Friday 29 December 2017

Top Movies of 2017

Top 5 Movies of 2017*

*Australian release dates

The reason I didn't get to the movies as much in 2017. 

5. Miss Sloane

Say it with me now: N-A-S-T-Y W-O-M-A-N! 

I've always been fascinated with lobbying as a profession and the relationship between lobbying and politics, and Miss Sloane only increased my fascination. What I enjoyed most about this movie, other than Chastain's commanding performance, is that it was intelligent. It examined the gun debate from both sides and demonstrated how political and deep vested interests run. We've known and witnessed for decades how timid politicians are in standing and declaring against the behemoth that is the NRA, but what I wasn't as familiar with is the tactics that are used to exploit and muddy the water. Many people I talk to see the need for gun and even constitutional reform as common sense. Miss Sloane aims to broaden our horizons and delve into how difficult change is to implement from within D.C.. (Note: I'm a lot more convinced these days by arguments for change from the bottom up. Bring about cultural and social change towards firearms, what freedom means today, individual rights and the common good, and our reading and understanding of the Constitution in the 21st century through education. If we seek to bring these changes through educational institutions and local communities then perhaps we will see real generational shifts.)

After watching Chastain's brilliant performance in Zero Dark Thirty, it was a no-brainer that she deserved to get the nod for this character-driven movie. It's also about time we see more films that depend on powerful leading actors/roles, roles which are intelligent and three-dimensional, go to females.

Oh, this might also be the first John Madden movie that I actually enjoyed. Don't get me started on Shakespeare in Love! Credit needs to go to the writer, Jonathan Perera, whose dialogue-driven script is Sorkin-esque and acts as a compelling hook.

4. Logan

At some point outliving those you love has to take its toll. This eternal truth is what Logan explores.

I don't know who was able to convince the honchos to go with an R rating, but it is what the franchise has been missing. If you are going to do this character justice, then you have to venture past the gruff voice and occasional swear word, and delve deeper into his psyche and grim outlook.

In the midst of this barren, almost dystopian world - think Mad Max: Fury Road, comes a young mutant who will once again unleash Logan's animalistic rage while simultaneously triggering his desire to not let another mutant walk his path. This young mutant, Laura (Dafne Keen), is every bit the equal of Wolverine and this is put to the test with eye-popping fight scenes that might top those in Deadpool. (Mangold aced the 'show don't tell' test.)

Interwoven through this dark tale is a return-to-Eden hope that develops slowly and methodically. This allows Logan to further challenge the superhero genre and give Hugh the finale he deserved.

3. Blade Runner 2049

The original Blade Runner popped my cinematic cherry. After watching Ridley Scott's visionary masterpiece, I started to understand that not every movie is good. It also served as my first foray into the entertaining genre of film noir.

Director Denis Villeneuve was taking on a movie steeped in cinematic and philosophical lore, and for the most part, he surpassed expectations. Villeneuve maintained the dystopian noir and philosophical elements that made Blade Runner a classic. He also was able to add to this desolate future and make viewers feel uncomfortable in this capitalist wasteland. Villeneuve's masterstroke comes in the lead Blade Runner, K (Ryan Gosling), who has gone from embracing his role in this slavish society (to "retire" old Blade Runners) to questioning his existence.

Some have said the movie, which stretches for over two and a half hours, is too long. I beg to differ. Blade Runner 2049 had to be introspective and contemplative, with K slowly piecing together the meaning of his dreams and purpose.

And, once again, the ending doesn't disappoint.

2. Silence

I first learned about the horrendous ordeal Jesuit missionaries experienced in East Asia - especially Japan - in 2011 when I wrote an essay about the Latin Church's Counter-Reformation and the Jesuits. The primary sources, those which have been translated, are harrowing. Even angry atheists would cry out in empathy when reading about the torture and unspeakable pain these men endured.

When I learned that Martin Scorsese - who has a fascinating relationship with the Catholic Church and spirituality - was finally taking on Shusaku Endo's novel, I tried to get my hands on any and all developments. I knew Scorsese had wanted to make this adaptation, it just seemed to be a bridge too far. Now I get it. Silence is beyond intense. Your senses are invaded from the opening (torture) scene, and you'll feel as if you are crouched alongside Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), praying for respite, by the end.

As a committed Christian, what tore me to pieces was my need to put myself in the shoes of the Christians and asking myself, "Could my faith survive this?" I felt a bit selfish making it about me, but I couldn't stop myself. (I don't suggest others try this as the movie is over two hours and you might break down!) To borrow an old cliche, Silence is a religious experience. Literally.

I often found myself in the shoes of the character some have described as "the Judas figure", Kichijiro (a profound performance by Yosuke Kubozuka). Kichijiro assists two Jesuit priests in their search for a missionary who they have been told has recanted his faith and creed, Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Kichijro guides the young (and in many ways ignorant) priests into Japan and then struggles to maintain his faith in the face of local officials who want to stamp out Christianity. Kichijro's reluctance to die for his faith is understandable, and I found it impossible to judge or even scoff at him.

Then there is the character of Inoue (Issei Ogata), a wise and experienced persecutor who sets himself apart by not only torturing Christians physically but also psychologically and mentally. Even a brief lesson in church history will back up the truth that physically torturing and killing believers has not led to the demise of Christianity. Inoue has learned this firsthand and has made it his mission to combat Rodrigues by planting and tending to the seeds of doubt. These scenes were some of the most challenging and thought-provoking, as we too must encounter the silence.

I understand that this movie is not for everyone. However, I still left believing that there is beauty to be found in the devotion, relationships and even in the torture.

1. Manchester By The Sea

The main reason I took to 20th-century modernist literature as a teenager is that things don’t always come full circle. The novels and short stories often end in despair. There were forces at play that didn’t allow the traditional narrative arc to take place. I connected with this and still do. I recognise the scars that won’t ever entirely heal. They often get airtime when I sleep. The blessing is that I get to wake up knowing that I am a recipient of grace. But there are times when I wake and wonder what I’d do if the dreams were my earthly reality. This is what Manchester by the Sea explores through its lead, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck).

This is a perfectly written and set movie. Better known for his stage work, Kenneth Lonergan wrote and directed Manchester by the Sea with stripped down and raw detail. The movie follows the moment Lee Chandler is called back to his hometown, Manchester by the Sea, after his brother is pronounced dead. This grief is compounded by Lee’s life-defining loss, which threatens to consume him.

At the outset we find Lee shovelling snow and repairing worn down apartments in a bland Boston neighbourhood. He’s a gritty bloke in a gritty place. However, this opening scene spoke volumes and continued to catch my mind’s eye when the credits rolled. This is because through perfectly placed and timed flashbacks we discover what Lee’s trajectory and outlook were before his unspeakable tragedy.

This brings us to his hometown, where Lee must look after his nephew (Lucas Hodges) while processing his brother’s passing. The relationship between Lee and Patrick acclimates us to the town and gives us some light-hearted and universally relatable moments. It’s a brilliant and subtle touch.

The setting and recreation of the town, which in real life is actually well to do, complements the director’s patient style. Mixed with Lee’s flashbacks, the setting almost emerges as the dominant figure in the movie.

When we come to the flashback that everything has been leading to, there are no words. The decision to focus on the faces of the onlookers was breathtaking. I remember closing my eyes before turning to look at my wife and then 2-month-old baby. From here everything clicks, and we begin to dive beneath the surface and study the mind and inner working of Lee.

“I can’t beat it. I can’t. I’m sorry.”

Surprise of the Year: The Big Sick

Brilliant. Refreshingly brilliant.

I watch romcoms with Claire because, well, it puts runs on the board. I can't recall the last one I actually enjoyed. There's something so formulaic about the genre that makes my eyes glaze over and... WAIT! This must be what Claire feels when she walks into the room and sport is on.

The Big Sick is a cross-cultural romcom with a difference. It follows the life of a Pakistani stand-up comedian and Uber driver who lives in Chicago - along with his immediate family - and falls for an American. A caucasian American, no less. This proves to be a problem as Kumail's family expect him to marry a Pakistani woman and maintain cultural and religious practices/beliefs. After splitting with Emily to please his family, Kumail's life is turned upside down when Emily unexpectedly falls sick and is put in an induced coma.

The plot travels in directions I wasn't expecting - a major positive for a romcom - and the dry and dark humour is delightful. None more so than the question Emily asks after Kumail and her first hook up, "Were you available for [Uber] rides while we were fucking?"

What I enjoyed the most about The Big Sick is its authenticity. (Note: You can read all about Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon's real-life story and relationship, which served as the basis for The Big Sick, here.) Having spent 9 of my first 18 years living in a Muslim country, there's a lot of cultural and social quirks that continue to make me chuckle. Kumail and his family reminded me of stories and discussions that arose at the lunch table at school in Malaysia.

I also really enjoyed Kumail's "one man show"!

Disappointment of the Year: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Loving the retro poster!

Was this a case of expecting too much?

I don't think so.

Firstly, I couldn't get over the depiction and role my beloved Luke played. It felt like in Johnson's desire to usher out the old and forge ahead with the new (generation), he's mangled and strangled the life out of one of my childhood cinematic heroes! I don't believe the Jedi who never wavered in his belief in Darth Vader, and in the good of man, could/would act as he did towards Kylo and then go the full hermit. Yes, there's precedence for this sort of thing - I kept wondering what kind of private healthcare Jedis must need! - but this progression didn't do Luke justice. Sure, we can applaud subverting expectations and methods - killing off Snoke was a decent move - but I'm still left wondering what is left for Abrams and Episode IX. If we think back to Empire Strikes Back - still my favourite - did it leave you chomping at the bit for Return of the Jedi?

You are nodding, right?

Now ask yourself if The Last Jedi did the same...

It didn't.

Then there were the befuddling tone shifts, heavyhanded gags and the insane plot. What in George Lucas' galaxy did the casino mission serve? A quirky del Toro cameo and visual spectacular are all well and good, I just think a proper Skywalker lightsaber battle would've hit the spot. If the island mission was just meant to get the adrenaline pumping and leave us shaking our fists at the 1% (Bernie Sanders must've loved the rebels' propaganda ad at the end!), then it should've been cut.

The bottom line is that I just don't care enough for Kylo or Rey to start counting the days for Episode IX.

Let me throw in one positive before I go: THE OPENING BOMBING SCENE!

PS. Did Disney pay off the majority of critics?

TV Show of the Year: The Letdown

I became a father for the first time in 2017. Let me be as honest as The Letdown, I didn't know how I was going to survive after a week of parenthood! Suddenly, the daily tasks I once took for granted felt like negotiating a triathlon... barefoot and naked.

The Letdown, which aired on the ABC in November, quickly became Claire and my weekly therapy session. We'd often have to pause the show and allow ourselves to scream, "YEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSS!"

If you don't know (and shame on you for not knowing), The Letdown follows a Sydney couple as they navigate parenthood and what it is like to bring a newborn into your existing set-up and lives. Brutally honest and refreshingly funny, the show has depth, passes the sniff test and is fair dinkum. The show examines everything from breastfeeding and leakage to trying to comprehend babies, social isolation and emotional and financial strain. (Note: How the hell does anyone stay financially afloat, let alone thrive, with children in Sydney?? Something has to be done about the lack of wage growth compared to the soaring cost of living!)

Co-creator and star of the show Alison Bell plays the new mother, Audrey, with such honesty and down-to-earth candour that you don't actually have to be a new parent to enjoy the show. In fact, those who aren't parents might be in for even more laughs and "Woah!" moments. I personally relished the character of Jeremy (Duncan Fellows) - Audrey's dazed and confused husband - and his our many sink-or-swim moments.

I just want to say thank you to creators, Bell and Sarah Scheller, for creating a show that allows everyone to see just how much of a shitshow parenthood can be.

A Handful to look forward to in 2018: Black Klansman, The Incredibles 2, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Sicario II: Soldado.

Wednesday 21 December 2016

Top Movies of 2016


*Australian Release Dates

We got the panel back together. Again. 

5. Arrival 

I’ve never been much of a fan of alien encounter movies. There’s Alien, Aliens – and now I’m doodling on my notepad. It’s not that I don’t like the idea of alien-induced action and anticipation, I just tend to enjoy movies that possess a bit more thought. That said, as soon as I saw the trailer for Arrival – and noted that Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) was directing – I sent my long time movie date a message suggesting we go see this one.

Smart and sensitive instead of an action packed bonanza, Arrival considers (in-depth) what extra-terrestrial visitation and communication might look like. It’s in solving this puzzle – working out what the alien visitors are trying to communicate – that gives Arrival edge and intrigue. And when you throw in someone with Amy Adam’s depth and introspection (thank God she’s stepped out of Zack Snyder’s horrific DC universe!), you are left contemplating the importance of communication, culture and relationships. Plus, who doesn’t love the idea of a linguist heroine?

4. The Big Short 

I drank the Bernie Sanders, Robert Reich and Elizabeth Warren Kool-Aid in 2016. Can you hear Republican diehards screaming “socialist”? Yes, I believe the system is rigged, and that it ought to be called casino capitalism. What’s fascinating is that you don’t have to be a high-finance guru for McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ novel to strike a nerve. (As an aside, was anyone else surprised that funny man director Adam McKay – Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers and The Other Guys – got this gig?)

What stood out about The Big Short is that it is bereft of a protagonist. In other words, all the players are invested in shorting the market. Sure, Mark Baum (a career best Steve Carell) comes close to snagging the tag, but when you think about it – he still works for a big bank and plays the game. Besides being witty and sneakily hilarious, this is the kind of movie that can hurt your head and heart. There’s no happy ending, no grand solution and, most significantly, no real changes are made.

3. The Revenant

Writing about The Revenant some ten months after seeing it at the cinema makes it difficult to recall everything that initially stood out. One memorable scene that remains in the forefront of my mind, however, comes early in the piece, just after we are introduced to Leo, his band of fur-traders and the Native Americans who are hunting the frontiersmen and searching for a missing woman. After witnessing an immersive and grotesque battle scene, where indigenous warriors attempt to ambush the fur-traders, take pelts and find Powaqa, one of the indigenous leaders approaches a contingent of French soldiers and attempts to trade pelts for guns and horses.

After being told that horses weren’t part of the deal, and that he should “honour” the original deal, the indigenous elder responds.

“You stand there and talk to me about honour?”

The camera stops circling the campsite and we look straight on at those dark, burdened eyes.

“You have stolen everything from us. Everything! The land. The animals.”

It’s a solemn yet powerful moment as it helps transport us into the cruel world of frontier America and force us to consider the plight of the indigenous people. It would be a shame if all that we take away from this staggering revenge odyssey is Hugh Glass’ desire to avenge the wrong done to him and his family.

2. The Jungle Book

I was nervy going into this one! There’s something about remaking childhood joys that makes me bite my nails, yank out my eyebrow hairs and get protective. (I’ll give you a moment to digest that.)  

Despite my protective manner, I loved this Jungle Book remake! From the brilliant blend of live-action and animation (could it get an Oscar nomination for Best Animation?), the politically diverse ecosystem and sprawling jungle, to the familiar musical flavour and faithful storytelling, director Jon Favreau clearly captured the heart and soul of Kipling’s stories and retained the musical joy Disney brought to the beloved story.

What I most appreciated were the voice actors who made this remake come to life. Given all that we know (and embrace) about Bill Murray, it’s clear that he’s the perfect fella to play the lazy hustler Baloo. Then there are the distinct voices that Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba bring to the pivotal characters of Bagheera and Shere Khan. But it is Scarlett Johansson as the enticing giant python Kaa, and Christopher Walken as the larger than life King Louie – a “gigantopithecus” – that spark a sense of wonder.

1. Spotlight

I hope that I'm not alone when I say that cover-ups of this magnitude make me sick. As a believer in Christ and someone who attends a local church, watching Spotlight and seeing how the Catholic Church in Boston covered up sexual abuse and molestation cases took my discomfort and anger to a whole new level. This is the kind of movie that forces you to ask yourself, as a believer, how your church operates and what oversight exists. Spotlight also asks you to venture past the front pages of the newspaper and actually walk with those who uncovered the cases, look into the eyes of the abused, and consider how the Catholic Church in Boston attempted to cover up these dreadful acts. 

Like All The President's Men before it, what makes Spotlight stand out is its devotion to investigative journalism and the process The Boston Globe's Spotlight team took in uncovering the Catholic Church's suppression of abuse claims in Boston. We ride shotgun with the Spotlight team as a story about one former priest who allegedly molested children turns into a systemic issue that leads to the underlying question: did Cardinal Law know?

Director Tom McCarthy appears to have assembled the who's who of actors at the top of their game. Mark Ruffalo's stock continues to rise as the rambunctious Spotlight investigator, Mike Rezendes. But it's also the way these lead actors - Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery and Liev Schreiber - work seamlessly as a team to serve the story, rather than shoot for individual honors, that impressed me. 

What Spotlight also shines a light on is the depth of psychological trauma and abuse felt by individual victims and later by Catholics everywhere. There's no shying away from criticism, but it also isn't a movie that simply dismisses or attacks faith. Spotlight actually highlights the complexity of faith, religion and how church impacts culture, identity and society. This is best demonstrated by an ex-priest turned psychiatrist, who, when asked about how Catholics reconcile the abuse claims with their faith, responds, "My faith is in the eternal. I try to separate the two."

Sixth Man of the Year: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

If I had to sum up Rogue One in one word it would be ballsy. Gareth Edwards’ salute to the original “rebel scum” exceeded my expectations and left me emotionally charged. Who would’ve thought a Star Wars movie would be this dark, gloomy and filled with uncertainty as to who would make it out alive?

What this instalment lacked in character development, it made up for in plot progression. In part, it felt like there was no time for character development (was that the plan?), even though Felicity Jones nailed the intense demeanour and pain that Jyn Erso experienced during her traumatic childhood. Weaving in and out of rebel outposts, the Death Star’s development and meeting the players who would help put the plans in Princess Leia’s hands consistently upped the ante and set a course for Scarif. It’s during this climactic heist/battle on Scarif (think Star Wars equivalent of the Maldives), where the Death Star’s plans reside, that Edwards’ aggressive plot progression shines brightest and leaves us feeling the depth of the rebellion and realising what sacrifices had to occur for the plans to reach Leia. In other words, this is a prequel which properly complements the movie that follows in its wake.

Disappointment of the Year: The Hateful Eight

Let me be clear, I didn't dislike The Hateful Eight. It just didn't meet my lofty expectations. Is this the risk you take when you become a fanboy? (Inglourious Basterds still ranks as one of my favourite movies of the 21st century.)

Whereas Basterds and Django took us on an adventure and challenged the way we see and think about the past, The Hateful Eight possessed a few staple Tarantino joys - meticulous dialogue, suspense and badassery - but didn't possess the plot or adventure that ties all these elements together. Maybe it comes down to how you define/want your adventure?

"Give me back my money, you swindler!" of the Year: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

It's not often that I go into a movie with rock bottom expectations and feel I underestimated how bad it would be. There's absolutely nothing in this movie I found interesting or exciting. Heck, the showdown between Batman and Superman lasted, what, 5 minutes? Maybe a tad longer if you count the ridiculous "Martha" moment.

A question worth asking is whether Zack Snyder is the most overrated director in Hollywood. The dialogue was diabolical; what was Jesse Eisenberg thinking taking on a role that is one deranged psychobabble line after another? The plot was pathetic, so much for an earthshattering superhero brawl. Character development consisted of a moody Superman, vengeful Batman and a one-dimensional baddie. Thankfully, Amy Adams had Arrival still in the bag! Were the special effects decent? Probably. There’s something positive.

Here's the best thing about the movie.

Surprise of the Year: Zootopia

Zootopia ticks the three boxes I want animation movies to .

1. Visually captivating
2. Ageless humour 
3. Genuine depth 

Our introduction to Zootopia, alongside incoming police officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), is nothing short of spectacular. When I saw the pristine water, sprawling metropolis and all the vast “Districts”, I was reminded of Thomas More’s Utopia.

Beyond the visual spectacle (doesn’t every animation put on a visual masterclass these days?), there’s a depth, intrigue and excitement to Zootopia that reminded me of Chinatown. Yes, Chinatown. Much like the classic detective mystery, Zootopia pushes the envelope and takes shots at societal and political issues. I don’t think animation movies pitched at children, but also rewarding for parents and adults, should necessarily lower the bar and shy away from teaching children that racism, xenophobia and prejudice exist and need to be thought through and intelligently opposed. It’s the manner in which Zootopia considers, processes and deals with these pressing issues that impressed me most, especially in a year that saw fear, distrust of the other and blind assigning of blame take centre stage.

A handful of movies to catch in 2017: Silence, Manchester By The Sea, Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049, Star Wars: Episode VIII