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0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
"Hidden Figures" finds an excellent story and turns it into a total crowd-pleaser, 19 February 2017

There are some classic Hollywood storytelling molds out there — frameworks that with the right story and the right talents applied, result in a feel-good, crowd-pleasing movie — the popcorn and Coca-Cola of cinema. "Hidden Figures" perfectly encapsulates that type of film. It balances upon a combination of a witty script both humorous and dramatic, veteran actors giving likable performances and a true story that really hits on the realities of a certain place in time in history.

That time and place is not only NASA headquarters in 1961 in the height of the space race, but more generally, a racially segregated Virginia. "Hidden Figures" tells the story of three women caught in the intersection of both. Some of the nation's most bright and well-educated black women worked as "computers" for NASA, helping to verify and compute the complex math equations required to launch rockets into space. When Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) gets an opportunity to compute for the head of the Space Task Group (Kevin Costner), a position in which no one lasts long, she's the first black woman to have the opportunity, and it comes at a crucial time — right after the Russians have successfully launched the Sputnik satellite, upping the stakes of the space race.

The other women are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the unofficial acting supervisor of the black women in the computing division who isn't being given the title or the pay despite doing the work, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) an aspiring engineer who decides to fight for her opportunity to actually become one. The film follows each of these women as they fight against oppression both sanctioned and unsanctioned, all while supporting one another and contributing to one of the biggest scientific advances of the 20th century.

Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi's sharp screenplay (based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly) really sets the tone for "Hidden Figures," starting with a terrific introductory scene in which Katherine, Dorothy and Mary's car has broken down on the way to NASA headquarters and a police officer stops to examine the situation. Schroeder and Melfi (who also directs) address racial tension head on, but they're able to approach it from the black perspective, in the sense that these women know this is how things are and have a sense of humor about it. Throughout the whole film, we're reminded how unfortunate and wrong segregation was, but the discomfort of these issues comes at the expense of the white characters who are made (and rightfully so) to seem ridiculous for their thoughts and behavior.

This set up gives these lead female actors a major advantage and they all deliver. Spencer and Monae have it easy as they both have a lot of natural presence and their characters get all kinds of permission to stand up and use it. Henson's role is trickier. Katherine is as bright as her friends and a strong independent woman in her own right, but she pushes back on the oppression she faces in her own quiet way. That makes her one dramatic outburst in the film a rather big moment, even if it's maybe a tad out of character.

Much of "Hidden Figures" plays out in traditional, exposition-heavy based-on-a-true- story fashion of fighting resistance and overcoming the odds, but it works because the story is good and the writing provides ample moments to "fall for" the characters. Melfi's "St. Vincent" was also a film that played out in somewhat cliché fashion, but he has a way of really endearing the audience to the characters in his movies. There are so many moments when the lead characters get to game and shame the system and there's nothing more satisfying than when characters we like put the characters we don't like in their place.

That's what a feel-good movie does, and that's what "Hidden Figures" is, and it does it better than most. Part of that is writing, but part of that is also the unique components of this particular true story. On a few occasions, white characters tell these women that they can't do something because no one ever has or there's no precedent, but the backdrop of the space race gives them a powerful example of how hard we as a country were working to do something that had never been done before. These characters were uniquely situated in the divide between America's obsession with scientific progress and its failures in social progress. They helped to catalyze both. And that's not even bringing up the issue of women in fields of science and mathematics.

To say the story makes the film in this case would be unfair to the talents behind and in front of the camera, but it's the combination of the right story and the right storytellers that make "Hidden Figures" one of those important feel-good movies that school teachers will play in classrooms for a long time to come.

~Steven C

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Jaws (1975)
There are countless reasons to celebrate the achievement of "Jaws," but don't forget its storytelling, 8 February 2017

The legacy of Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" is immense and immeasurable. It spawned countless monster/giant predator horror films and campy knock-offs, it infiltrated culture so significantly people didn't want to go swimming at the beach, and it was the first film to gross $100 million dollars, turning summer into the profitable blockbuster movie season we know today. But amid all the hoisting up of "Jaws" as a phenomenon, what has a tendency to get lost is the drama, suspense and craftsmanship.

Although largely touted as a horror film – and rightfully so given how much it actually scared people at the time – so much of "Jaws" is drama. The visual effects and suspense have become so iconic over the last 40 years that they overshadow Spielberg's attention to the characters and the impact these traumatic events have on them. The truth is that commitment to meaningful storytelling is what makes the film great and worthy of a Best Picture nomination as opposed to simply "one of the best horror movies of all time."

"Jaws" has two distinct halves that allow it to function as a multi- genre film. The first takes us to the New England seaside town of Amity where the new sheriff (Roy Scheider) has to deal with a few gruesome shark attacks despite the mayor insisting the beaches stay open for business. The second follows Sheriff Brody out to open sea with a marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a moderately insane shark hunter (Robert Shaw) to track down the voracious great white.

Part one brings most of the suspense. We don't get to see much if any of the shark as Spielberg's camera looks upward from the ocean floor at various potential victims. Of course every great suspense film needs two things: a great editor (Oscar-winner Verna Fields) an even more suspenseful score. John Williams' legendary "Theme from 'Jaws'" provides just that – a palpable sense of fear and danger.

In between heart-racing moments, Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb's script (based loosely on Benchley's novel) explores the actual impact of what would happen to a town with a shark problem, with Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) driving us mad by downplaying of the attacks. Considering the countless films since 1975 built on the concept of "Jaws" that ignore the victims and the real-world implications, the fact that "Jaws" doesn't neglect them adds to its shelf life.

Eventually, "Jaws" transitions into somewhat of a "Moby Dick" tale following three strangers isolated on a boat somewhere in the Atlantic with the goal of taking out a gigantic shark. This final act is when Spielberg reveals the infamous mechanical shark, which again, makes it easy to forget the number of scenes on the boat in which these men share war stories and sing songs, the tension between them reflecting the tension of the audience as we await the shark's next move. These dialogue-heavy scenes definitely slow "Jaws" down in a way that's less than ideal, but the trade-off is the greater intimacy we get with the characters. Plus, it gives the stars some space to do actual acting rather than serve as human props for Spielberg's toy shark.

With its larger than life ending, the likes of which had not been seen before, "Jaws" cemented its place in film history as the first modern blockbuster. The combination of storytelling and overall good filmmaking technique with technological innovation resulted in a product that was not only revolutionary, but also tapped into a deeper part of the human nature of its audience, our instincts for danger and fear. "Jaws" was a thrilling wakeup call to Hollywood and reminder to moviegoers everywhere that movies allow us to come as close to experiencing actual danger and fear than most of us will ever get.

~Steven C

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Phoenix (2014/II)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
"Phoenix" is a powerful, sobering and poignant post-WWII drama, 7 February 2017

Christian Petzold explores the trauma of the Holocaust in a deeply psychological way in "Phoenix," a drama that unfolds in the aftermath of World War II as a woman with a new face and the opportunity for a fresh start after surviving the death camps must attempt to actually put concept to practice.

Petzold regular Nina Hoss stars as Nelly Lenz, a Holocaust survivor who returns home to a demolished Berlin after the war following successful facial reconstructive surgery. She lives with her close friend, also Jewish, named Lene (Nina Kuzendorf), who talks of a plan to start a new life in what will shortly become Israel, but Nelly is preoccupied with finding her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the non-Jewish jazz pianist whom she was taken from during the war, but who Lene says actually betrayed her to the Nazis. When Nelly finds Johnny, he doesn't recognize her, but the resemblance is uncanny enough that Johnny conspires to make her look like her old self in order to get her family fortune out of a Swiss bank. Nelly goes along with the ploy, hoping for the truth — and that Johnny might realize it's actually her.

The premise borrows from parts of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," but there are no thriller elements in "Phoenix," just psychological drama and a good deal of suspense between Nelly and Johnny as she becomes more and more like "the old Nelly." This premise provides a brilliant juxtaposition with the Nelly character on the whole, someone who desperately wants to become her old self and have her old life back, but of course, having lived through one of the worst horrors in human history, it's not so simple.

Hoss hauntingly puts on this persona of a woman oddly hopeful yet deeply traumatized. Nelly is a shaky, uncomfortable character to watch, yet fascinating all the same. In her encounters with Johnny, we have the benefit of knowing what she knows and getting to see how she handles being so close yet so emotionally far from the man she loved. We see her hopeful that Johnny will connect the dots, and despondent as she struggles to inhabit the woman she once was. Petzold writes so much emotional subtext into this story and Hoss hits every note — no pun intended (as her character was a singer before the war).

Music plays a rather critical role in the film as well. In addition to Johnny and Nelly's past as musicians and their reunion in the film at the aptly named Phoenix night club where we hear lots of music, Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash's "Speak Low" figures prominently into the story, setting a distinct tone that echoes throughout the soundtrack. Its lyrics, as well, prove all too relevant to the story without being heavy handed at all. It is one of the better and most memorable uses of a song in recent memory.

"Phoenix" plays out uneventfully, but Petzold allows the drama to unfurl in poignant fashion, revealing a story about identity and love and how time can change it all, seemingly on a whim, causing irreversible changes in our lives. It's a sobering message, but one with a truth that runs deep.

~Steven C

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Sinister (2012/I)
"Sinister" successfully reaches out to fans of classic and modern horror, 2 February 2017

A true crime writer picks the wrong murder mystery for his next book in "Sinister," a horror movie that balances the contemporary horror movie formula with mystery thriller elements and a solid leading performance.

Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a successful writer who has just moved his family to a town in Pennsylvania where a family was found hung from a tree in the backyard except for the third child, who was reported missing. Unbeknownst to the rest of his family, Ellison has moved them into the exact house where the family was killed. In the attic, he finds a box with an 8mm film projector and a handful of film reels, all of which show families being murdered, including the case he's investigating. Ellison realizes he's on to something big, but eventually things take a supernatural turn.

If the film weren't titled "Sinister" (a title that seems to have been subjectively chosen for marketing purposes) and you went in without knowing anything, you might actually convince yourself you were watching an eerie true crime thriller and be a bit surprised to watch the film take a contemporary horror flick turn equipped with creepy ghost children, freaky old movies and a pagan deity.

"Sinister" straddles these two genres without disappointing fans that wanted one over the other, but might disappoint fans that enjoy one but don't like the other at all. Director Scott Derrickson ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose") uses classic suspense techniques and the creepy Super8 videos for that slow-building dread effect reminiscent of a more classic horror-thriller, while also employing the slow- walking-through-a-house-at-night-that-ends-in-a-jump-scare techniques of today's horror movies. The film predictably begins with more of the former and ends distinctly as the latter, and Derrickson oversees the passing of that baton and ensures it happens cohesively with strong, evocative visuals and an unusually creepy soundtrack.

C. Robert Cargill's story also allows these genres to function effectively together. Good horror movies show more interest and concern in the characters and how they deal with horrifying events than the horrifying events themselves. Cargill's script definitely focuses on Ellison, and the simple conceit of him being a writer who investigates murders puts him in a unique position among horror movie protagonists. Cargill adds the twist that Ellison has not had a best-seller in 10 years, so there's pressure on him to pursue this case in spite of the warning signs.

A strong lead character also appeals to a better caliber of actor, and Hawke lends so much legitimacy to this movie. Ellison is more accustomed to seeing disturbing things, so to watch Hawke's performance as this case gets more and more under his character's skin is a real added benefit. Hawke allows us to empathize with his character despite knowing full well that we would not have handled things the same way he does at various points in the film.

The ending has some issues along those lines and some information that seems obvious to the audience is not obvious to the characters, and that can be frustrating, but on the whole, "Sinister" leaves you with a jaw-dropper of an ending, a perfectly freaky culmination of all the classic suspense and minutes upon minutes of wondering when it's all going to blow up.

"Sinister" will more likely win over viewers who don't always like scary movies than it will avid scary movie watchers who love the genre precisely for its conventions and clichés, but it successfully reaches out to both.

~Steven C

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Nothing happens, but "Tiny Furniture" hits on many Millennial truths, 1 February 2017

The saga of the Millennial college graduate who moves back home and begins a maddening search for direction — that's what Lena Dunham sets off to depict in "Tiny Furniture" and she does it in the most Millennial way possible: completely DIY including casting her mother and sister to play — her mother and sister.

Dunham captures the mundanity of post-undergrad life at home, even though her character Aura's life is a little more unusual; home is a Manhattan loft where mom (Laurie Simmons) is an a photographer/visual artist (she actually is in real life) of solid notoriety. Sister Nadine (Grace Dunham) lives there too, but she's in the no-pressure zone of high school. There isn't so much a plot synopsis as a list of friends new and old and other influences who make Aura's new life as a young adult and dreams of becoming a successful artist complicated and messy.

The authenticity of Dunham's voice as a writer rings clear. A lot of it is the semi- autobiographical form; it's impossible for any peers watching (and maybe some a little older) not to relate in some way to Aura's "struggle." It might be nice if more stuff happened in the film instead of a whole lot of stuff that could be stuff but doesn't ever become stuff, but there's also something refreshing about taking it in as a contemporary portrait of an emerging generation. Also, you could argue that there's a certain poetic truth to the fact that nothing really happens.

The "action" is how Aura navigates internal and external pressures. Everyone around her, for example, seems to have found a measure of success. Her mother, for one, has been successful forever; she meets a successful-ish YouTube star in Jed (Alex Karpovsky) who's talking to networks about a TV show and even her sister was recognized nationally for her poetry, which Aura can't help but demean. Then there's her oldest childhood friend, Charlotte (Jemima Kirke, Dunham's actually oldest childhood friend) who sports the couldn't-care-less attitude that plays in contrast to it all.

Aura's first foray into the "real world" involves getting a job, since that's what people are supposed to do, but of course being a daytime closed-hours hostess at a restaurant is a far cry from her aspirations, even though she seems to believe its in her best interest. Throughout the course of the film, Dunham exposes a bit more of Aura's psychology, namely the complex nature of her relationship to her family and home in the specific and broadest sense.

Done for as low a budget as possible, the actors here are all amateurs but it doesn't show. Dunham's strength is obviously her writing, but she's a sufficient stand in for the average 22-year-old, and as a director, she makes the most of it with some interesting shot framing to bring varying perspectives to the talk-heavy action.

"Tiny Furniture" is a really impressive debut for a fledgling filmmaker, especially one whose talent is writing and simply needed to round up a cast and crew to realize her story into some kind of finished product. It could certainly use a plot, but Dunham is able to effectively touch on the melange of post-college emotions in the 21st century in a way that's yet to be articulated, and which she effectively continued to expound upon in her HBO series "Girls," which this movie made possible.

Dunham recognizes the complexity of her generation. There is a self-centered component, there's a familial dependency, but there's also a mixed bag of influences and life philosophies that can take hold of the wheel at any moment. We are pitiable and pitiful, lost yet driven, naive and all too aware of how the world works.

~Steven C

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Steve Jobs (2015)
Ambitious concept is creative and compelling, but "Steve Jobs" misses on emotion, 1 February 2017

One of most successful and enigmatic tech minds and CEOs of the 20th century, the prospect of a film that could tear down the façade and present a compelling examination of Steve Jobs is pretty thrilling. Assigning that story to the only household name in screen writing, Aaron Sorkin, with Oscar winner Danny Boyle directing and one of today's most revered actors (Michael Fassbender) in the title role, the prospects turned out to be even juicier.

Yet "Steve Jobs," despite its dynamite acting and dramatic intensity, gets noticeably hampered by its own ambition. Sorkin endeavors to paint a complete and complex portrait of Jobs in a tidy three-act structure, with each act taking place in the hours and minutes leading up to three huge product launches: the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988 and the iMac in 1998. On the precipice of believing he's about to change the world with each announcement, we come to know Jobs through a series of backstage interactions with colleagues past and present and also his daughter and her mother (Katherine Waterston).

This setup creates certain confines of time and space that serve as an echo chamber for the acting and Sorkin's dialogue, including his infamous "walk and talks" from his "West Wing" days. Although this amplifies the script, which is obviously positioned as the centerpiece of the film, it doesn't give Boyle any room to work with and begs the question of whether "Steve Jobs" would be better suited as a play.

Plays need great dialogue, great acting and great ideas and "Steve Jobs" has all of it. Even the supporting characters with whom Jobs interacts in each act conveniently remain the same: marketing chief and closest confidant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), old friend and Apple co-creator Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), chairman of the board John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Apple computer scientist Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Jobs' daughter, Lisa Brennan, played by three different actors. Each has different points of tension with Jobs and seem to have a a habit of confronting him in these moments.

These numerous interactions provide insight into Jobs' disastrous interpersonal skills, especially the moments with his daughter in which he seems incapable of wearing the mantle of parent. Fassbender is particularly good at portraying Jobs' apparent lack of empathy especially toward Lisa, whom he views as a market test for how the next generation will use or want to use personal technology.

On the other hand, Sorkin aims to depict Jobs as a visionary with a firm grasp on how people think, and how he let nothing stand in the way of forward momentum. One of the best examples comes early on when Jobs is insistent that the Mac says "hello" during the launch demonstration. His complicated friendship with Woz also brings this to the forefront; Woz insists that Steve give kudos to the team that developed the Apple II, which put them all on the map in 1977, yet Steve refuses him on principle. His never-look-back mentality was part of his genius and his flaws.

These verbal back-and-forths can venture into esoteric territory. We don't see or experience any of the development or creative process behind any of these three products, just talking heads dropping expository clues as they argue. This kind of limits the scope with which we can observe Jobs. We can only really watch how he treats people, because he's almost exclusively talking. We don't get to see him in action, which would more effectively stretch the palette of colors available to Fassbender and Boyle to paint Jobs' persona. This particularly harms the emotional appeal of the character and therefore the film. It's intellectually satisfying, but lacking in pathos. Such is Sorkin's bane at times.

"Steve Jobs" has the magnetism that a biopic of Steve Jobs should possess. That largely comes from skilled actors wielding Sorkin's sharp dialogue, which despite having its own drawbacks is fitting of a film about an entrepreneur who always found a way to rise, like cream, to the top. The film, on the other hand, doesn't quite rise to the top of creative biopics, though certainly not for lack of trying.

~Steven C

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Anomalisa (2015)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Kaufman engages the psyche instead of the mind in the much more simplistic "Anomalisa", 29 January 2017

Charlie Kaufman is the world's foremost expert on the mind of the of lonely white male and "Anomalisa" might be his deepest foray into its recesses, yet somehow his most accessible.

Considering the rest of Kaufman's catalog, "Anomalisa" is rather straightforward. Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a customer service expert making a one-night visit to Cincinnati to give a talk. He's clearly lonely and unhappy in his marriage and thinking about reconnecting with an ex who lives there. Eventually he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and with her the promise of genuine love, connection and purpose.

The twist on this rather mundane plot is that everyone Michael meets, aside from Lisa, looks and sounds the same (they're all voiced by Tom Noonan, men and women characters alike). In fact, Michael is staying at the Fregoli Hotel, a reference to the rare disorder in which a person holds the paranoid delusion that everyone they encounter is the same person in disguise. Therein lies the purpose of using stop-motion animation, that and the bigger metaphor of what makes us humans and not all identical machines.

So while "Anomalisa" might be a good 90-minute "Intro to Charlie Kaufman" course, the existentialism and most notably the melancholy are taken to the next level. Michael is a brooding sad sack, a tough character to relate to because he clearly takes everything in his life for granted. Of course his profession is a sad bit of irony; he makes a living telling people the best way to make other people feel special, when no one seems special to him. Except Lisa, hence the film's title.

Lisa is a quiet, awkward woman with a terrible self image, yet to Michael, just the fact that she has a different voice rings clear. She is amazing and unique to him, yet to the objective person, she's terribly ordinary, thus confounding the true nature of Michael's delusion.

For an animated film, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson create a lot of deeply human moments and tap into a lot of what makes us tick. They put a ton of care into the film's most intimate moments that you forget everything is made of clay more or less. Considering it's adapted from a radio play Kaufman wrote about 10 years prior, Kaufman and Johnson breathe quite a bit of visual life into the story.

"Anomalisa" has a slow pace to it, but it echoes the mundane hell Michael perceives himself to be in. After so many films that engage with you intellectually, Kaufman tries to engage with the psyche and it makes for a less entertaining but more earnest viewing experience.

The ideas and message of "Anomalisa" are more simplistic than profound, so the emotional resonance is fairly minimal compared to the epiphanies that Kaufman has delivered in the past. Basically, it wouldn't be a surprise if this was your favorite or most disappointing Kaufman film. The cerebral efforts are definitely the more exciting, but there's a subdued brilliance to "Anomalisa" that I expect will grow my admiration over time.

~Steven C

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Tower (2016)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Rotoscope animation glues together accounts of this horrific story into a gripping, unique documentary, 29 January 2017

At the onset, it might seem insensitive to tell the story of a deadly mass shooting using rotoscope animation, but after you settle into the style of filmmaker Keith Maitland's "Tower," you realize how useful (and even powerful) a tool animation can be to tell a story that largely exists in fragments of witnesses' memories.

Maitland pieces together the horrifying 90 minutes on a sweltering summer day — August 1, 1966 — when a lone sniper essentially took the University of Texas at Austin campus hostage from the top of the campus clocktower, killing 16 people and wounding more than 40. With only testimonials and scarce video, audio, photos and news media coverage of the event at his disposal, Maitland mostly turns to animation to fill the gaps and relate what actually happened as completely as possible. The finished product is as close to a moment by moment account of the shooting — from the perspective of those who lived through it and were closest to the action — as possible.

Most filmmakers would shy away from a subject like this. There's not much to work with, it could feel too exploitative of people's trauma and live action reenactments of what happened would come across as inauthentic if not comical. But the rotoscoping effect, and Maitland's choice to animate his subjects as they looked in 1966, casting actors to play them in animated reenactments and to read their testimonials with younger voices, addresses all these concerns. It's as if Maitland dips part of the documentary in fiction just so that it can all come together more cohesively. Instead of cutting frequently between the real and the reenacted, he blends to the two.

This also turns "Tower" into a captivating, pulse-pounding retelling of events, almost as if it were a feature film. For those unfamiliar with story, it's all the more engrossing, and kind of jaw-dropping when you consider that it all actually happened. Adults young and old today have no shortage of mass shootings to draw from in their minds, but few lasted 90 terrifying minutes like the UT-Austin tower shooting. That makes it all the more important to create the vivid account we get in "Tower." What the witnesses and survivors experienced doesn't deserve to be reduced.

As has been the case with most media accounts of mass shootings, the focus always turns first to the shooter — who could be so evil and/or disturbed to take human lives this way? This was especially the case in this shooting; the attention was turned to the perpetrator and not the victims (and heroes) by magazines and broadcast media, some of which we see in the film. "Tower" almost entirely ignores who Charles Witman was and instead gives the narrative of events back to these victims and heroes. Maitland wants to honor their experiences and dig deeper into how they remember and process trauma instead of heaping attention on the selfish individual responsible for it all.

Again, it might seem like rotoscoping would work counter to this objective by obscuring the film's subjects in portraying them as "cartoons" with professional actors' voices, yet Maitland navigates that creatively as well and shows us that authenticity doesn't only come from the way someone looks or sounds, but that their "voice" is their story. The rotoscoping actually forces us to focus on their story and only their story. It allows us to live in those moments, rather than the person's recollection of those moments.

"Tower" stands out as a piece of creative, resourceful documentary filmmaking, one that allows the director to tell a complete story from disjointed pieces, and an absolutely gripping story at that. You might argue that this method and style allows Maitland to exert a bit too much of his own influence over the film, but his creative license largely comes in the form of accents that honor rather than exaggerate the stories of his subjects. Regardless, "Tower" raises the bar for how documentary stories can be told.

~Steven C

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0 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
"Manchester" is long and grim, but it's reflective of a difficult and important truth, 29 January 2017

"Manchester by the Sea" takes place in the dead of winter in the small Massachusetts coastal town of the title. This bleak setting and the stark, grim imagery that accompany it set the tone for Kenneth Lonergan's third feature film, which explores grief and our darkest demons in a way so authentic it can get uncomfortable at times. Yet its that same level of honesty that gives the film an unexpected sense of humor, a kind of tranquility and a quiet hope.

Casey Affleck gives a career-elevating performance as Lee Chandler, a stoic loner living as a residence building janitor in Boston who gets a call that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in critical condition. By the time he gets up north to Manchester-by-the-Sea, Joe has died, leaving Lee to look after his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and bury his brother, all while fending off painful memories of his past that this town evokes.

Although it would seem that "Manchester by the Sea" focuses on the grief at hand — a man mourning his brother and a son mourning his father — the film is actually about other challenges and traumas that Joe's death brings to the surface for these characters. That's what makes Lonergan's story and script so masterful — the present day action is only maybe a quarter of the story. What's happening beneath the surface in any given scene is everything else.

Lonergan cues us in by splicing in scenes from the past that powerfully inform the present action. As a director and editor, he inserts them rather abruptly and without the sometimes patronizing cues that most filmmakers use to indicate the arrival of a flashback sequence. The transitions are instead rather jarring and require some work on our behalf to sort out, but this echoes the jarring way they interrupt Lee's consciousness as well. Lonergan puts us completely in sync with Lee, setting up Affleck to have tremendous success.

Affleck does not miss his opportunity. His performance is understated, brooding and cold, punctuated by a few brief gun shots of emotion. This is not a traditional Oscar bait performance, though much of that thanks can again go to Lonergan for writing the audiences into Lee's skin, affording Affleck a great deal of nuance to work with. It's also in his character's nature to suppress emotion, to stay reserved, and watching an actor push back on emotion proves just as powerful as watching it pour out of them.

That's what makes Michelle Williams' performance as Lee's ex-wife such a significant complement. Williams gets pretty minimal screen time, but when she does, it's in her character's nature to open up the flood gates. An encounter between the two characters is the emotional climax of the film for this reason.

Other supporting characters also provide alternative perspectives on Lee's struggles, another part of what makes Lonergan's script so outstanding. The most complex dynamic is between Lee and Patrick, the teenager who wants more than anything to keep his life intact: being on the hockey team, playing lead guitar in a rock band and having not one, but two girlfriends. He does have his own struggles beyond needing closure from his dad's death, but it's how his life is affected by the adults, namely Lee, struggling around him that raise the most interesting points. Hedges provides a lot of comic relief, surprisingly, but he brings a lot of maturity to Patrick that helps elevate his relationship with Lee to something beyond the angsty teen and the bachelor uncle that doesn't want to have to deal with him.

"Manchester by the Sea" has some powerful messages, messages that can be hard to hear, especially in the form of a movie that's nearly 140 minutes long and full of nothing but cold, dark imagery to the point that some viewers might walk away with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Yet these are the kind of messages that we need to be reminded of, even at the movies. Grief — overcoming the darkest moments that have defined our lives, is not easy. That honesty makes Lonergan's film one of the most important, albeit one of the hardest, movies of the year

~Steven C

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Mascots (2016)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Unfortunately, Guest doesn't rediscover the magic, 27 January 2017

It seemed reasonable that after a decade away from feature filmmaking, Christopher Guest would return in a big way. His quirky and lovable comedies with equally quirky and lovable characters in "This Is Spinal Tap," "Waiting for Guffman," and "Best in Show" launched the mockumentary sub-genre, giving life to other successful films and TV shows. That seemed to provide proof enough that 2006's "For Your Consideration" was a misstep rather than a loss of mojo, but the equally flat "Mascots" suggests being quirky and lovable isn't so simple after all.

All of Guest's films have stayed to a certain formula, a parody of average people who have big dreams, debatable talent and an inflated sense of self-importance. This documentary style of mixing testimonial with drama created space for talented improvisational actors to create hysterical caricatures, but their passions and dreams made them easy for audiences to relate to, no matter how silly.

"Mascots" fits that mold. Mascot-ing is certainly an obscure "art form" that has the competition/performance elements that its predecessors had. A number of Guest's regulars appear in parts big and small (Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge, John Michael Higgins and more) to offer dependability while fresh faces in contemporary comedy join in (Chris O'Dowd, Zach Woods, Sarah Baker, Tom Bennett and more) to add a little novelty. Yet "Mascots" just isn't interesting or funny enough.

One obvious culprit is the cast size. There are a lot of mascots to focus on: Mike and Mindy Murray (Woods and Baker) the bickering mascot couple; Owen Golly (Bennett), the third generation mascot; Cindi Babineaux (Posey) the serious dance artist; Phil Mayhew (Christopher Moynihan) the overly passionate mascot who's kinda sad; and Tommy Zucarello (O'Dowd) the mascot who couldn't care less. They all fight for screen time, and that doesn't include the various event organizers, judges and coaches that eat away at their share.

More of the problem could be that none of them have particularly compelling sub-plots or back stories that make their characters funny or interesting. They're all fairly archetypal. Each actor uncovers bits of genuinely funny comedy, but that humor comes in the smallest parcels in the smallest moments and doesn't impact the overall comedic impression of the larger scenes it's in, let alone the overall movie.

We also don't get a full sense of what's at stake. Winning first place at the mascot competition only matters if there's investment in all the competitors and Guest sets some of them up to win our affections and some of them up to fail, making it not all that conflicting or suspenseful when it comes time for the competition. None of that would matter, of course, if more of "Mascots" was laugh-out-loud funny. The quirkiness works for chuckles, but the big moments when we expect comedic payoff are fairly predictable and unremarkable.

At one point you realize "Mascots" really only came into existence for fans of Guest's mockumentaries, and that's when Guest reprises a role from one of his earlier films. It's the ultimate sign of pandering and perhaps an indicator that "Mascots" never had enough legs to stand on its own in the first place.

You have to believe with all your heart that the right script could exist to rejuvenate this formula, but it's clear Guest didn't have the ambition, at least not yet. Considering it's been 10 years and he's not getting any younger, you have to wonder if we've seen the best he has to offer. I hope not, but four good movies from the same core concept ain't bad.

~Steven C

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