21st Century Treasure Quest #11
Our contributor Renard N. Bansale has completed 12 more contemporary film reviews for your consideration. The rating system he'll use is devised primarily to give those who are trying to decide which films to see, a fun and easy way of (hopefully) choosing a more pleasurable movie-going experience. For a further introduction to this series please see 21st Century Treasure Quest #1. (A.G.)
An 89th Academy Awards Special Edition
1 chest: Definitely worth missing
2 chests: Okay to kill some time
3 chests: Not a complete success, but rewarding
4 chests: Well-crafted, creative and memorable
5 chests: A real treasure, deep, profound and original
Arrival (2016—Director: Denis Villeneuve)
(Winner of Best Sound Editing)
Tackling the narrative complexity of Ted Chiang's 1998 short story "Story of Your Life" is an ambitious venture, but French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario) and writer Eric Heisserer (Lights Out) manage to effectively translate that complexity to the big screen. Bradford Young's breathtaking cinematography never loses focus of lead star Amy Adams' character, with Adams delivering a deeply poignant and layered performance that resonates long after this revelatory film ends.
Fences (2016—Director: Denzel Washington)
(Winner of Best Supporting Actress for Viola Davis)
A veteran of this film's 2010 Broadway revival, director and lead star Denzel Washington resurrects the dormant screen adaptation of author August Wilson's 1983 play, successfully transforming its theatrical origins into impactful cinematic intimacy. Race relations, familial connections, spousal responsibilities, one's relationship with an oppressive world... all of these themes are explored with precision, abetted by the powerhouse performances, not only from Washington, but the entire ensemble, especially Viola Davis as the weary wife and mother.
Hacksaw Ridge (2016—Director: Mel Gibson)
(Winner of Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing)
Actor-director Mel Gibson has never failed to prove his worth behind the camera, as evidenced by this World War II-era biographical drama even after a decade-long hiatus. The traditional Hollywood execution of the story's romance and boot camp centered first half will border on saccharine for some, but once the story transports us to the titular battlefield, the presentational technical craft on display—not to mention the war's extremely graphic physical effects—throttle to an unforgiving yet exhilarating degree. Thankfully, Andrew Garfield's (The Social Network, The Amazing Spider-Man) candid take on the real-life Christian pacifist and conscientious objector never once falters amidst the violent mayhem.
Hell or High Water (2016—Director: David Mackenzie)
(Nominated for 4 Oscars, including Best Picture)
Previously reviewed here.
Hidden Figures (2016—Director: Theodore Melfi)
(Nominated for 3 Oscars, including Best Picture)
Writer-director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) succeeds in promoting to the masses the important, yet under-acknowledged (hence the title) struggles of African-American NASA mathematicians and engineers Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) in the early days of America's manned space program. That being said, the film's light, populist-friendly tone merits little re-watchability, save for history teachers wanting to educate and entertain their students at the same time.
Jackie (2016—Director: Pablo Larraín)
(Nominated for 3 Oscars)
From the opening notes of Mica Levi’s foreboding and haunting score, it is clear that this biographical drama and character study of arguably America’s most iconic First Lady would be anything but conventional. Director Pablo Larraín (No, The Club, Neruda) and writer Noah Oppenheim (current president of NBC News) expertly harness the smooth, illusory cinematography of Stéphane Fontaine, the period-accurate costumes of Madeline Fontaine, Jean Rabasse's detailed recreation of the White House interior, and—most importantly—the consummate lead performance (featuring a spot-on accent) of Natalie Portman. These efforts do not merely contribute to Jackie's point-of-view regarding her husband's assassination, but give viewers an emotionally absorbing transformational journey of royal bliss to sudden bloody horror, the paranoid and grieving aftermath, and finally an acceptance of both life's immense challenges and hope for the future.
La La Land (2016—Director: Damien Chazelle)
(Winner of 6 Oscars, including Best Director, and if only for a minute or so, Best Picture)
Given the current entertainment landscape, saturated with hype-heavy, infantilized fancies, writer-director Damien Chazelle's ode to the cinematic musicals of the past is an artistic miracle. The inspired, but naturally occuring singing, dance routines, and piano-playing of stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, coupled with the jazz-infused music of composer Justin Hurwitz and songwriting duo Pasek & Paul, lovingly guide audiences by the hand through a simple, but charming, bold, and magical journey for the ages.
Lion (2016—Director: Garth Davis)
(Nominated for 6 Oscars)
Director Garth Davis (in his feature debut) and writer Luke Davies experiment with a mostly-successful story structure in tackling the real-life, harrowing journey of Indian-born Australian Saroo Brierley. The first half properly places the viewer in the adventurous but disorientating and vulnerable standpoint of a young and chipper Saroo (newcomer Sunny Pawar). The second half, on the other hand, meanders by attempting to match the emotional turbulence of an adult Saroo (Dev Patel, in a career-best performance) obsessively looking for his hometown via Google Maps, often suggesting that the narrative may be losing its way. Fortunately, the film reorients itself toward the journey's end, with the gorgeous cinematography of Greig Fraser (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and music by Hauschka and Dustin O'Halloran enhancing the sentimental conclusion to breathtaking effect.
Manchester by the Sea (2016—Director: Kenneth Lonergan)
(Winner of Best Actor for Casey Affleck and Best Original Screenplay)
Casey Affleck rightfully won the Best Actor Oscar for his implosive and nuanced portrayal of a man whose horrible past mistake and resulting grief has worn him down, both emotionally and socially—that is, until the untimely death of his older brother forces him to take care of his teen nephew (Lucas Hedges, in a commanding supporting performance). Aside from the bizarre elements of the story's parents encouraging their teen sons and daughters to fool around, and how the police inexplicably overlook a certain verbal admission during the film's big flashback, audiences open to writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) visionary exploration of deep depression will find their emotions as affected as the story's characters.
Moana (2016—Director: Ron Clements & John Musker)
(Nominated for 2 Oscars, including Best Animated Feature)
Given Disney's history regarding its often bland portrayal of ethnicities, it is relieving to watch the Polynesian culture living proudly and accurately in one of the studio's canon animated films, further highlighted by the uplifting musical compositions of Opetaia Foa'i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. A shame, then, that the story cannot decide whether to sail its own path or retreat to the make-believe formula of previous Disney princess films, leaving viewers in a disappointing suspension of expectations. It does not help that the exchanges from the lead duo, consisting of the determined but naïve titular character (newcomer Auli'i Cravalho) and Maui, the narcissistic, shape-shifting demigod (Dwayne Johnson, projecting an out-of-place modern-day sensibility), seem to produce more friction than chemistry, while the quirky mythological creatures encountered throughout the film are relegated to solitary sequences.
Moonlight (2016—Director: Barry Jenkins)
(Winner of 3 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali)
There were few films from 2016 that were as personal, intimate, and visually impressive as writer-director Barry Jenkins’ spotlight of three chapters in a young African-American boy’s life. The acting, from the concentrated, engrossing performances of Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris to the three actors portraying the protagonist in each chapter (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), is remarkable. The cinematography by James Laxton flows and captures vivid color, while the score by Nicholas Britell perfectly accenuates the story’s sobering tone. The film's slow pacing and moments of silence make hearts race and speak volumes more than most of the recent big-budget blockbusters.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016—Director: Gareth Edwards)
(Nominated for 2 Oscars)
The director of 2014's Godzilla crafts the grand, if mostly forgettable, first theatrical spinoff of the popular Star Wars franchise. A story of how the Rebel Alliance managed to obtain the plans to the classified, planet-destroying Death Star battle station (before, merely a sentence in the opening crawl of the original 1977 Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope), exchanges the insanely-hyped 2015 Force Awakens' updated continuation of the series, for a brutal, dour, and more grounded ensemble vehicle whose runtime unfortunately necessitates compromising on individual character development. That being said, the final battle combining land, space, and covert heist elements in a race against time offers some of the best cinematic craftsmanship this franchise has seen thus far.
Toni Erdmann (2016—Director: Maren Ade)
(Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film)
German director Maren Ade presents a heartwarming, although somewhat awkward, father-daughter story that hilariously satirizes modern world frailties with the poetic delicacy and simple endearment of a children's book, but then mixes in some unnecessary scenes of sexuality. Lead stars Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller carry the film at its nearly three-hour runtime effortlessly, while Hüller's rendition of Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All" will go down as one of current cinema's most glorious musical moments.
For more of Renard's contemporary film reviews please see 21st Century Treasure Quest #12.