Reviewing: Miss Stevens (2016)

The main characters of "Miss Stevens".

Courtesy of The Orchard. 

by Cole Albinder

 

Julia Hart’s Miss Stevens was a movie that piqued my interest a while ago. The cast of both well-known and rising actors assembled was top-notch, and the story sounded interesting: a young high school English teacher is tasked with bringing three students to a drama competition, and one of the  more questionably stable students  feels he has a deep connection to her. I was expecting some slightly intense drama, some snippets of dark comedy, and a good deal of warmth from the characters. While it doesn’t quite go to the darker places I thought it would, Miss Stevens succeeds in creating moments that feel authentic, as well as fully fleshed out characters to inhabit them.

Lily Rabe is the titular Miss (Rachel) Stevens, a withdrawn and slightly awkward teacher who acts as chaperone for three of her students attending a state drama competition: Margot (Lili Reinhart), a type-A overachiever; Sam (Anthony Quintal), an openly gay student; and Billy (Timothee Chalamet), a charming yet anti-social student who seems to have a strange fascination with his teacher.

From left to right: Billy (Timothee Chalamet), Rachel Stevens (Lily Rabe), Sam (Anthony Quintal), and Margot (Lili Reinhart).

Courtesy of The Orchard. 

As the weekend goes on, we the audience get to know more about Rachel as a character, as she relates stories about her acting days to her students and has an awkward sexual encounter with another teacher, who happens to be married (Rob Huebel). But the scenes with her and Billy are the ones that pack a good amount of the emotion and the strangeness of their relationship. Chalamet really excels in these scenes, as we’re treated to the many facets of his character’s personality; he truly lights up the screen with a palpable energy. But this isn’t to detract from Rabe, who shines in her own way. She subtly maintains Rachel’s awkward yet caring personality on the outside, though she’s no slouch when it comes to opening up her character and revealing her hurt interior.

As I said, this film wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be. But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.  It’s good to be surprised by a film every once in a while (and it should be the case more often, in my opinion), and this film did just that. A fine cast, an intelligent script, and a competent director at the helm make this an entertaining and thought-provoking watch.

Sam (Anthony Quintal), joining in on a hug between Billy (Timothee Chalamet) and Margot (Lili Reinhart).

Courtesy of The Orchard.

Reviewing: Anastasia (1997)

 

by Cole Albinder

In honor of its Broadway musical adaptation, I thought I’d sit down and watch what many consider to be a standard of the animated library, 1997’s Anastasia. I was interested in the story, which is loosely based on the legend of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, who was thought to have been executed with her family at the hands of Bolshevik troops, though in reality she managed to escape execution. The film takes a different approach, showing that a vengeful sorcerer named Grigori Rasputin (voiced here by Christopher Lloyd) sold his soul for an unholy reliquary, allowing him to place a curse on Anastasia’s family: this incites the Russian Revolution. Anastasia and her grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna manage to escape, though only Marie is able to make it onto a moving train, leaving Anastasia in the crowd. For someone who’s only seen this once, it’s best if you don’t know anything about the plot before going in, as it makes the true events all the more though-provoking. A few pieces of character development aside, Anastasia is a film that shouldn’t be missed.

Reviewing: Brick Lane (2007)

The film's main character, Nazneen Ahmed (Tannishta Chatterjee).

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

by Cole Albinder

The 2007 film Brick Lane (based on the novel of the same name by Monica Ali) gives us a look at the lifestyles that many of those in the Muslim community (specifically the Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Indians) were forced to lead. The film’s main character, Nazneen, is forced at a young age away from her sister and life in Bangladesh at the age of seventeen, during the 1980s. She is arranged to marry Chanu Ahmed, who is nearly twice her age, and they are to live in the Brick Lane section of London, England, which is home to the British Bangladeshi community.

As Nazneen grows into her role as wife to Chanu and mother to their two young daughters, she keeps herself sane by sewing clothes, sending and replying to letters from her sister, and striking up a close relationship with Kharim, a clothing worker who comes to her flat periodically. Her world is thrown into disarray (once more) when, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, racial tensions against her community force her and her family to consider moving back to Bangladesh.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The film explores the tensions that arose in the wake of 9/11. As we all know, the events of 9/11 sent our world into a state of shock, one from which we may never recover. It caused us to question our safety, our well-being as a nation, and our relationships with those of other cultures. It forced those not young enough to understand what happened to understand, to realize that the barriers protecting one’s country were not as all-powerful as we were lead to believe. Similar acts of terrorism in other countries have forced its inhabitants to embrace that sad and scary truth as well, as this film shows.

Nazneen (Tannishta Chatterjee) and Kharim (Christopher Simpson).

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Brick Lane does a superb job of putting the audience in the shoes of its characters, in addition to giving each one of them a voice and a three-dimensional characterization.  While I would have liked to see a bit more of the family dynamic amongst the Ahmeds, the film itself stands as a powerful commentary on the impact of terrorism as a whole, especially in regards to a community that is cruelly blamed for those events.

Reviewing: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

One of the original posters for "An American Werewolf in London".

Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

by Cole Albinder

It’s a great time to be a horror fan, if these last few years have been any kind of indication. From the Paranormal Activity movies to recent breakouts like It Follows and Get Out, the horror genre has reignited the interests of filmmakers and  moviegoers alike. For this week’s post, I thought I’d treat myself to one of the more famous films in this genre, John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London.

If the name John Landis sounds familiar, then you’re not alone. He’s been the director for several hit comedies, like Nation Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and Trading Places. Now you’re probably getting curious: how could a director known for comedies suddenly transition to a straight-up horror film? To be fair, American Werewolf has its fair share of funny moments (more so than the average horror film), but nonetheless manages to be terrifying all the same.

The film's two main characters: Jack (Griffin Dunne, left) and David (David Naughton, right).

Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The film follows two young Americans, David Kessler (David Naughton, right) and Jack Freeman (Griffin Dunne, left) who are backpacking through England. While they are briefly stopped at a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, they are warned by the townsfolk to stick close to the road, “beware the moors” (referring to the North York Moors, which is not far from where the men are traveling), and also to “beware the full moon.” As with most horror movies, the men unintentionally forget to heed this advice, and are attacked by large animal, resulting in David being injured and Jack being killed. As David wakes up in a London hospital, he is visited by the decaying spirit of Jack, who tells his friend that they were attacked by a lycanthrope (otherwise known as a werewolf). By the next full moon, David himself will become a werewolf.

As I mentioned, American Werewolf is a funny film. It may be odd that a horror film can be both funny and scary, but this film pulls off the combination of these tones beautifully. Just because it is funny doesn’t make it a spoof, as there are genuine, dangerous stakes to this story. The effects used to transform David into the werewolf are frightening and impressive, even by today’s standards, holding its own against the CGI of today’s films. If you’re looking for an introduction to the horror genre that manages to thrill you, in addition to making you laugh quite a bit, An American Werewolf in London is for you.

 

 

 

David (David Naughton) transforming into the werewolf.Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Reviewing: xXx (2002)

Vin Diesel in 2002's "xXx".

by Cole Albinder

In honor of the newest movie coming out, I decided I’d jump into the craze that is the xXx franchise, starting with the first one. Fresh off his breakout role in The Fast and the Furious, a young Vin Diesel starred as Xander Cage, a stuntman and extreme sports enthusiast who is recruited to be a secret agent by the NSA. He is given the assignment of infiltrating a group of supposed Russian terrorists, who are secretly harboring a biochemical weapon known as “Silent Night”, in exchange for having his criminal record wiped. The film is enjoyable, largely because of Vin Diesel’s charismatic performance and the scope of the action scenes on display (there’s one involving a motocross bike scene that has to be seen to be believed).

Reviewing: La La Land (2016)

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in "La La Land".

Courtesy of Summit Entertainment. 

by Cole Albinder

One commercial for La La Land contains a review that says something along the lines of “They don’t make movies like this anymore.” And I agree: it’s been years since we’ve seen an original musical on the big screen. Not that anyone hasn’t tried, but it would be very hard to earn a studio’s trust in order to ensure the license to make one. Damien Chazelle, he of 2014’s exhilarating jazz-infused thriller Whiplash, was able to earn a studio’s trust thanks to the glowing reviews and multiple award wins of his first feature. And La La Land certainly is something, with impressive choreography, catchy songs, and excellent turns from stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It’s just that I was expecting a bit more, a longer connective thread that tied the movie together, which is muddled slightly by too many montage sequences. La La Land is one hell of an experience, but one I hoped to mine a little more out of.

Reviewing: Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

The protagonists of Bend It Like Beckham: Jess Bhamra (left) and Jules Paxton (right).

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. 

by Cole Albinder

Bend It Like Beckham is one of those movies that not only entertains, but teaches as well. Through its focus on two families of different cultures (who have similar problems, nonetheless), we get some commentary on how each family operates under the umbrella of their respective cultures. Both of our protagonists, Jess and Jules, dream of playing professional soccer (referred to in Europe as association football), but their families, particularly their mothers, are against the realizing of these dreams. While you have a good idea of where the film is going in the end, it’s an enjoyable ride nonetheless.