Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Film Review: "Live by Night" (2016).

"What you put out into this world will always come back to you, but it never comes back how you predict."
This is the nature of Live by Night. This crime drama film written, directed, co-produced and starring Ben Affleck, based on the 2012 novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. The film follows a former WWI vet and self-proclaimed anti-establishment outlaw. Driven by a need to right the wrongs committed against him and those close to him, Joe heads down a risky path that goes against his upbringing and his own moral code. Leaving the cold Boston winter behind, he and his reckless crew turn up the heat in Tampa. And while revenge may taste sweeter than the molasses that infuses every drop of illegal rum he runs, Joe will learn that it comes at a price.

Warner Bros. acquired the rights to Dennis Lehane's novel in April 2012, with the intention of developing the project for Leonardo DiCaprio to star and produce, through his Appian Way Productions. However, he decided to produce the film instead. In October 2012, it was announced that Ben Affleck would direct, write, and star in the film. In summer 2013, Affleck begun scouting locations for the film, visiting Tampa, Florida and Lawrence, Massachusetts. In August 2013, it was reported that production would be pushed back from the fall of 2013 to the fall of 2014, due to Affleck's acting commitment for Gone Girl (2014). According to Affleck, he delayed the project because he always wanted to get a chance to work with David Fincher. In summer 2014, production resumed, with Affleck visiting various locations in Brunswick, Georgia. In July 2015, the film was officially given the green-light. By December, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Chris Messina, Chris Cooper, Miguel, Max Casella, Brendan Gleeson, Anthony Michael Hall, and Titus Welliver had joined the cast. Principal photography began in October 2015 and concluded in February 2016. Filming initially began in Georgia, Hampton Island near Riceboro, on Tybee Island, in Savannah, and at Fort Pulaski National Monument. But due to tax rebates, the production ultimately moved to Florida. Then onwards, locations included Lawrence, North Andover, Boston's North End and Los Angeles, Pasadena, and Wilmington, California. For the look of the film, originally, Cinematographer Robert Richardson wanted to shoot the film with the Ultra Panavision 70 anamorphic lenses he had recently used on The Hateful Eight (2015), but Panavision had already rented them for use on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).

The film also stars Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana and Chris Cooper. Despite the cast giving solid performances, it seems as though this time round Affleck has assembled a cast the pale in comparison to his casts in his previous efforts.

Live by Night is another solidly constructed and sharply orchestrated effort from Affleck. However, it's an exhausted and faulty enterprise all the same; a film that leaves no cliche untrampled. Ultimately, it does not quite live up to Affleck's ever-growing impressive body of work.

Simon says Live by Night receives:

Also, see my review for Argo.

Film Review: "Manchester by the Sea" (2016).

From the director of Margaret comes Manchester by the Sea. This drama film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. After his brother's death, Lee Chandler is named guardian to his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick. This forces him to return to his hometown and confront his past.

Matt Damon and John Krasinski had brainstormed a film about an "emotionally crippled" handyman, and brought the idea to Lonergan for his input, with Krasinski to star and Damon in the director's chair. Lonergan worked on the screenplay for three years. The script was featured in the 2014 Blacklist; a list of the "most liked" unmade scripts of the year. After Damon read a rough draft of the script, he insisted that Lonergan should direct it and that he would star in it. In early September 2014, they announced they would collaborate on the project, and pre-production began on September 8, 2014. However, Damon would not have a break in his schedule for another year. In early December 2014, it was revealed that Casey Affleck would replace Damon in the lead role. In early January 2015, Affleck officially replaced Damon. By late March, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Tate Donovan, Kara Hayward, Heather Burns, Matthew Broderick, and Gretchen Mol rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in late April. Filming took place throughout Massachusetts.

The film stars Affleck, Williams, Chandler, Hedges, Donovan, Hayward, Burns, Broderick, and Mol. The lead characters are extremely well played by the cast, including Affleck, Williams and Hedges. The trio's rapport is uneasy but raw and unsentimental, capturing the unconditional tough love dynamic that can only exist between loved ones. Affleck offers one of the more indelible portraits of hapless adulthood put on screen. Lonergan's brainy script wouldn't work without Affleck, Williams and Hedges. As a walking paradox - both controlling and completely out of control - they are riveting. Lonergan avoids the faults of many American storytellers by refusing to cast characters in a judgmental light, giving each enough dignity to be convincing and sympathetic.

The kind of film that often gets lost in the Hollywood shuffle, the film is marked by great writing and utterly believable relationships between characters. Few films have explored the complicated bonds of love and resentment between loved ones with such delightful honesty. The film captures the essence of Massachusetts life as well as any film ever has, while also portraying the difficult path to maturity of a an adult and a teenager. The film has some intriguing ideas that don't often get dramatized in this fashion, and it has a fine cast bringing it to life. Still, like its young protagonist, sometimes it comes off as a bit too self-righteous and self-involved. Knotty, ambitious and trading in messy human truths, it's the work of a master dramatist. Here's hoping Lonergan's next one reaches us a little faster. The film is less about plot mechanics than about the virtuosity of the dialogue, the complexity of the characters, and the detail and depth of their untidy world.

Simon says Manchester by the Sea receives:

Also, see my review for Margaret.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Film Review: "Hidden Figures" (2016).

"Meet the women you don't know, behind the mission you do."
This is the premise for Hidden Figures. This biographical drama film directed by Theodore Melfi, written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. The film follows these women as they quickly rose the ranks of NASA alongside many of history's greatest minds specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return.

In July 2015, it was announced that Margot Lee Shetterly's nonfiction book Hidden Figures was acquired by producer Donna Gigliotti. Which was then adapted by Allison Schroeder, which was developed by Gigliotti through Levantine Films. The film rights were acquired by Fox 2000 Pictures, while Theodore Melfi was signed on to direct. Since the film's development was announced, various actresses were considered to play the black female roles, including Oprah Winfrey, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Taraji P. Henson. By March 216, the film was cast. Henson was cast in the lead role of mathematician Katherine Goble Johnson. Spencer was selected to play Dorothy Vaughan, the lead mathematician. Kevin Costner was cast in the film to play Al Harrison, the head of the space program. Singer Janelle Monáe signed on to play the third lead mathematician, Mary Jackson. Jim Parsons was cast in the film to play the head engineer of the Space Task Group at NASA, Paul Stafford. Kirsten Dunst, Glen Powell, and Mahershala Ali were cast in the film to play NASA supervisor Vivian Mitchell, astronaut John Glenn and military officer and Katherine Johnson's second husband Jim Johnson respectively. Principal photography began in March 2016, locations included Morehouse College campus in Atlanta, Georgia, and Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth, Texas and Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Georgia. In April 2016, Pharrell Williams came on board to write the film's songs and handle the music department and soundtrack with Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch.

The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell and Mahershala Ali. The cast gave solid performances, especially its leading ladies: Henson, Spencer and Monáe. All three of them carried the film forward effortlessly and each their own souls to their roles.

Despite suffering from standard Hollywood characterisations, dialogue and clichés, Hidden Figures is a worthy fact-based story with obvious good intentions. In its thematic and tonal approach, the film honestly shows 1960s America, where segregation existed and where the three real-life women were undermined and judged because of their sex and the colour of their skin in a white male dominated era. In the end, the film is entertaining enough. I suspect audiences are likely to enjoy it. The scenes of socio-political-human drama are skillfully acted, shot and directed.

Simon says Hidden Figures receives:

Also, see my review for St. Vincent.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Film Review: "Silence" (2016).

"I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?" This is the ultimate question that is asked in Silence. This religious historical drama film directed by Martin Scorsese, adapted by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, based upon the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō. The story follows two Catholic missionaries who face the ultimate test of faith when they travel to Japan in search of their missing mentor  - at a time when Catholicism was outlawed and their presence forbidden.

In 1988, Scorsese, fresh off the controversial reception of The Last Temptation of Christ, was given the novel by the Rev. Paul Moore. Rev. Moore was the most renowned liberal Protestant Episcopal priest of his time, when he served as the Bishop of the Diocese of New York. Ironically, Scorsese did not read the novel until filming of Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990), where he played Vincent Van Gough. There, between takes and the train rides around Japan that he finally read the novel. Since then, Scorsese has said that he has read the novel many times over the next two decades. The film is considered a "passion project" for Scorsese. When asked why he retained interest in the project for over 20 years, Scorsese stated: "As you get older, ideas go and come... Silence is just something that I'm drawn to in that way. It's been an obsession, it has to be done... it's a strong, wonderful true story, a thriller in a way..." Scorsese then brought on Cocks, his friend and collaborator, to help him write an early draft of the film in the 1990s.

Scorsese intended to direct it after Gangs of New York (2002). Scorsese then began location scouting for the film, going to various location throughout Nagasaki, Japan. But when Scorsese couldn't get financing for the project, he decided instead to do The Aviator (2004). The project was originally announced to have Daniel Day-Lewis, Gael García Bernal and Benicio Del Toro cast in the lead roles, originally set to play Father Ferreira, Bernal, Father Rodrigues and Father Garrpe. Ken Watanabe was also originally slated to portray a Japanese interpreter to the Jesuit priests. However, after another delay in the production and Scorsese's decision to work on Shutter Island (2010) and Hugo (2011) instead, they all dropped out of the project. They were ultimately replaced with Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Tadanobu Asano by January 2015. In December 2011, Scorsese stated that Silence would be his next film. However, in March 2012, even though other projects he had originally put on the back burner and consequently dropped out of, Scorsese signed on to do The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and opted to direct it ahead of Silence. Financing on the project began to gain momentum in May when film was picked up by Cecchi Gori Pictures. Cecchi Gori was involved in pre-production, but years of unrelated legal disputes had interrupted its association to the film. Ultimately, in August 2012, Cecchi Gori Pictures sued Scorsese over an alleged breach of contract agreements related to Silence. According to the company, Scorsese signed a written agreement to shoot the film following 1997's Kundun, and Cecchi Gori Pictures had apparently invested more than $750,000 for this purpose. However, Scorsese chose to make Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed (2006), Shutter Island, Hugo and The Wolf of Wall Street. Cecchi Gori Pictures also asserted that Scorsese agreed to pay "substantial compensation and other valuable benefits" to direct the subsequent films, which he failed to do. Scorsese, via his representatives, responded that he denounced the lawsuit as a "media stunt" and a "meritless action". The lawsuit was ultimately settled in January 2014.

In April 2013, it was finally announced that Scorsese would begin production on Silence in 2014, after a reputed 23-year wait, with Emmett/Furla Films and Corsan Films financing the film. By February 2014, Scorsese had begun scouting locations in Taiwan, with filming set for the summer. Producer Irwin Winkler stated the choice to film in Taiwan was due to lower costs. Principal photography finally began in late January 2015 and concluded in mid May. Filming was completed in 73 days. Endō's official translator Professor Van C. Gessel, who has translated eight of his novels, assisted as a consultant on the film. In addition, Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest, worked closely with the filmmakers to ensure an accurate portrayal of the Jesuits. According to producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff, this shoot was as grueling as any she and Scorsese had ever experienced. Weather conditions in Taiwan were inhospitable due to the production being daylight-dependent. No luxuries to fall back on in terms of additional budgetary funding. Momentum for the film's marketing did not take steam until a month before the film's December limited theatrical release date. The film's premiere took place in November 2016, at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, followed by a special screening in Vatican City, where it was screened to four hundred Jesuit Priests.

The film stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto and Yōsuke Kubozuka. The cast gave spectacular performances, and perhaps the best performances of their careers. Garfield and Driver have given another career-making performances. Though only in a minor capacities, Neeson, Asano, Hinds, Tsukamoto and Kubozuka all deserve as much recognition as Garfield and Driver. However, the performance that stole the show was none other than Ogata, who gave a performance equivalent to Christoph Waltz's from Inglorious Basterds (2009). Both are equally clever, courteous, cunning, implacable, and brutal. He was my favourite character.

After decades of its long creative development, Martin Scorsese has finally brought us Silence - a thoughtful, emotionally resonant look at spirituality and human nature. Not only does it stands as one of the director's finest accomplishments, it also stands as the finest accomplishment in his entire body of work, and the finest accomplishment in modern cinema. A true masterpiece.
Simon says Silence receives:

Also, see my reviews for Vinyl and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Film Review: "Jackie" (2016).

"I want them to see what they have done to Jack."
This is the tragedy known as Jackie. This biographical drama film directed by Pablo Larraín and written by Noah Oppenheim. The film is a portrait of one of the most important and tragic moments in American history, seen through the eyes of the iconic First Lady, then Jacqueline Kennedy. It places us in her world during the days immediately following her husband's assassination. Known for her extraordinary dignity and poise, here we see a portrait of the First Lady as she fights to establish her husband's legacy and the world of "Camelot" that she created and loved so well.

The film's script, written by Noah Oppenheim, and was featured on The Black List of 2010. It was originally conceived as an HBO miniseries and covers the "four days between John F. Kennedy's assassination and his burial, showing Jackie at both her most vulnerable and her most graceful." In April 2010, it was announced that Rachel Weisz would star in the titular role, with Darren Aronofsky set to direct and produce the film from Oppenheim's script. However, Weisz dropped out of the project after her split from Aronofsky. Aronofsky dropped out of directing but remained as producer. In September 2012, Fox Searchlight Pictures started courting Natalie Portman to star in the film. In February 2015, Pablo Larraín was approached by Aronofsky to direct the film. Larraín was initially hesitant to direct one when he was offered the opportunity. Ultimately, Larraín would only accept if Portman would agree to star. Portman ultimately agreed to star and thus Larraín accepted the director's chair. By October 2015, the film was finally given the green light and the rest of the cast were signed on. In preparation for the role, Portman studied Jackie extensively by reading books, listening to audiotapes of her interviews and repeatedly watching videos of her, especially the White House tour recordings. However, the biggest challenge for Portman was mimicking Jackie's ranging vocals, because "conquering Kennedy's vocals was the key to the rest of the film." Principal photography on the film took place over a swift 23-day shooting schedule which began in December 2015 in a Paris-area studio where most of the interior scenes were shot. The production then moved to downtown Washington, D.C., where JFK's funeral procession scenes were filmed. When it came time to shooting Portman's scenes, Larraín estimates that a third of the shots in the film were the first take.

The film features an ensemble cast that includes Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Richard E. Grant, John Carroll Lynch and John Hurt. The cast gave solid performances, especially Portman. Who gives the performance of her career. Her reflective, powerfully solid performance fills this film with potency and purpose.

Gut-wrenching and emotionally affecting, Larraín's Jackie stands out thanks to its unusual approach and its strong performances from a great ensemble led by Portman. The film conveys a strong portrait of the inner complexities and contradictions of the extraordinarily fragile but dignified wife of the 35th President of the United States.

Simon says Jackie receives:

Also, see my review for Neruda.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Film Review: "The Edge of Seventeen" (2016).

"You're only young once... is it over yet?"
This is also known as The Edge of Seventeen. This coming-of-age comedy-drama film written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig. Everyone knows that growing up is hard, and life is no easier for high school junior Nadine, who is already at peak awkwardness when her all-star older brother Darian starts dating her best friend Krista. All at once, Nadine feels more alone than ever, until the unexpected friendship of a thoughtful boy gives her a glimmer of hope that things just might not be so terrible after all.

Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig had written a spec script, in the mould of a John Hughes teen coming-of-age story, which she then sent to producer James L. Brooks, in hopes that he would produce the film. Ultimately, Brooks loved the script and ended up taking on the project. The film would go on to become Craig's directorial debut. The working title of the movie was originally Besties. In August 2015, Hailee Steinfeld was cast in the film to play the lead role. In September 2015, Woody Harrelson and Kyra Sedgwick joined the film's cast. In October 2015, Blake Jenner was cast in the film. By the end of 2015, Hayden Szeto and Haley Lu Richardson joined the film. Principal photography on the film began in October 2015, and concluded in December 2015. Locations included Hollywood North and Anaheim, California, and the Metro Vancouver area in Canada. Guildford Park Secondary in Surrey, British Columbia stood in for the film's fictional school Lakewood High School. 

The film stars Hailee Steinfeld, Haley Lu Richardson, Hayden Szeto, Blake Jenner, Woody Harrelson and Kyra Sedgwick. The cast gave terrific performances, especially that of Steinfeld, who carried the film all on her own. She can be seen as a modern day interpretation of Molly Ringwald's Samantha "Sam" Baker from Sixteen Candles (1984). She was entertaining and credible, and provided a perfect center for the story. Steinfeld is radiant here as the quintessential teen looking for the bright side to adolescence.

The Edge of Seventeen is a sweet and funny movie about some of the worst things that can happen to a girl during her adolescence. High school is high school no matter what the date, and Craig ensures that the constancies of that age remain unchanged. The film is a racy, drunken, hilarious high school comedy. It demonstrates writer and director Craig's keen eye for the foibles, inner torments and social embarrassment of adolescence. Though, most of the the movie is cheerful and light, showcasing Craig's knack for remembering all those aspects of middle-class American adolescent behavior that anyone else might want to forget. The premise is rather clichéd and ordinary, but the film's dialogue is amusing, the gags are genuinely funny and its excellent cast is appealing. In the end, this high school film is just smart enough to be good and bad enough that it could be improved upon. A slightly over-sweet teen classic that's done just right.

Simon says The Edge of Seventeen receives:

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Film Review: "Passengers" (2016).

"There is a reason they woke up" in Passengers. This science fiction romance film directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Jon Spaihts. A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.

Since 2007, Spaihts' had gone through development hell, the script was even featured in the 2007 Blacklist, a list of the "most liked" unmade scripts of the year. Multiple directors and actors were attached to the project over the years, including Brian Kirk, David Fincher, Gabriele Muccino, Marc Forster, Keanu Reeves, Rachel McAdams, Reese Witherspoon and Emily Blunt. The film's production budget was a relatively low $35 million. In early December 2014, Sony Pictures Entertainment picked up the film's rights, with Tyldum attached to direct. Tyldum had always wanted to do a massive sci-fi action movie, but also stressed the importance of a character-driven sci-fi film, rather than a cold and distant one. In February 2015, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence were cast as the two leads. According to The Hollywood Reporter, both leads will be pulling down double digit millions: Pratt will be paid $12 Million while Lawrence is looking at $20 Million against 30% of the profits. By mid September, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, and Andy García rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in early February 2016. Filming took place at Pinewood Atlanta Studios in Atlanta, Georgia. Filming occasionally took place for full days with a bulk of the shooting involving the two leads only. The film was shot on the Arri Alexa 65 cameras, with Panavision Primo 70 Lenses, in the 2.39 : 1 aspect ratio.

The film stars Lawrence, Pratt, Sheen, Fishburne, and García. Solid performances were given by the cast, especially Lawrence and Pratt, whose chemistry works surprisingly well. Though, at times, their romance treaded on tiresome and cliched territory. They are appealing screen presences, but the film needs more than just that to stay alive.

Passengers doesn't overcome its questionable story, especially with the collapse of the third act, but barely succeeds largely on the strength of Lawrence and Pratt's graceful and effortless performances. The film is filled with a few amazing sequences, but ultimately failed due to its pretty weak and light screenplay for a sci-fi romance film. It wasn't quite as powerful, thought provoking, and challenging as one would have hoped. Instead it, especially its third act, felt like a betrayal and a compromise. I wouldn't dream of giving away the ending, but it's not likely to satisfy either sci-fi or romance fans. However, if you ignore its flaws, the film can be enjoyed as the perfect brainless Christmas blockbuster - but it is essentially a leftover festive turkey. It's absolutely dull in almost every other respect. But it's absolutely interesting in its vision of how lonely it would be to be the only one not in hibernation. 

Simon says Passengers receives:

Also, see my review for The Imitation Game.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Film Review: "Sing" (2016).

"Auditions begin 2016" for Sing. This computer-animated musical comedy film co-directed by Garth Jennings and Christophe Lourdelet, written by Jennings, and produced by Illumination Entertainment. To save his theatre from foreclosure, koala Buster Moon decides to host a singing competition with a 1,000 USD prize. But his assistant adds two extra zeroes by mistake while making the fliers.

In January 2014, it was announced that an animated musical comedy, about  about "courage, competition and carrying a tune", to be written and directed by Jennings, and produced by Illumination Entertainment. The film was originally entitled Lunch, then retitled Sing. In mid January 2015, Matthew McConaughey was cast in the film's lead voice role. In mid June 2015, it was confirmed that McConaughey's character was named Buster and that John C. Reilly would voice Eddie, a sheep and Buster's best friend. In November 2015, it was announced that Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, Tori Kelly and Taron Egerton had joined the cast of the film. From mid January to November 2015, Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly, Jennifer Saunders, Peter Serafinowicz, Nick Kroll, Nick Offerman, Leslie Jones, and Tara Strong were cast. The film features sixty-five pop songs, the rights to which cost fifteen percent of the film's $75 million budget. The animation was created entirely in France by Illumination Mac Guff.

The film features the voice talents of McConaughey, Witherspoon, MacFarlane, Johansson, Reilly, Egerton, Kelly, Saunders, Serafinowicz, Kroll, Offerman, Jones, and Strong. Despite the best efforts of the talented voice cast, unfortunately the characters were thinly distinguished, backed up by flashy yet enjoyable musical numbers, and full of gloppy sentimentality. The performances combines the barely-there characterization of The Secret Life of Pets with the somewhat irritating cute character design and adequate pop covers of Strange Magic.

Sing brings its instantly recognizable characters to the big screen in a colorful adventure that, while geared toward the younger set, isn't without rewards for parents. An animated fluffball—a sort of Trolls with anthropomorphic animals does everything to drive you crazy and ends up being totally irresistible. The film offers a beautifully animated, cheerfully undemanding family-friendly diversion, thanks to its fast-pace, humour and its talented voice cast. Ultimately, the 'do what you love' moral of the story, while trite compared to something like Trolls, is sufficiently sweet enough for its audience. Did you expect more from a piece of candy? You simply will walk out – or perhaps dance out – of the theatre feeling very happy yourself. Exuberant, busy and sometimes funny, Illumination Entertainment's Sing is determined to amuse. It's an admittedly vibrant-looking but awfully recognizable animated musical comedy concoction. Make no mistake: Kids are going to love this movie. It's cute, it's colourful, it has tons of catchy songs, and the messages are positive and easy to understand (happiness is inside everyone, if you know where/how to find it, and you shouldn't have to change who you are to get someone to like you).

Simon says Sing receives:

Also, see my review for The Secret Life of Pets.