Sarah Knight Adamson is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and a voting member for the Critics Choice Awards for Movies.

Sarah Knight Adamson and Jessica Aymond are both Members of the Chicago Film Critics Association

Film Rating Code:

★★★★ Outstanding Film- Run, don’t walk to the nearest movie theater.

★★★½ Excellent Film- Highly recommend seeing the film in a movie theater.

★★★ Very Good Film- Recommend seeing the film in a movie theater.

★★½ Good Film- Wait for the DVD, the film is still worth viewing.

★★ Wait for the DVD and proceed with caution.

★½ Wait for the DVD the film has major problems in most areas.

★ Can’t recommend the film.

Oscar Blog Part 3-Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design

Oscar Blog Part 3

*BEST DIRECTOR – Damien Chazelle, La La Land, Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea (Should win)
Nominees: Denis Villeneuve, Arrival, Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge, Damien Chazelle, La La Land, Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea, Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Damien Chazelle (La La Land) has an excellent chance of winning as he directed J.K. Simmons’s Oscar-winning role in Whiplash last year for Best Supporting Actor. Whiplash also won Best Editing, which is huge in terms of the over-all quality of a film. To follow-up with La La Land a blockbuster musical set in Hollywood is no small feat.
Regarding best directing, Kenneth Lonergan’s (Manchester by the Sea) characters were spot-on. He has a long, impressive history as an award- winning writer and an exceptional director. The mixing of dark themes with wry humor is not easy, and in Manchester, he’s hit a homerun with all three performances by Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, and Michelle Phillips. In this case, I feel strongly that he is the best director, but will probably lose to La La Land.

*BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY- Manchester by the Sea

Nominees: Hell or High Water, La La Land, The Lobster, Manchester by the Sea, 20th Century Women

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, 2000) and (Margaret 2011) is no stranger to crafting stories that are chock full of everyday dialog that succeeds in magnifying human nature while finding humor in the smallest of nuances. Those in the film business know that Margaret was held up for five years in court costs and lawyers fees due to differences between the studio and Lonergan’s final cut length. He was in serious financial debt when John Krasinski and Matt Damon, (producer of Manchester By the Sea), went to him with the original idea for Manchester by the Sea, and asked him to write the screenplay. This outstanding script took him three years to write.

*BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY—La La Land, Arrival could be the upset.

Nominees: Arrival, La La Land, Lion, Moonlight, Silence

Arrival is a terrific science fiction thriller that has challenging themes in terms of overall filming. Aliens, spaceships and outer space are always difficult to ‘get-right.’ Arrival has met and surpassed those filming difficulties. Its look is hauntingly beautiful, mysterious, dreamy, terrifying and most importantly believable.

La La Land’s filming needed to create a tribute to old Hollywood musicals yet have a modern look. This was accomplished by having a camera that is repeatedly moving, almost swirling, as it attempts to also mirror the characters inner conflicted psyche. The over-all look of this film is stunningly gorgeous.
My prediction is that La La Land will win.

*BEST COSTUME DESIGN – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Jackie could be the upset

Nominees: Allied, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Florence Foster Jenkins, Jackie, La La Land

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, La La Land could win



Nominees: Arrival, 
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, 
Hail, Caesar!
, La La Land
, Passengers

Best Costume Design and Best Production Design are two Oscar categories where earning a nomination for both is typically critical to a film’s chances of winning either. The degree of difficulty is very important in production design and costuming. Historical films, fantasy and or science fiction films usually have a greater chance of winning.

My favorite costume design this year was for the film Jackie. I love that Chanel look! The textures of the fabric were even a stand out.

I did love La La Land’s costuming and production design. Emma Stone’s bright yellow dress, set against a midnight blue sky is stunning. Not to mention that is my personal favorite color combination.

To me though, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the more difficult film to dress as everything depends on the creativity of the production design and the costuming in terms of visually conveying a fantasy story. The images are the key components here. I’m rooting for this film to win both.

Sarah Knight Adamson© February 22, 2017

Oscar Blog Part 2, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Animated Film

Oscar Blog Part 2

Hi again, here’s the next installment; happy reading. Wow, it’s getting exciting the last week before Oscar. Hey, do you have your tickets to the best viewing party in Chicagoland? I’ll be emceeing again this year on behalf of Variety the Children’s Charity of IL and would love to see you all come out to Woodridge, IL to Hollywood Blvd. Theater.

* BEST ACTRESS- Emma Stone, La La Land, possible upset by Isabelle Huppert

Nominees: Isabelle Huppert, Elle, Ruth Negga, Loving, Natalie Portman, Jackie, Emma Stone, La La Land, Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

My favorite performance was Amy Adams as the mysterious linguist who leads the way through her bravery and intuition in communicating with aliens from another planet in Arrival; sadly she was not nominated.

I must say that I did love Natalie Portman’s ‘spot-on’ portrayal of Jackie Kennedy although the film itself focused on a very small segment of President Kennedy’s life—the worst part—his assassination. I believe by showing only this narrow piece of history we don’t see the scope of the true talents and strength of Jacqueline Kennedy. Not seeing Portman later in Jackie’s life will actually hurt her chances of winning.

Isabelle Huppert gives an incredible performance in the French film Elle. This is not an easy film to view. She portrays a single woman who’s the victim of repeated violent, sexual abuse by a neighbor. Again, the role is physically challenging, and Oscar loves those kinds of roles.

La La Land’s charm stems from its lead character played by Emma Stone who by the way sets the tone for the entire film. She sings and dances her way into our hearts while uplifting us at the same time. Visually the numerous ways in which she moves across the screen are mesmerizing. She holds our attention, and you can’t take your eyes off of her.

* BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS- Viola Davis, Fences, possible upset by Naomie Harris

Nominees: Viola Davis, Fences, Naomie Harris, Moonlight, Nicole Kidman, Lion, Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures, Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

Naomie Harris, mainly known for her role of Eve Moneypenny the beautiful, alluring ‘Bond Girl’ in the recent James Bond films is almost unrecognizable as Chiron’s crack-addicted mother in Moonlight. Here’s the scoop on this role. Oscar loves to reward beautiful women who play down and dirty transforming roles! Case in point—Charlize Theron as a serial killer in Monster (2003) and Nicole Kidman wearing an unattractive nose prosthetic in The Hours (2002); both won Oscars.

Viola Davis’s performance in Fences seems more like a lead role than supporting; she’s onscreen throughout the entire film. Fences first appeared as a play on Broadway and Davis had the bonus of playing this same part in 2010. Her dramatic performance is deep, emotional and extremely convincing. I loved her in this role. She has the best crying skills in Hollywood! It’s just too bad this role wasn’t considered a Best Actress role as she’s already won Best Supporting Actress for Doubt in 2008, and yes she has a crying scene in Doubt as well as Fences.

* BEST ANIMATED FEATURE- Zootopia

Nominees: Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, My Life as a Zucchini
, The Red Turtle, Zootopia

Hands down, Zootopia has the lead in the category of Best Animated film. It took five years in the making with several script changes over the years. It’s a film for all ages, which is difficult to pull off; it deals with bullying, discrimination, following your dreams and not giving up. Disney is committed to teaching life lessons in their films and inspiring children to pursue their passions while making their own trail in life. As a former educator, I appreciate these themes in their children’s films, but more importantly their attention to such a high standard of quality.

Sarah Knight Adamson© February 18, 2017

Fist Fight (R) ★½

Charlie Day and Ice Cube square off in Fist Fight
Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Hey comedy directors: when your end-credits blooper reel is funnier than the rest of your movie, you’ve failed.

Fist Fight should have at least been decent; its trailers gave me hope. It stars the high-strung, squirrelly Charlie Day (Horrible Bosses) as Andy Campbell, a minds-his-own-business high school English teacher who witnesses a destructive in-class meltdown by his colleague Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube). After Campbell rats on Strickland in order to save his own job, Strickland challenges him to a fight after school on the last day before summer break.

Unfortunately, I knew I was in for a painful hour and a half within the first ten minutes of this movie. The film opens with seniors playing ridiculously extreme “pranks” that are not even remotely funny, like letting a meth-fueled horse run around the school or replacing a prized baseball bat with a laptop playing pornography. Almost all jokes fell flat—there was complete silence in the screening room for nearly the entire film. Tracy Morgan’s offbeat brand of humor was squandered as Campbell’s friend Coach Coward. He served hardly any purpose except to stand around looking clueless while his students did things like shaping a crude scene onto the grassy playing field with a lawnmower. Even worse was Jillian Bell (Office Christmas Party) as Holly, a guidance counselor who was trying to help Campbell prepare for his fight but kept getting sidetracked by her attraction to teenaged students or conversations about her drug problem. Yet another misfire came from wasting Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) in a bit role as a school security officer. Morgan, Bell and Nanjiani are naturally funny people! It actually takes effort to make them UNfunny. That pretty much sums up the overarching problem with Fist Fight.

Read more ›

Oscar’s BackStage Pass Blog 2017 Part 1-Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor

Sarah Knight Adamson 2012 holding the first ever Oscar given to a James Bond film for Best Sound Effects for “Goldfinger’ (1964) given to Norman Wanstall. I met him during the Chagford Film Festival in the UK. Norman was presenting a James Bond Workshop and let me snap a photo with his Oscar. Photo Credit: Bill Adamson

It’s Oscar Time!

As an avid life-long Academy Award watcher, I’ve always enjoyed attempting to see all Oscar-worthy films, along with selecting my personal winners. The Oscars are my Super Bowl so to speak, an activity I look forward to every year. It’s no surprise to me that I ventured into the realm of film criticism, as my determination to view all of the films was typically a solo endeavor. Yes, I became very comfortable viewing films by myself, as I would urge you all to do as well. I’ve come to realize that some people feel uncomfortable going to a film by themselves; take it from me—it’s liberating!

For those of you that don’t know me here’s a bit about how I started in the film industry. Looking back I actually started thinking about some sort of career in film when I accepted my first ‘Film Extra’ job in Chicago working on the film, The Express, (2007) a true historical film centered on Ernie Davis the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961. It was a crazy first ‘Extra’ job as I wore a short wig and was placed in 1960s costuming along with hundreds of extras at Northwestern College Football Stadium in Evanston, IL. Little did I know that working on this film would lead to my first film writing column for a local magazine a few months later that same year.

(I’ll add more in future blog posts about my ‘Film Extra’ days, as they are very fond memories of mine.)

My official film journalism career began on June 8, 2008, of which I was invited by a Chicago publicist to interview three stars of the film, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl; Abigail Breslin, Joan Cusack and Chris O’Donnell for my monthly column Sarah’s Backstage Pass® in a local Naperville magazine I was writing for at the time. In the fall of 2009 I became a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association after submitting around 150 written reviews. As they say, the rest is history, with my main press outlets being radio as WINDam560 Hollywood 360’s weekly film critic and online free-lance writing.

I’ll update this blog until all of the main awards have been covered, here’s my take on Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor:

*ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE- Casey Affleck, Andrew Garfield could be the upset

Nominees: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea), Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic), Denzel Washington (Fences)

Casey Affleck has a strong chance of winning for his guilt and grief role in Manchester By the Sea. His emotions are so deep; his soul appears to have been reduced to a hollow shell. We are saddened by his situation and root for him to find some sort of happiness; whatever that may be. Truly an authentic, remarkable performance.

However, I do feel that Andrew Garfield had the more physically challenging role. Oscar tradition does tend to lean toward that attribute as in Eddie Redmayne’s performance of Stephen Hawkings in 2015 for The Theory of Everything beating out favorite Michael Keaton in Birdman.

*ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE-Mahershala Ali

Nominees: Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), Dev Patel (Lion), Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

My favorite performance is Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), playing a grieving teen navigating the feelings of the loss of a parent, while also attempting to find a new normal. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s crisp, sharp script is written perfectly for this part, which by the way will probably win Best Original Screenplay. We root for Lucas, and more importantly, we care about him. He’s heart-wrenchingly sorrowful, with bursts of comedy while entertaining−−a pure delight to watch.

Dev Patel’s performance in (Lion), is complex as he’s mainly angry and frustrated as he also deals with feelings of the loss of a parent, who’s additionally, facing the overwhelming odds of being reunited with that parent. Dev has a great chance of winning as he has the added bonus of Oscar history on his side of playing a poor orphaned teen in the Best Picture Slumdog Millionaire in 2008.

Mahershala Ali as Juan, the drug dealer in (Moonlight) to Chiron’s crack-addicted mom part has the least screentime, but is a powerful, stand-alone performance. He’s an unlikely friend to Chiron, yet takes him under his wing and shows him the goodness in this world. I predict he will win, due to the incredible, unforgettable and beautifully filmed scene in which he teaches Chiron to swim. Oscar traditionally likes memorable lines, performances or a scene.

Sarah Knight Adamson© February 15, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie (PG) ★★★

Will Arnett at Batman in The Lego Batman Movie
Photo credit: Warner Bros Pictures

The Lego Batman Movie is fun (and funny), but not quite as awesome as its predecessor.

 

The Lego Movie surprised everyone in 2014. Nobody expected it to be good, much less one of the best films of the year—animated or not. I distinctly remember walking out of its screening and looking around at other critics like, “Did that just happen?” However, the writing-directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are only back as producers for The Lego Batman Movie, which may be the reason why this spinoff lacks the universal relatability and appeal of its predecessor. Or it could just be that a film focused on Batman—even if he’s in Lego form—is never going to be able to conjure up emotional memories from childhood (or parenthood) for everyone in the theater. We’ve all played with Legos, but not everyone knows Batman lore (especially younger children). Nor could The Lego Batman Movie ever be as peppy and uplifting as a tale featuring Chris Pratt’s optimistic Lego everyman Emmet; Batman is somber, dark and gritty by nature. And, let’s face it, there was no way any movie was ever going to have a catchier theme song than “Everything Is Awesome.”

So that’s the bad news.

The good news is that The Lego Batman Movie isn’t trying to be its predecessor, and it’s fun, funny and memorable in its own weird way. Will you (or your kids) be able to fully appreciate all of its jokes if you’re not familiar with older incarnations of Batman or his overall mythology? No. In fact, one of the highlights of the film is a series of quick flashes to previous versions of the caped crusader that prove just how ridiculous his small-and-big-screen journey has been. Another is its treatment of the villain Bane (Doug Benson), as infamously portrayed by Tom Hardy in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises.

Read more ›

Silence (R) ★★★★

“Silence” stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson. Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Have Faith in Silence

For living legend Martin Scorsese, who spent nearly 30 years trying to get this film made and even contemplated joining the priesthood, it would be an understatement to call Silence a passion project. A film about religious missionaries in 1630s Japan doesn’t exactly spell huge box office hit and likely required all of Scorsese’s industry clout to even be created. Although this movie may not be for everyone, audiences will witness an utterly unique and thought-provoking look at faith, and how much one is willing to sacrifice for it.

This historic drama opens with the voice of Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson, A Monster Calls, 2016) narrating his own letter describing the brutal conditions for Japanese Christians. It is 1635, and Christianity has been outlawed across the country. An already difficult situation has only worsened as Christians and priests are now being tortured and executed if they do not apostatize (“deny their faith”). The story then cuts to seven years later at a Jesuit College in Macau, a Portuguese colony in Asia, where two young priests, Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge, 2016) and Fr. Garupe (Adam Driver, Paterson, 2016) meet with an older colleague, Fr. Valignano (Ciarán Hinds, Bleed For This, 2016). The group gathers to discuss the letter from Fr. Ferreira, who was a mentor to the young priests and a leading figure amongst the Catholic community in Japan. After finishing the letter, Valignano says he heard more news from Dutch traders that said Fr. Ferreira has given up the faith, leaving no more priests in Japan. Upon hearing the update, Fr. Rodrigues and Garupe are in utter disbelief, and despite death threats for priests, they decide it is their mission to uncover the truth.

Silence is a very thought-provoking film that digs deep into the issues of faith and conviction like no other film of its kind. From a visual standpoint, Scorsese brilliantly balances the beauty of Japan with the struggles that the Christians must endure. Although the few torture scenes are difficult to watch, they are not gratuitously violent or excessive, but rather convey to the audience the conviction and strength of the characters that bear it. Read more ›

Julieta (R) ★★★½

Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte star in Julieta. Photo Credit: Sony Pictures.

A Mother and Child Reunion?

With the slew of super hero mega films, book to film adaptations and unoriginal American pictures that hope the star power will singlehandedly carry the film, foreign films are often refreshing, no matter the theme. This is very much the case with the Spanish drama, Julieta.

Portrayed (as an adult) by Emma Suárez (What’s a Bear For?, 2011), Julieta is a middle-aged former teacher who is preparing to move from Madrid to Portugal in the next few days with her boyfriend, an older sculptor, named Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti, Francis: Pray for Me, 2015). The reasons are unbeknownst. However, the next day on the street, Julieta randomly runs into a childhood friend of Antía, her estranged daughter. This brief conversation with Beatrix (Michelle Jenner, We Need to Talk, 2016) quickly changes everything for Julieta. Beatrix tells Julieta she recently saw Antía in Switzerland and went on about how crazy it was to find out she had three kids. Julieta, who has not seen or heard from her daughter in well over a decade, is completely stunned by the news. Without hesitation or explanation, she tells Lorenzo she’s changed her mind about moving with him. Completely overcome with the desire to reestablish communication with Antía, she abruptly decides to rent the last apartment (although under construction) that she and Antía shared in the hopes that her daughter will write to that address as neither know the other’s whereabouts. While Julieta achingly awaits for word from her Antía, she begins writing a journal for her daughter that tells the true story about her father in an effort to mend their relationship.

Although this film’s plot may sound depressing, it is truly a very poignant story about the bonds between a mother and child and how it affects the surrounding relationships. Julieta is written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, who is best known to American audiences for Volver (2005), an incredible generational love story starring Penelope Cruz that shares similar themes with Julieta. Although this film may not have the same star power as Volver (which earned Cruz an Oscar nod), it does have incredible acting from its cast, particularly the two women sharing the title role. Read more ›

Nocturnal Animals (R) ★★★½

Amy Adams stars in “Nocturnal Animals.” Photo Credit: Focus Features.

Tom Ford Designs Another Work of Art

In the build-up to Oscar season, Hollywood studios release their “best films” from Thanksgiving to Christmas to such an extent that it can be overwhelming to the public. A number of excellent films get lost in the shuffle every year, especially those that lack proper marketing. Nocturnal Animals, written and directed by the multi-talented Tom Ford, is one of those films. 

The psychological thriller-mystery-drama is essentially divided into two plots, the real-life story about a woman and her ex-husband and the book that is inspired by their relationship. The film cuts back and forth between the real-life main story, and the story told in the book. Over time, the plot of the book and its meaning begins to make sense to the audience in the context of the real life story. Although this may seem confusing, the shift from one story to the other is very clear.

The film opens with a bizarre art show at an L.A. art gallery in the “real life” story. The gallery is owned by Susan Morrow played by Amy Adams (Arrival, 2016) who is married to businessman, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer, The Birth of a Nation, 2016). Despite what appears to be a glamorous lifestyle, Susan’s marriage is faltering as she and Hutton argue about money and she suspects him of cheating. As her husband heads out for a ‘business trip,’ Susan is surprised by a novel she receives in the mail from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal, South Paw, 2015). Edward wrote the book and dedicated it to her. In his personal note, he mentions coming to town soon and invites her to dinner. Susan, looking for an escape from her unhappy life, immerses herself into the book and audiences are along for the ride. Read more ›

Manchester By the Sea (R) ★★★½

“Manchester By the Sea” Amazon Studios

Heartwrenching Family Drama with Excellent Performances

Manchester by the Sea is a movie wherein the more you discuss the great aspects of the film, the more it sounds like your worst nightmare. And by discussing the film, I do mean with someone that has seen it, as significant parts of the film should be left to unfold on their own. This genuine drama just may be the most realistic portrayal of full-blown paralyzing guilt to hit the big screen. Both Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams give stellar performances as they fight their personal battles with grief. Yep, sounds like a downer, doesn’t it? Well, I’m not going to candy-coat this; it is. However, here’s the great news—Manchester by the Sea is one of the best films of 2016.

SANTA MONICA, CA – DECEMBER 11: (L-R) Actor Casey Affleck, filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan, actor Lucas Hedges and actor/producer Matt Damon attend The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on December 11, 2016 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for The Critics’ Choice Awards )

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, 2000) and (Margaret 2011) is no stranger to crafting stories that are chock full of everyday dialog that succeeds in magnifying human nature while finding humor in the smallest of nuances. Those in the film business know that Margaret was held up for five years in court costs and lawyers fees due to differences between the studio and Lonergan’s final cut length. He was in serious financial debt when John Krasinski and Matt Damon, producer of the film, went to him with the original idea for Manchester by the Sea, and asked him to write the screenplay. The film has received eight nominations for our Critics Choice Awards, and Casey Affleck won Best Actor in a Film, Kenneth Lonergan won Best Screenplay, and Best Young Performer, Lucas Hedges. It received five nominations from the Golden Globes, and Casey Affleck won Best Actor in a Drama Motion Picture.

SANTA MONICA, CA – DECEMBER 11: Actor Casey Affleck, winner of Best Actor for ‘Manchester by the Sea’, poses in the press room during The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on December 11, 2016 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

The main premise of the film focuses on Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a loner apartment handyman in Boston who has violent outbursts that lead to fistfights. When we first meet Lee, we know something isn’t quite right with him, as he appears to have a chip on his shoulder, although we aren’t sure if that’s even the problem. In contrast, during a flashback, we also see Lee on a fishing boat with his nephew Patrick, enjoying an afternoon on the sea with his family.

Onstage during The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on December 11, 2016 in Santa Monica, California.

Very shortly, we discover that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), has passed away and Lee is shocked to learn that Joe has made him sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee grudgingly returns to his boyhood hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to care for Patrick, a strong-willed 16-year-old, and is forced to deal with his past that separated him from his wife Randi, (Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn, 2011).

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges Critics Choice Awards Santa Monica Hanger Dec. 11, 2016

Lee is obliged to step up to the plate and become somewhat of a father figure to his grieving nephew, Patrick. Neither is prepared for this awkward situation in which Patrick wants to continue his life as normally as possible. Lee, on the other hand, wants to move to Boston to resume his life away from Manchester where he’s still haunted by his personal tragic family memories. Read more ›

La La Land (PG-13) ★★★½

La La Land stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Photo Credit: Lionsgate Films

Upbeat Musical with Beautiful Stars

Opening on a warm California winter’s day, we view a typical LA freeway traffic jam and an over-the-top atypical song and dance number; La La Land thus proclaims itself as a throwback to the energetic Hollywood musicals of yesteryear. This deliberate brightly colored scene also sets up the cute or not-so-cute meet between the stars of the film Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a devoted jazz musician. Both Stone and Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love, 2011) give incredible performances that showcase their musical talents, offering us a film that is a pure cinematic joy.

SANTA MONICA, CA – DECEMBER 11: Actress Emma Stone (L) and actor Ryan Gosling attend The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on December 11, 2016 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for The Critics’ Choice Awards )

Written and directed by Academy Award nominee Damien Chazelle, who’s known for writing and directing Whiplash (2014), the dark, unnerving tale of a jazz drummer (Miles Teller) under the spell of his abusive/dictatorial jazz instructor (J.K. Simmons), who also won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this film. What’s mind-boggling is the fact that La La Land is only Chazelle’s second full feature film; conversely, he stays the course by offering yet another musical-themed film. And what an enormous film this is. We’re talking hundreds of extras, large detailed set designs, delightfully spot-on choreographed dance numbers, distinctive costuming, original songs, a creative humorous yet touching script, and lead actors that shine. Chazelle gives us all of this and more. He’s accomplished a feel-good triumph that also sincerely explores the downside of the quest for fame and love in the all-too-often heartbreak city of Los Angeles.

There are so many things to love about this film, but for me, the highlight is watching the chemistry and talents of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. They are mesmerizing on screen. As individuals, each can hold court in his or her unique way; together, the duo can only be described as enchanting.

Mia, a constantly auditioning actress, works at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio backlot as a barista and Sebastian as a jazz pianist in an upscale restaurant with a manager (J.K. Simmons, The Accountant, 2016) that prefers he provide background similar to elevator music. No room for original songs here. Both are clearly miserable in the pursuit of their dreams.

Together, they take us all over LA, including the famous Griffith Observatory where we see more incredible cinematography and magic. Sebastian teaches Mia about jazz, and its undertones, and we are privy to their jaunts to check out the talent. John Legend (Soul Men, 2008) plays one such talent; he offers Sebastian a chance to be in his band that will begin touring all over the U.S. Read more ›

Split (PG-13) ★★★

James McAvoy in Split
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

James McAvoy helps save M. Night Shyamalan from himself in Split.

Like many others, I have been frustrated by M. Night Shyamalan’s career. Since I am a big fan of his first five movies—The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs … and yes, even The Village and Lady in the Water—I was stunned by just how wooden and uninspired The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth were. I didn’t see 2015’s The Visit because generally I cannot handle horror, but I know that it was the first time in thirteen years where a film of his wasn’t critically panned.

For the same reasons I didn’t see The Visit (read: because I’m a huge scaredy-cat), I was hesitant about watching Split. But I thought to myself, “Would James McAvoy really be involved with something horrible?” In my book, he hasn’t made a major career misstep yet. I was curious to see if this would be his first, and that curiosity overpowered any other qualms I had.

The good news is that for anyone else out there who doesn’t want to see a horror movie, Split is not a horror movie. Is it a thriller? Yes. Is it very scary in parts? Yes. Do blood and guts make an appearance? Only for a few seconds. But if this wimp can handle it, you can handle it—trust me.

The plot revolves around Kevin (McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder—which was once called multiple personality disorder. Four of those personalities are most prominent during the film: Dennis, a not-so-nice guy with OCD; Patricia, a polite and proper British woman; Hedwig, a nine-year-old boy; and Barry, an effeminate clothing designer. Dennis abducts three teenage girls—Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula)—and is keeping them prisoner in a windowless and locked room. Some of his personalities know this is wrong and are trying to reach Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley, who also starred in The Happening), a psychiatrist who has gotten to know Barry and some of the other personalities well over the past decade. However, as days pass, the situation grows more desperate for all involved, and Dr. Fletcher begins to suspect that Kevin’s more volatile personalities are gaining the upper hand and planning something awful.

Read more ›

Patriots Day (R) ★★★½

Kevin Bacon, Mark Wahlberg and John Goodman in Patriots Day
Photo Credit: Karen Ballard, AP

Patriots Day is a powerful reminder of this country at its best.

As I left for the Patriots Day screening, my husband asked me to remind him what I was seeing. After I told him, he replied, “Seems like it’s too soon for that.” Other friends had made similar comments—either about the timing of the film, or whether it was right to make a movie about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing at all. I walked into the theater unsure of whether I wanted to see the tragedy unfold once again. This wasn’t going to be like Sully, where there was a happy ending for everyone. I lived in Boston for two years, and while I wasn’t there for that marathon, once you’ve called a city home—or if it’s always been your home—local tragedies obviously hit harder. I also remembered how one of the bombing victims was a child, which made me especially nauseous. I had read several articles, even recently, about survivors who had lost their limbs. But to be honest, I had forgotten much of the rest of the story, even though—like the rest of the United States—I had been glued to my screen during the four-day hunt for the bombers.

The memories started flowing back as director Peter Berg introduced his main character, Sergeant Saunders (Mark Wahlberg, representing a composite of several real policemen), a hotheaded officer who’s recovering from a knee injury and griping about being stationed at the race’s finish line. In the hours leading up to the marathon, we see what several other people are doing in addition to Saunders. Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons), police sergeant of nearby Watertown, picks up a muffin for his wife. (Anyone from Boston knows there had to be a Dunkin’ Donuts shout-out in this movie, and there it was). A young couple exchanges work stories from the day before. A teenager from China who’s at school in Boston video chats with his parents and flirts with a restaurant worker. A young MIT campus patrol officer scores a concert date with a student. A family leaves home with their toddler to go cheer on the runners. And brothers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) watch TV, play with Tamerlan’s infant daughter … and then begin to pack up homemade bombs to transport in backpacks to the city. The older Tamerlan is clearly a psychopath. Dzhokhar comes off like a shallow, bratty follower. Both actors had tall orders to fill in representing these evil terrorists, and their performances are as commendable as they are chilling.

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Moonlight (R) ★★★★

Barry Jenkins read Tarell Alvin McCraney’s piece, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” and adapted that into the screenplay of “Moonlight.”

Raw Emotion Strikes a Chord with Universal Themes

Superficially, one might sum up Moonlight by declaring that it presents three chapters of a gay black Miami man’s life. However, the film delves much deeper than that. It’s about growing up in poverty, the struggles of being raised by a crack-addict single mother, the exposures to racism, the need for love, and finally overcoming the complications of having a different sexual orientation than the majority of your peers. Yes, Moonlight is all of this and more. I must admit that it took my undivided attention along with a second viewing to truly internalize all of its beautiful qualities. I adore this film.
The screenplay is written by Barry Jenkins – who also directs – and is based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It’s always ambitious in a film to cross over into different time spans; here we see Chiron, the main character, as a child, teen, and adult.

SANTA MONICA, CA – DECEMBER 11: (L-R) Actors Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders, Alex R. Hibbert, Janelle Monae and Naomie Harris, winners of Best Acting Ensemble for ‘Moonlight’, pose in the press room during The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on December 11, 2016 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Part 1 is named “Little” and introduces us to Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as a shy, small-for-his-age, loner elementary school child along with crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), with whom he finds solace. His mother, Paula (an almost unrecognizable Naomie Harris, known as Moneypenny from the recent Bond films) is usually drugged up and shows little love or affection towards Chiron.

Barry Jenkins and Alex R. Hibbert attend The 22nd Annual Critics’ Choice Awards at Barker Hangar on December 11, 2016 in Santa Monica, California.

In structure along with tone, Moonlight has an indie feel as we follow Chiron by use of a hand-held camera through his daily life. Thankfully, he has adult friends who take him under their wings and try to help him. In the best scene in the film, he’s taught to swim by Juan, seen here as a metaphor for a cleansing and/or baptism. It is a beautiful cinematographically filmed sequence; you may even experience goose bumps. This simple skill of learning to swim becomes the unique bond that holds both man and child together, with cementing each other’s trust at its core.

“Moonlight” film still. Photo Credit: Plan B

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Live By Night (R) ★½

Zoe Saldana and Ben Affleck in Live by Night
Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

 

Ben Affleck’s really weird gangster film is a dud.

“What. Is. Happening?!?”

While watching Live by Night, I turned to the person next to me and asked this question several times. She was equally perplexed. It’s not that the film is hard to follow, it’s just that writer-director-star Ben Affleck took the “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to telling the two-hour-plus story of fictional mobster Joe Coughlin, and it didn’t work. Which is quite a monumental failure considering the cast includes Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning and Brendan Gleeson, among other top-notch talent; the screenplay was based on an award-winning novel by bestselling author Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, Mystic River); and the action spans several tumultuous years in U.S. history.

When we first meet WWI vet Coughlin (Affleck) in Prohibition-era Boston, he’s a not a full-blown gangster just yet, but he is the mastermind behind several high-profile robberies and has fallen for an Irish mob boss’s girlfriend, Emma (Sienna Miller). The two lovebirds decide to escape Boston so that they can be together. However, at the end of one of many unmemorable shoot-‘em-up sequences, it appears that Emma didn’t make it. So Coughlin heads south to Florida with a new plan that involves building an empire that will eventually help him to take down the mobster he blames for Emma’s death.

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Hidden Figures (PG) ★★★★

Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe and Kevin Costner star in “Hidden Figures.” Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Appropriately Titled Feel-Good Feature

In the early 1960s, the Space Race intensified between the U.S. and Russia. Russians were ahead as they had already launched the first man into space. Knowing that the whole world was watching, the U.S. refused to be outdone by Russia and eventually managed the unthinkable when they landed the moon.

Although we’re familiar with the famous astronauts in this era – Buzz Aldrin, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong – there were hundreds of overlooked men and women tirelessly working behind the scenes at NASA to launch these brave astronauts into space and bring them back safely. Within the ranks of NASA were a number of African-American women. These women are at the heart of the untold story, Hidden Figures.

This crowd pleasing drama focuses on three African-American women who work for NASA at Langley Research Center in the early 60s. These women face cringe worthy discrimination and unfair work conditions, but end up providing indispensable contributions to the space program. Read more ›

Jackie (R) ★★★½

Natalie Portman stars in “Jackie.” Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight.

Portman Brings Jackie to Life

The Kennedy family was nicknamed “America’s First Family” and there has been no shortage of interest in them over the years. America’s obsession with the Kennedy’s has inspired countless books, movies and TV specials depicting the family’s triumphs, tragedies, and scandals, but few have solely focused on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or as most refer to her, “Jackie O.” One of the most beloved first ladies was often overshadowed by her husband and his brothers, however, in the new drama, Jackie, the famous first lady takes center stage, and we see the rise and tragic ending of the Kennedy White House through her eyes and words.

The primary setting of the film takes place just over a week after the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy (‘JFK’). While still mourning the loss of her husband, Jackie (Natalie Portman, Jane Got a Gun, 2016) surprisingly requested to do an interview with Theodore ‘Ted’ White (Billy Crudup, Spotlight, 2015), a reporter from Life magazine at the Kennedy’s compound in Hyannis Port, MA. Through the narrative framework of Ted and Jackie’s Q&A, the audience is taken back to her time at the White House through extended flashbacks as Jackie discusses her fondest memories. Director Pablo Larrain truly brings this tragic, intriguing and long overdue perspective to life with Portman at the forefront.

The first flashback captures Jackie’s famous TV special, in which she gave millions of American viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the White House and discussed her plans to renovate yet maintain its abundant history. While still in her early 30’s and seemingly nervous to be on camera, it’s clear that Jackie was keenly aware of the influential role she could play in defining her husband’s legacy in the White House. Jackie brings up happy memories of raising their young family at the White House and the social events as head of state, including an in-person concert of Camelot. Tragically, these idyllic memories are shattered by the events in Dallas just a few days prior. Read more ›

Sarah’s Top 20 Movies of 2016

 

Sarah Knight Adamson, Critics Choice Awards, Santa Monica, CA. Dec. 11, 2016

Top 20 (Award-Worthy) Films of 2016   Listed in order of favorites starting with #1

*Please note that I have not screened Martin Scoreses’s Silence this list may change.

1. Arrival—Science Fiction, based on the 1998 short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer. Amy Adams stars as a linguist who helps the U.S. government communicate with aliens who appear in Montana and 11 others sites around the world. Jeremy Renner stars as a scientist who gathers data concerning the aliens.

*Amy Adams’s strong performance is the best of her career; the sharp script is layered with surprise twists that examine deeper philosophical themes such as, the meaning of human existence, life choices, grief, courage, trust, and the possibility of knowing the future. Arrival is an intelligent film that provokes questions and insightful conversations.

 

 

 

2. Hacksaw Ridge— A true historical WW II story based on the life of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) a pacifist combat medic who was a Seventh-Day Adventist Christian and who also refused to carry a firearm. He was the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force. Mel Gibson directed, the  screenplay was written by Andrew Knight, and Robert Schenkkan.

* The main issue here in a historical genre is the recreation of Doss’s life and the believability factor. Both were carried out to perfection. By far the most realistic depiction of a war battle fought by U.S. troops. With war realism, comes gore and violence; this is not for the squeamish. The editing is a clear stand-out as is the attention to set details. The acting is top-notch. During the credits, you’ll meet the real Desmond Doss as well as some of the men he saved while risking his life.

 

 

3. Lion— a drama based on the true story of a five-year-old boy (Saroo Brierley) who becomes separated from his older brother and unknowingly boards a train that travels 1, 100 miles away from his home. He has no choice other than to try and survive on the streets of Calcutta. He’s picked up by the local government which places him in an orphanage. Very quickly an Australian couple adopts him. Miraculously he is reunited with his family at the age of 26. The director and writer are Garth Davis. It’s based on the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley. The film stars Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara.

* You can’t help but be moved by this incredible journey that places the human spirit at its core. Your heart goes out to five-year-old Saroo when he realizes he’s lost and no one will help him. The fear, panic and shear desperation are heartbreaking. The prize is near the end of the film when both mother and child are reunited. Sunny Pawar will steal your heart as Saroo, while Dev Patel gives a standout performance portraying him as an adult.

 

4. Jackie— Is the biographical story of Jacqueline Kennedy who was married to U. S. President John Kennedy at the time of his assassination in 1963. The script is based partly on Theodore H. White’s ‘Life’ magazine article in which Jacqueline Kennedy summoned White to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port to salvage her husband’s legacy. She asked White to write an article that draws a parallel between her husband and his administration to King Arthur and the mythical Camelot. Stars Nathalie Portman as Jackie, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, and Billy Crudup.

*Natalie Portman is transformed into Jackie Kennedy in this film. Her speech, mannerism, and her iconic persona are flawless, an Oscar worthy performance. The film portrays how one keeps a handle on grace during tragedy as well as how persons wish to be remembered in history. Good, solid film that deals with a small but important time frame in U.S. history.

 

 

5. La La Land— A romantic musical based on an original script by Damien Chazelle. The film also moonlights as a tribute to jazz, centering on the greats of the past. Stars Emma Stone as an aspiring actress and Ryan Gosling as a frustrated Jazz musician. Both shine in their roles that showcase their talents of singing and dancing. It’s a toe-taping, feel-good romp in LA (‘hence the reference to LA LA ‘) with the central theme of pursuing your dreams.

* Damien Chazelle’s script, musical score and stars are the reason to fall in love with this film. It’s an ambitious project that’s both creative while beautiful. It’s also somewhat of a box office risk given the current CGI action-based film craze at the moment, however, the superior quality of the film speaks for itself as well as the box office. Read more ›

Erika’s Favorite Movies of 2016

Arrival tops my list.
Photo credit: Jan Thijs/ Paramount Pictures

 

I make my annual Top 10 list based on my favorite movies—which are not always the films that I think are the “best” (read: award-worthy). I consider which movies I know I’ll return to in the future (or that I’ve already watched more than once), as well as which films had the greatest impact on me emotionally—the ones that I’m still thinking about despite weeks or months passing since I first saw them.

 

So with that in mind, here’s my list!

 

10. Denial – This is a true story that continues to haunt me, especially as fake news and the alt-right movement have wielded a terrifying amount of influence this past year. Rachel Weisz plays Deborah Lipstadt, a professor and historian who calls out British Holocaust-denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) and then is accused of libel and sued by him in the UK courts. Because of how the British legal system works, the burden is on Lipstadt to prove that she did not libel Irving because the Holocaust did indeed happen. I sat through this film stunned by Irving and his followers’ ignorance and hate, and distraught by how easily some people will believe lies just because they coincide with their worldview. I saw this film in September and left the theater with a sense of foreboding. It hasn’t gone away.

 

9. Nocturnal Animals – I still can’t believe how much I liked this film. It’s sooooo dark, and that’s usually not my thing. Amy Adams plays Susan, a wealthy art-gallery owner whose ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her the manuscript for his upcoming novel. Let’s just say that he’s working out some anger issues and resentment through his story, which we see played out on the screen as Susan reads page after page with increasing alarm and dread. Michael Shannon is hilarious and unforgettable as a detective in Edward’s story—a light spot in an otherwise disturbing tale. Perhaps I can’t shake this one because as a writer myself, I believe in the power of words. Or perhaps it’s because director Tom Ford makes everything look gorgeous. Or perhaps I just like seeing awful people taken down a notch. The final scene is subtle and quiet, but it sums up everything I loved about this film.

 

8. Zootopia – In addition to its theme song—Shakira’s “Try Everything”—I adored the positive message of this Disney movie about a bunny who’s determined to break down stereotypes and become the first rabbit police officer. It’s chock-full of pop-culture references (The Godfather! Breaking Bad!) and clever at every turn. Bravo!

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Miss Sloane (R) ★★★

Jessica Chastain stars in “Miss Sloane.” Photo Credit EuropaCorp Films.

“Miss Sloane” Is Ambitious, Fierce 

If this past election has taught us anything, it’s that politics is an ugly business. Even more troubling than the viciousness of elections is that even with all of the time and money spent on campaigns, many argue that lobbyists, Super PACs, pollsters and strategists actually control D.C., not our elected officials. While it may seem like a cynical view, it’s at the heart of the of Miss Sloane, a drama that dives into the world of the lobbying. This often unflattering look at Washington lobbyists portrays them as unethical powerbrokers who will do anything to help their clients get what they want. It’s no wonder that the protagonist in this film confesses when it comes to morality, “I don’t even know where the line is.” 

Elizabeth Sloane, (Jessica Chastain, The Martian, 2015), the eponymous “hero” in Miss Sloane as the star lobbyist at one the most powerful firms in D.C. Elizabeth will seemingly use anything at her disposal to fight against regulation or taxation that threaten her clients, whether they be Fortune 500 companies or foreign countries.

Sloane’s win-at-all-costs tactics and impressive record attracts a potentially huge new client, the gun rights campaign, to her firm’s office for a meeting. The head of the gun rights’ lobby is looking for her services in converting women, who have not been gun allies traditionally, to their cause and thwart a new gun regulation bill that is an impending vote in the Senate. Sloane laughs at the proposed strategy to woo women and flippantly promises to look at the numbers, which later results in a lecturing from her irate boss (Sam Watterson, Newsroom, 2014). Read more ›

Bleed for This (R) ★★★

Miles Teller stars in "Bleed for This." Photo Credit: Open Road Films.

Miles Teller stars in “Bleed for This.” Photo Credit: Open Road Films.

“Bleed for This” – Call It a Comeback

Boxing is nicknamed the “sweet science,” which is a strange name given that it is arguably the most violent and physically punishing sport. Anyone who steps into the ring needs to be fearless and have incredible toughness to withstand the toll one takes from receiving repeated shots to the head. Now, imagine the toughness you would need to step into the ring and take punches to the head after recently breaking your neck in a car accident.

In writer and director Ben Younger’s latest drama, Bleed for This, boxer Vinny Pazienza’s real life story comes to the big screen. The film covers his quick rise to boxing glory, the tragic accident that nearly cost him everything and his astonishing path to recovery.

The film opens with Vinny “Paz” Pazienza, played by Miles Teller (War Dogs, 2016), his family and his trainer helping him recover after losing a fight with the champion Roger Mayweather (Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s uncle). Paz and his trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart, London Has Fallen, 2016) think he should fight at a more natural weight class given his struggles to cut weight and in the ring. Paz’s father (Ciarán Hinds, Frozen, 2013) who manages the training gym, is worried that Vinny is not ready for the change, but eventually agrees with Rooney’s plans and is able to arrange a title fight for his unrelenting son in his first match as a junior middleweight against Frenchman Gilbert Dele. Despite very low odds to win the title bout, Paz is able to rally from a rough start to dominate the fight and become the world champion.

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