Gifted (2017) – Movie Review By AJ Beltis

gifted review

“Gifted” is not only the title of this wonderful film. It’s also an adjective that can be used to accurately describe music composer Rob Simonsen, cinematographer Stuart Deyburgh, director Marc Webb (yes, even in the wake of The Amazing Spider-Man), and – most of all – young actress Mckenna Grace. Heck, I’m feeling generous, so I’ll even say the term applies to Chris Evans, since the Avengers star gives what may be his best performance yet.

The film stars Mckenna as Mary, the 7-year-old niece to Chris Evans’ character Frank. Stemming from the genetics of her mother, Mary is a mathematical prodigy, effortlessly utilizing the Trachtenberg system to crunch numbers in her mind, shocking her first grade teacher Miss Stevens (Jenny Slate) on her first day of school.

As the word of Mary’s genius spreads throughout the administration, Frank’s choice to place Mary in the traditional education system and live a “normal” life starts to get scrutinized. The school decides to reach out to Mary’s grandmother and Frank’s mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who takes her son to court for the right to raise young Mary and choose a more challenging path for her education. In Evelyn’s eyes, it’s worthwhile to skip prom and Girl Scouts to properly foster one of the greatest minds in the history of mankind.

Gifted is a film about love, its countless forms, and how it’s perceived by different generations and those in various walks of life. It’s a film about family, and serves as a reminder that one can never fuly separate  themselves from their family’s presence – physical or otherwise – despite the truest or most arduous efforts. It’s a film that rips your heart out and then makes it soar in the course of 15 minutes without at all feeling manipulated by a film crew or a production studio’s budget.

It is so effective at what it sets out to be because of the true talent in front of and behind the camera. There were no weak links in the characters – other than that they are flawed humans just like you and I. The scenes where Frank is at odds with Mary or Evelyn are because the characters are so sincerely written and established that their conflicts are justified, believable, and thus heartbreaking.

Yet for every scene like this, there are two or three that counter it with soul-lifting humor and emotion. Mckenna’s performance as Mary is a revelation, making us laugh and gasp in a truly unbelievable child on-screen presence. She’s confident in her character and in her acting ability, and with this one credit (plus her brief stint on “Fuller House” (yes I watch “Fuller House”)), she has cemented her name on my list of young stars to watch, alongside such talents as Tye Sheridan and Jacob Tremblay.

And again, I can’t dismiss the work of Chris Evans, who’s extremely believable as Frank and conveys the man’s inner turmoil with such earnestness. The same goes for the Duncan and Slate, each of whom possess a magnetic quality in front of the camera even in a packed ensemble.

What’s so impressive about this film is the depth of the decision that must be made when it comes to Mary, and how every character – lead and supporting, family members, Frank & Mary’s neighbor Roberta (Octavia Spencer), judges, and lawyers – all have a stake in what happens to young Mary, yet none of them go about handling the dilemma with selfish reasons, even though they absolutely are in opposing character’s eyes.

Through these characters, the movie thrusts the decision on the viewer with a “What would you do?” mentality that I haven’t seen in anything this deep since 2007’s Gone Baby Gone. We’re confronted with the reality that no one – ourselves included – really knows what the “right” way to bring Mary up is. All the while, Simonsen’s breezy soundtrack helps to painstakingly depict what is – or in some scenes, what could be – a better day for these characters.

I’ve thought about why I would give Gifted anything less than 5 stars. Maybe it would be because the movie was safe – but it wasn’t. The more I think back on it, the more I recognize its unexpected depth and appreciate the legitimacy and importance of its themes. Maybe it would be because the movie coerced me into a false state of sappiness – but it wasn’t sappy, and it wasn’t false. I genuinely cared for Mary, Frank, Roberta, and Miss Stevens (and even Evelyn towards the end).

Admittedly, I feel like I’ll get some backlash for rating this film so highly, which is why I’m doing my best to lay out why I do think this film is well worth your time. And I know I haven’t reviewed many movies lately, but the more I think about what it means to be a film critic, I’ve come to realize it’s less about speaking to your perception.

Don’t get me wrong – agree or disagree with me all you want, that’s your right. Email me and I’ll happily drop what I’m doing and discuss the merit of any film ad nauseam. However, what I am doing with this platform is speaking from my feelings and experience in an attempt to justify what I think about a movie.

When it comes to Gifted, I’ve got no complaints.

Rating: 5/5

2017 Oscar Predictions by AJ Beltis – Who Will Win and Who Should Win?

oscar predictions

As I write this, I sit in my room watching 2014’s Boyhood. Not too long ago, this movie was snubbed a rightful Best Picture win, losing to a film about the glam and the struggles of Hollywood stars.

Looks like history is about to repeat itself.

Don’t get me wrong – La La Land is a good film, but it’s a spectacular production wrapped in an all-too-conventional narrative. There’s plenty in there to love, but 2016 had even more to love from other movies, seldom of which were nominated for Best Picture.

As much as it pains me to admit, sometimes my opinion has no impact. I’m no member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, so my preference carries no real weight here. But I’ll make the case for why I’d vote a certain way if my vote counted on Oscar night.

I’ll also try to make my best guess as to who will win in the following categories. Finally, with so many movies overlooked this year, I’ll throw in a few names that I think should have made the cut this year in these categories.

Best Picture

Predicted Winner: La La Land

Everyone in the crowd will be shocked if La La Land doesn’t pick up the big win on Oscar night. It’s all about Hollywood – wonderful, difficult, magical Hollywood. Needless to say, it was a shoo-in months ago.

To be totally transparent, I did like La La Land a lot, and there were parts that I thought were just delightful. Emma Stone’s performance, the songs, and the production value are all marvelous. None of this can be knocked down by the next two big contenders – Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea.

I personally thought Hacksaw Ridge was a more tightly-made motion picture than La La Land, while Manchester by the Sea and Fences were more emotional, and Hidden Figures was more relevant and enjoyable. So while La La Land is a great film – in my opinion – it was not the best of the year. Moonlight was overrated, Lion and HoHW were good, and Arrival was simply “High School Spanish Class: The Movie.” I fully love just three movies on this year’s list, none of which are La La Land.

AJ’s Rankings

  1. Hacksaw Ridge
  2. Manchester by the Sea
  3. Fences
  4. Hidden Figures
  5. La La Land
  6. Moonlight
  7. Lion
  8. Hell or High Water
  9. Arrival

Should Have Been Nominated: The Birth of a Nation, Nocturnal Animals, The VVitch

Best Director

Predicted Winner: Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Damien Chazelle is a filmmaker talented beyond his years. With only two major movies under his belt, Chazelle is becoming one of the industry’s most renowned directors. I personally liked Whiplash a lot better and was a much more powerful endeavor overall, but his moviemaking passion is clear in this film as well. I’d love to see the Oscars split Picture and Director like they have in previous years, maybe giving this award to Lonnergan for MBTS or one of their competitors. But it seems like the La La Land craze is here to stay (at least until Sunday).

As for my opinion, I’ve got to show my cards and give props to Mel Gibson for helming the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan (or maybe ever, for that matter). Lonnergan, Jenkins, and Chazelle brought out fantastic performances from their casts, while Villeneuve – who misinterprets boredom for purposeful pacing – should not be on this list.

AJ’s Rankings

  1. Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
  2. Chazelle, La La Land
  3. Lonnergan, Manchester by the Sea
  4. Jenkins, Moonlight
  5. Villeneuve, Arrival

Should Have Been Nominated: Parker – The Birth of a Nation, Ford – Nocturnal AnimalsFavreau – The Jungle Book, Craig – The Edge of Seventeen

Best Actor

Predicted Winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

It’s a race to the finish between Affleck and Denzel! I found Denzel to be more entertaining to watch – which made his character’s mid-movie revelation that changes the course of the film all the more powerful. Affleck is equally as powerful – just in a much more subtle way. Denzel and his Hollywood buddies could rally for a strong finish, but Affleck was the early front-runner, so I’ll stick with the prediction for Affleck’s deserved win.

As for my preference, I’d love to see Affleck finish strong, especially since this role is not unfamiliar to Denzel (a Tony Award winner for the exact same role on Broadway). Andrew Garfield does some of his best work in Hacksaw, and Gosling gets the classic nomination-by-association for La La Land. I have yet to see Captain Fantastic, yet have heard nothing but good things about Mortensen and the movie.

AJ’s Rankings

  1. Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
  2. Denzel Washington, Fences
  3. Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
  4. Ryan Gosling, La La Land
    Also Nominated: Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic

Should Have Been Nominated: Joel Edgerton – LovingSunny Pawar – Lion

Best Actress

Predicted Winner: Emma Stone, La La Land

As good as I have tried to be about seeing movies this year, I missed out on a few – notably Elle, Jackie, and Florence Foster Jenkins. So…#TeamEmma? I’m just mad that Hailee Steinfeld missed the mark here for The Edge of Seventeen, as did Taraji P. Hensen for Hidden Figures, though I speak with less confidence here because I’m suggesting these two replace performances that I haven’t seen yet.

Best Supporting Actor

Predicted Winner: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

I’ve kind of hated the supporting categories these past few years. This year is no different. With a short yet respectable performance in Moonlight, Mahershala Ali is set to take the stage on Sunday.

I don’t think this was the best supporting male performance of 2016 – nor the best performance in Moonlight for that matter. The Academy also nominated the wrong actors from Nocturnal Animals, Lion, and Hell or High Water. That said, I honestly don’t care who the win goes to this year because I know it’s not going to my preference – the bare and moving performance from Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea.

AJ’s Rankings

  1. Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea

4-way tie for “Who cares?”: Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals, Mahershala Ali – Moonlight, Dev Patel – Lion, Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water

Should Have Been Nominated: John Goodman – 10 Cloverfield Lane, Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Nocturnal Animals

Best Supporting Actress

Predicted Winner: Viola Davis, Fences

Viola hands in quite a performance in Fences, and all bets should be on her. Her one point of weakness is that she – like Denzel – has performed this role before and has already been awarded for it.

My personal preference goes to Naomi Harris, who gave the actual best performance in Moonlight, ranging from vulnerable to vicious. Viola’s only real competition – however distant – is from Michelle Williams, who may be more of a front-runner had she been given a bit more screen time.

As for the other nominees…what exactly is Nicole Kidman doing here? I also feel the Academy nominated the wrong actress from Hidden Figures here – Janelle Monae had a more important and engaging story, plus a stronger on-screen presence.

AJ’s Rankings

  1. Naomi Harris, Moonlight
  2. Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
  3. Viola Davis, Fences
  4. Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
  5. Nicole Kidman, Lion

Should Have Been Nominated: Amy Adams – Nocturnal AnimalsJanelle Monae – Hidden Figures

Best Original Screenplay

Predicted Winner: La La Land

I am predicting a win for La La Land, but I am praying for a win for Manchester by the Sea. Unquestionably, the least impressive aspect of La La Land was its screenplay. Its characters, their conflicts, and the central romance were noting special whatsoever. What was special, however, was Manchester by the Sea. It’s raw, heart-wrenching, and dares to go where few screenplays have – and it is done well. There is a chance this dark horse could be victorious. Until then, I’ll dream.

This category also includes the quirky and unique screenplay for The Lobster, which is probably too polarizing for a win. 20th Century Women’s screenplay was an earnest endeavor, and the last half hour of that film was cinematic bliss. That said, it lacks the punch of the two frontrunnners of MBTS and La La Land. Hell or High Water also had quite a sincere screenplay, but faces a tough sea of competition.

AJ’s Rankings

  1. Manchester by the Sea
  2. 20th Century Women
  3. The Lobster
  4. La La Land
  5. Hell or High Water

Should Have Been Nominated: The Birth of a Nation, The Edge of Seventeen, Zootopia, Sing Street

Best Adapted Screenplay

Predicted Winner: Moonlight

The only reason I am slightly okay with the probability of Moonlight winning is because that means Arrival won’t. Fences’ dialogue and story structure were truly astounding, but doesn’t have too strong a shot compared the the previously-mentioned scripts. Hidden Figures was a bit too much of a crowd-pleaser, and God forbid the Academy recognizes one of those. Lion was a moving picture, but that’s more to do with its editing, directing, and acting compared to its screenplay.

AJ’s Rankings

  1. Fences
  2. Hidden Figures
  3. Moonlight
  4. Lion
  5. Arrival

Should Have Been Nominated: Nocturnal Animals, Loving

And now, the rest of the nominees for feature film…

Best Cinematography
Prediction: La La Land
Preference: Arrival

Best Costume Design
Prediction: La La Land
Preference: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Best Film Editing
Prediction: La La Land
Preference: Hacksaw Ridge

Best Production Design
Prediction: La La Land
Preference: Passengers

Best Original Score
Prediction: La La Land
Preference: La La Land

Best Original Song
Prediction: La La Land (City of Stars) 
Preference: Trolls (Can’t Stop the Feeling)

Best Sound Editing
Prediction: Hacksaw Ridge
Preference: Hacksaw Ridge

Best Sound Mixing
Prediction: La La Land
Preference: Hacksaw Ridge

Best Visual Effects
Prediction: The Jungle Book
Preference: The Jungle Book

Best Animated Feature
Prediction: Zootopia
Preference: Zootopia

Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Prediction: Star Trek Beyond

Tallied Predictions

La La Land: 11
Moonlight: 2
Fences: 1
Hacksaw Ridge
: 1
The Jungle Book: 1
Manchester by the Sea
: 1
Star Trek Beyond: 1
Zootopia: 1

Get Out (2017) Movie Review

First off, I have to say that this is my first written review since June, so I apologize if I’m a bit rusty.

But one of the reasons I haven’t written much about film lately is because – in my opinion – movies within the past year haven’t been that great. However, if Get Out is any indication of how good movies are going to be in 2017, well, we’re off to a damn good start.

The story centers around Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), who for the past four months has been dating Rose (Allison Williams). The two are about to head to the suburbs so Chris can meet Rose’s parents for the first time. Chris feels Rose’s parents should be made aware of the elephant before it appears in the room – Chris is black and Allison is white. The latter assures him it won’t be a problem whatsoever, as Rose’s parents “would have voted for Obama a third time” if they could have.

Still skeptical, Chris agrees to give it a shot, while his friend (and proud TSA agent) Rod doesn’t take too kindly to the idea. Rod serves as Chris’ checkpoint back into the city throughout the movie, as well as the film’s comedic compass.

The first greeting appears amicable enough, but later interactions with Rose’s brother and the family’s housekeepers start to seriously raise Chris’ suspicions. At a family party, Rose’s relatives are quick to pint out Chris’ race and ask him obscure questions about the physical build and cultural perception of black people in today’s society. Still, he plays it cool, and tries not to make a scene. But after taking a flash photo of one of the first black men he has seen in days, the man seems to have a frantic breakdown, warning a visibly shaken Chris to “get out.”

This movie is an indisputable achievement in modern horror. Not only is it psychologically thrilling throughout and capped off with a blood-soaked finale, Get Out is an incredibly smart film. One scene in particular introduces the notion of hypnosis, and the subtle build up from casual conversation to the scene’s climax is tantalizingly brilliant.

It also addresses an obviously serious and controversial subject facing the country and handles it with much care. Not once did I feel like the film was pushing a racial agenda, and if there was one there, in no way did it feel unwelcome or tarnish the movie. That’s how smart and careful Get Out is.

However, one area where the rest of the film’s intelligence seemed to be slightly lacking was in character behaviors.

This is not a knock on the characters themselves, nor the actors. There are great performances all around – notably from its two leads and those enslaved in their own minds. However, the characters seemed to know they were in a movie. The excessive narration from two of the characters – one of these instances being in the opening scene – served to distract from my experience instead of enhancing it.

For example, when Rod sets up the task of recording a phone call, we as an audience do not need to hear “Okay…record, speaker phone, unmute.” Up to this point, we as an audience were led to believe we were smart enough to follow along without guidance – but the film took a 180 here. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a nitpick, but in a movie that sees everything flow so smoothly otherwise, it’s a shame moments like these were allowed to slip in where tension could have resided instead.

Furthermore, despite being a thriller, Get Out is a very funny movie. But unfortunately, not all of the humor worked for me. For a while it seemed out of place, especialy at the beginning when building the framework for the story. However, I think both the movie and I gradually worked out a better understanding of the use of comedy as the runtime went on. Towards the end, the humor (and its primary delivery man in the form of Rod) was complimenting the horror quite hysterically.

The last 20 minutes of this film had the audience literally cheering. I have never been to a movie with such an engaged audience, and I have been to a lot of movies. Hearing this crowd applaud and holler for a man taking a bocce ball to another’s skull speaks to the power of this film. It’s gross, disturbing, unsettling, but it’s also magnificently enjoyable.

Everything in Get Out was set up intricately – characters, motivations, and storylines – to pay off in the latter half of the film. It’s a killer mystery full of twist after twist. When you realize how smart of an undertaking Get Out is, you’re in for quite a treat.

Rating: 4.5/5