The People’s Critic’s Top 10 Films of 2016

Interior of a Movie TheaterWell, movies came out this year, but I think we can all agree that we are looking at a rather bleak field of films this year. It’s not, “2011, The Artist wins Best Picture bad,” but it’s close. And here we are again: Less than a month before the Academy of Motion Pictures releases its list of nominees, less than a week before the Hollywood Foreign Press hands out the Golden Globes, and of the likely list of top films to be nominated for Oscars this year, only five have opened wide enough to see in a suburban city of a Midwestern state. It’s the election all over again!

Last year, films like Sicario, Creed, The Martian, Bridge of Spies, and the eventual Best Picture winner, Spotlight all opened wide well before the end of December. That’s not to say that Sully, Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land, and Arrival didn’t try to play fair and open wide already; they did. But other potential frontrunners  Moonlight, Silence, Hidden Figures, and Fences are all playing on this double standard of releasing a film in minimal markets so it can qualify for Oscar eligibility only to open wide on some obsequious and noncompetitive weekend after the new year.  This is still an improvement over the 2014 awards season, where basically nothing but The Grand Budapest Hotel really opened wide, but it is a step down from the host of great films released wide during the calendar year in 2015. And let’s be honest, competition for theatrically released films has never been greater. With Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and other streaming sites moving into original cinema, film studios should begin cooperating, making theatrically released films easy to see, and make going to the theater special, but not exclusive!

Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday, January 24th, bright and early, and after a two years of directorial domination by Alejandro González Iñárritu and three years of Cinematography superiority by Emmanuel Lubezki, it seems these two have left the field wide open for someone else to step up and win something.  Anyway, Oscar nominations are a coveted announcement, but a far more important announcement is being made right now – my list of the top 10 films of 2016.  While no Top Ten List can ever satisfy everyone, great care has been taken to analyze each film on my own particular set of criteria ensuring reliability!  So without further ado, I present The People’s Critic’s Top 10 films (that I was actually able to see) of 2016.

 

eye10. Eye in the Sky 

This film gets more and more fascinating the more I think about it. In the new millennium, we have seen drastic changes to what we consider “warfare,” and Eye in the Sky captures the intensity and complexity of an ever changing definition of modern warfare. Helen Mirren plays Captain Katherine Powell in command of an operation to potentially eliminate some of the world’s most wanted terrorists, who have holed themselves up in a small house in Kenya. When the risks of capturing them become too great, Powell gives the command for a hellfire missile attack via military drone. What complicates things is that a young girl selling bread sets up her storefront directly in the kill zone of the missile’s target, raising one of the many philosophical questions in this film, the first of which is whether there is an obligation to eliminate a potential threat to many lives by inadvertently killing an innocent. I promise you, this film makes you feel the full gravity of every decision that is made, which makes it one of the most intense movies of the year. This film also includes the great Alan Rickman in one of his final performances.

beasts9. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Speaking of Alan Rickman, Snape may be gone, but Rickman would likely be comforted to know that the world is not done with Potter and company just yet. J.K. Rowling does the near impossible by picking up her magic wand again and creating something moving, amazing, and magical yet again in her first effort as screenwriter with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Everyone who fell in love with the eight Harry Potter films will be delighted by this expansion of the wizarding world. Eddie Redmayne plays it a bit clownish as Newt Scamander, a magizoologist whose search for magical creatures brings him to New York City 70 years before “The boy who lived” ever hopped aboard the Hogwarts Express. There is a visual and immersive quality that we have come to expect when entering the Harry Potter universe, and director David Yates delivers once again. The characters are delightful, realized, and fun, and the environments (including the aforementioned “fantastic beasts”) are dazzling and eye-catching.

sully28. Sully

Sully is not a biopic. It is based upon Chesley Sullenberger’s memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters and focuses almost entirely on the events of January 15, 2009 and the subsequent investigation. Bits of ‘Sully’s’ past are sprinkled throughout, but the film’s main objective is to feature the tremendous fortune that results from having the right people performing the right jobs. Sully is a solid film delivering its message and entertainment as effectively as Sullenberger’s miraculous water landing on the Hudson. Like it’s protagonist, the film showcases a couple of the right men for the job (as well as the right woman for a job that wasn’t there). A testament to superlative acting and creative filmmaking that breathes freshness into a story so recently and so publicly told.

man7. Manchester by the Sea

Everyone you’ve talked to about this film is absolutely right; this is a miserably sad movie. However, what I think too few are saying about it is that it is also hilariously funny. Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan’s third film in over 16 years is another masterpiece of familial ups and downs. He constructs a film unlike anyone else cutting to the bone with wit, nostalgia, and cold, hard truth. Casey Affleck carries an emotional load as Lee, a janitor who is made legal guardian of his teenage nephew when his brother suddenly dies of a heart attack. This is Affleck’s strongest performance in his budding career as an actor. Understated, but honest, Affleck’s performance has gotten a lot of buzz, but the real champion of this film is Lonergan who gets powerful performances from all of his actors and delivers a fascinating, funny, heartbreaking, powerful film about love, family, and what it takes to survive tragedy.

hack6. Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge is a film that I had trouble placing on this list. First, I wasn’t sure it was top ten material, then once I examined my criteria and determined that it was, I had trouble deciding if it was top five material! Ultimately it’s top six material. Hacksaw Ridge is decidedly two separate films. A coming of age story about a young man named Desmond Doss, played by Andrew Garfield, in Depression-era Virginia falling in love with a young nurse and hoping to find a way to serve his country in World War II as an army medic, even though he refuses to personally pick up a rifle. That story is then catapulted out the window for one depicting one of the most gruesome, gut-wrenching war stories ever set to screen as Doss’s unit is assigned to participate in the Battle of Okinawa, historically referred to as a “meat grinder” of a location for American troops. This is a true story and a remarkable one at that. The first hour is pleasant, sweet, and at times very funny. The second hour is an assault on your senses almost to a breaking point. Vince Vaughn surprises as Doss’s army drill sergeant and the rest of the supporting cast is fantastic including Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, and Teresa Palmer. Director Mel Gibson makes the most of a powerful story and while his depiction of Doss feels a little too similar to that of another suffering protagonist Gibson is known for, it all works. Gibson has been a bit of a pariah as of late, and his off-screen antics are hard to forgive, but if you are one who can separate the art from the artist, this film is one of the year’s best.

midnight5. Midnight Special

This is where I expect I’ll lose a few of you. What is Midnight Special? Why is it number 5? I am just as surprised as you! I stumbled upon this film on a flight. Jeff Nichols is a young writer/director who I am really starting to love. His last two films, Mud and Take Shelter were excellent, and believe it or not, he actually has another film that he released in 2016 called Loving that is getting far more attention than Midnight Special! Still, I am going to put all my chips in on Midnight Special. I don’t think any synopsis of this plot will entice you to see the movie, so just trust me and check it out (it’s running on HBO and HBO streaming currently). Michael Shannon plays a father whose son appears to have some strange abilities. The boy has recently become the worship center of a strange cult, and when Shannon steals his son away in the night, the cult is determined to get him back. The U.S. government has also caught wind of the boy’s abilities and send an NSA agent to track him down as well. This is a sleek, clever, special little movie, and while some will have qualms about the ending, I think it is exactly the right choice.

Arriv.jpg4. Arrival  

Speaking of alien movies with clever endings, here’s another one! Arrival is the latest Denis Villeneuve film, and if you sensed my budding love for Jeff Nichols’s movies, then you can multiply that by a million for Villeneuve. His track record speaks for itself: Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, and this year Blade Runner 2049! In a different year, Arrival could easily be the best film of the year. Still, number four ain’t bad. Arrival finds Amy Adams putting out another excellent performance as a linguistics professor tapped by the U.S. military to help them interpret an alien language. What makes this alien film different is that 12 alien space crafts have touched down all over the world, and in a world of itchy trigger-fingers, Adams’s encounters and translations hold the fate of the world in the balance. Adams is accompanied by Jeremy Renner who plays a theoretical physicist, and the two of them have great chemistry making for a richly character-driven sci-fi film.

CW3. Captain America: Civil War

Surprise, surprise! The People’s Critic liked a Captain America movie, but this time I’m not alone. Everybody liked this movie. It’s hard not to. Civil War boasts three outstanding achievements that no Marvel film before it has managed thus far. First, it introduces two of the best new characters (Black Panther and Spider-Man, both slated to receive upcoming stand-alone films) and does it with panache! I’ll leave the details about these new characters out so not to spoil anything for the rare reader who has yet to see this film, but both are quite satisfying and Spider-Man especially receives a worthy reboot after some questionable recent attempts by Sony Pictures. Second, the “Civil War” battle is a remarkable scene. This scene replaces the “Battle of New York” from Marvel’s Avengers as the Infinity Stone in the Marvel crown. DC executives responsible for Batman v. Superman (See my five worst films of 2016 for my thoughts on this one!) should take notes on how Marvel succeeds at fighting internal conflict with external conflict! Third, Captain America: Civil War manages to give all of its cast members room to breathe and make a memorable and worthwhile contribution.  No character is squandered, and as I alluded to earlier, this film explores some emotional depth but uses just the right amount of levity and humor to maintain an even tone.

rogue2. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Surprise, surprise, surprise! The People’s Critic liked a Star Wars movie! Again, everybody liked this movie, or at least the last 20 minutes, which are perhaps the best 20 minutes in any Star Wars movie ever! Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a strong, balanced, and entertaining film that plays how we wish the original prequels could have played. There’s a hint of nostalgia along with new and fresh perspectives, which make us forget that we all know where this is going and “forces” us to care and root for these new characters. Director Gareth Edwards designs and directs this film to feel connected but not tethered to the other films, and I think that is a delicate task to accomplish. There are also some major bombshells and any misgivings you have about the film are wiped clean away with the final 20 minutes. If you have any level of appreciation for Star Wars, you will leave the theater in high spirits!

la1. La La Land

I tried people. I tried not to toe the line. I tried not to be all “critic-y,” but goddamnit, my toes are still tap, tap, tapping to this beautiful, heartwarming, goosebump inducing, musical masterpiece. If Rogue One: A Star Wars Story had the best final 20 minutes of any Star Wars movie, La La Land has the best first and last five minutes of any movie in the last five years! What puts it at number one is that between those amazing first five minutes and outstanding final five minutes are 118 exhilarating, beautifully crafted, musical minutes. La La Land is a simple story of Jazz musician meets struggling actor, Jazz musician loses struggling actress, etc., but that’s ok. If the plot were any more dynamic, it would take away from the sensory experience of this film. Gosling and Stone are captivating as the leads and while their voices may not be meant for Broadway, they are perfect for a film that “dances” between worlds. Half nostalgic and half prognostic, La La Land shows us that writer/director Damien Chazelle is more than the real deal. He’s the next big thing! La La Land puts a nice bow on a tumultuous 2016 and is definitely the front-runner for best picture in my book.

The Five Worst Films of 2016

C25. The Conjuring 2  

I’m sad to start this list with a sequel to a film that made my top 10 in 2013. The Conjuring 2 doesn’t really advance the narrative of the original’s characters or reveal any depth to the uncertainty of its source material. In the same way that a television series might be developed for a network, but then the studio makes a deal to tie it to an already proven property in order to reap an existing audience, The Conjuring 2 feels like a Mad Libs horror movie script and the studio slapped The Conjuring 2 on top of it. This is a “been there, done that,” movie for the ages.

BvS4. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

At the end of 2015, we were all gearing up to see what DC had to offer to combat the cinematic monopoly Marvel Studios has had over the superhero genre. Well, the results are in and two of their films make my worst of 2015 list; Batman v. Superman being the first. Yet another bloated set-up piece, these movies need to stop hinting at something and start showing us something. Warner Brothers needs to stop holding its cards too close to the vest and start revving this thing up before we lose interest entirely. Wonder Woman and Justice League are next up for 2017. Let’s hope I don’t have to reserve two more spots on the Worst list for 2017.

nerve3. Last third of Nerve 

I had other films in mind for this list, but I kept coming back to how disappointed I was with the ending of Nerve. Let me start by saying, Nerve as a whole has no business being on a worst of the year list. However, given that my top two movies of the year were given that status in no small part due to their phenomenal endings, I think Nerve stands as a wondrous example of how damaging a bad ending can be. I’ve never been more disappointed in an ending for a movie. Not because it was bad. It was fine. But if the ending was as principled and interesting as everything that came before it, we’d have a much better film. Director Henry Joost is a newbie, but if you’ve seen Paranormal Activity 3, Paranormal Activity 4, and the film Catfish, you’d see where I’m going with this. Endings are crucial and bad endings to good movies are exponentially more damaging.

Suicide.jpg2. Suicide Squad

DC is back again with the number two worst movie of 2016, Suicide Squad. Anticipation couldn’t have been higher for this one. What seemed like dream casting, mixed with a lighter, funnier tone lead many of us to believe this was the film that would right a sinking ship. Instead, it blew one more big, giant hole in the hull. Unfortunately, the box office total of my, Five Worst Films of 2016 list is nearly identical to my Top Ten Best Films of 2016 list. What does that tell you. People are paying for and going in droves to see these bad movies. Suicide Squad is hardly a movie. It’s disjointed, it’s annoying, it’s shallow, and worst of all, it’s boring. Viola Davis attempts to give some credibility and Margot Robbie will be iconic as Harley Quinn, but nothing can save this mess.

now1. Now You See Me 2

Lightening definitely didn’t strike twice for this fledgling attempt at building a franchise. Now You See Me was a perfectly fine, fun little movie, but not everything that is moderately successful needs a part 2 (or a reported part 3!). All the tricks are played out for this band of illusionists. The style was corny this time around, as original director Louis Leterrier was replaced by Jem and the Holograms director, Jon M. Chu. They couldn’t even get all of the original cast back for this thing as Isla Fisher would not sign on and also refuses to sign on for the third film. Red flags abound and poor Daniel Radcliffe never saw them coming as he looks utterly lost and confused in easily the year’s worst movie. Yuck.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

beastsDirector: David Yates

Screenwriter: J.K. Rowling

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Samantha Morton, and Ezra Miller

There is little debate that the Harry Potter book and film franchise are the paradigm of pop culture success. Rarely does “lightening” strike twice, but if there were a wizard who could do it, it would be J.K. Rowling. The first film in her Potter spin-off series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, pulses with the awe, beauty, and excitement of the original films and opens an entirely new chapter in the longevity and impact these characters will have on us for years to come.

Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, an English wizard fixated on magical and enchanted animals, and his efforts to study these creatures take him to America. Scamander is also writing a book detailing these animals. These “fantastic beasts” were not always as celebrated by the magical community as they were when a young boy named Harry Potter read about them in his Care of Magical Creatures class 70 years after the setting of this film. Yes, in 1926 these animals were villainized and terribly misunderstood; Scamander hopes to change that perception with his book. Scamander keeps his menagerie inside of an enchanted brief case that acts as a portal to an immense zoological park where he cares for and studies these animals. When this brief case is mixed up with that of a no-maj (the American word for muggle) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), things obviously get out of hand, and magical creatures are inadvertently set loose all over New York City. This draws the attention of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an officer of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, who desires to apprehend Scamander and bring him in. Meanwhile, a subversive extremist group of no-majs led by Mary-Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) wants to rid the world of witchcraft, causing even more trouble for Scamander, his animals, and all of wizarding kind.

Summing up the plots to this film is actually a very tall order. There are many moving parts in the storyline, but Rowling does an outstanding job of weaving together an entirely new mythology that of course will give way to the Potter-era material. It also doesn’t hurt to basically have the crew responsible for the previous four Potter films including director, David Yates back for this film. There is a visual and immersive quality that we have come to expect when entering the Harry Potter universe, and Yates delivers once again. The characters are delightful, realized, and fun, and the environments (including the aforementioned “fantastic beasts”) are dazzling and eye-catching.

One of the most cited components to the Harry Potter series’s success is that the content grows with the characters (and the audience). It’s no longer any kind of secret that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first in a planned five-film series, so it figures that the same progression of sensibilities will take effect. With only the first film to analyze, I think Yates and Rowling strike the perfect initial tone here. There is a childlike, Dr. Doolittle innocence to Scamander and his animals, but that it balanced well with an emerging sense of darkness and danger. The most important factor to this film’s success, however may be Fogler’s turn as the clownish, Kowalski, a no-maj who due to certain circumstances is brought along for the ride. Rowling crafts Kowalski to act as our “Dante” being guided by Scamander’s Virgil through a wizarding Inferno, and it works! His scenes steal the show and likely will cause you to reach for that hanky in the final act.

If there is one thing to pick at with this film, it is that the climax of the film, while effective does have one, shall we say, “component”  that completely took me out of the movie. It remains to be seen if that “component” will be worthwhile down the line, but I am worried about it. That “component” aside, Potter-philes can rest assured; Rowling has done it again, and I can’t wait to see where things go from here! A-

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 13 minutes.

The Legend of Tarzan

TarzanDirector: David Yates

Screenwriters: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, and Margot Robbie

Ahhhh AhAhAhAhAhAh Ahhhhhhhh! Tarzan is swinging back into theaters for like the 60th time in the last 100 years.  In the scheme of things with James Bond and superheroes, that’s not such a frequent appearance! Still, the problem with most Tarzan appearances is that they are all basically a retelling of Edgar Rice Burrough’s first Tarzan novel:  Parents are marooned, child is orphaned, child is raised by gorillas, scientist discovers Tarzan, Tarzan rescues scientist’s daughter, and they fall in love. So is David Yates’s new film, The Legend of Tarzan a “different story?” The answer is yes…and no.

In this film, we are introduced to an already grown Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård). Home in England during the mid 19th century, famous world-round, and married to his love, Jane (Margot Robbie).  Tarzan (AKA John Clayton) has adjusted to life as an heir to his parents’ fortune and lives a most civilized existence, far removed from the one he knew in the jungle. When he is summoned by the Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) to sit in on a matter regarding King Leopold’s hold of a mining encampment in the African Congo, Tarzan is encouraged to use his celebrity and act as an ambassador. The Prime Minister’s hopes are that by traveling to the site, Clayton’s  presence will calm some rumors circling around Leopold’s interests and practices in the Congo.  American Historian George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) volunteers to accompany Clayton and Jane, but his true intention is to investigate his theory that indigenous Africans are being used as slaves to mine the Congo.  When that theory pans out, Williams easily persuades Clayton to join him in exposing Leopold’s private slave state, but they are thwarted by Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a Belgian soldier sent by King Leopold to act as administrator of one of the major stations in the Congo.  Rom is devious and maniacal, and when he captures Jane, Tarzan will stop at nothing to get her back and bring Rom down.

So like I said, is this film’s narrative a different story than we’re used to? Yes, we are not dragged through a 60-minute plotline about a boy growing up as an ape man.  But no, we are not treading much new ground as Tarzan still spends most of the movie trying to rescue Jane. Fortunately, director David Yates tips the scales in favor of freshness as the story unfolds.  The filmmaking is vibrant, alive, and exciting. Yates takes that smooth, “Peter Jacksony” style he honed with his four Harry Potter films and transfers it beautifully to The Legend of Tarzan.  The visuals are sweeping and the film benefits tremendously from Yates’s touch.

The actors are equally enjoyable. Margot Robbie gives Jane real dimension; she even has a line where she mocks even the idea of being a “damsel in distress.” Skarsgård does well as the stoic Tarzan.  He looks the part and shows that he may be able to carry a big-budget action film.  However, as is the case in many films, the supporting cast is where Legend of Tarzan shines.  Waltz and Jackson are together again for the first time since Django Unchained.  This time, however, the roles are reversed and Waltz is the unabashed, racist tyrant, while Jackson gets to play the charismatic hero!  Mostly though, Jackson steals the show, and if you’re looking for that one extra reason to persuade you go see this film, Jackson firing off countless rounds from a machine gun turret is that reason.

The Legend of Tarzan is fun, summer blockbuster fare, and it’s better than the average film in that category. It clips along at a nice pace, and it doesn’t pander or feel false or ironic.  If you’re looking for something to see this summer that is (mostly) not animated, The Legend of Tarzan is a worthy option. B

The Legend of Tarzan is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes.

Divergent

ImageThere is no shortage of young adult novels that encourage the individual and warn against conformity; Divergent is one such novel. However, the film based on the massively popular Veronica Roth novel ignores those lessons and aims to have absolutely no originality or individuality from its acting right down to its execution.

The film opens a la Twilight with a brief and information-rich voice-over that gives us the low-down on a dystopian and futuristic Chicago. Society has been segmented into five personality-based factions: Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, Candor, and Abnegation from which our heroine Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) hails. At the age of 16, Beatrice, later known as ‘Tris,’ must take an aptitude test, which all young people must take in order to discover which faction they would be most apt to join. The test results in a recommendation, but it is ultimately the decision of each individual to select the faction they want to join. The catch is that once a person selects a faction, there is no going back and a rigid training session begins that if not passed results in that person’s dismissal and the shameful label of being “factionless.”

After Tris’s aptitude test comes back inconclusive, she resolves to join the Dauntless faction, dedicated to fearlessness and bravery. If this process sounds similar to another YA novel’s “categorization” element, that’s because it is absurdly similar to the sorting ceremony in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Harry Potter’s uniqueness is a cause for one particular recommendation by the sorting hat in The Sorcerer’s Stone, yet he disregards it to declare his allegiance to another house. Tris’s “inconclusive” test is actually code for her being a unique anomaly within society called a Divergent. Simply put, this means that her aptitude is not wholly within one faction but a combination of them all.

The film’s opening act is relatively interesting and does a passable job of explaining the world these characters inhabit. The problem is that there is not enough “newness” to this story and while the film is just another adaptation of another beloved young adult novel, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be held to the same originality standards as any other genre. Furthermore, once the Tris enters the world of the Dauntless, a whole new bag of issues emerges that sink the film even farther.

Most of the film from this point forward is an excruciatingly long and played out training set-up piece for a lackluster climactic finish. Tris’s struggles at Dauntless are pitted against her secret identify as a Divergent. Will she be discovered? Are there other Divergents? Will she hook up with the hunky “I don’t want to be just one thing,” Four (Theo James)? These questions will be answered, just don’t hold your breath. The film gets so caught up in its own mythology, that it never really even considers convincing the audience why these “Divergents” are so dangerous. Divergents are people who can think for themselves and have multiple skills and talents. It becomes increasingly clear why Erudite faction leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) is not fond of Divergents, but why does the rest of society view them as dangerous? A few tacked on lines of dialogue towards the end attempt to answer this, but not to any satisfaction.

A few words about Shailene Woodley. She has emerged on the scene with great success in films like The Descendants and The Spectacular Now. In Divergent, Woodley’s performance is quite bland and well, wooden. She broods, she emotes with deep and hyperventalative breathing, she conveys confusion at the right times, but she never quite achieves a connection with the audience worth rooting for. Director Neil Burger is at least partly responsible for this flavorless and wishy-washy performance. His direction involves running back to the well of successful YA novel adaptations and hand picking the qualities he thought worked in other places. Woodley gives a very controlled performance and unfortunately the one in control is a strong candidate for being factionless!  D+

Divergent is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes.

About Time

AboutTimeThe posters and trailers for About Time prominently tout that it is from “the creators of Love Actually, Notting Hill, and Four Weddings and a Funeral.”  While About Time is curiously missing an appearance by Hugh Grant, the film is absolutely deserving of being listed as an equal among those films.  It is a warm and heartfelt film that feels incredibly “Romantic” in every sense of the word.

About Time stars Domhnall Gleeson, who American audiences know as Bill Weasley from the final two Harry Potter films, but not much else.  Gleeson, son of the great Irish actor, Brendan Gleeson, plays Tim, a name curiously similar to the principle word in the title, “Time.”  Thus, the movie is as much about Tim as it is about “time.”  On his 21st birthday, Tim is given the odd and unbelievable news from his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in his family have the ability to travel through time.  For a romantic comedy, it is surprising to see a plot resting so firmly on such an absurd and fantastic premise.  Yet, one must only look back 20 years to a little film called Groundhog Day, perhaps the greatest modern romantic comedy ever made, that succeeds due to a bizarre and unexplainable time rift that allows the film’s message to flourish and evolve!  About Time clearly tips its hat to the Harold Ramis classic in several humorous scenes where Tim bounces off to try and undo some foolishly embarrassing moments.

But About Time is not at all subjugated by its premise.  Tim’s father asks him what he plans to do with his new gift, and the film is quite ideal in its treatment of such a power.  Tim decides that he will use it for love.  Thus, Tim moves out of his parents’ house and strikes out for London where he will practice law and search for love.  He finds it in Mary (Rachel McAdams), an American publishing house editor working in London.  It is here that the movie firmly kicks into romantic gear.  While it successfully emphasizes the passion, beauty, and emotion of young love, the time travel element allows the film to search deeper into modern romanticism as Tim is able to slow down, explore the natural beauty of the world, experience the trials of the mind, free himself from the corrupting forces of society, and most importantly – discover how to make the most out of life.

Director, Richard Curtis has made a beautiful film with About Time.  Elegant, cozy country-side scenes are balanced with busy but scenic city-scapes. Curtis gives London the Paris treatment, making it look far more inviting and relatable than other films have in the past.  But like all romantic comedies, the true magic lies in the chemistry of its leads.  Gleeson and McAdams are easy to root for, and their relationship is not hokey, nor does the film commit the cardinal sin of having Tim use his powers to manipulate Mary.  Instead, his power is used to create opportunities, but it is Tim that must make the most of them.  A fine example lies in the scene where Tim and Rachel first meet by happenstance.  Ironically this first meeting is in a restaurant called Dans Le Noir, a restaurant where diners sit in total darkness, an immersive experience that emphasizes the other senses and provides a clever way for Tim and Rachel to build the foundation for their relationship.  Soon, a mistake made by Tim during time travel causes this first meeting to be forgotten leading Tim to find a way to create a new opportunity to make an impression on Mary.  Now, that is not to say that Tim does not play “puppet-master” with other people’s lives, which is a bit off-putting.  Nonetheless, these minor valleys are certainly not enough to degrade the film’s peaks.

The sentimentality of the film is authentic and while occasionally heavy-handed, it is quite effective.  The Tim and Mary story is central to the film, but Curtis as writer and director makes sure to develop the father-son relationship between Tim and his Dad.  It is in this relationship where most of the “heartstrings” are continually tugged upon.  Nighy’s inclusion in the story adds warmth but also some complexity as he too can travel through time.  The bond between the men, the shared experiences, and the lessons learned all work to make the film about more than just a love story.

About Time is a pleasing and successful film that does not exploit its premise or undermine its characters.  Fans of romantic comedies (especially those of Curtis’s) will be satisfied and touched by this film.  B+

About Time opens on November 8th, and has a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes.  It is a beautiful and well-made film that would make an excellent date-night option in a fall movie season full of thrillers, action, and suspense.  It also accomplishes the dual task of making us forget about the other far more disappointing Rachel McAdams time travel romance, The Time Traveler’s Wife. 

The Hangover Part III

ImageI’m not sure what critics were expecting to see when they went to see The Hangover Part III, but clearly they didn’t see it. Words like ‘deplorable,’ ‘tasteless,’ ‘unfunny,’ and ‘indecent’ have been used to describe the film, not to mention the all too repeated yet inevitable phrase ‘what happened in Vegas, should have stayed in Vegas.’ I, on the other hand, must profoundly disagree with this vastly baffling majority. The Hangover Part III is a fitting final chapter that is far from ‘tasteless,’ and in fact even expresses some rather poignant truths about friendship.

The Hangover Part III wisely turns its back on the “what happened last night?” premise, and freshens things up with a new conflict, although it still involves looking for Doug. This time the Wolfpack assembles for an intervention for Allen (Zack Galifianakis) following the sudden death of his father (Jeffery Tambor) and a terribly public mishap with a giraffe. While enroute to a mental rehabilitation facility, Allen, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Doug (Justin Bartha) are abducted by mobster, Marshall (John Goodman). Marshall orders Phil, Stu, and Allen to track down Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) who stole $21 million in gold from him or he’ll kill Doug. It seems oddly hypocritical that series like the Harry Potter films are allowed to break with formula and get significantly darker over time, yet when a film like The Hangover Part III does the same, there is an uproar. Nonetheless, this new direction allows the characters more room to breathe as they commence an enjoyable manhunt that takes them to California, to Tiajuana, and of course, to Vegas!

Various nods to the previous two films are sprinkled throughout in enjoyable ways and even the Marshall character is fittingly introduced. Jeong’s role is substantially larger in this installment, and while his presence felt far too forced and substantial in the second film, he shines in Part III. It is true that there are not as many laughs in The Hangover Part III as there were in the original, but it also has a different tone where laughs are sacrificed for occasional moments of intensity. Nonetheless, the film is still a comedy, and the laughs that happen are strong and surpass the lazy unoriginal ones from Part II. In fact, this film minimizes its references to Part II to such a degree that this film could be considered Part II, and Part II could be a sort of appendix or something.

The argument for whether Part III (or Part II) was necessary is a larger issue that does not only apply to this set of films but to all part II’s and part III’s. Thus, on the merits of what is presented, The Hangover Part III is a successful and entertaining film. It devises a reasonable premise, offers a clever plot-twist or two, and even provides some insight on friendship. The latter part is perhaps the film’s least successful endeavor, as it pounds the audience over the head with various versions of Trent Reznor’s song “Hurt;” however, a scene towards the end utilizing that song does have a ring of truth to it.

Director Todd Phillips listened to his critics and detractors after Part II and gave them exactly what they wanted in Part III, yet his new vision is not being embraced. While the franchise has seemingly run out of steam, and a Hangover Part IV is incredibly unlikely and ill-advised, Part III is a perfectly good send off to these characters that deserves to be seen even if the “hang” is “over.” B

The Hangover Part III is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes. While there is no stinger after the credits, definitely make sure you stick around for about a minute after the credits begin rolling.