Oscar-nominated Chilean film ‘A Fantastic Woman’ puts a strong trans woman in the spotlight

Oscar-nominated Chilean film ‘A Fantastic Woman’ puts a strong trans woman in the spotlight

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

Watching “A Fantastic Woman,” I couldn’t help but think about the comments underneath a recent tweet by The Washington Times.

“Is Caitlyn Jenner a woman?,” the tweet reads. “A growing body of research says no.”

The replies contained a massive pool of insults, with some calling Jenner an “it,” others called her an “alien” and others called her a “monster.”

In this atmosphere, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” boldly follows transgender woman Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), who fights every day for the right to be herself. As the film progresses, it reveals itself as both a poignant story of loss and a window into the life of an unrepresented community. Lelio, simply by showing the struggles faced by a trans woman, is making a statement film, pulling double duty and succeeding on both levels.

The story opens with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a divorced, cisgender, heterosexual man in a relationship with Marina. The two have a seemingly normal, healthy partnership — he works a day job, she waits tables and sings at a club, they go out for drinks and then head home to have sex. Lelio does not objectify or make a big deal out of Orlando and Marina’s sexual relationship. It just feels like another part of living. Their life feels routine, but never unromantic.

Very early on in the story, Orlando dies of a sudden aneurysm, and Marina is left to pick up the pieces of his life. Though not the first movie of this kind, “A Fantastic Woman” is a new take on the grief film, made so much more impactful by the size of the hole Orlando leaves in Marina’s life.

Orlando is survived by a brother, son and ex-wife, each of whom has their own terrible way of relating to Marina. Every member of this family represents a different manner in which society treats trans individuals, starting with Orlando’s acceptance of Marina and slowly disintegrating from there. His brother sees Marina as who she is, but is afraid to stand up to anyone for her; Orlando’s ex-wife sees Marina as a perversion, hurling verbal and psychological abuse at her in every scene; and Orlando’s son is the worst offender, physically assaulting Marina for her own existence. It makes for a brutally difficult film to watch, but a challenging, brilliant work of art.

Vega gives one of the best performances in any film released in the past year, and it’s a shame the film is only nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Through a wide range of nuanced facial expressions and a towering screen presence, Vega dominates the movie. She largely plays Marina as a restrained, quiet individual, allowing glimpses of her grief through small facial tics and body posture. In the few moments where she’s allowed to let loose and show her emotion, Vega shows the tragic pain of a heartbroken, misunderstood human who just seeks acceptance. These moments where her pain surfaces act as punctuation marks on an already brilliant performance, proving Vega as a fully formed performer in only her second film.

It is groundbreaking that Vega is transgender herself, as Hollywood has a history of hiring cisgender men to play trans women, including Eddie Redmayne, Jared Leto and Jeffrey Tambor. But these actors generally tell the same story about a trans woman undergoing her transition, and Lelio has no interest in Hollywood’s vision of trans women. The picture he paints is of a woman undergoing a personal loss, a woman who faces an inordinate amount of obstacles, a woman who may be called “it,” “alien” and “monster,” but emerges fantastic.

“A Fantastic Woman”
Rating: R
Runtime: 104 minutes
Score: 4.5/5 stars

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


Ava DuVernay’s empathy saves the groundbreaking ‘Wrinkle in Time’ from getting lost

Ava DuVernay’s empathy saves the groundbreaking ‘Wrinkle in Time’ from getting lost

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

There are 375 movies in history with a budget of over $100 million , but the first of these films directed by a woman of color arrives this Friday with “A Wrinkle in Time” from Ava DuVernay.

Much hype has followed “A Wrinkle In Time” since its announcement in 2016, and many have paired the film with last month’s “Black Panther” as milestones in Hollywood’s march toward progress. Although it doesn’t quite hit as hard as Ryan Coogler’s superhero masterpiece, DuVernay’s “Wrinkle” is a charming fantasy epic, a film that swings for the fences at every turn and hits more than it misses.

Young actress Storm Reid leads the film as Meg Murry, a brilliant 14-year-old student who has been emotionally distant ever since the disappearance of her father (Chris Pine) four years earlier. Meg’s parents are NASA scientists, but her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) drifts away from the field after her husband’s disappearance. Early flashbacks and prologues show Meg and her parents working on experiments together, and it’s refreshing to see black women scientists, as opposed to bespectacled white dudes huddled around a table.

Just before Mr. Murry’s disappearance, the couple adopted a young son, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), who grows up with Meg. To get a sense of Meg and Charles Wallace’s life before the adventure begins, the film shows a normal day at school for the two of them, and it is incredibly painful to watch. Meg is bullied; Charles Wallace hears teachers gossip about their father; the principal gives Meg a lecture. It all feels ripped out of a lower-tier Disney Channel Original Movie. This series of events thankfully constitutes only the film’s first fifteen minutes, but it kicks off an epic fantasy adventure with a whimper.

It’s a great relief when Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) finally enter the film, providing it with exactly the burst of energy and light it needs. They tell Meg that they need her to help them save her father, and then they whisk her, Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin (Levi Miller) away on a galaxy-hopping adventure.

Though the first act of “A Wrinkle in Time” is conventional and exposition-heavy, it all acts as a setup for DuVernay to absolutely let loose, and the film quickly goes from cringeworthy to crowd pleasing. It does not spend too much time bogged down in the hows and whys of the characters’ supernatural abilities or otherworldly looks — these things just are. Winfrey, Witherspoon and Kaling breathe humorous guiding light into the movie, but Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace have to figure out their own way through the universe to Meg’s father.

The extraterrestrial locales visited by the trio borrow heavily from other sources, including Dr. Seuss, “The Wizard of Oz,” “Avatar” and sometimes even Japanese video games, such as “Xenoblade Chronicles.” Some are whimsical, some are intimidating, but they are all engaging. Instead of focusing on the science of space travel and other planets, the film focuses on its characters, their relationships with one another and their relationships with themselves.

As the film goes on, DuVernay grows more confident, concluding the story with a trippy, mind-bending metaphor of a finale that one would expect from high-concept science fiction, not a Disney fantasy-adventure. Throughout the film, Meg grapples with herself and the person she feels pressured to be, rather than who she is. As she barrels toward this conclusion, it becomes clear that her journey is just as much about her own growth as it is about her father.

In spite of its flaws, “A Wrinkle in Time” is an earnest plea for how much better the world could be if we loved ourselves and loved one another. As corny as that sounds, the plea, like the movie, rings true.

“A Wrinkle in Time”

Rating: PG

Runtime: 109 minutes

Score: 3.5/5 stars


Comedy thriller ‘Game Night’ plays into genre tropes, fails to play up the laughs

Comedy thriller ‘Game Night’ plays into genre tropes, fails to play up the laughs

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

“Game Night” feels like a film conceived by two extraordinarily high filmmakers between tokes: What if David Fincher’s “The Game” met the Steve Carell/Tina Fey vehicle “Date Night,” and it was about people who liked having a game night?

The resulting story is a sloppy, half-baked franken-script of two infinitely better films, a movie which should’ve been left on the cutting-room floor. Surprisingly effective direction from John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the helmers of 2015’s “Vacation” remake, and a brilliant cast led by Jason Bateman try their hardest to save the film, but nothing can salvage the bad script packed with cheap jokes.

Bateman and Rachel McAdams lead as Max and Annie, a hyper-competitive married couple who host game night with their friends every week. When Max’s equally competitive brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes to town, he throws a wrench into their regular plans, asking to host a “very special” game night at his house.

Brooks’ idea of a game night involves hiring actors to come in and “kidnap” one of the party’s members, leading the rest in a race to find the missing individual. It’s an escape room meets The Game from “The Game,” a large-scale competition where no one knows what is real and what isn’t. From there, the plot borrows the structure and elements of “Date Night” as the group gets tied up in what seems to be real trouble, involving gangsters, drugs, a car chase and potentially real kidnapping.

While there’s nothing wrong with well-executed genre parody, films that specifically parody one other film never work, and “Game Night” is certainly the newest addition to that club. Though the film could easily have used its plot to make a broader parody of the action/thriller genre, all of its jokes fall into three categories: easy, implicit references to “The Game” (which is 20 years old), mindless references to any number of pop culture icons, and the seldom clever, well-earned joke. It leads to an exhausting time, one that moves at an extraordinarily brisk pace but is still somehow boring.

It’s a shame that writer Mark Perez drops the ball so hard, because everyone else attached to the movie puts in some of their best work. However, no one matches Jesse Plemons as creepy neighbor Gary. Plemons steals the show in only three or four scenes, each of which are the film’s only laugh-out-loud moments.

Daley and Goldstein miraculously show themselves as fully formed comedy directors, trying their hardest to work with the script they’re given. All of the establishing shots in “Game Night” are not the typical footage of exteriors, but of highly detailed dioramas, making the whole movie feel like it takes place on a game board. These little touches give the film its only semblance of personality.

However, none of these touches are as impactful as the comedic action centerpiece, a multi-minute single take that is some of the best physical comedy in any recent movie not featuring the small bear Paddington. The camera dances around a massive house, following the many characters and giving each a chance to stand out, not unlike the casino fight in last week’s “Black Panther.”

Brilliant direction and hilarious performances abound in the film, but it’s hard to love. Last year, “The Big Sick” and “Darkest Hour” proved strong scripts can overcome sloppy direction. If there’s anything “Game Night” proves, it’s that no amount of excellence can save a bad script.

“Game Night”

Rating: R

Runtime: 100 minutes

Score: 2.5/5 stars

New ‘Smurfs’ proves well-intentioned films can still bore viewers to tears

New ‘Smurfs’ proves well-intentioned films can still bore viewers to tears

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

The worst of the three terrible Smurfs films this decade, “Smurfs: The Lost Village” is a stale depiction of one-dimensional characters brought to life by celebrity voice actors.

As the first fully-animated modern Smurfs movie, “The Lost Village” does admittedly boast an impressive look, with bold visuals clearly inspired by James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Massive flowers, towering trees and magical plants surround the title characters, giving the world a majestic feel that the story fails to match, despite a hint of smart political commentary.

Demi Lovato leads the film as the voice of Smurfette, the outcast of Smurf Village. Other than Smurfette, each Smurf has two defining characteristics: they are male and they only have one personality trait. The early bits of the film would be more accurately titled “Snow White and the 101 Dwarves,” with a lone normal person surrounded by neurotic, gimmicky characters.

Much has been made of this “Smurfette Syndrome,” so much so that the concept has become a broad criticism of films with a single female cast member. When films such as those of the Smurfs franchise feature a single female character surrounded by men, it leads to an oddly creepy feeling, as though all the men are simply competing for the woman as a prize. “The Lost Village” carries elements of this issue, which distractingly leads to a question the film skirts around but never answers: How are Smurfs born?

Director Kelly Asbury obviously sees these problematic elements of the Smurf mythos, and addresses them by setting the plot into motion with some of the classic characters stumbling upon a village made up entirely of female Smurfs.

The new characters introduced in this village are highly-capable, generally-badass women that give the toon a refreshingly feminist twist. By turning the classic trope started by this franchise on its head, Asbury makes a strong statement about passive, “token” female characters that few animated movies dare.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie fails to match the boldness of its subtext, settling for a cheap, predictable plot padded with watered-down jokes and sight-gags that would fail to entertain even lifetime Smurfs fans for more than a few minutes.

The juvenile jokes not only waste the audience’s time, but also the skills of the dynamite voice actors, including “Magic Mike”’s Joe Manganiello as Hefty, “30 Rock”’s Jack McBrayer as Clumsy and “Community”’s Danny Pudi as Brainy. Each has a voice perfectly suited to their character, and they all deliver solid laughs upon their introductions in the film.

Following their humorous debuts, these characters inexplicably stay in the movie and become the supporting cast. Every five minutes or so, each one makes the same joke that introduced them, to an annoying and repetitive effect that makes the movie’s hour-and-a-half runtime feel like four hours.

Adding to the interminable experience of watching “Smurfs: The Lost Village” is its blindingly fast pace. The plot hops from place to place without any time to breathe, taking away all opportunity for character development.

With already flat characters, this prevents the viewer from developing any sort of emotional investment. In the end, it leads to a boring, unmemorable adventure where many things happen, but none of them mean anything.

After two disappointing outings, “Smurfs: The Lost Village,” looked to hit reset with a new aesthetic and the introduction of more female characters — but make no mistake, this is a bad, bad film.

“Smurfs: The Lost Village”

Rating: PG

Runtime: 89 minutes

Score: 1.5/5 stars

Keanu Reeves returns in blood-soaked adrenaline rush “John Wick: Chapter 2”

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

“John Wick: Chapter 2” is an espresso shot of a movie, an action epic which ramps up its predecessor’s brutal fight scenes without any excess fat.

Some of the most interesting elements of the first “John Wick” was the mystery surrounding The Continental Hotel, a secret society of assassins. The sequel dives headfirst into its mythology to wonderful effect, filled wall-to-wall with brutal, fun and sometimes humorous action.

The film opens on John Wick (Keanu Reeves) during one of his trademark murderous rampages. In this opening scene, as Wick clashes with a veritable army of Russian henchmen during a vicious vehicular battle, director Chad Stahelski’s gory creativity runs wild. It immediately electrifies the audience while also giving a taste for what will follow.

From the opening onward, Stahelski’s high-octane directing style is turned up to 11 for the film’s entire duration and never drops down a notch. Flying solo without “John Wick” co-director David Leitch, Stahelski’s singular vision propels the movie into cinematic-action bliss.

After once again attempting retirement to give himself time to grieve the death of his wife, Wick is drawn back into the society of assassins when an old acquaintance, Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), claims his “mark,” a plot contrivance which requires Wick to assassinate any target for D’Antonio. The two clearly have a murky past, but Wick agrees to follow through with his duty and the story truly begins to unfold.

Wick’s journey takes him to Rome, and its location of The Continental Hotel. Each glimpse of Stahelski’s world gives more information without taking away from its mystery, and instead piques the viewer’s curiosity. One of these glimpses features the Roman Continental’s “Sommelier” (Peter Serafinowicz) who doesn’t specialize with wine, but weapons. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Serafinowicz and Reeves play perfectly off one another, using extended wine metaphors to refer to preparation for a night of combat.

The rest of the film is a globe-hopping journey which has Wick facing off against a brutal Common—yes, the rapper, startlingly intimidating here—as well as a mute yet equally imposing Ruby Rose. In a particularly stunning sequence toward the end, Wick takes down wave upon wave of assassins in a mirror house, using reflections and illusions to kill a vast amount of enemies. The body count in “John Wick” tops off around 80, and “John Wick: Chapter 2” at least doubles it, easily reaching 80 in headshots alone.

Make no mistake, this is a ferocious bloody film, but Reeves’ and Stahelski’s awareness about its inherent impracticality makes it work. The movie features a glimpse of a silent film from one of the original geniuses of physical comedy, Buster Keaton, and his influence is obvious here. The most entertaining bits of Keaton’s films involve miraculously overcoming a seemingly insurmountable problem, and Stahelski adopts Keaton’s signature humorous flair to fit a violent action film.

The most interesting action in both “John Wick” films comes from the moments when the titular hero runs out of bullets, and the many ways he is forced to compensate, including punching someone in the throat to buy him time, spearing an enemy with the barrel of his rifle and simply throwing the gun at his assailants. These films do not aim to shock or surprise their audience, but entertain, and on that front, Stahelski and Reeves perfectly stick the landing.

Rating: R

Runtime: 122 minutes

Score: 4.5/5 stars

Powerful “Manchester” tells heartbreaking, human story of grief

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has created his first masterpiece. “Manchester by the Sea” is an unqualified success of intimate filmmaking, storytelling and psychology.

Modern filmmaking often focuses on larger-than-life escapist narratives. Superheroes and talking animals make up the top 10 highest-grossing films of 2016, so when a film as personal as “Manchester by the Sea” comes along and reverses the trend, it packs a strong emotional punch.

Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, an apartment handyman in Boston who lives a simple, apparently lonely life. When Lee learns his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has abruptly died, he immediately travels to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. Joe left his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) in Lee’s care, expecting him to move across the state, a request that both confuses and outrages Lee.

Much of the film plays out in flashback, gradually telling each character’s painful history. No character in “Manchester by the Sea” has lived an easy life, each struggling to overcome their past and learn to handle their own grief. Joe raised Patrick for most of his life without his mother, and Lee made a tragic mistake in his past, transforming a stereotypical Bostonian party-boy into a quiet and somber man.

The story reads as extraordinarily trite and typical of the “awards season” drama, but Lonergan elevates the plot through nonlinear storytelling techniques and the dynamic performances of his actors. Where the trailers sold an uplifting tale of familial love after the death of a father, Lonergan delivers a devastating story of people who have no clue how to cope with their grief. By saving Lee’s backstory as a mid-movie reveal, “Manchester” quickly turns from the decent if predictable Oscar film to a meditation on sorrow.

Every performance in “Manchester by the Sea” utterly shines. Affleck is perfect as Lee, making a wide range of emotion evident despite an understated performance. Michelle Williams plays Randi, Lee’s ex-wife, and delivers the most powerful moments of the film alongside Affleck.

Twenty-year-old Lucas Hedges is the breakout star, playing Joe’s grieving, confused, love-stricken son Patrick. Hedges is, in many ways, the heart of the film. Without him, it would slip into gloom, but he is able to supply a surprising amount of humor. Patrick has the strongest arc of the story, gradually learning to handle his own pain. He leans on friends and girlfriends — yes, plural — to help him get by without actually processing the death of his father. When the grief eventually hits him, Hedges performs the realization perfectly, silently shaking and crying.

Lonergan shows an intentionally drab Massachusetts in winter, and the constant overcast weather matches the story’s tone while punctuating the few moments of color. The same can be said of the sound design. While silence fills the first seconds of the film, more pivotal moments are emphasized with the incorporation of the mournful, orchestral score, which progressively crescendos until it overwhelms even dialogue.

The script itself is wonderfully intimate and personal, feeling somehow autobiographical despite Lonergan’s promise of originality. Where some stories deal with grief and offer the characters closure at the end, “Manchester by the Sea” offers realism. The movie doesn’t end by wrapping up the characters’ stories with the promise of happiness — it simply stops. It is deliberately unsatisfying, mirroring the complex lives of the characters within the story.

Disney delivers moving musical masterpiece “Moana”

Originally published at The Daily Texan.

In a sea of greatness, standing out from the crowd is hard. The near-untouchable history of Disney musical films creates this problem every year, but “Moana” easily shines just as bright.

Young Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of the village chief on Motunui, a Pacific island. Refreshingly, she is expected to take her father’s place when she comes of age without even a mention of her gender. She longs to explore the sea, but her responsibilities keep her bound to land. When all of the food on the island begins to mysteriously go bad, Moana accepts her call to adventure and begins the search for shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to return a magical stone to its proper resting place, which will appease the gods and save her island.

The banter between the two leads brings a kinetic energy to the dialogue, never leaving a dull moment. Moana and Maui initially have a very cold relationship, each trying to gain something from the other: Maui wanting Moana’s boat, and Moana needing Maui’s help. Their rocky first bond leads to a story that slowly builds a realistic friendship and thankfully never once hints at the typical princess romance.

Moana and Maui venture across the seas and the story becomes episodic, with the two heroes overcoming one obstacle at a time. One of these is a gang of “Mad Max”-inspired anthropomorphic coconuts in a sea-bound pursuit of the heroes. Another is a trip through the Realm of Monsters, which includes a hilarious David Bowie-like song from Flight of the Conchords band member Jemaine Clement.

As the movie propels toward its conclusion, the predictable easy win for the heroes becomes more and more likely — before suddenly taking a sharp, surprising turn. This leads to two songs and two scenes that are simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, aided by some of the finest Disney songwriting this side of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

The decision to hire “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda pays off in spades, as the songs bring a perfect sense of liveliness and heart that pays tribute to Disney’s past while also carving a new path. The songs take the archetypes viewers expect, such as the “I Want” song and the villain song, then turns them on their head, sometimes to powerful emotional effect.

The voices are also perfectly cast, with Dwayne Johnson bringing the perfect sense of humor, arrogance and surprising rap skills to Maui. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho adds spunk to the titular hero and has a masterful control of her voice. She belts the show-stopping ballad as easily as the softer moments, expertly manipulating the
audience’s emotions. Alan Tudyk, a Disney veteran, provides the sounds of a wordless idiot chicken named Heihei, a hilarious parody of the prototypical Disney animal sidekick.

“Moana” is a story of contrasting opposites: land and sea, water and fire, empathy and fear. Even the two main characters are a small human girl and a large male demigod. In telling a story of contradictions, the filmmakers effortlessly create conflict without even needing a true villain. In this story, the antagonist is simply the conflict they face and the barriers which prevent them from achieving it, not some nefarious monster manipulating the story behind the scenes. In doing this, the writers spend more time fleshing out the characters. “Moana”’s greatness truly shines when these fully rounded characters sing Miranda’s lyrics, tying the film’s best pieces together and frequently bringing the audience to tears.

Some may call Disney’s current hot streak its second renaissance. The filmmakers at Disney are certainly producing movies of a higher quality than 10 years ago, with the great recent output including “Frozen” and “Zootopia.” If “Frozen” started this second renaissance, “Moana” is the pinnacle — a hilarious, heartwarming tale with songs children will sing forever.