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Movie Review: “Gold”

Starring
Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll
Director
Stephen Gaghan

Former Hollywood golden boy Stephen Gaghan was at the top of his game when he seemingly vanished from the industry following 2005’s “Syriana,” so it’s easy to see why his latest project (which he directed but didn’t write) has been met with guarded enthusiasm. After actually watching the film, however, it’s not surprising that it was shut out of this year’s awards race. Although the movie is loosely based on incredible true events and features a committed performance from Matthew McConaughey, “Gold” fails to capitalize on its intriguing premise. The potential was certainly there, but despite the similarities to other recent films about greed and the American Dream like “The Big Short” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Gaghan’s sophomore effort lacks the energy and wit that made those movies so enjoyable.

The film opens in 1981 with Reno-based prospector Kenny Wells (McConaughey) working for his family’s successful mining company. Fast-forward seven years later and the business has fallen on hard times due to a crumbling economy and the death of Kenny’s father. He’s barely keeping the company afloat, working out of a bar to save on expenses. But just when it seems like Kenny has finally hit rock bottom, he has a dream about discovering gold in the uncharted jungles of Indonesia and decides to make one last gamble, pawning his jewelry and jetting off to Southeast Asia in order to convince geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez) – who has a theory about untapped mineral reserves in the country – to partner with him. Though they initially have zero luck finding anything, the pair eventually strikes gold in a big way, attracting the attention of Wall Street banker Brian Woolf (Corey Stoll). But as everyone fights to get a piece of Kenny and Michael’s success, the whole thing threatens to come crashing down around them.

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Movie Review: “Sing”

Starring
Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Seth MacFarlane, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly, Nick Kroll, John C. Reilly
Director
Garth Jennings

Illumination Entertainment prints money. Their three most recent films (“Despicable Me 2,” “Minions” and “The Secret Life of Pets”) have raked in just under $3 billion combined, with an average budget per film of $75 million (which is roughly half what Disney and Pixar spend on their films). As business models go, it’s hard to come up with a better one. On the other hand, those Illumination films range in quality from aggressively mediocre to downright bad, and in 10 years, they’ll all be forgotten. If Pixar films are a blue chip stock, Illumination films are day trader profits; it’s all about the now, hence the emphasis on merchandising over story.

“Sing” appeared to be aiming (slightly) higher than its most recent predecessors in terms of quality, but it falls victim to the same trappings as the others, namely a script that feels as though it wasn’t touched by human hands until the third act. The first hour is a laundry list of overused tropes, including a few that are so outdated that their presence here beggars belief.

Koala bear Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a theater owner in desperate need of a hit. He decides that his newest show will be a singing competition, and when the grand prize amount is moved two decimal points to the right thanks to a series of events both gross and absurd, Buster is surprised to see that he has a bevy of talent to choose from at auditions (but doesn’t yet know why). The ones to make the final cut are classically trained mouse Mike (Seth MacFarlane), hausfrau pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), German pig Gunter (Nick Kroll), sensitive gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton) and teen punk porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson. Yes, Scarlett Johannson plays a teenager). Meena (Tori Kelly), an elephant with pipes for days, went to audition but is terrified of performing in front of an audience and is bullied off stage by Mike. She goes to audition a second time, and Buster asks her to be his stage hand without ever hearing her sing. This turns out to be a very good thing for all concerned, for obvious reasons.

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Movie Review: “Kubo and the Two Strings”

Starring
Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei
Director
Travis Knight

“If you must blink, do it now,” warns the narrator of “Kubo and the Two Strings,” a movie so confident in its eye-popping visuals and brilliant storytelling that it knows you won’t want to miss a single moment. It’s advice you’ll definitely want to follow, because after the disappointment of 2014’s “The Boxtrolls,” Portland-based animation studio Laika is back at the top of its game with this wildly inventive adventure film that’s packed with the kind of sincerity and heartfelt emotion you rarely find in the medium, Pixar excluded. But “Kubo and the Two Strings” is more than just a return to form for the studio; it’s their funniest and finest movie to date – an absolutely delightful fairy tale that will likely go down as one of the year’s best.

In feudal Japan, a young, one-eyed boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) has been tasked with taking care of his sick mother in their remote mountain home. During the day, Kubo goes down to the nearby village to tell stories about the legendary samurai Hanzo with his magical samisen, a traditional, three-stringed Japanese instrument that can manipulate colorful sheets of paper into animated origami figures that move and dance with the strum of a string. When he doesn’t heed his mother’s warning and stays out after dark one night, however, Kubo inadvertently summons his evil twin aunts (Rooney Mara), who have been sent by his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), to steal his other eye. Kubo’s mother comes to his rescue just in time, sacrificing herself to save him and using her last bit of magic to bring to life a wooden monkey charm that serves as his guardian. With the help of Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a cursed man-beetle warrior (Matthew McConaughey) with no memory of his previous life, Kubo must embark on a quest to retrieve the three pieces of Hanzo’s fabled gold armor in order to defeat his vengeful family.

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Movie Review: “Free State of Jones”

Starring
Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers
Director
Gary Ross

Gary Ross’ movies are nothing if not sincere and, generally speaking, kindhearted. This time around, the writer/director behind “Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit” and the first “Hunger Games” tackles far tougher material with “Free State of Jones,” a biopic mostly about Confederate Army medic Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey). The film is often unwieldy, narratively speaking, but it’s also not without passion, telling a story that is frequently more brutal than inspiring.

The year is 1963, and though Newton has apprehensively signed up to fight in the Civil War, he opposes slavery and the ways of the Confederate Army. After his nephew is killed in combat, Knight becomes a deserter, sick of fighting in a war that he doesn’t believe in. He returns to Jones County, where he’s hunted by Confederates, and eventually flees with his wife Serena (Keri Russell), who ends up leaving Jonestown altogether. While hiding out in a swamp, Newt meets a group of escaped slaves, including Moses (Mahershala Ali) and his future wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), both of whom he develops close bonds to. Newton, Moses and others lead a rebellion against the Confederates, which is only the setup to a story that covers more time than one would think.

It’s easy to imagine the “white savior” version of “Free State of Jones,” but this isn’t that story, and Ross doesn’t treat it as such. The side characters, mostly Moses and Rachel, are at the forefront of this story almost as much as Newton Knight. Their arcs and struggles are the emotional backbone of the film. Of course, Jones is the lead, but this isn’t only his story. As for whether this is a white savior story, this is a film filled more with loss and pain than it is with Newton saving the day, and the characters he’s surrounded by often find the courage in themselves to stand up without his assistance. Most of the tropes linked to white savior stories are not present in here. Newton Knight is an inspiring figure, but he’s no more inspiring than Moses and other supporting characters.

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Movie Review: “Interstellar”

Starring
Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Michael Caine, John Lithgow
Director
Christopher Nolan

A coworker of mine is hoping that he can convince his wife to take their two girls to see “Big Hero 6” while he ducks into another theater to see Christopher Nolan’s new film “Interstellar.” Here’s the irony: the moral of “Interstellar” is that he should see “Big Hero 6” with his kids instead.

This is both an impossibly dense movie, and a deceptively simple one. The quantum physics talk and the hypotheses regarding time and space turn out to be a bit of a red herring. The true essence of “Interstellar” is about love, and Anne Hathaway’s character sums it up perfectly: time can contract and expand, but it can’t go backwards. In a nutshell, Nolan spent $165 million and 169 minutes telling us to seize the day with our loved ones. That’s a great message, and he pulls a number of incredible technical achievements in the process, but with “Interstellar,” Nolan has fallen into a trap that has caught many before him: the pitfalls of autonomy.

Set in an undefined but presumably not-too-distant future, Earth is suffering another Dust Bowl period, crops are dying, and there is reason to believe that the children will be the last generation Earth will ever know. Former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) has taken up farming to help the cause, but a series of strange events leads Cooper and his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) to an off-the-grid NASA facility, where a team is preparing to investigate a series of planets in a far-off galaxy, courtesy of a wormhole, to see if life is sustainable. They need a reliable pilot, though, and they ask Cooper if he will join them. Cooper is understandably conflicted, since there is no guarantee that he will return, but he ultimately decides that the salvation of the human race is the nobler goal, and he joins Amelia Brand (Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and Romilly (David Gyasi) on a boom-or-bust mission to find another Earth.

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