Here's a look at the new movies I saw this week.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and Stephen Henderson
Synopsis: This is a powerful and difficult film. Washington stars as Troy and also directs this adaptation of the famous stage play from August Wilson, who also provided the screenplay. The show focuses on Troy (Washington), a sanitation worker living a lower middle-class life in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Troy had dreams of his own, and was a great baseball player, that never made it to the major leagues. He believes his color held him back, while his wife (Davis) and best friend (Henderson) think it was his age. Troy has two sons, one with his wife and one he had earlier. And he struggles in his ability to show love to his sons, though he clearly loves them both and wants better for both of them than he's gotten in his own life. But that desire manifests itself as a sort of tough love and often drives a wedge. It drives a wedge between him and his wife Rose, too. And his actions as a husband, father and brother make him hard to love, and harder to forgive. This isn't an easy movie to watch, but it gives you plenty to think about. It's also blessed with two beautiful performances from Washington and Davis, both of whom are likely to be Academy Award nominees. Washington has a light touch as a director, and the setting, location and story here help to bring this story to life in a compelling way. This isn't a movie that will appeal to everyone, but it's incredibly well told and serves as one of the better movies this year.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references.
Verdict: Four stars out of four.
La La Land
Starring: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
Synopsis: In 2014, Damien Chazelle delivered an incredible film with “Whiplash.” It was a film most didn’t see coming. It was a movie about passion in the extreme, a pair of characters who pushed each other almost to the point of breaking. I thought it was the best film of the year, though it wasn’t crowned as such by most awards shows. Two years later, Chazelle has done it again. But he’s crafted a film that’s beautiful, compelling and incredible — and almost 100 percent different than his previous offering. But the films are united by this idea of exploring passion. “La La Land” is a film out of time. It’s set in the here and now, but it has a sensibility that feels like something from the past. It’s a beautifully told and choreographed musical during a time when musicals are rare. And it’s about a pair of characters struggling to find their way in the modern world because their heart lies in an era gone by. And it’s nothing short of beautiful and breath-taking. The film is set in Los Angeles and follows a pair of dreamers who meet cute several times. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is an extremely talented jazz pianist. He loves pure jazz, but it’s an art form that’s dying. Mia (Emma Stone) works as a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot, but she auditions nearly every day, trying to find her big break. After a couple encounters, Sebastian and Mia find themselves drawn to each other. Their love affair sustains and encourages. Mia pushes Sebastian to find a way to realize his dream of opening a jazz club. Sebastian encourages Mia to abandon the rat race and follow her passion — in this case her own one-woman show. But as they follow these dreams it becomes clear that, to really embrace their paths, they may have to go in different directions. “La La Land” is simply beautiful. It’s profound and profoundly breath-taking. It’s the best film I’ve seen in 2016, and in fact might be the biggest redeeming feature of a year that’s been underwhelming at the Box Office. It’s a near masterpiece, and only adds to the legend of Chazelle — who wrote and directed this film. This is a film that celebrates musicals as an art form. The songs are great, as is the choreography. The use of color and the dancing brings pure joy to the screen. It’s incredible and incredibly unexpected. The film is also buoyed by two great lead performances. More than other actresses of her generation, Stone seems to have an old-time Hollywood quality. And it serves her well in this role. She brings a beauty and grace to the part that is perfect for the role. Gosling, too, is showing himself to be one of the more versatile actors in Hollywood. He has a great sense of humor, which he brings to this part. But he’s equally compelling as a song and dance man, and plays off Stone perfectly. Stone and Gosling previously demonstrated their great screen chemistry in “Crazy, Stupid Love.” While I didn’t love that movie, I think this latest team up is a perfect use of their unique talents. It’s impossible to watch this movie and not be moved. I was swept up in the production and the power, beauty and grace of the story. It’s at times heart-warming and heart-breaking, and all of it is done in a magical way. “La La Land” is a must-see movie, and one that deserves to be experienced on the big screen. I expect it to capture all the awards this season, and it should.
Rating: PG-13 for some language.
Verdict: Four stars out of four.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt
Synopsis: This is the latest film from director Morten Tyldum and is set in space. There are 5,000 passengers and more than 250 crew aboard the Avalon, a long-term ship on a 120-year journey to Homestead II, a new planet that they'll call home. Along the journey, with 90 years left to go, Jim (Pratt) is awakened by mistake. He soon discovers he's alone and, due to the error, will live out his life alone aboard the Avalon as it travels to its destination — new life he'll never know. After more than a year in solitude with solely the android bar tender (Martin Sheen) to talk to, Jim feels desperate. He's found a hibernating passenger, Aurora (Lawrence), with whom he's drawn to. He feels a kinship to her and, in desperation, wakes her as well. Now Jim and Aurora have each other, but he's similarly doomed her to life aboard the ship never knowing their new home. And, soon, they discover the ship is in distress and, without their heroic efforts, all aboard will be lost. "Passengers" is an uneasy film to watch at times. It wants to tell this beautiful love story between Jim and Aurora, and Pratt and Lawrence tell that story beautifully, but there's an inherent problem. It's referenced a few times but, essentially, Jim's actions are far from noble. No matter how he treats Aurora when she's awake, there's a problem there that can't be totally overcome. Lawrence and Pratt give good performances, and I thought the film was enjoyable and interesting. There are moments of drama and humor. There are some good effects. And there's a good style to the film. Lawrence and Pratt do a nice job, too, in that they have to carry most of the film by themselves. But the flaw in the story, and the somewhat creepy idea if you think about it, takes away from this film being what it could be.
Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexuality, nudity and action/peril.
Verdict: Three stars out of four.