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Film Dispenser Short Takes (2/7/17)

It’s a big week in the world of digital home video. The films we look at this time around combined for 29 Oscar nominations when they were announced on January 24, 2017. Four of these films are nominated for Best Picture. Bleed for This is the only film we cover this week that isn’t in contention for a gold statue. Occasionally awards hype isn’t justified (Hacksaw Ridge?), but the majority of these films deserve your attention. So fire up your Apple TVs, Rokus, laptops and tablets and get caught up on these titles before the Big Night on February 26th.

Arrival (Scott Phillips): This film from director Denis Villeneuve (SicarioEnemy) puts the wonder back in science fiction. Think Close Encounters, not Star Wars. When an alien species shows up on our shores, the military enlists linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to help the governments of the world communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. Do they mean us harm? Or is this peaceful First Contact? Anchored by Adams’ pitch-perfect lead performance, Arrival finds the heart so often absent from big screen science fiction. Bradford Young’s cinematography and Johann Johannsson’s score combine to give Arrival a sense of awe that’s streaked with dread. As with most great films, Arrival improves with each viewing. It’s an instant sci-fi classic and one of the best films of 2016. Don’t miss it.  (9 out of 10)

Bleed for This (Spencer Howard): Do you like boxing movies? Bleed For This was made for you. It is neither groundbreaking nor particularly entertaining, but its familiar motions and few good performances make it a worthwhile use of your time if you enjoy the genre. Miles Teller plays Vinnie Pazienza, the hot-shot boxer who suffers great injury and must use his gumption to overcome the odds. That Katey Sagal as his mom in the periphery of the main plot is the most interesting character says most of what you need to know about this film. There are great little details surrounded by big broad strokes in a genre you’re all too familiar with. The action and montages are standard. Teller is good, and a reason to watch the film, but I think your appreciation of Teller gets you through the first section of the film and no further. After that, it’s all cruise control until the end. An easy ride. But you could nap and get to the same destination.  (5 out of 10)

Hacksaw Ridge (Spencer Howard): Mel Gibson’s Oscar-nominated comeback plays into all of his strengths as a filmmaker and enhances all of his weaknesses. The director is known for the violence of his previous films. Those epics feature cinematic brutality that shakes the physical core of the viewer and pushes the boundaries of decency. The cinematic proficiency with which Gibson portrays torturous violence cause his films to feel not like exploitation but art gone rogue.

The failing of Gibson’s work comes in it’s earnest over-achieving. The Passion is a violent extreme because Gibson feels there is no other way to tell that story than to lean into how real the violence would have been. The first half of Hacksaw Ridge is Gibson at his most earnest. Andrew Garfield’s conscientious objector during World War II is as sweet and “gee golly” good as possible. His girl is a perfect, sweet nurse who cares for the wounded. The setting is picture-perfect Americana. So sweet and pristine, it must be worth protecting.

It’s all sap for 50% of the movie, and it can be grating. But it’s a heavy (and obvious) contrast when Gibson takes Garfield to war. The balance between the first and second halves of the film aids in balancing the horrors of war and the motivations for Garfield’s heroic acts of valor. You’ll be exhausted by the end and when you think back on the film, you’ll feel like you got two films for the price of one. (6.8 out of 10)Manchester by the Sea (Scott Phillips):  This third film from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) is a tale of a man performing penance. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) lives a meager life in a below-ground apartment, literally finding himself beneath the rest of society.  We can see the guilt in his eyes and his hang-dog posture. But, why? What wrongs is Lee atoning for? With its artfully-edited use of flashbacks, Manchester by the Sea answers those questions when Lee is called home for a family emergency and must face his past in the process. As each scene unfolds, layers are added to his character. The audience doesn’t have a full picture of the man until the film reaches its final act. Relative newcomer Lucas Hedges delivers a complex performance as Lee’s teenaged nephew that garnered the young actor a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Manchester by the Sea is a rich drama. Just be forewarned that it’s some emotional heavy-lifting.  (9 out of 10)  [To read Scott’s featured review of this film, click here.]

Moonlight (Scott Phillips): Director Barry Jenkins uses three actors to portray a young black man coming of age in a low-income Miami neighborhood. Much has been made of the film’s exploration of sexual identity, but those labels make Moonlight sound like a cinematic one-trick pony. This beautifully-realized drama explores all facets of identity and ponders how it feels to be an outsider in your own world. Moonlight is one of those films where each facet of the filmmaking (cinematography, score, screenplay, performance) is individually striking yet blends into a seamless whole. The third act of the film may be the best final minutes of any film released last year. Not only is it the best film of 2016, it’s one of the best films of the decade. Moonlight is must-see cinema. (9.5 out of 10) 

Nocturnal Animals (Marie O’Sullivan): A story within a story, every shot in Nocturnal Animals is framed to perfection. In this, his second feature, director Tom Ford explores a pervasive ‘wanting-it-all’ mentality where greed and desire result in unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Even when we have everything we could possibly imagine, it’s not enough.

The cool, natural palette of Amy Adams’ sterile home contrasts with the warm yellow tones of the West Texas sun as she reads the proof copy of her ex-husband’s novel. All emotion and intensity seems to seep out of reality and into fantasy as seen by Adams’ Susan as she reads. The violence is strong. The male characters are unpleasant, yet the narrative is compelling.

I disagree with the criticism that this film is style over substance. There is definite substance here, but perhaps it’s just that the style gets in the way once too often. 8/10



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