Editor's note: It is once again time for our yearly movie round-up- the rest of this week we will be publishing lists of our writer's favorites films. Note that these are not the movies that we think are the objectively best, merely our personal favorites. So, please enjoy.
2016 was a terrible year for everything except for film. Amidst this horror show of a year, some really incredible filmmakers put out some really incredible works of art. After much agony, I have compiled my definitive top ten films of the year (along with a few honorable mentions, because why not).
Editor's note: It is once again time for our yearly movie round-up- the rest of this week we will be publishing lists of our writer's favorites films. Note that these are not the movies that we think are the objectively best, merely our personal favorites. So, please enjoy.
The first of five A24 releases featured in my 2016 movie roundup, 20th Century Women is a funny and poignant story about three women in the 1970s who band together to raise a boy. These women are all in the boy’s life in incredibly different capacities: Julie, seventeen, is his friend; Abbie, mid-twenties, is renting the spare room in his house; Dorothea, mid-fifties, is his mother. While trying to sort out the best way to raise a good man without a man to raise him, these three Twentieth Century women explore love, sex, and their own personal happiness. The casting of this film is flawless: Annette Bening is AMAZING as always, Elle Fanning is lovely, and Greta Gerwig is truly at her best. Its concern with feminism is a powerful and important message that easily spans from the 1970s setting to modern day.
As the rest of this list will continue to prove, I am a huge fan of A24. In their four short years of existence, they have truly done no wrong in my eyes. Their release American Honey is no exception. A road movie about a “mag crew” (a traveling magazine sales group), the film is a candid look at Middle America and has a kickass soundtrack. One of the film’s greatest assets is the chemistry between Shia LaBeouf and newcomer Sasha Lane, who was discovered while on spring break in Florida. The way Jake (Shia) charms Star (Sasha) makes him incredibly charismatic, despite his disgusting rat tail hairdo. At a whopping two hours and forty-three minutes, American Honey is a long but engaging road trip with an ensemble cast made up entirely of first-time actors, aside from Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough. This cast assists director Andrea Arnold in telling a raw story about young adults with no one to turn to but each other.
If Daniel Radcliffe hadn’t already broken free from the Harry Potter pigeonhole, he certainly has now. Another A24 release, Swiss Army Man features Radcliffe as a farting corpse whose boner is a compass, along with Paul Dano as his lost and depressed companion. Critically, this film has received mixed reception, and I think that is due to how goddamn weird it is. To me, however, that is what makes it so endearing. I had never seen anything like this before and, in today’s film industry of franchises and reboots, that is something I cannot often say. Despite all its hilarious crassness, Swiss Army Man is a lovely and surprisingly touching story about friendship. To the critics who were shocked by its weirdness: the one sheet features Paul Dano riding on the back of Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse. Come on, what did you really expect?
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention by complete obsession with Richard Linklater. I truly think he’s a cinematic genius and I love basically everything he’s ever done. So when I heard that a so-called spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused was to be released, I was over the moon and could not wait to see it. Luckily, my expectations were generously met. Everybody Wants Some!! is basically an 80s college version of Dazed. It depicts a few days in the lives of college baseball players in the short time between move-in and the start of classes. Packed with drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll, the film is a non-stop good time. The cast is an all-star ensemble whose bromantic chemistry is apparent throughout. Though Everybody Wants Some!! comes in at number seven on my list, it comfortably rests as the film that I saw in theaters the most times this year (four).
Going off just its title, I expected Hunt For the Wilderpeople to be some dramatic film about searching for a group of nomads in the wilderness. I was maybe one-third correct. This latest film from Kiwi director Taika Waititi follows a curmudgeon and his foster son as they become targets of a manhunt after running off into the New Zealand bush. Ricky Baker, the son, is played by Julian Dennison who is a hilarious spitfire of a performer. He’s only fourteen years old, but he held his own alongside Sam Neill, a veteran actor with decades of experience. As a director, Waititi is a comic wizard. He’s directed a few episodes of Flight of the Conchords (he’s close friends with Bret and Jemaine), as well as co-directed a mockumentary with Jemaine about four vampires cohabitating in a flat. Hunt For the Wilderpeople showcases the talents of its entire cast and crew, who made one of the most genuinely “feel good” films of the year.
When I first heard about La La Land, I’m fairly certain that I rolled my eyes and audibly groaned. Yes, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have chemistry, but enough is enough. I was incredibly skeptical, but what got me to see it was boy genius Damien Chazelle (I truly love that man). I’ve never been happier to say that I was wrong to roll my eyes. This movie was a work of art through and through. Every little detail harkened back to the days of MGM movie musicals, including the film’s title card. Every single frame was stunning to look at. Gosling and Stone played off each other well, as always (she says, begrudgingly). Justin Hurwitz’s soundtrack and score are phenomenal, combining jazz and showtunes effortlessly. It is a perfect escapist film that is being released exactly when it is needed. La La Land was pretty, moving, and blew my expectations completely out of the water.
No movie this year has packed a punch quite like Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room. A punk band, helmed by Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat, witnesses a crime at a small club in the middle-of-nowhere in Oregon. This club just happens to be run by a group of neo-nazis who push drugs and happen to be led by a mean and scary Patrick Stewart. So clearly, this band is not going anywhere after what they just witnessed. The film is absolutely relentless from the start. Fast paced and violent, this film is almost difficult to watch but so engaging that you can’t look away from the screen. Yelchin’s performance is one of his usual high caliber, and is one of his last roles before his tragic passing this summer. Green Room is an hour-and-a-half long adrenaline rush, filled with brutal violence and impressive performances.
My top ten list this year is full of films I never imagined myself loving so much. The Edge of Seventeen epitomizes this unexpectedness. Starring Hailee Steinfeld, this film is a coming-of-age high school movie about a painfully awkward teen named Nadine fumbling her way through junior year. I consider myself just over the brink of this film’s assumed target demographic, but it turns out that it appeals to viewers of all ages. Nadine’s insecurities and existential dread transcend teenagehood, making her character relatable to more than just fellow high schoolers. Steinfeld’s performance is one of the film’s strengths, packed with wit and keen comedic timing. She’s already been nominated for an Oscar, but this role cemented her as one of the greats of our generation. On the whole, The Edge of Seventeen is a sharply written film for teens and adults alike, allowed to be raw by its R-rating. Its themes of friendship and insecurity are everlasting and make it sure to stand the test of time.
I am obsessed with the art of comedy, so obviously Mike Birbiglia is one of my favorite people. Everything he does is so smartly written and poignantly raw. This year, he released his second feature film, Don’t Think Twice. It tells the story of a New York improv troupe, the members of which are grappling with their ideas of fame, success, and failure. Although it is a film about comedy and features several fantastic comedians, this film is incredibly sad and deals with the tough questions that performers are faced with as they get older: When should you give up? What is success, really? What defines you as a failure? Now, there are certainly no concrete answers to these questions, but Birbiglia and the rest of the cast try to answer them on an individual level. Birbiglia’s bleak honesty shines through as always, making this film feel almost like a personal journal entry. The questions posed by Don’t Think Twice are ones applicable to anyone, not just comedians, making it a relatable film for anyone “coming-of-age” in any stage of life.
Finally, we reach number one, which happens to be the one I have seen most recently. With an immense amount of Oscar buzz surrounding it, Manchester By the Sea had my expectations set unreasonably high. Despite this, my expectations were met and then some. Featuring strong performances by Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges, the film is a meditation on the different manifestations of grief and how to continue to live after tragedy strikes. How this family copes with the hand they’ve been dealt unfolds before your eyes in a nuanced way, with no facet of the story ever over explained. Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan crafted a perfect film and each member of the cast rose to the occasion. Moving and deeply funny, Manchester By the Sea is a beautiful way to finish off my top ten list and finish off the year.
Best known for his writing/acting/general tomfoolery on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Charlie Day is taking on a new role: star of a high-budget studio film. He plays English teacher Andy Campbell in Warner Brothers’s new release Fist Fight, directed by veteran Always Sunny director Richie Keen. Although Fist Fight is Keen’s first feature film, he was more than willing to take on the challenge. “In television, as a director your job usually is to support the showrunner,” Keen explained, “But in making a movie, especially a movie of this size, I had a take on everything. The lighting is very specific, the casting is very nontraditional, the way we did the fight… So every little thing was something I had thought about, decided on, and executed.”
Although Fist Fight is undeniably a comedy, Keen and Day made it a priority to make the film feel grounded and high-stakes. “If Will Ferrell’s the school’s principal, then you don’t feel the stakes of getting fired in the same way you feel them when it’s Dean Norris,” Day said. The serious players allowed the comedic ones to stand out more. As director, Keen kept this same principle in mind when working behind the camera. “The cinematographer I hired was a dramatic cinematographer… But then we also had fun, where we’d do things like snap zooms and, you know, weird pullbacks,” Keen explained, “We wanted to keep it grounded so we allowed ourselves, when we wanted to go for it, the opportunity to go a little crazy.”
Having already worked together several times, Keen and Day’s working dynamic was a huge asset to the film. “When you have a partner like Charlie tell you something’s good, you go forward,” Keen said of working with Day. Keen consulted Day on things from script edits to music choices. The two were able to closely collaborate on most aspects of the production. “For me, it was great to work with Richie because I got to make this movie a lot more closely to the way I make It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” Day commented, “And just the amount of input that we shared, before we even started rolling the cameras, helped me feel as though we really got every scene, every sequence, every piece of casting to a place where I felt comfortable to then just step back and watch Richie take over and really become the great director that he became over the course of this movie.”
Fist Fight flaunts a cast of diversely talented actors, ranging from stars of Mad Men and Breaking Bad to regulars on Workaholics and Silicon Valley. A comic actor himself, Day recognized how to play off his fellow comedians, as well as the more dramatically experienced actors. “Even Jillian [Bell], Tracy [Morgan], and Kumail [Nanjiani] all have very different styles of comedy. So with each person, you kind of dealt with their style,” Day mentioned, “You react differently to what each person brings.” Keen went on to say that casting actors with such a wide variety of styles was important to the final product. “My goal as the director was to find the funniest people on the planet and put them next to the people you didn’t know were the funniest people on the planet, to have this very surprising mix of people,” he explained. Keen clearly reached his goal, with the film’s cast boasting stars like Day, Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan, Christina Hendricks, Dean Norris, Jillian Bell, and Kumail Nanjiani. This unexpected combination of actors works together to make comedy magic in Fist Fight, so catch it in theatres now.
You can read Elizabeth Johnson-Wilson's review of Fist Fight here.
Try as I might, I cannot be completely objective in reviewing this film. I was born and raised an hour outside of Boston, this is my home. On April 15th, 2013, I was a junior in high school and had just finished touring Northeastern. I was with my best friend and his parents, along with a couple other close friends. It was about 2:45pm when we decided to head toward the finish line to watch the tail end of the Marathon. As we walked from Huntington Ave. toward Boylston St., I noticed a woman walking toward us who was crying while talking on the phone. Not an atypical sight. But as we got to the Prudential, I saw more and more people walking towards us, crying harder and talking more frantically. Now pretty certain that something bad had happened, my friends and I tried to check news sites on our phones to see what was going on. Every server was jammed. After a few failed attempts at online research, we asked someone what was upsetting everyone. “Something blew up at the Marathon finish line. Some kind of bomb. It’s horrible down there.” We stopped in our tracks. I didn’t understand how something like that could happen here, or why it would happen here. Once the immediate shock wore off, we turned back around and, per the orders of the Boston Police Department, found a safe location to shelter-in-place. For the remainder of the afternoon, we stayed in the UNO on Huntington Ave with dozens of people trying to get in contact with their loved ones. We sat in a booth toward the back of the restaurant, where a television on the wall played CNN’s coverage of the bombing. I have never been, and hope to never be again, so simultaneously scared and confused. Though fortunately I was not as directly affected by the Boston Marathon bombings as some were, it was still a terrifying event for me. Perhaps it was my being in the city at the time, or the fact that I’ve spent my entire life living in Massachusetts, but I felt a loss that day. When I heard of Mark Wahlberg’s plans to make a film about this day, I was instantly skeptical. Commercializing a tragedy so soon after it happened seemed incredibly inappropriate. Even after seeing the movie, I’m still not sure that now was the time to make this film. That being said, Patriots Day is an emotional, powerful, and intense film that pays tribute to the victims of the bombing and the members of law enforcement who brought the bombers to justice.
Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg team up yet again to make Patriots Day. The pair previously worked on Lone Survivor and this year’s Deepwater Horizon. If Berg’s filmography proves anything, it’s that he can make halfway decent films about tragic and intense real-life events. Patriots Day follows that very schema. As a director, Berg’s strong suit appears to be depicting the chaos of a tragedy. The techniques he uses in this film are nearly identical to those he used in Deepwater Horizon: shaky cam, intense sound effects, gratuitous gore. Not to say those methods aren’t effective: they’re just simple, expected, and adherent to Berg’s formulaic approach to filmmaking. A major aspect of the film that deviates from Berg’s formula is Wahlberg’s character. Instead of playing the real-life hero of the story, Wahlberg plays a fictional composite character, Tommy Saunders, whose story is the combination of that of several Boston police officers who sprung into action on the 2013 Marathon Monday. Saunders is somehow integral to every stage of the investigation, making Wahlberg seem like the hero of the story. I understand wanting to represent the Boston Police Department as a whole without crowding the narrative, but the use of Saunders makes one officer seem chiefly responsible for bringing the Tsarnaevs to justice. Finding who was responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing was undeniably a team effort executed by the Boston Police Department, the FBI, and the Watertown Police Department. Each part of this whole could’ve been better represented in the film.
A positive feature of the film is the use of real surveillance footage from the investigation to supplement the narrative about the Tsarnaevs. The two bombers were so well cast that the real footage was used seamlessly. Had I not seen the video before, I likely wouldn’t have known that it wasn’t filmed specifically for the movie. What was problematic about the Tsarnaevs as characters, though, was the sheer volume of dialogue and screen time they were given. The scenes in which they’re shown try to give the viewer a peek into the inner workings of their minds and into the relationship between these two brothers. This is tricky, however, because how much do we really know about these people? Secondhand stories and testimonies from Dzhokhar’s trial can only fuel speculation. I understand the need to flesh out the characters for the sake of making an interesting movie, but they are given a bit more of a spotlight than they should have.
The most moving part of the film is the final few minutes, which includes clips of interviews with the real members of law enforcement and the real survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. These moments show the impact that this tragedy had on real individuals, as well as the City of Boston as a whole. Accuracy should be the main concern in doing a story like this justice, and although some of the sequences were surely dramatized to meet Hollywood expectations, Patriots Day is a fine film that showcases the triumph of those who survived, the bravery of those who helped them, and the resilience of the human spirit.
Nine Lives, Shut In and Miss Sloane: these three films are the only ones on EuropaCorp’s release slate for 2016. You have undoubtedly heard of Nine Lives. It’s that film where Kevin Spacey plays a businessman turned into a cat by Christopher Walken, and it is horrendously bad. Shut In was released a month ago and might already be out of theatres, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that film wasn’t on your radar (unless you’re a Stranger Things fanatic, as Jonathan Byers plays a major role in the film). But Miss Sloane is the film that you should see, but probably haven’t heard of, despite its standing as an early Oscar contender.
Jessica Chastain plays Elizabeth Sloane, a ruthless Washington, D.C. lobbyist whose tactics are ethically ambiguous. Miss Sloane is approached by the gun lobby to help squelch a gun control bill. When she refuses to help them and actually joins the pro-gun control lobby, Miss Sloane finds her reputation under attack by her new-found enemies. The topical subject matter in the film makes Miss Sloane a powerful, timely story that could easily be happening behind the scenes in D.C. right now. The film progresses at breakneck speeds, keeping the sometimes dry political topics exciting. Though it includes some sex and drugs, Miss Sloane does not rely on that to keep it engaging, which tends to be a fault of some lesser films of a similar genre. Using explicit content to liven up an otherwise boring film is cheap and insincere. This film avoids that by injecting the narrative with genuine passion, spearheaded by Chastain’s intense lead performance.
A House of Cards-esque political thriller, Miss Sloane is as fast-paced and relentless as its titular character. Chastain delivers a powerhouse portrayal of a seemingly heartless and ambitious-to-a-fault lobbyist. As a strong female protagonist, Chastain exudes power and independence, sticking to her convictions regardless of professional consequences. Though Miss Sloane is fighting in favor of gun control, which can be construed as the “correct” side in the context of the film, the film details the depth behind her reasoning for supporting this cause. It explores the dichotomy between fighting for the sake of the cause, or fighting for the sake of the fight. If you support an ethical cause for unethical reasons and in unethical ways, does that make you the good guy or the bad guy? These difficult topics are touched upon in the film, but are left open-ended to allow the audience to decide for themselves.
Miss Sloane is driven by an anti-hero, who is certainly more anti- than hero. However, it is refreshing to see a compelling female lead who carries the film without relying on a romantic subplot to add substance. In addition, it was a welcome change to have a film featuring politicians that didn’t also include massive explosions, offensive racism, and horrible acting (*cough cough* London Has Fallen). The film is a quality look into the corruption in Washington D.C. and highlights the gray areas that can sometimes be overlooked. With legitimate Oscar buzz around Jessica Chastain’s fabulous lead performance, Miss Sloane is a well-rounded drama that just might pull EuropaCorp out of the gutter.
As I near my twenty-first birthday, I feel myself becoming more distant from ~teen culture~. A lot of the movies and television shows and YouTube videos and music that is geared towards teenagers feels so different than what was out there when I was fifteen or sixteen. It doesn’t seem like something I could connect with, even if I was still that age. Because of that, I tend to avoid entertainment that is marketed as “teenaged.” As a huge fan of James L. Brooks, however, I put aside my adult maturity (if you can even call it that) and saw The Edge of Seventeen. Hailee Steinfeld stars as Nadine, a socially awkward high school student who is struggling through her junior year. It seems like everything is working against Nadine, except for her best and really only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Krista is Nadine’s saving grace, that is, until Krista starts dating Nadine’s popular older brother Darian (Blake Jenner, Everybody Wants Some!!).
Regardless of age, any viewer can find a character or a message within this film that resonates with them. Personally, I relate to Nadine in more ways than I care to admit. Her insecurities, teenage existential dread, and self-loathing are something that I struggled with in high school and still do on occasion today. Steinfeld portrays an imperfect character who, because her story is such a reflection of negative experiences and feelings you may have experienced in high school, you root for. Nadine can be stupid and gets in her own way more often than not, which is frustrating because you can see that in yourself. Her character is painfully true-to-life, especially for those of us who have only recently entered young adulthood.
The family dynamic exemplified in the film, though demonstrated by a mother with an older son and a younger daughter, can pertain to any number of different models of families. Nadine’s mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) is just as confused by Nadine’s attitude and actions as Nadine is. The relationship between Mona and Nadine reflects common strife between a mother and a teenage daughter. They both feel helpless, angry, and unappreciated. Nadine and Darian struggle with being similar in age, but socially in totally different stages. Their relationship is tenuous, as is possible with siblings, but the deep, however distant, love for each other is clear.
The relatability of this film is amplified tenfold by its R-rating. It allows the dialogue to be witty, raw, and uncensored, which makes it feel like you’re watching real friends talking about day-to-day high school struggles. Nothing is softened. What you watch is something that you can imagine happening to you at that age, or maybe something that actually did happen to you. The film harkens back to the time when films made for high schoolers were actually about high school, not about vampires or zombies or whatever other escapist entertainment happens to be popular that year. I have not seen a movie like this in a long time -- one so smartly written, so well acted, so not made for an arthouse audience, but could appeal to one just the same.
All in all, The Edge of Seventeen is a sweet story of growing up and (excuse the cheesiness) finding yourself. It’s realistic, darkly funny, and one of the only genuinely good movies geared toward high schoolers that I’ve seen in years. Though the story is one of high school, the themes are pertinent to people of all ages: life can suck and it will pass, but surrounding yourself with good friends makes it a hell of a lot easier. It is difficult to say whether this film will join the ranks of high school classics like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, but it definitely has the potential to do so.
In our day of viral video culture, movie trailers are becoming more and more important for bringing viewers to cinemas. When I first saw the trailer for American Pastoral, I was immediately intrigued, which was obviously the goal. The trailer conveyed the basics about the movie: Ewan McGregor was trying his hand at directing, Dakota Fanning had come out of hiding, yet another Philip Roth novel was being made into a film this year, plus there was an explosion which is seemingly always a draw for American audiences. As a sucker for historical fiction as well, I had every reason to believe that I would like this movie, and that it would be good. Lionsgate must’ve employed the best trailer-makers of all time, because I was really and truly duped.
This film’s sole redeeming quality is the story. It’s an engaging one for anyone remotely interested in recent American history. In his novel, Roth explored the 1960s anti-war protest movements and how they impacted real people. Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor), a former high school football all-star, and his former beauty queen wife Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) raise a stubborn and headstrong daughter named Merry (Dakota Fanning). Her spirited attitude lends itself to the anti-war mood permeating through the American youth at the time, leading her to criminal behavior and a life on the run. Though I have not yet read the book (intentional avoidance in order to remain objective), there was clearly a strong foundational narrative that the screenwriter worked off. Plus, it won a Pulitzer Prize so I have no doubt that it was a great literary work. Throughout the movie, I was able to make out the skeleton of Roth’s intended plotline and themes. The writing was halfway decent (though it probably didn’t fully do Roth’s writing justice), and thank God for that.
Right away we are introduced to a narrator named Nathan Zuckerman, played by David Straithairn, who is basically irrelevant to the entire story. He’s the friend of the brother of Swede, or something equally convoluted. His purpose is quite unclear until we are introduced to the Levov family. Each of the three Levovs is incredibly unlikeable to the point that I could not have cared less what happened to any of them. Zuckerman, though his appearances are limited to the very beginning and the very end, is meant to be a proxy for the audience. We, alongside Zuckerman, are hearing the story. He, not the Levovs, is the one we are bound to relate to. This device is questionable and often alienates me as a viewer. I detested the use of a similar method in the 2013 Great Gatsby, even though the narrator doubled as the protagonist. Some tactics can translate easily from page to screen, but this is not one of them.
Aside from that dubious narrative device, there was plenty wrong with American Pastoral cinematically as well. Nearly every aspect of the film felt like it was done by an amateur. The framing of every shot was careless and had no cinematographic value. Despite the cast of seasoned actors, each performance was on par with actors in a mediocre community theatre production. Nothing about the film felt genuine. In fact, it all felt forced and artificial, and despite the constant feel of exaggeration it still fell short of its dramatic intentions. Though McGregor is technically a directing amateur, I refuse to give him a pass. Someone who has been in the film industry for over twenty years should have some idea of what a good movie looks like.
I am absolutely puzzled as to how a movie that had so much going for it was able to turn out so poorly. This is not the type of movie you expect to be bad. It is not a B-movie, Jason Statham action flick. It is a historical fiction drama made by people who I thought knew what they were doing. It is frustrating to see so much wasted potential. If you had any interest in seeing this film, or even if you didn’t, I advise you to stay away at all costs. Take the $12 you would spend on a movie ticket and spend it on the book instead.
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of talking with Sasha Lane, the star of A24’s American Honey. I sat down with Tim Jackson of Arts Fuse to talk with Sasha about the film, what led her to this whirlwind rise to fame, and what’s next for her. Sasha is kind, wise, and not to mention talented. When people become successful so rapidly, there tends to be the worry that they won’t stay grounded or that they’ll lose their essence. With Sasha, this is of no concern. She has gotten to where she is, however quickly, by being exactly who she is. And I am sure that she will stay that way. I truly wish you all could’ve been in the room with us to experience her energy and light -- Sasha is sure to go on to do more great things!
Haley Emerson: So you’re a newcomer to Hollywood -- how has it been treating you? Do you feel like you’ve been welcomed? Do you feel like it’s been kind of a culture shock?
Sasha Lane: I mean, I’ve definitely gone about it my own way and luckily, it’s been received very, very well. It’s...yeah, like I don’t really...I’m experiencing things that are still like “woah, okay” but luckily I’ve kind of just been able to do as I do, and they’ve taken that and that’s great.
Tim Jackson: I’ve got a process question -- I know Andrea doesn’t like to talk about her process much, but it sure seems like you guys are partying. I mean, I’m just wondering, are you guys really drinking and smoking pot? I mean, was all this just to sort of...did you have to act it all? I think it would be easier a bit inebriated, especially with the naked guy. (laughs) He’s really out there…
SL: [laughs] We were just in it, feeding off of the energies, you know?
HE: [laughs] Yeah, that was sort of one of my questions. Like, was it as fun as it seems? And I’m sure that it was.
SL: Yeah, but it was also way more emotionally exhausting and scary than it shows. So there’s a flipside, too.
HE: Right. So what was your biggest challenge in shooting the film?
SL: I think it was having to be very vulnerable in certain things, and it’s hard for me to open that up and to know that everyone’s going to be...that’s like spilling my soul out. And so it was really hard to have to get to certain places and bring back up memories and experiences and put that out there, but it just helps to think that I was representing a lot of people, too, and a lot of different things, and so it was worth it. And Andrea [Arnold, director] is very...you want to do anything for her. You know she has you. She knows that there’s, like, this trust and this connection and a purpose.
TJ: But not everyone can do that. What do you think it is about you that enables you to kind of access that. I mean, you know, it’s amazing performance. Everyone is saying it’s an amazing performance. You may not want to hear that it is, but it is.
HE: It really is!
TJ: You know, not everybody can access that stuff and focus like that…
SL: Empathy. You know, I think I’m very, very empathetic. I’m very...I listen to what’s around and I have a love for people and certain things, and I think all of that just fed into all of it. You’re able to go to these certain places and to push out an energy that gets across the screen because I feel everything so hard.
TJ: Yeah, and that’s what Andrea saw in you, obviously. She can see that in a person.
SL: Yeah! She’s another one of those people. She just gets that feeling, like, “this is right,” which makes you feel really good about yourself.
HE: Do you think that kind of contributed to your natural ability as an actor? Was this something that you ever considered as a career path, or even as a passion? Or was it kind of just something, like this project, that just fell in your lap?
SL: I mean, I’ve always had thoughts like, “I would like to be able to portray that and make people feel that” and “I wonder if I could,” whatever, but the industry and the fact that I’m really uncomfortable and all of those things...and you don’t think, as a Texas girl, you don’t think that can happen. So, yeah, I didn’t want to pursue it, and it wasn’t something that I even thought that could happen...but it was funny, like I always said “if someone randomly picked me up, maybe I’d do it.”
HE: And here you are!
SL: [laughs] Yeah, and there comes Andrea. Yeah, but I feel like everything happens for a reason and I very much feel like that was meant to happen and, you know, it was meant to be. So I don’t even take it as, “oh, lucky me” and “this was all…” It’s like, no, you stuck to who you were and everything that’s happened in your life is what’s got you here.
HE: And it’s because you stuck to that.
SL: Yeah! And it all, like, kinda comes back together.
TJ: The other people who were cast, have you stayed friends with them? Are they sort of on the same page, I mean, do they want to be actors? Has this affected their lives? Have you talked to them? Or are they just done with this?
SL: I mean, I think everyone was changed in some way through this, but the thing about it which is beautiful in its way because they’re so unapologetic. We’re all very much ourselves and have our own things. Like this is what I was meant to do, and a lot of them are like, “I’m good where I’m at, I don’t want that. This was an experience, cool, I’m gonna go back and do what I do,” you know? And they’re good. A lot of people are like, “oh, sadness, you should do this,” and it’s like, they have their little family that they’ve created, they have a beer, and they have their porch, their truck, whatever they love, and they’re good.
HE: Yeah, I feel like the assumption is that whenever someone gets a taste of the spotlight, they just need to grab onto it and just climb up. But it’s really cool that it’s just these people that had fun with the experience and leave it at that.
SL: Yeah, and they’re cool. And the way I’ve taken, it’s not like, “let me be in this world.” It’s more like, I feel this is a pathway for my purpose and that’s why I’m in it. And then you have people, like the guy who plays J.J. (Raymond Coalson), he wants to do, like, reality TV and you’re just like...you were meant for something like that, because you just wanna listen to him and you can’t take your eyes off him and he has that about him. So that can be his path. And the rest...yeah, they are good where they’re at. Like, “cool, we did that,” but going back to, you know, Virginia.
TJ: What’s amazing is that that’s also the theme of the movie. I mean, when you walk into the water, I said, “okay, this is going to be the last shot, it’s gotta be the last shot. You’re gonna go down and then come up.” But then the firefly that lights up...it’s like, “okay, you’re gonna keep going.” And that’s an amazing image. And it speaks for what the whole film is about and about what you’re talking about with the process of the kids, for all of them. They’re confident in what they are.
SL: Yeah, they’re unapologetic. Like they are very much who they are, and no one is gonna stop that. No one is gonna tell them they can’t be, you know?
HE: Absolutely. So after getting into acting, do you have any interest in other aspects of filmmaking, like writing or directing? Have you dabbled in any of that yet?
SL: I was working with a friend of mine, and we were trying to, like, make something. The idea of directing, like once I’ve gotten in a little bit, been on set and been a part of getting things done, that’s a really cool feeling. And I write a lot of poetry, I want to do something with that. And it’s so weird to think that you literally can do anything, and your mind just starts spinning. Like I wish I knew how to actually get it all together ‘cause a lot of it’s just in here and I can’t put it out, but it’s cool to kind of figure all of that out...to see it, to visualize things. Yeah, who knows.
TJ: I should ask the inevitable question -- it’s directed by a woman and it’s about a woman, and there is a lot of risky behavior in it. Did you ever feel that kind of hovering sexual threat through the whole movie? Did you realize that’s what you were creating? I mean, when you get in the truck with that guy...it’s like, everybody’s going, “just don’t do it. Don’t do this, don’t go with that guy.” You keep saying to the movie, to you, “come on, something bad’s gonna happen.”
SL: Yeah, there’s no way not to feel it. Even if I would see the side of that day and know that this is how it’s gonna end, I’d still have a feeling of, like, “are you sure?” But yeah, I liked that either it doesn’t go the way you think it’ll go.
TJ: And you knew it was not gonna go to a bad place, ‘cause you had the sides. But you still commit yourself
SL: Yeah, but still, because it’s a natural fear. It’s a natural thing, but it made me look at myself and be like, “Sasha, that person who seems scary can be sweet, and the one who just wants to help you out in a really weird way.” That’s kinda the point, and even with the other scenes, it’s like, “you think that you’re using me, but I have a purpose. I’m here to get this done. It’s like a transaction, so I can go do this for the person I care about,” you know?
HE: It’s more of a mutual thing, more than being used.
SL: Yeah! And never once is she completely victimized.
HE: Yeah, and you never really know who’s going to benefit. But it ends up being both people. I feel like a lot of people, in today’s society, tend to see the worst in people and just assume that if you look at someone and think they’re up to no good…
TJ: One of the sweetest shots in the movie, when you’re all singing in the car, [Q.T.] turns around and she smiles at you.
SL: That gets me every time, because those connections are so real and we really were just looking at each other, like…
HE: Like “we’re here, we’re doing this.”
SL: Yeah! It was a really beautiful moment. I’m happy it’s in there.
TJ: Yeah, that was a great choice. With the hundred hours of film, to take that one glance is really smart. She is so smart.
HE: We have to wrap it up, but I do have one last question. If you had never met Andrea, if you had never gotten involved in this project, what do you think you’d be doing right at this very moment?
SL: This was meant to happen, so there is nothing else. It’s a blank wall, like this was all meant to happen. All the studying, all the things I’m interested in, how I am...it’s flowing through this. When I think, “what would you be doing at this second,” it’s so blank because everything happens for a reason. I wasn’t meant to have another option. I can’t see anything else.
This seemingly neverending summer of mediocre movies now brings us The Hollars, John Krasinski’s second directorial venture. The film tracks John Hollar (Krasinski, 13 Hours), a floundering graphic novelist living in New York City and preparing for the birth of his first child with girlfriend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air). John returns to his small hometown when his mother Sally (Margo Martindale, August: Osage County) is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Add Richard Jenkins in the role of husband and father, Sharlto Copley as the screw up brother, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a former high school sweetheart, and Charlie Day as an odd male nurse, and we have a good cast doing their best with what they were given.
The film’s greatest strength, by far, was its cast. Each performance was compelling in its own way, whether it evoked strong emotion from the viewer or provided periodical comedic relief. In their supporting roles, Day and Winstead contribute little to the emotional effectiveness of the film, but serve their purpose as a bit of a distraction from the main plot points. The principle characters were all played simply and with no frills. Krasinski played his usual incredibly likeable role, as an unconventionally handsome and subtly charming boyfriend. Though he rarely steps out of that box, and could be considered a sort of one-trick pony in that regard, he plays that type of character well so I understand why he gravitates toward roles such as this. Copley, who I hadn’t seen in anything prior to this movie, fulfilled his role as struggling divorcee and father, but not in any noteworthy way. Jenkins and Martindale gave solid performances as a married couple, but ultimately shined brightest apart. And finally, Kendrick is really lovely in anything she does, so she was a valuable addition to the decently well rounded cast.
My love for much of the cast aside, The Hollars was a bit of a letdown. The film was extremely simple, but tried too hard to be complicated. SO much happens (in order to truly emphasize how complicated it is to be a human and a member of a family) that it feels like it spanned over a year, when in reality I think it was supposed to take place within a week or so. The plot itself wasn’t hard to follow, despite how intricate it was trying to be, because of how predictable it was. Any seasoned moviegoer could take an educated guess about how the story progresses and would most likely be right. It was a very stereotypical indie family dramedy, down to the acoustic indie tunes that were seemingly omnipresent throughout the entire film. In strictly abiding by the guidelines that have been laid for such a specific genre, Krasinski, as director, was successful. He did not, however, bring anything new (or interesting, for that matter) to the table.
On its surface, The Hollars is a dramedy about the complicated nature of families, relationships, and life overall. Beyond that, there isn’t really much. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have a message; it’s just that it is literally spelled out for you on multiple occasions. In the midst of an impending-fatherhood-induced panic, John receives a pivotal piece of advice from his mother (the overall theme of the movie, which is repeated verbatim a few more times): “You won’t know until you get there that you’re okay.” So basically, “don’t worry because everything will end up fine, and you can handle anything with a little positivity,” as is exemplified by the Hollar family several times over. I am by no means discrediting this mantra, as it is a valuable train of thought to follow. But I do wish that I as the viewer was led to this conclusion, rather than having it shoved down my throat. Clearly the “laugh through the tears” theme was effectively communicated, because I was doing exactly that throughout much of the film. It was, however, far too spoon-fed for my taste. All that said, I did enjoy this movie for what it was: a movie that evoked a lot of emotion, but not a lot of thought.
In the late 1970s, boxing transitioned from a sport to an athletic spectacle as it began to be televised nationwide. One of the most famous matches in the sport’s history was broadcast in November of 1980: a fight between American hero Sugar Ray Leonard and Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran. Relative newcomer Duran beat Leonard in June of the same year, resulting in Leonard’s demand for a rematch. The fight that ensued would quickly go down in history as the No Mas Fight, which captured the attention of thousands in the stadium and millions watching at home. Hands of Stone recounts the true story of Roberto Duran’s journey that led him to this fateful fight, as well as the fallout from its outcome.
Raging Bull star Robert DeNiro returns to the world of boxing films as renowned trainer Ray Arcel, who puts his retirement on hold to train up-and-coming boxer Duran (Edgar Ramirez, Joy). The chemistry between Hollywood legend and rising star was Hands of Stone’s greatest strength, providing a platform for new actors to strut their stuff and for vets to act as mentors to the newcomers. Duran’s wife Felicidad was played by Ana de Armas (most recently in War Dogs), a young Cuban actress who shows great promise. The actors in this film all complemented each other remarkably well, with DeNiro giving his best performance in a long time, and Ramirez and de Armas showing their acting chops that are sure to get them even bigger and better roles in the future. The strangest choice made by the casting director was giving the role of Sugar Ray Leonard to Usher, who I don’t think has acted a day in his life. That being said, he gave a surprisingly decent performance for someone with such little experience. Usher was able to embody Leonard’s lively spirit and competitive attitude in the ring.
For a film about such a brutal sport, Hands of Stone was, for lack of a better description, tastefully violent. Enough was shown on screen to portray the fight in a realistic way, but truly none of it was gratuitous. The camera work was creative, allowing the actors’ emotionally intense performances to be more pivotal than seeing punches actually land. This parallels nicely with Arcel’s emphasis that the emotional and psychological aspects of boxing tend to be more important than the physical. He trained Duran to prioritize strategy over technique, brains over brawn, which ultimately contributed to his success.
With the Olympics recently closed, the political ties to sports shown in Hands of Stone were timely. The Torrijos-Carter Treaties were signed in 1977, guaranteeing that Panama would take control of the Canal Zone over twenty years later in 1999. Because of the meaningless appeasement it seemed to be at the time, Duran took it upon himself to bring a symbolic victory over the United States to Panama, which mean a victory over Sugar Ray Leonard. Duran’s victory was humiliating to Leonard, and by association (symbolically, anyway) the United States. Something as relatively meaningless as a boxing match doesn’t seem like it could be so politicized, but director Jonathan Jakubowicz was successful in portraying it as Panama’s sort of Miracle on Ice.
Hands of Stone is a compelling film, even for those who don’t care much for boxing. Each performance was strong, with DeNiro and Ramirez leading the ensemble and portraying the tough but charismatic characters they were tasked with. The film was mostly character-driven, but featured intense boxing sequences that kept the pace steady and engaging. Though it is a bit early, I think Hands of Stone could easily be considered an awards season contender.
January 2017 is rapidly approaching, the month in which we will bid farewell to the Obamas as America’s First Family. It is only fitting, then, that we take a look back at the First Family’s fundamental beginning: Barack and Michelle’s first date. Southside With You chronicles that fateful summer day in 1989 Chicago, from the primping to the kiss goodnight. Young law associate Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) spends a day wandering around Chicago with his reluctant advisor Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter), who sees their spending time together as unprofessional. The film allows the viewer to be a fly-on-the-wall as Barack and Michelle first get to know each other on a personal level. Southside With You is a charming love letter to the Obamas (who I adore, by the way) as they embark on their final months in the White House.
From the get-go, I knew that the film’s casting would be one of its strengths. The use of relatively unknown actors was essential in allowing them to fully embody Barack and Michelle as the normal people they were then, as opposed to painting them as the larger-than-life political power couple that they clearly are now. Sawyers’s performance was the most impressive out of the two. Notwithstanding his slight resemblance to the real-life Barack Obama, Sawyers transformed into the young, smooth-talking, chain-smoking version of Barack that I loved to get to know. He nailed Obama’s mannerisms without coming across as an impersonator, and truly showed the intense admiration Barack has had for Michelle from the very start. Sumpter’s portrayal of Michelle, though not as chameleon-like, was compelling. Just like the Michelle Obama we have come to know and love, Sumpter’s Michelle Robinson was a strong, independent, take-no-prisoners type of woman, showing that Michelle has always been a role model for women everywhere.
Although Sawyers’s performance stood out as being stronger, Barack’s character was not necessarily the focal point of the film. The film is about Barack and Michelle in their early days as a couple, but it seems to focus a bit more on Michelle, which I appreciated greatly. It would have been too easy for the to be a film about a man having a woman fall in love with him and eventually becoming president. The fascinating nature of their relationship, however, lay in their give and take and their treatment of each other as equals. Barack’s respect for Michelle, and writer/director Richard Tanne’s respect for Barack and Michelle’s relationship dynamic, was evident throughout the film.
Though Southside With You was obviously written about the Obamas and cannot be separated from that, I was left wondering if the film would be as interesting had it been about a purely fictional couple. In short, I don’t think so. It was a joy to watch the romance between our then-future President and his then-future First Lady unfold on the screen before me. But without knowing who they are today, without knowing that they have accomplished the things they spoke of hoping to achieve in the future, the film would lack charm.
My like for Southside With You seems to be less about the film itself and more about the admiration I have for Barack and Michelle. The film will appeal to others fans of the Obamas and fans of romance in general, as it presents an a la Before Sunrise look into the beginnings of a legendary American couple.
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