Sing Street (2016)

Oh my God. Please see this movie.

I rented it a while ago on iTunes, but I let it expire, and so I could not have been more relieved to find it on Netflix (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). This is hands-down one of the best films of the year.

In case it went under your radar, Sing Street is about Irish teen Conor, whose parents are going through a rough time. They send him to a state school to save money, and when Conor sees a pretty girl across the street, he says he needs her for his band’s music video—despite the fact that he doesn’t have a song… or a band.

As Conor gets some boys together, he (kind of quickly) learns to write and produce good music, and soon he records the video. It’s great, totally 80s, and the girl wants to do it again. Conor gets more and more edgy at his conservative school, and even though Raphina has a boyfriend, they start to fall for each other. Even if certain elements of the plot have been done before, they are rarely done this pitch perfectly. You can thank writer-director John Carney (Once) for that.

Sing Street is a film that makes you glad to be alive, if only because being alive allows you to see it. The music, both original and preexisting, is excellent, as is the period Dublin setting. It’s all so real, and yet impossibly romantic. I literally felt guilty every time I looked away from the screen, since I didn’t want to miss a second. Seriously.

There were times when it didn’t even feel like I was watching a film. If there are flaws to be found, I’ve forgotten them. Just do yourself a favor and see it.

4 Green

Sing Street is available on Netflix. WATCH IT.

Moana (2016)

I was not emotionally prepared for this movie. I just wasn’t.

That’s not to say it’s the most moving picture I’ve ever seen, but particularly in the first thirty minutes, I couldn’t help but weep—at its occasional magnificence.

Moana revolves around its title character, a Hawaiian teen who was chosen to bring life back to the islands. Ever since a mythical stone was taken, a darkness has been creeping across the ocean, and the only way to defeat it would be to put the stone back. That sounds simple enough, right? Well, her entire community does not wish to leave its sheltered paradise, owing to the dangers of the outside world, and so Moana must go on her journey alone.

Along the way, though, she finds Maui, the demigod responsible for stealing the stone in the first place, and he serves as her sidekick. Their back-and-forth is bursting with classic wit, and even the simplest of interactions are enjoyable, but that’s not what makes it special. Here, you don’t only have a girl having a male sidekick—there isn’t a romantic plotline at all, nor does Moana have anything less than a true-to-life physique. Of course, this isn’t the first time something like this has been done, but I have to applaud the Walt Disney Company for progressing forward so effortlessly.

The animation is top-of-the-line, even though the voices take a while to sound like more than actors. The plot has a spiritual poignancy, even if it meanders a bit in the middle. Oh, and some of the songs were by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), which is what made me weep early on. Generally, any minor flaws are offset by something marvelous.

If I had to criticize something, it’s that there are two pets, a rooster and a pig, and my favorite of the two is essentially kept at home for the entire film. That was so… aggravating. Why couldn’t he come along?

Simply put, watching Moana was a downhill journey for me. I was absolutely in love with the film for the first act—completely sold—but then my interest dwindled as the story went on until I was just satisfied with it. If you come for the music and the visuals, which you should, you will not be disappointed. If you come for the story, you’ll wish you came for the music and visuals.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have some songs to buy.

3 Green

Moana is in theaters now. See it.

Allied (2016)

All this film needed was to be in black-and-white. And to have better credits at the end.

I’m inclined to say you’ve heard of this film, since every time I mention “That movie with Brad Pitt where his wife might be a spy,” people say, “Oh, I wanted to see that!” But honestly, stars and plot aside, the real reason I wanted to see this film was because it was directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the FutureCast Away).

There are several great directors in the history of cinema, men and women who make motion pictures that are almost literary in their depiction of the human condition. And then you have Robert Zemeckis, “Bob” to his friends, who just seeks to entertain you as much as humanly possible. When you’re watching one of his films—and Allied is no exception—you never forget that you’re watching a motion picture. The music is swelling and the images are almost beyond reality. It’s a fantastic feeling.

Allied is about Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), who has to kill a Nazi ambassador in Casablanca. Marianne (Marion Cotillard) is set-up as his wife, and they work together to accomplish the mission. When they’ve done it, Max takes Marianne back to England to be his real wife, and they start a family as the war goes on. It’s all fine and well until Max is told his wife might be a German spy, and that he’ll have to kill her if she is…

The story was written by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders), and it is about as old-fashioned as they come. Most of this film is, except there’s no denying it was made in the present day (watch for Max and Marianne to make love during a sandstorm—wow). It’s a really excellent film, anchored by two phenomenal performances by its leads, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Yes, as I said above, the end credits are inconceivably amateur, like a student film made by a senior (citizen), but maybe there’s more to Zemeckis than I believed. Literature isn’t always stuffy and filled with big words. Sometimes it’s simple like Forrest Gump… or fun like Back to the Future… or romantic like Allied.

Watching this movie is like reading a classic novel.

3.5 Green

Allied is in theaters now.

Moonlight (2016)

In moonlight, black boys look blue.

That’s both a quote from this film and the name of the play from which the film is adapted, and I must say there are times where it rings true. I’d never noticed that before, just like I’d never noticed a lot of the observations in this film.

Moonlight is a three-chapter film about a man named Chiron (pronounced Shy-rohne), each titled by his nickname at the time. You start out with Little, where he’s a little short for his age and picked on by the boys. Next, you have Chiron, where he’s taller but still picked on; and then you have Black, at which point he’s become a bit of a gangster. Not only does the film detail his physical transformation, but it also chronicles his struggles with his identity—Chiron is homosexual.

Despite having three clear acts, director Barry Jenkins does not wrap everything up in a neat little package. This is a poetic film about real life, and nothing ever works out the way it’s supposed to. Characters in one chapter might not show up again in others, since they’re living their own lives, and very little material is provided to bridge the gaps in time. But that makes it poetic, not lacking. By the end, the film is so true to life, you feel like it’s really happened.

You’ll recognize a lot of the faces here, from Mahershala Ali (House of Cards) to André Holland (Selma) to Janelle Monáe—all of whom are brilliant. Naomie Harris (Skyfall) plays Chiron’s addict mother, and we’ve all known someone like her. Also, this is a small bit of praise, but I haven’t seen age makeup done so well in a very long time.

Moonlight is one of those films that, even though it’s an average length, flies by. I didn’t feel it dragging until the middle of the third act, and it picked up again before its conclusion. It’s one of the most universally relatable films of the year.

3.5 Green

Moonlight is in theaters now.

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The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

I haven’t been a teenager for almost two-and-a-half years now, and I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like. I remember the pain; I remember the heartbreak. But those are mostly memories now, more thoughts than actual feelings. I can’t conjure the pain at will, and if I can, it’s dulled a bit.

Then I see movies like The Edge of Seventeen, and the wounds are torn open once more. Goodness, they hurt so badly.

If you haven’t heard of it—I literally just saw a commercial for it on TV—The Edge of Seventeen is about Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld, Pitch Perfect 2). Her father passes away when she’s 13, leaving her with her mother, twin brother, and best friend, Krista. Then, when she’s 17, after she’s gotten really drunk and passed out upstairs, her brother and Krista sort of… well, they sort of hook up.

That never happened to me, thankfully, but I feel it just the same. Nadine is so lost, and so hurt, and she tries to find hope wherever she can. She finds a bad boy she likes, and a good boy she might, and a teacher that really just wants to help. I think what makes teen films so popular is that we all go through these things, and yet we all feel like we’re the only ones. That being said, few of those films are as effective to the contrary as this one. Off the top of my head, the peers of this effort are either Perks of Being a Wallflower or made by John Hughes, all of which I’ll be watching again soon.

This film is so real, so painfully authentic. As I was the only person in my screening, the impact might not be made until it’s “on Netflix,” but I know this is going to be a film that sticks with a lot of people—young, old, and in-between. In fact, one day, I might not remember my actual youth, in which case I’ll be glad this film and others are around to take its place.

3.5 Green

The Edge of Seventeen is in theaters now. It’s rated R, though, so don’t go alone if you’re on the other side of seventeen. I JUST GOT THE TITLE. Wow, me.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

A bowtruckle! Oh my gosh, he’s so cute!

(straightens lapels) Excuse me. I got a little excited there. I’d never seen a bowtruckle before—that should tell you how the rest of this review will go.

For those of you who live under a rock, J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is releasing this weekend, based off a textbook from the fictional (totally real) Harry Potter Wizarding World. It follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything), a magizoologist delivering a creature to the United States. I don’t want to give too much away, since it’s that kind of film, but let’s just say that multiple creatures get out, and he has quite the adventure catching them.

Assisting Scamander is Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a Muggle No-Maj with whom he accidentally swaps briefcases. Tina (Katherine Waterston) stumbles upon Scamander, and before long the three of them are at her apartment with her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol). Oh, and there’s a violent, invisible force that’s terrorizing New York City, threatening to do much more than expose the secret wizarding community… I really want to say more, but the details and surprises are truly magical here.

I said this is J.K. Rowling’s story, and that’s because she wrote the screenplay. [Full disclosure: I practically worship that woman.] Even the slightest details of this intricate plot are delectable feasts of imagination, from the creatures themselves to the habits of the individual witches and wizards to the American wizarding society. Yes, the film was directed magnificently by David Yates (the final four Potter films), but there is no doubt that the filmmakers found harmony in bringing Rowling’s vision to life.

Now, about the themes. Queen Jo J.K. Rowling has been known to insert some rather challenging ideas into her works, ranging from slavery to stigmas to dangerous politics, and a major theme of Fantastic Beasts is abuse. If you show your child hatred, forcing them to live a certain way or repress themselves entirely, you’re only going to foster resentment, which may lead to horrible suffering. There is also a tender message of caring, since Scamander is so in love with all creatures, but I think we’ll see more of that in later installments.

There will be four more of those, by the way, if we keep paying to see them (I really think we should). Honestly, I was a little nervous going into this film, but I had no reason to be. Eddie Redmayne is perfect as Newt Scamander, and Katherine Waterston has won me over completely, something I swore she’d never do after Steve Jobs. It’s not a perfect film, running a bit excessive with its plot, but there is so much literal and narrative magic to this film, I’m already planning to see it again.

3.5 Green

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is in theaters now.

Spoilers follow in white ink (Update: so long as you’re using a desktop browser, apparently).

Okay, so if you’re reading this, you’ve already seen it, or you don’t care, in which case you shouldn’t be wasting your time here. You know why I talked about children, and I felt so bad for Ezra Miller’s Credence. He was just the type of sad, neglected child who goes over to the Dark Side or joins ISIS. And then—with that Johnny Depp reveal—I had no idea they were going to bring him into this one! His casting announcement was all a trick, making us think he was showing up in the second one! UGH, Jo, why must you surprise me like that?!

I really thought they would have more plot regarding the Shaw campaign, but I’m guessing that’s going to be for the sequels too. With Jon Voight in it, I was expecting a right-wing conspiracy plot, but then poor Credence had to get vengeance. I truly have so many feelings about this movie. And can we talk about freaking scary it was to have all those children being indoctrinated with hateful messages? We can take some comfort in knowing for whom Rowling would have voted in the election. If you’d like to discuss your thoughts with me, post a comment or send me a message!

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

It was the best of films, it was the worst of films.

I would not be lying to you if I told you that I almost walked out of this film several times, something I promised myself I would never do. And yet, I don’t know if I’ve ever been so glad to have stayed.

Hacksaw Ridge is about real-life hero Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor, and there’s no doubting the story’s poignancy. Doss refused to carry a weapon in his training and on the battlefield, electing to save lives rather than take them away, and he ended up rescuing 75 people in the Battle of Okinawa.

Director Mel Gibson—forget about the man’s past for a moment—chooses to not only show this battle, but also the trials that came before it, and that is where the film stumbles. Doss nearly kills his brother, and he has a drunk father (an excellent Hugo Weaving), and he becomes a good Christian boy. Then he meets a girl (Theresa Palmer, The Choice), and the plot proceeds like the most saccharine of Nicholas Sparks novels. It’s a disgustingly melodramatic formula, and I simply couldn’t take it.

Doss goes to basic training, where he receives a second act’s worth of heckling from his fellow recruits and superiors (one of whom is played surprisingly well by Vince Vaughan). He gets called a coward, and he’s beaten up, and yet his resolve is never broken. There are films where I feel religion is being forced on me, and this was surprisingly not one of them. When Doss finally arrives in Japan, I’m telling you, it’s one of the best war sequences ever made.

Andrew Garfield (Never Let Me Go) finds the film’s emotional center in his earnest portrayal of Doss. He spiders around the battlefield looking for wounded soldiers, all while avoiding the Japanese, and you truly believe he’s doing it for purely selfless purposes. He even stays when all the other healthy soldiers have retreated, so that he might save just one more person (and another and another). Everything about this battle, from the production design to the performances to the cinematography and special effects, is top-of-the-line, and it almost makes you forget about the mess that came before. At the very least, it makes you forgive it.

Without the first act, Hacksaw Ridge might be the best picture of the year, and without the last, it might be one of the worst. Even though it has both, I still think you should see it. Sometimes, the best of times make up for the worst in truly amazing ways.

3 Green

Hacksaw Ridge is in theaters now.

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Arrival (2016)

Science Fiction is a curious beast. It’s generally grounded in real science, and yet the narratives are, by the nature of the genre, fictional. They aren’t real, and they may often border on fantasy. Therefore, it is the duty of science fiction writers and creators to bind us to these alternate realities, to convince us to find them true.

Arrival, in my honest opinion, does a better job at this than almost any other film this year. It’s adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang, which I haven’t read, but it’s directed by Denis Villeneuve, who made Prisoners and Sicario. Villeneuve, in the measured touch he gives his films, cements their reality, making the viewer never question the validity of these plots. He makes you feel as if these are not things that could happen, but things that already are, and possibly already have.

The film centers on Louise Banks (Amy Adams, Man of Steel), who seems to have lost a child to a terrible disease. She’s a linguist, and when 12 mysterious ships arrive around the globe, she’s called in to help translate. Assisting her are Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), a physicist and a US Army colonel.

Not much is known about the creatures inside, later named Heptapods, except that they communicate with an unknown, circular system of language, which various countries interpret to mean different things. Some may see “weapon” while others see “tool.” The more Dr. Banks learns about this language, the more she begins to understand, I should say, what these creatures are telling her, and she then must use that knowledge to prevent a global war. It culminates in a twist ending that must be seen to be comprehended.

This film is a masterpiece, in my view an instant classic. It succeeds where Interstellar didn’t quite, in that it does not make you run off and see if it was real science. The magic of this film is in the fictional aspects, and that’s what makes it surprisingly authentic. Perhaps we can all find our realities by letting go of them.

Amy Adams is predictably incredible, and the cinematography by Bradford Young (Selma) is out of this world. Without these two, even with Villeneuve’s direction, I might not hold the same opinion of the film. It’s a slow-building piece, trust me, but their efforts keep me just invested enough to make it until the end, at which point there is no question of the film’s greatness.

If you see it, which I truly hope you will, you just might agree with me. For a film that is, in the end, about time, Arrival‘s themes and presentation are profoundly timeless, poetic, and true.

3.5 Green

Arrival is in theaters now.

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Inferno (2016)

Why did you change the ending? Why?

Say what you will about the Dan Brown novels (Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons), but I’ve always had a soft spot for them. They’re never going to be heralded as literature, but they’re endlessly thrilling and twisty, and they make you believe in conspiracies that don’t really exist.

Inferno, the fourth book in the Robert Langdon series, was even more special to me. It not only took Langdon to Italy, one of my favorite countries, but it revolved around Dante’s Inferno, this time dealing with a plague that threatens to kill billions of people before the world cannot support them. It is a testament to this novel’s ending that I still remember it, and it still makes me think. What is going to stop us from hitting carrying capacity? What will the consequences be?

I was willing to forgive this film’s flaws until the end. Why? Because they changed it. I was willing to overlook the grotesque fever dreams and the on-the nose dialogue and the twists that don’t make sense until the narrative invents a convenient backstory. With these types of movies, you just go with it.

But, what the filmmakers did here is unforgivable. They took an idea, and they stripped it of its substance. I want to tell you so badly what it is, but I don’t want to spoil the novel. You really should read it. Without that twist at the end, the film is procedural, and it can barely justify its existence.

The rest isn’t so bad. A majority of it takes place in Florence, Italy, giving you a Rick Steves tour of the city with a few insider tips, then hopping to Venice and Istanbul. The cast is committed, and Tom Hanks is as relatable as ever. Felicity Jones is good too, as are the marvelously diverse international stars. The locations are stunning, and the Hollywood production value is worthy of the series.

It’s just the ending that bothers me. Oh, my goodness. When I realized the ending wasn’t the same, I gave up on the rest of the film. If you remove those aspects which make you think, you soon find that you have no reason to think at all, and that’s just a waste of time.

2.5 Yellow

Inferno is in theaters now.

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Doctor Strange (2016)

“Forget everything you think you know.”

This advice to Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is just the advisory notice that potential audience members need before viewing the latest offering from Marvel Studios.  Enter with an open mind, and exit with a new perspective on the superhero film.

The plot:  Marvel polishes its winning formula once again under Scott Derrickson’s direction.  Strange is an arrogant, condescending neurosurgeon who mixes Tony Stark’s ego with Peter Quill’s wisecracks and Loki’s insults.  He regularly dismisses colleagues and quickly becomes insulted if someone questions his genius.  Basically, he’s the American version of Sherlock.  This similarity is made all the more striking by yet another phenomenal performance from Cumberbatch.

So naturally, the narcissistic Strange is due for a reality check.  After a car accident renders his hands useless, the doctor heads to Nepal for healing, and winds up learning how to manipulate the mystical realms from The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, A Bigger Splash).  On his path to becoming the Sorcerer Supreme, he bonds with the librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) and fellow magician Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Z for Zachariah).  Together, they must defeat Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a rogue sorcerer with a plan to destroy the world.  But first, Strange has to accept his new reality.

In typical Marvel fashion, everything is executed brilliantly.  The actors all deliver quality performances, including Rachel McAdams (Midnight in Paris) as Strange’s fed-up love interest.  The script, as one expects, is full of serious science-y stuff, but it also manages to lighten the mood with plenty of humorous quips.  And the visuals are truly out of this world.  They blend the psychedelic feel of the 1970s comics with the mind-bending worlds of Inception, with stunning magical effects thrown in for good measure.

The pacing is set beautifully to a riveting score by Michael Giacchino (Star Trek Beyond).  It has strings and piano in the time-bending, trippy sequences and during particularly heroic moments, notes from the Avengers theme creep in.

Doctor Strange is a thrilling ride with action, humor, and heart that appeal to a wide audience.

3 Green

Doctor Strange is in theaters now.

Author Bio:  Claire Ebbitt is an admirer of Harry Potter, British actors, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Shakespeare.