Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (2016)

We are blessed.

The world lost two very bright lights at the tail end of last year, and there is no way to watch this without thinking of that. Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, mother and daughter, were involved in some of the most important films in the history of cinema, and their passing within a day of each other is already a legend in itself. But still, even in this loss, we are blessed.

The documentary, Bright Lights, is a glimpse into their day-to-day, living next to each other in California. As a film, it’s charming, if not meandering, but as a document of these two vibrant personalities, few shine brighter. Debbie tried for years to make a Hollywood museum and Carrie was an icon of mental health awareness, and the filmmakers touch on both of those. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, the best moments of the film are the ones between them—the real, human exchanges—as well as the old home videos. The moments where we get a glimpse of how wonderful these humans really were together.

This film will give you a sense of what their loved ones are missing. Carrie’s wicked sense of humor. Debbie’s seemingly unsinkable optimism. Their literal presence.

I didn’t know them personally, and the odds are you didn’t either, and that is why I say we are blessed. We connected to these individuals through their work, through their films and writings and public appearances. And those will last forever. In a way, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds will always be available to the world exactly as they were. We are blessed to receive them in this way, and blessed to have had them in the first place.

Many of us will not sense a physical void where Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds used to be, although I have the deepest sympathies for those who will. I hope the world will give back to them what their loved ones gave the world.

This film is one final gift, sent with love from Carrie and Debbie.

3.5 Green

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds is available on HBO Go.

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New Light – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

[Editor’s Note: On occasion, my opinion of a film may change with another viewing. I might like it more, I might like it less. Either way, I will see it in a new light, and if I deem the shift worthy of attention, I will post about it. Spoilers follow.]

Okay, so maybe I was a little harsh.

When I first saw Rogue One, I was torn. Did I like it? Did I not? There were certainly aspects that I was critical of, such as the computer-generated characters of Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia, and those feelings of shock overcame my opinion of the film itself.

I saw the film in IMAX 3D first, which was part of the problem. Of course the late Peter Cushing would look animated in the larger format. In a standard theater, and with the nature of his likeness exposed, I could more easily suspend my disbelief.

Darth Vader’s line, “Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director,” was still ridiculous, but it was the kind of ridiculous that I found hysterical this time around, so campy that I almost loved it. I still believe that his grand finale, where he slaughters all those Rebel soldiers, to be one of his finest in the entire series.

As to my final criticism, that of the messy storytelling in the first half of the film, I still remain reserved. It was much easier to appreciate this time, although the filmmakers just bounced around too much to make me truly comfortable.

Now, if we could just see what the film was like before the glaring reshoots, I’ll be truly happy. Seriously, the best parts of the trailers weren’t in the movie. As it stands, liking Rogue One is like raising a child (I imagine): if you expect it to be perfect, you’re going to be so disappointed, but if you accept that it’s going to have flaws you simply can’t change, you just might grow to like it.

So now, until I see it again and hate it, my new score for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story rests at a solid

2.5 Green

It’ll be in theaters for a while, if you want to see it again.

Best of 2016

Another year… gone. For many of us, it was the worst year ever, and for the rest, it was the worst in a while. Nobody was spared the pain of often devastating loss, and I will admit that I had a hard time carrying on in more than a few occasions.

But I will save the In Memoriams for the awards shows, since I couldn’t make it through a list of those lost without weeping. (Always, Alan Rickman. Always.)

It was an excellent year of film. I cannot profess to have seen everything, being far from a metropolitan area, but I did see nearly 100 of the year’s releases (now I know where my money went). What follows is a list I consider to be an alternative to the critical consensus, torn between those typical choices and the elitist choices of films you’ve never heard about. I’ve also championed a few films that went slightly under the radar, but which I felt deserved the attention.

So, without further ado, here are my top ten films of 2016, arranged in alphabetical order, as well as five honorable mentions.

Arrival

Don’t Think Twice Amazon

The Edge of Seventeen

Eye in the Sky

Kubo and the Two Strings Amazon

La La Land

Love and Friendship Amazon

Moonlight

Nocturnal Animals

Sing Street Amazon

 

Honorable Mentions

A Bigger Splash Amazon

The Jungle Book

Miss Sloane

The Witch

Zootopia

 

Are you surprised to see any of those? Surprised to not see others? It was hard to narrow down the list, but also kind of easy. If a movie bored me, I don’t care how much the critics liked it, I didn’t put it on this list.

Tell me what you think in the comments below!

[Editor’s Note: I saw a few of them before I started this blog, so I haven’t reviewed them yet, instead linking to the home video releases. If I review them, which I will try to do, I will replace the link. If the other movies are available on home video, I have also included the link in invisible text.]

Passengers (2016)

Okay, I’m not saying the critics are totally wrong about this film, but please give it a chance.

Many of them will have you believe this is a creepy motion picture, and I could see that argument. The ads have been lying to you—Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence did not wake up together, but rather Chris Pratt woke up first and then got lonely. He woke her up because he became obsessed with her. If you want to discount the film on that alone, go ahead. I won’t criticize you, and I’m a bit peeved myself that the story was sold as something else.

For the rest of you, hear me out. This is not Collateral Beauty; the filmmakers understand the ethical problems with the characters’ actions, and they act appropriately. Even Jim (Pratt) understands them. He knows how wrong it would be to wake her up, but he spends a year alone on a massive ship and just can’t take it anymore. It’s either suicide or waking her up for the company, and he regrets waking her up the moment he does it. Plus, when Aurora (Lawrence) finds out the truth, she is far from happy about it. Her life has been rendered useless without her consent.

The idea makes us uncomfortable, and it should, but wouldn’t you rather watch a film that makes you think than one that doesn’t?

With all that out of the way, let me talk about the film just a little bit. Passengers is about the Avalon, a ship headed towards a new planet to colonize. When the shields fail in the middle of an asteroid field, Jim Preston is accidentally woken up. He can’t go back into hibernation, and he got up 90 years too soon. He tries to make the best of the situation, but he eventually wakes up Aurora Lane, a writer with whom he’s become infatuated. She thinks it might be fate that they woke up together.

More and more things start to go wrong with the ship, and I promise it’s all been thought out. Jim is a good guy. As he and Aurora fall in love, the truth comes out, and then it’s a matter of making amends before it’s too late. It’ll take the both of them to save the ship, and all its sleeping passengers, from destruction.

The film was directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), from Blacklist script by Jon Spaihts, and you’re not going to find a more sleek-looking film this side of Star Wars. The sets are gargantuan and the effects are top-of-the-line, way better than they need to be. You can tell the film has a big budget, but I don’t think any corners were cut in the making of it.

I went in thinking it was going to be a film about a irredeemable pervert, and I could not have been more wrong. Yes, he did something nearly unforgivable, but it’s not like he didn’t consider it for months and months beforehand. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and I hope you’ll give it the same chance I did. It’s Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, come on.

3 Green

Passengers is in theaters now.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

I’m going to miss Debbie Reynolds. But then again, I’m going to remember her in this, and that’s not a bad legacy to have. I feel blessed.

Singin’ in the Rain, in my opinion, is one of the only films good enough to justify an apostrophe in its title. It can make me smile—me—no matter what, and I can’t think of many movies like that. I mean, it barely sticks to a plot, and you all should know how much I normally hate that.

The film, starring Gene Kelly (The Young Girls of Rochefort), Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds, revolves around Hollywood’s transition to talking pictures. Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are huge stars, but while Lockwood sounds nice, Lamont has the most shrill and grating voice imaginable. Their next film is set to be a total disaster, so it’s a good thing that he runs into Kathy Selden (Reynolds), a darling, multitalented star in the making.

In addition to the scene featured above, there are a few classic musical numbers that I’m sure you’re at least heard of (“Good Morning” plays in TV commercials). They are generally a bit indulgent, sure, often running a bit too long, but you might be smiling too hard to care. And there is just so much fun to be had regarding the nature of Hollywood, I dare you not to enjoy at least some part of this film.

It doesn’t even feel like a 50s movie. This was technically a period film when it was released, but it feels like it’s been around forever.

When I hear the title, I tend to think of the rain portion first. But then I remember, it takes a special kind of happiness to sing in the rain. You might say it’s raining, but from where I stand, the sun is shining all over the place.

4 Green

Singin’ in the Rain is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

Black Swan (2010)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 250th film in 2016 that I have seen for the first time. I don’t know how I didn’t see it before, but I was at 249, and what could be more perfect for 250 than a movie about losing your mind? Anyway.]

Wow. I mean, oh my goodness.

I don’t think I’ve seen a more visceral, genuinely terrifying film all year. I’m still trying to discern between what was real and what wasn’t, and I definitely feel an itch on my back now…

Black Swan is about Nina (Natalie Portman), a New York City ballerina who wants to play the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. The show’s director (Vincent Cassel) finds her perfect for the gentle, elegant role of the White Swan, but far too innocent to be the seductive and sensual Black Swan, so he tries to force that part out of her.

As Nina becomes more and more like the Black Swan, she descends into what can most simply be described as madness, transforming into a threat to both herself and others. Nina begins to have hallucinations that become more and more graphic and sexually charged, and it’s clear that she might literally be killing herself in the pursuit of a perfect performance. (Speaking of a perfect performance, check out all the actors in this film. I can’t even pick just one; they’re all amazing.)

I can’t say I’ve seen all of director Darren Aronofsky’s films, but I’ve gone crazy over what I’ve seen so far, and this is no exception. The man is a visionary, treating every frame, scene, and cut like a precious chance to innovate. He’s crafted a film so sharp that it can get under your skin with ease, and then linger there like a virus.

Everybody should see this film at least once. It shows what cinema can be if done with the right amount of inspiration. Sure, it’s a little too much in the twisty third act, a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, but it remains electrifying to behold. It’s unnervingly brilliant. Maybe I’m not so crazy after all…

3.5 Green

Black Swan is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

Fences (2016)

I remembering reading this play in college. And by “reading,” I mean it in the old “school” way—getting through it as fast as I could so I could do something else. (Sorry, Mark.)

Skimming a play, moreso than other types of narrative storytelling, makes you miss a lot. Most of all, you miss the sheer force contained within the seemingly plain lines. Unfortunately, though, plays can’t just cut away to another location after a minute or so like in movies. They have to keep going and keep going, meaning that the force will come and go several times before the scene comes to an end, resulting in a series of drawn-out, talky conversations.

Fences, as good as it was—and it was good, excellent depending on whom you ask—falls victim to this plight of the stage. The first real scene takes place in one location, the characters barely moving for at least ten minutes. On the stage, that works, but on the screen, a medium of images, it just doesn’t.

I’m trying not the blame the source material, adapted by August Wilson based on his own play, but there just wasn’t enough done to, I don’t know, filmify it. The only real change from watching this onstage is the emphasis on close-ups, which show Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in glorious detail.

Fences is about Troy Maxson (Washington), a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh. He has a loving wife (Davis) and children by two different women (eventually three). One of those children wants to be a football player, but Troy is convinced that won’t get him anywhere. It’s profoundly human in its understanding of the human condition, of how certain people make the same mistakes, and I would have loved to see Washington and Davis perform it on the stage like they did (they won Tonys for this).

My problem is just the stageyness of it. It just doesn’t feel like a cinematic experience, something all films would ideally be. The performances, from top to bottom, are exemplary, a marker of Washington’s directorial ability, and the production design is fine work. I just can’t say I liked it.

On the other hand, it might get Viola Davis an Oscar, so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much. She deserves it.

3.5 Yellow

Fences is in theaters now.

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

[Editor’s Note: I had been waiting to write this review, hoping to put it out around New Year’s Eve, but the death of Carrie Fisher has spurred me to do it today. May she rest in peace, one with the Force for ever and ever.]

As far as I’m concerned, anything touched by Nora Ephron is of value. Anything by Rob Reiner is probably good, and anything starring Billy Crystal and/or Meg Ryan already has one redeeming quality. When you put the four of them together, it’s probably going to be great no matter what.

When Harry Met Sally… is certainly great. It’s the type of movie that comes on TV, and you just stop what you’re doing to watch it. You know they’re going to end up together, but my goodness, you really can’t see how. She’s difficult and he’s such an oddball.

Harry and Sally, at first, drive from Chicago to New York together when they’re coming out of college. And then a few years pass, and they end up on an airplane together. A few years more, and their respective dates end up falling for each other, leaving Harry and Sally in a fairly awkward position. They fall apart once more, until they finally realize they’re meant for each other after all.

You might think of this film as cheesy, and I guess I could see that. But writer Nora Ephron gives the story so much more than hackneyed plot points, really setting the standard for romantic comedies ever since. There is a tender, beating heart in this film, the type that I find remarkably endearing and genuine.

I try to watch this film every year before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, as I’m sure at least a few people do. I attempt a lame Billy Crystal impression towards the end, and then I wonder if I could ever pull off that line in real life. You know, “I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start assoonaspossible.” (I got that right on the first try.)

What a marvelous film. When I think of anyone involved, even Carrie Fisher, this is the first movie that comes to mind. Something special happened when Harry met Sally… and I’m so glad it did.

4 Green

When Harry Met Sally… is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital.

La La Land (2016)

Anybody who knows me personally knows that I’ve been waiting a long time for La La Land. As soon as it was announced, it was my favorite movie of the year, but then I had to wait… and wait… and wait… and wait…

I got so tired of waiting, the film had to work hard to win me over, and I will admit that it took a while to get there. Pretty much to the end.

La La Land is the second film by soon-to-be-certified genius Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), and you know it’s special before the first song is even over. Heck, you might even know it before the first song has started—when it tells you it’s presented in Cinemascope.

The film tells the tale of Mia and Sebastian (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling), two dreamers who just want to make it. Mia longs to be an actress, even though she’s been to failed audition after failed audition, and Sebastian wants to succeed as a jazz pianist. They fall together to keep from falling apart, and little by little each does find success. It’s just that one seems to be getting ahead, and sometimes the other is afraid of getting left behind. The story is bold and real, and it’s all the more wrenching because of it.

On the bright side, it’s one of the most lucious films of the year. There’s definitely a bright side. Colors pop like they’ve been chosen by Jacques Demy. Long walks in the dark turn into magical musical numbers. The dreamers find the courage to try and try again.

I can’t say I was truly invested for the duration of the film, checking out when it became a little too personal, and I was even going to give this a touch lower score than I did. By the film’s epilogue, however, I was fully entranced. It’s rare to find such a simultaneously devastating and magnificent ending outside of Cherbourg, but Chazelle makes it look easy.

This movie is a masterpiece, one I fully expect to win Best Picture. Its occasional flaws are washed away by the magnitude of Chazelle’s passion for film, and by the chemistry of its leads, and by the soaring heights that only a good musical can achieve.

Perhaps life is but a dream. Perhaps every moment in our lives may lead to a world of new possibilities, ones we wish we could take or wish we had. If only, right? If only… This film will make you cling a little tighter to what you still have.

4 Green

La La Land is in theaters now.

This movie messed me up, man.

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

I think I know why films don’t work when they’re based on video games.

Now, there’s always the idea that they’re shorter—video games, at least the ones I play, take 15 hours to complete. To cut that down to two hours or less is to strip a story of almost all its heft. My real theory, though, is that video game movies fail because of control. If an experience is built on a player’s individual agency, you can’t just put a player in that world and take away their right to play.

It’s ruined a lot of gamer films, and it might be what cripples Assassin’s Creed. If you can’t play, you watch, and that’s not as fun. The narrative barely scratches the surface, and you’re not allowed to explore the rich world created by the filmmakers. You’re offered no control in the outcome of the film, or even the illusion that you have any. That’s disappointing.

This film, which to its credit is gloriously realized by Justin Kurzel (Macbeth), is about Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs), a criminal about to be executed. A mysterious company acquires his body and brings him back to life, all so he can connect with the timeline of his ancestor from 500 years ago. The project, led by Inception’s Marion Cotillard, is far more devious than it seems…

As a piece of visual art, it really is exceptional. The production design is worthy of its massive budget, too, but I just found the story to be lacking a bit. There were far too many fights and big-picture actions, assuming there will be a few sequels to flesh it out, and it left the story incomplete.

If you come expecting a great film, you won’t find it, even though this has its merits. I just think it’s ironic that for a film about stripping citizens of their free will, that’s exactly what the filmmakers have done by making Assassin’s Creed. Making more will be a leap of faith.

2.5 Green

Assassin’s Creed is in theaters now.