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Split - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on January 20, 2017 at 3:25 PM Comments comments (0)

Back when M. Night Shyamalan was on top of the world, seeing one of his movies felt like an eagerly awaited event. Between “Lady and the Water” and “After Earth,” however, Shyamalan became a walking punch line. So when “The Visit” came along a couple years ago, film fans went into the theater anticipating another cringe-fest. To the surprise of many, though, Shyamalan turned in an eerie, humorous, and well-acted thriller. It wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but it was the first time in years that people actually had fun at a Shyamalan movie.


If “Split” proves anything, it’s that “The Visit” wasn’t a fluke. This is another effective work of horror from Shyamalan, who’s officially back on the right track. Like his previous outing, “Split” doesn’t take itself too seriously. If anything, it’s incredibly self-aware. At the same time, Shyamalan and his performers create a genuinely haunting, uncomfortable atmosphere. It’s a film that constantly catches the audience off guard, reminding us why Shyamalan was once considered the next Alfred Hitchcock.


The film follows three high school girls named Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). In the middle of the day, these unsuspecting teenagers find themselves at the mercy of a creepy kidnapper, played by James McAvoy. They wake up in a mysterious room where escape appears futile. Their captor is eventually revealed to be Kevin Wendell Crumb, but he’s not alone. Kevn is living with dissociative identity disorder and has over 20 alternate personalities.


In “The Sixth Sense,” Shyamalan delivered quite possibly the greatest twist since “Psycho.” “Split” is kind of like Shyamalan’s love letter to “Psycho.” Where Norman Bates only had one alternate personality, though, Kevin has enough alters to fill an asylum. This includes a woman named Patricia, a nine-year-old boy named Hedwig, and a Beast that supposedly possesses supernatural powers. The film is a remarkable acting showcase for McAvoy, who easily could have come off as too over-the-top in this role. Yet, he finds the perfect balance with each of these personalities and is consistently menacing.


Aside from Anthony Perkins in “Psycho,” McAvoy also earns comparison to John Goodman’s character in “10 Cloverfield Lane.” Like Goodman, McAvoy delivers a portrayal that’s truly worthy of serious award recognition. Of course the Academy will probably never go for a performance like this. We additionally get strong work from Taylor-Joy, who broke out into stardom last year in “The Witch.” Taylor-Joy plays her part with just the right amount of strength and restraint, as if she’s Alice trying to survive an even more twisted version of Wonderland. Betty Buckley also deserves a shout out for her work as Kevin’s psychologist, who’ s starting to suspect her patient might be going off the deep end.


All the while, Shyamalan supplies thrills, chills, and even an applaud-worthy twist, which I won’t spoil here. With that said, “Split” isn’t perfect. It’s about twenty minutes too long and occasionally some of Shyamalan’s more annoying tendencies surface. The dialog can get pretentious at times and there are a couple deaths that come off as a little too silly. Every time the film begins to drag, however, Shyamalan hooks us right back in. It’s often believed that all artists go through peaks and valleys. In Shyamalan’s case, he’s experienced the highest of highest and the lowest of lows. For now, he’s at a solid middle ground that’ll do just fine.


Grade: 3.5 Out of 5 Stars

Was it wrong for Joseph Fiennes to play Michael Jackson?

Posted by Nick Spake on January 15, 2017 at 4:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Seeing how it’s 2017, you’d think that whitewashing would be a thing of the past. Every other week, though, it feels like another news story comes out about whitewashing in the entertainment industry. From Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange to Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, this controversial subject seems to be more relevant now than ever. The latest case is Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson.

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Lion - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 23, 2016 at 5:05 PM Comments comments (0)

“Lion” is kind of like “Slumdog Millionaire” meets “Finding Dory.” That might sound an odd combination, but it’s the perfect way to describe Garth Davis’ powerful movie. With such a rich, remarkable story, “Lion” has the essence of a modern fable or an animated feature. You could especially see a director like Don Bluth tackling this material, although the human characters would probably be substituted with mice, dinosaurs, or well… lions. Believe it or not, this film is based on a non-fiction novel from Saroo Brierley. Of course even if “Lion” were a pure work of fantasy, it would still be a gripping, moving, and inspiring experience about never giving up.


This fantastic tale begins with young Sunny Pawar as Saroo, a five-year-old Indian boy who gets separated from his older brother at a train station. Falling asleep on a train, he wakes up in another country miles away from his family. Saroo attempts to navigate his way back home, but isn’t entirely sure where he’s from. After a series of misadventures, Saroo is eventually taken in by an adoption agency. He finds a loving home with two Australian parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham in wonderful supporting performances. He also gets an adopted brother (Divian Ladwa), who goes on to become black sheep of the family.


Another twenty-five years down the line, Saroo is an educated college student with a caring girlfriend (Rooney Mara). He additionally maintains a meaningful relationship with his adopted parents, always acting as their rock. Although everything seems to be working out for Saroo, part of him feels empty inside nonetheless. He becomes determined to find his birth parents in hopes of getting closure. Even with Google Earth at his disposal, however, the chances of a reunion appear slim.


Dev Patel continues to mature nicely as an actor, taking on the role of adult Saroo. He molds him into a likable, charming young man with great sorrow underneath the surface. As Saroo searches for his roots, he begins to dig himself into a pit of disappear. As all hope dwindles away, he begins to alienate his loved ones. Even when Saroo is at his worst, though, the audience identifies with his pain every step of the way. Kidman is particularly strong as Saroo’s adopted mother, who unconditionally loves her children and wants nothing more than to see them happy. Without an ounce of jealousy or cynicism, she completely supports Saroo’s endeavor to find his long-lost family.


This is a key example of why “Lion” is so uplifting. It’s a sincere film that doesn’t try to shove inspiration down your throat like “Collateral Beauty.” While there are certainly romanticized moments, the film truly earns those scenes through fleshed out writing, effective imagery, and characters that overflow with humanity. Director Garth Davis has primarily work in television, notably the “Top of the Lake” miniseries. “Lion” marks his first feature film and it’s a damn impressive directorial debut. He fully delivers in the emotional department with a film that understands the bonds of family. It may be familiar territory, but “Lion” reminds us why the universal theme of family seems to be at the center of every movie.

Grade: 4.5 Out of 5 Stars


La La Land - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 14, 2016 at 8:00 PM Comments comments (0)

The movie musical has made a major comeback over the past decade and a half. On the whole, though, every film has either been a Broadway adaptation like “Chicago” or a jukebox musical like “Moulin Rogue.” The only original movie musicals have been animated features, such as “Frozen” and “Moana.” Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” is a true treasure: a modern movie musical with unique songs, distinctive characters, and an inspired love story. Although the film is set in contemporary Los Angeles, it has the look and feel of a musical from cinema’s Golden Age. What we’re left with is a miraculous film that has one foot in the past and one foot in the present, finding a pitch perfect balance.


From the opening number, “La La Land” is an enchanting experience that never lets up. As the music builds, a seemingly mundane California freeway is suddenly transformed into a blissful celebration with over 100 dancers. Chazelle’s film is full of scenes like this, draping everyday settings with eye-popping colors and kinetic energy. He gives LA an otherworldly presence, turning the City of Flowers and Sunshine into the City of Dreams. At the heart of this spectacular backdrop are two fools with the audacity to dream big.


Emma Stone deserves to take home this year’s Best Actress Oscar for her stunning performance as Mia. Reminiscent of Stone’s own life story, Mia is an enormously gifted actress who rolled the dice and moved to LA. In a city full of aspiring artists, however, it’s almost impossible to get noticed. She pours her heart and soul into every audition, but the casting directors never give their undivided attention. In addition to being an exquisite singer and dancer, Stone captures all the heartache and struggle of being a performer while also maintaining the passion that drives people to keep going. She most notably nails it in a captivating musical number entitled “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” which is sure to be a frontrunner for Best Original Song.


Starring opposite Stone is Ryan Gosling as Sebastian. He’s a serious musician who wants nothing more to open his own jazz club. Alas, he finds himself playing Christmas carols for a demanding restaurant owner, played by J. K. Simmons. The jazz pianist eventually sets his pride aside and takes a steady gig with John Legend’s Keith. While the money is good, Seb fears that he’ll never get to play the kind of music he cherishes so much. This begs the age-old question, can an artist be happy with their work and be a success as well?


Stone and Gosling previously appeared side by side in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “Gangster Squad.” In “La La Land,” they solidify their place as one of cinema’s greatest onscreen pairings. Every time these two are together, they unleash a wave of chemistry that practically drowns the audience in the sentiment of romance. They share a particularly wonderful dance sequence against the LA night sky, calling Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to mind. Another number literally defies gravity, elevating our lovers above the stars so they can dance on air.


With flamboyant production design, lively lighting, and an infectious musical score from composer Justin Hurwitz, “La La Land” appropriately feels like a daydream. At the same time, though, it doesn’t shy away from harsh reality. The film acknowledges all the hardships and sacrifices that come with pursuing your dream. Even if your dream does come true, it might not play out exactly how you envisioned. No matter what road you take, however, you’re always going to look back and wonder what might have been.


This leads to the film’s superb finale, which I won’t dare spoil here. Let’s just say it encompasses everything that makes movies magical. Chazelle’s last picture, “Whiplash,” was a remarkable feat, especially for such a young filmmaker. His follow-up outing is somehow even better, standing out as the best film of his career, the best film of the year, and maybe even the best film of the decade.

Grade: 5 out of 5 Stars


Office Christmas Party - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 9, 2016 at 11:30 AM Comments comments (0)

“Office Christmas Party” has all the ingredients for a classic holiday comedy. The setup invites numerous potentially humorous scenarios and the cast is universally excellent. Alas, the movie never turns into a laugh riot, although there are big laughs spread throughout. For a film that had so many comedic possibilities practically giftwrapped, “Office Christmas Party” is somewhat disappointing. With that said, it’s hard to dismiss the film entirely when certain moments do hit bull’s-eyes. It also helps that “Bad Santa 2” set the bar so low just a couple weeks ago.

 T. J. Miller plays Clay Vanstone, a rowdy screw-up who manages a branch of his late father’s business. Jennifer Aniston is delightfully pessimistic as Carol, Clay’s older sister and the company CEO. With the demeanor of Ebenezer Scrooge, Carol tells her brother that he needs to lay off 40% of his employees and cancel all Christmas bonuses. On top of that, the whole office is on the verge of being shut down. The only person who might be able to save the branch is a potential client named Walter Davis, played Courtney B. Vance of “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” Along with Jason Bateman’s Josh and Olivia Munn’s Tracey, Clay sets out to put on an epic Christmas party to win Walter over. As you can imagine, things quickly escalate out of hand.

The biggest problem with “Office Christmas Party” is that it often treads on familiar territory. We’ve seen countless other raunchy holiday movies like this, such as “The Night Before,” “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas,” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” The filmmakers borrow one too many pages from those films without really adding anything very original. On top of that, the film also clearly drew inspiration from “The Hangover,” “Sisters,” and “The Office.” Then again, nobody is going to see this movie expecting anything revolutionary. The target audience is probably just looking for something wacky and festive. On that basis, “Office Christmas Party” is enjoyable enough.

While a lot of the punch lines are predictable, the acting ensemble adds a great deal to the equation. Miller, Aniston, Bateman, and Munn all have wonderful chemistry together. Of course the real scene-stealer is Kate McKinnon as Mary, a human resources representative who turns out to have a bit of a wild side. We also get some funny performances from Vanessa Bayer, Rob Corddry, and Randall Park as the office co-workers. Jillian Bell particularly kills it as a pimp who can be nice one second and naughty the next. Unlike some other comedies with large ensembles, everyone is given an appropriate amount of screen time and nobody overstays their welcome.

“Office Christmas Party” is about a group of employees coming together to save a dying company. Likewise, the cast comes together here and salvages much of the movie. If you’re in search of something smarter and deeper, you can always check out “La La Land,” “Manchester by the Sea,” or any of the other award season favorites. If you’re in the mood for a lighthearted holiday comedy, though, “Office Christmas Party” fits the bill. Just keep in mind it’s kind of like a Christmas present you’ll play with for one day and then forget about by New Year’s.

3 out of 5 Stars

Moana Interview - Animator Darrin Butters

Posted by Nick Spake on November 24, 2016 at 11:55 PM Comments comments (0)

My interview with character animator Darrin Butters (no relation to the "South Park" character). Butters has been part of the Disney family for 20 years. He got his bring break in 1996, working as an assistant on the studio’s first CG animated feature, "Dinosaur." Since then, he’s played a role in "Bolt," "Tangled," "Wreck-It Ralph," "Paperman," "Frozen," "Big Hero 6," "Zootopia," and of course "Moana."


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Loving - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 10, 2016 at 6:05 PM Comments comments (0)

"Loving" is a dramatization of arguably the most significant interracial marriage in American history. It’s actually surprising that Hollywood has taken almost fifty years to produce a major motion picture about the Loving v. Virginia case. Of course there was a 1996 made for television movie starring Timothy Hutton and Lela Rochon. Even in today’s supposedly progressive world, the themes depicted in "Loving" remain as relevant as ever. Sure, interracial marriage might not be prohibited in the US anymore, but audiences can still draw parallels to same-sex marriage, which only just became legal in all fifty states. Racial tensions also continue to run high in our country with many people taking sides. In that sense, "Loving" couldn’t have come at a better time, especially now that Donald Trump is president.


Joel Edgerton turns in some of his finest work as Richard Loving, a white man from Virginia. Richard is deeply in love with an African American woman named Mildred Jeter, beautifully played by Ruth Negga. When Mildred becomes pregnant, Richard doesn’t think twice about asking her to marry him. Since it’s 1958, though, interracial marriage is still outlawed in their home state. The couple tries to beat the system by getting hitched in Washington, D.C. After returning to Virginia, however, they’re both quickly incarcerated.


Richard and Mildred are given two options. They can either remain in jail or find a new home in Washington. The two naturally choose the latter, but the adjustment isn’t easy. As much as Mildred loves Richard, it pains her to be so far away from her family in Virginia. It appears that the couple might be able to finally get some justice when a politician named Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) catches wind of their situation. He believes that the case could go all the way to the Supreme Court, abolishing the interracial marriage ban for good.


Mildred is willing to get in front of the cameras and voice her opinion. Richard is much more reluctant to put himself out there, fearing that his family will be harassed and killed. He’s willing to take a risk, though, if it will make his wife happy and lead to a brighter future. This is largely what makes "Loving" such a great film. Even when Richard and Mildred aren’t speaking to each other, they’re always on the same page. Life might not always be simple for them, but the audience never doubts for a second that these two adore one another and will overcome any obstacle together. The bond they share is truly powerful and poignant, reminding us that love should be the only factor when it comes marriage.


Writer/Director Jeff Nichols is known for making very understated films that manage to say a lot with minimal dialog or action. His signature subtlety is present throughout the entirety of "Loving." Nichols is given numerous opportunities to take a more straightforward or obvious route, but he avoids melodrama around every corner. Instead, he gets the film’s messages across through low-key direction and multi-layered performances. The result is a gripping, thrilling, and inspiring experience audiences everywhere should take to heart.

4 out of 5 Stars

Arrival - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 10, 2016 at 5:55 PM Comments comments (0)

Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” would make a superb double feature with Jeff Nichols’s “Midnight Special,” which hit theaters earlier this year. Both movies have phenomenal buildup, calling to mind Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” “Arrival” in particular is perhaps the closest any contemporary film has come to capturing the wonder of a classic “Twilight Zone” episode. Like Rod Serling’s best works, “Arrival” is a poignant and clever piece of science fiction with provocative themes that parallel our own society. Above all else, this is a challenging mystery that keeps you guessing until the final act, which fortunately doesn’t disappoint.


Amy Adams, who’s still overdue for an Oscar, gives one of her finest performances as Dr. Louise Banks. This linguist becomes the government’s go-to girl when several UFOs arrive on earth. Upon making first contact, the military quickly finds that the aliens are unfamiliar with the human language. These extraterrestrials primarily communicate through visuals that kind of look like inkblots. Banks is tasked with not only interpreting their language, but also teaching the aliens how to converse with humans.


“Arrival” features great supporting performances from Forest Whitaker as a US military colonel and Jeremy Renner as a hunky mathematician. However, the film belongs to Adams, who creates a strong, smart, and driven protagonist at the center of the biggest event in human history. Banks is already coping with the loss of her daughter, who died for a terminal illness. Yet, this doesn’t stop her from pushing forward with the weight of the world on her shoulders. Adams brings a genuine sense of awe to her role and keeps us invested every step of the way.


The aliens are also unique creations with some of the most distinctive designs since “District 9.” Their spaceships in particular are highly inventive, looking like eclipsed moons on the outside. On this inside, though, they’re reminiscent of the Star Gate from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” With a budget of only $50 million, Villeneuve accomplishes so much on a visual level than Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, or Zach Snyder could with $200 million. While the effects here are extraordinary, they really aren’t the focus here. This is a movie about communication, which is especially significant in an era where so many cultures seem divided and disconnected. If we could all learn to speak a universal language, though, we might just move towards a brighter future.


There’s an unwavering sense of uncertainty throughout much of “Arrival,” as Banks attempts to uncover why these aliens are here. Have they come to enrich humankind or cause our downfall? Eric Heisserer’s screenplay brings everything full circle in the end with a twist that surprisingly doesn’t feel forced. Villeneuve, who previously gave us “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” continues to prove that he’s among our most impressive up-and-coming directors. One can only hope he’ll bring the same passion and intelligence to the upcoming “Blade Runner 2049.” Until then, “Arrival” is a modern sci-fi classic that’ll make audiences think while also influencing them to keep watching the stars.


4.5 out of 5 Stars

Moonlight - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 4, 2016 at 2:00 AM Comments comments (0)

“Moonlight” is a stunning cinematic achievement that has a fair deal in common with Richard Linklater's “Boyhood.” Both films are extraordinary coming-of-age stories. “Boyhood” was primarily about capturing the experience of growing up, however, painting a picture that could speak to anybody. “Moonlight,” meanwhile, is arguably a more personal outing, depicting a young man’s search for an identity in a ruthless environment. Barry Jenkins’ film is tragic, gritty, and occasionally flat-out brutal. At the same time, though, it catches you off guard with its moments of sheer hope.


The movie is broken into three acts, following an African American named Chiron throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Newcomer Alex R. Hibbert plays Chiron as a young boy. Bullied by the other kids his age, Chiron is branded with the nickname “Little.” Chiron’s home life isn’t much better, as his dad is absent and his mom is an abusive drug addict. In a Best Supporting Actress caliber performance, Naomie Harris dominates the screen as Chiron’s mother. Creating a cruel and unpredictable character, her portrayal is right up there with Mo'Nique’s Oscar-winning work in “Precious,” although Harris’ character arguably has more humanity.


Chiron finds two parental figures in a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). While Juan seems like a threatening individual at first, he becomes the first person to show Chiron love and support. It quickly becomes clear that Juan puts up a tough front, having a heart of gold underneath. With that said, Juan is still forced to do things he’s not proud of in order to survive. Guess who sold those drugs to Chiron’s mother in the first place?


Ashton Sanders plays Chiron as a teenager, leading to the darkest act in “Moonlight.” Chiron is tormented at school, as thugs beat him relentlessly while shouting homophobic slurs. The closest thing Chiron has to a friend is Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). The closer they get, Chiron and Kevin find that their feelings for each other might run deeper than friendship. Like Juan, though, Kevin also needs to preserve his image to get by. This ultimately influences Chiron to make a decision that will forever change the course of his life.


Two-thirds into “Moonlight,” some audience members might wonder why they’re watching such a bleak, difficult film. However, they’ll begin to understand why in the third act where Trevante Rhodes plays an adult Chiron. Without giving too much away, the film’s final destination is a lot different than what audiences will likely expect. Let’s just saw that it brings Chiron’s life full circle in a smart, poignant, and beautiful manner.


Barry Jenkins has delivered a truly profound film about labels, society, and the masks we wear. “Moonlight” also provides an insightful looks at the phenomenon of nature vs. nurture, demonstrating what it means to product of your environment. It accomplishes this with superb acting, a gripping score, and subtle direction. Most importantly, it encourages us to see other people in multiple lights, as the world isn’t always black and white.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

5 reasons Star Trek is moving in the right direction

Posted by Nick Spake on July 24, 2016 at 3:10 PM Comments comments (0)

As much as diehard Trekkers might deny it, though, the reboot films have all been exceptional in their own right. With the release of "Star Trek Beyond," let’s take a look at five reasons why this franchise is moving in the right direction.

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