn it -- he never takes the wheel. B+

Hell of High Water (2016) Maybe my favorite film of the year so far as two brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) rob banks in rural West Texas. David Mackenzie’s film is thrilling, daringly funny, and has a pulse on 2016 America that no one else did. This is the forgotten America, on screen. Brilliant. A

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016): Harry Potter before Harry Potter. It’s missing the majestic cast of the main series, but J.K. Rowling’s offers her best character-- an unassuming Muggle (Non-Maj here in an American-set story) baker played by comedian Dan Fogler. B

Assassins Creed (2016) Michael Fassbender stars in a numbing video-game adaptation about ninjas and DNA memory time travel. This is a film that thinks fog machines are still cool. D+

Point Break (2015) The admittedly goofy but cool 1987 actioner gets a remake that cuts in heady extreme sport clips between a crime film that never registers. The cast is aching dull. D

Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973) Sam Peckinpah takes the Western for a piss in a gritty take on the famed outlaw’s demise. Bloody as hell, and too poetic stagey for its own good. B

Seventh Son (2015) A sword-and-sorcery flick that has fun with Kit Harrington’s “Game of Thrones” heroics. But it looks like it was shot on stages rejected by “Lord of the Rings.” C-

Moana (2016) Disney’s latest “princess” story starts familiar -– rebel girl, worried parents, supportive granny -– but finds a fun groove with great songs, some from Lin-Manuel Miranda. B+

Arrival (2016) The film we need right now: Military authorities bring in a linguist (Amy Adams) to help tell if alien visitors are friend. Not the film you think, this is about hope and the unrelenting love. A

The Legend of Tarzan (2016) The legend is reborn with its own inner-prequel. Forget the guy playing Tarzan, I became fixated on Christoph Waltz playing another snoozer Snidley Whiplash villain. C-

Ghostbusters (2016) The original played like a studio dare. This all-female reboot plays like a studio mandate. Kate McKinnon is an undeniable blast, but give me 1984. B

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