Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Best Movies Of 2017

"The Florida Project," image courtesy of A24.
Although I wouldn't go as far as some film writers who have proclaimed 2017 a banner year for filmmaking, it ended up being a pretty decent one after all. My top three films were all ones from the heart - occasionally heartwarming, but just as often heartbreaking - and by filmmakers who had never cracked my top 10 before.

A few directors who I would consider old favorites made appearances on my list as well as a couple of pictures that were great examples of genre filmmaking. At least one film in my top 10 could cause you to have fall-outs with family and friends should you recommend it to them.

Review: Happy End

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Austria's Michael Haneke has been one of Europe's most reliably interesting filmmakers in recent years, so it's a disappointment that "Happy End" - a sequel, of sorts, to 2012's masterful "Amour" - doesn't quite work. Similar to some of his earlier works, Haneke's latest is another of the type of European art film that, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, attacked the values and lifestyles of the bourgeoisie. "Happy End" doesn't take a satirical approach to this type of material - as Luis Bunuel or Pier Paolo Pasolini might have done - but is more in line with Haneke's bleak films from the 1980s and 1990s.

The picture centers around the Laurent family, which is led by paterfamilias Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), whose character was one of the two leads in "Amour," and includes daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who runs the family's construction business, as well as surgeon son Thomas (Matthieu Kassovitz), his second wife, Anais (Laura Verlinden), and Pierre (Franz Rogowski), Anne's seemingly troubled son. Eve (Fantine Harduin), Thomas' 13-year-old daughter from his first marriage, comes to live with the family after her mother has put herself into a coma via an overdose of sedatives.

Haneke frequently uses gadgets - such as cell phones and online chatting - to portray communication between the characters or present their worldview. For example, Eve records various depressing visual anecdotes, such as the time she fed her hamster sedatives or a final sequence - which happens to be one of the film's most memorable images - during which the possibly senile Georges makes his own attempt at suicide. And Thomas carries on an online love affair with a cellist that is mostly portrayed through their various kinky texts and emails.

And therein lies one of the film's problems. Using technology to move a story forward is a tricky thing. Take Olivier Assayas' marvelous "Personal Shopper" as an example of a picture that utilizes this to its full potential, during a scene in which two characters have a creepy conversation via texting. In "Happy End," the use of texts, emails, iPhone footage and other gadgetry is overdone and it takes some time to figure out who is contacting whom.

Also, the various storylines are not filled out enough to make much of an impact. The picture opens with an impressively shocking collapse of a work construction site. Much of Anne's problems in the film revolve around a potential lawsuit from that accident and whether her wayward son can get involved in the family business and remain reliable during the crisis. Trintignant is given the most to do and the film's most impactful sequence involves his talking to his granddaughter about her morbid habits.

Haneke is a great filmmaker. Three of his past five films - "Cache," "The White Ribbon" and "Amour" - have been remarkable and his filmography also includes the powerful "Time of the Wolf" and engrossing "Code Unknown." "Happy End" is not a bad film - it certainly didn't turn me off in the way that "Funny Games" and its remake did - but merely a misfire with a handful of interesting scenes and a solid late performance by Trintignant. Haneke has made better films and I expect he'll make others that are better than this one.

Review: The Post

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Considering our current atmosphere in which the president of the United States has launched an assault on the freedom of the press and the Fourth Estate in general and introduced the dangerous phrase "fake news," Steven Spielberg's "The Post" couldn't be any more timely.

In Spielberg's picture, which chronicles The Washington Post's decision whether to release the Pentagon Papers, a president - in this case, Richard Nixon - has also branded the press as the enemy and works behind the scenes to prevent information from being disseminated to the public. The film is set during the 1970s in the heart of the Vietnam War. The peace movement has all but died out, but  the war remains highly unpopular.

A former military analyst, Daniel Ellsberg, played by Matthew Rhys (of "The Americans"), learns that the war's architects never really thought that the conflict was winnable and drew it out solely because they didn't want the United States to face the embarrassment of a defeat. Ellsberg leaks his story, first to The New York Times, which is prevented by a court order to publish further content from the Pentagon Papers, and then The Washington Post, led by publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep, with her juiciest role in some time) and executive managing editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, also great).

Since she is the first woman to take the reins at the paper, her male counterparts - Bradlee mostly excluded - do not believe that she is fit for the job and, therefore, attempt to exert themselves when she gives the go-ahead to Bradlee, who the paper's executive board views as impulsive, and try to convince her to alter her course.

"The Post" is a swift moving film and noteworthy addition to the catalogue of newspaper movies, which, of course, include "All the President's Men," "Zodiac" and "Spotlight." The entire cast - which also includes Bob Odenkirk, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson and Alison Brie - is solid and Hanks and Streep are reliably excellent, and manage to clear the hurdle of making audiences forget that they are watching two of the most awarded actors in recent history.

There is one note that Spielberg, perhaps, should not have played. It comes near the end of the picture after the Pentagon Papers story has gone to press. Streep and Hanks hold a brief conversation in which they spell out a little too obviously the film's thesis regarding the importance of the Fourth Estate. It's a sentiment that is clearly running throughout the picture's two-hour running time and was not necessary to put into words.

Otherwise, "The Post" is a gripping newspaper drama and a clarion call in the age of Donald Trump. Unless I'm reviewing a Michael Moore film, I try to steer clear of politics in reviews, but this picture demands it. Every year around the holiday season, studio bosses release films that they consider their highest in quality and those that they occasionally believe to be, for lack of a better word, important. It's a rare thing when a film actually rises to the level of importance and even rarer when it manages to be good in the process. "The Post" is very good and undoubtedly important.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review: All The Money In The World

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Ridley Scott's "All the Money in the World" is, mostly without intention, one of the most prescient films of the year and one that spells out in big letters what 2017 was all about. The picture originally starred Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty, but his scenes were reshot after the Hollywood sex abuse scandal engulfed the actor, who was replaced by Christopher Plummer. Also, Getty acts as a very suitable stand-in for another of the year's biggest societal themes - how the rich and powerful play games with the lives of others.

The picture follows the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) and the lengths to which his grandfather refused to pay his kidnappers, eventually at the expense of the boy. The picture sets up J. Paul Getty as a notorious Scrooge type who is known for being, at that time, the richest man in the world, although he managed to get out of paying taxes and refused to lend a hand to his own family members.

In the film's early scenes, bad blood is established between Getty and his heir's mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), after the latter divorces the billionaire's no-good drug addict son and refuses to take his money, opting only to keep sole custody of the kids. Clearly, Getty sees anything relating to his family - including Harris' children - as his property and goes out of his way to make her life miserable after the kidnapping takes place. Another character in the film calls Getty a "son of a bitch" and I believe he is being generous.

Mark Wahlberg pops up as a man known as J. Fletcher Chase, a former CIA operative who works on security detail for Getty. He is sent to Rome to find out who took Getty's heir (police believe it was the Red Brigade), but Chase originally thinks that the heir staged his own kidnapping. This mistaken belief is paid at the heir's expense.

"All the Money in the World" is an entertaining hostage drama and period piece. Plummer is a great actor, but also a very likable one - so, it's jarring to see him play such a wretched human being. Williams and Wahlberg are good as well, even if their characters are merely the archetypes of the worried mother and inspector.

The most interesting relationship in the film is between the kidnapped boy and one of his captors, a man named Cinquanta (Romain Duris), who clearly wants to get paid for his role in the kidnapping, but also has enough of a conscience to want to see the boy make it through alive. Considering how quickly much of this film was reshot - following Spacey's fall in the limelight - "All in the Money in the World" is a swiftly paced and enjoyable thriller. Scott has made better crime dramas and thrillers ("American Gangster" and "Thelma and Louise," for instance), but this is a well-made - and strangely timely - film for our age of unease.

Review: Phantom Thread

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Reynolds Woodcock is a meticulous man and a slave to his obsessions and routines. This suits him well in the world of high fashion, but not so much in his personal life. As the film opens, Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is relieving his latest love interest of her duties after having a particularly frigid breakfast that is accompanied, as always, by his no-nonsense sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville).

"Phantom Thread," the latest cinematic rapture from director Paul Thomas Anderson, is a fascinating study of how far people will allow themselves to be pushed if it enables them to remain by the side of a brilliant artist. But even more, it's an often tense and surprisingly funny game of domination that includes Woodcock, his sister and Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress to whom Woodcock takes a shine and then invites to live with him as employee, caretaker and mistress.

Shot on 70mm - and I highly urge you to watch it screened in the way it was meant to be seen - Anderson's film is visually gorgeous, from the haute couture on display to the gorgeous shots of faces illuminated by firelight and a beautifully filmed scene of New Year's Eve decadence. Equally impressive is the sharp writing in which the three leads get in stinging barbs and betray their true feelings all within a sentence. Most impressive of all is that Anderson is responsible for both the script (as usual) and - for the first time - cinematography.

One of the film's great revelations is to watch how the relationships between the characters shift during the course of the picture. In an early scene, a character kisses another on the cheek, and this is seen not only as a sign of affection, but also weakness. Later in the film, the opposite character delivers the kiss to the former giver.

Woodcock exerts control by sticking to his routine: designing clothes on a notepad at breakfast while surrounded by complete silence, not engaging in "confrontations" with personal relations and closely examining the work of his seamstresses, who work at his house. From the moment we meet Alma, we know she's trouble - at least, for Woodcock. He knows this too and welcomes it. The picture slyly insinuates that Woodcock is resistant to changing his fastidious behavior, while it is clear that he wants someone to challenge him.

This is particularly punctuated by two scenes that I can't exactly describe here without giving away too much, but suffice it to say that two of Woodcock's meals are purposefully ruined - and I mean ruined - and when the fashion designer realizes the how and why of the matter, well, let's just say it drives home the central struggle between the two lead characters in a fascinating manner. Throughout the film, characters subtly - or not so subtly - tell each other that they intend to win the game of domination that is being played for power in the Woodcock household ("If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose" or another in which a character vows that if they engage in a verbal tangle, their opponent will end up in a grave, at least metaphorically).

Anderson is easily one of the best filmmakers of his generation and, arguably, the best American director currently working. He tends to focus on period pieces - including this one, but also the remarkable "There Will Be Blood," "Boogie Nights," "The Master" and "Inherent Vice." His films set in the eras in which he shot them - "Magnolia" and "Punch Drunk Love" - are no less impressive. "Phantom Thread" is rich in every sense. This is a film that has great depth, beautiful visuals and masterful storytelling.

As for the performances, if this is truly Day-Lewis' last film, then he has gone out with a bang. Krieps deserves some type of award for holding her own, scene for scene, against Day-Lewis, while Manville is icily brilliant. And Jonny Greenwood - who provided the memorable score for "There Will Be Blood" - works wonders again here. "Phantom Thread" is a film in which all of the various pieces fit together to make up an impressive puzzle. This is one of the year's best movies.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Review: Downsizing

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
While all of the parts might not completely add up and its ambition overshadows its execution, Alexander Payne's "Downsizing" is a movie that is bursting with ideas, many of which are compelling. No, the film is not among the director's best. Payne has been on quite a run, from "Election" and "About Schmidt" to "Sideways" and "The Descendants." His latest film breaks that winning streak only in that it is not as great as the aforementioned pictures. But it doesn't lack for ingenuity.

Working with what must be his largest budget to date, Payne's latest is a science fiction comedy that focuses on the importance of human kindness and, well, the extinction of our species. There's a fair amount to swallow in this film, which starts out as a kooky comedy, takes a turn for the dramatic and then ends semi-abruptly.

As the film opens, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is living with his ailing mother, whose complaints of physical suffering cause him to ponder upon the nature of human suffering in general. Around this time, a miracle of science is unveiled - a brilliant Norwegian scientist has discovered a method to shrink human beings down to a tiny fraction of their size. The scientist believes that this will enable humans to decrease the carbon footprint they leave on the planet and, therefore, stave off mankind's seemingly inevitable end.

We cut to several years in the future. Paul is now married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig) and the two of them are considering getting downsized after learning how one's savings become multiplied rather generously when living as a tiny person. Paul, thinking that his wife is on board with the plan, takes the plunge, only to find out that not only has she had second thoughts, but is abandoning him.

Alone in Leisure Land, the man-made kingdom of the downsized, Paul becomes aimless, attempting to date a single mother and failing - and having no general purpose. His rowdy upstairs neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz), and a friend of that man (whose purpose is somewhat nebulous - but who cares? He's played by Udo Kier!) draw him into their libertine pursuits, but Paul quickly becomes fascinated with Dusan's housekeeper, Ngoc (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese woman who was imprisoned for protesting her government and lost a leg in the process.

Ngoc mistakenly believes that Paul is a doctor after he tries to work on her prosthetic leg and draws him into charitable works, of a sort at least. The story then takes a complete 360 as Ngoc, Dusan and Paul travel to Norway - in the film's least convincingly thought out narrative transition - to meet with the doctor who originally discovered the method of downsizing.

Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) has gathered together a small community of hippies and free thinkers who are plotting the means to live underground for hundreds of years in Norway after news breaks that high amounts of methane gas being emitted from the arctic will result in the human race's curtain call in a number of years. Paul - in search of some meaning for his life - considers joining the group, but must decide between that or staying in the dying world above-ground with Dusan and Ngoc.

As I'd mentioned, there's a whole lot going on in this film. It's the type of picture that occasionally feels messy in that it is all over the place - and yet, this is mostly not a detriment. I'd agree with some assessments that "Downsizing" is toward the bottom of Payne's cinematic catalogue, but consider that most of his previous films have been very good to great. There's much to admire in "Downsizing" - its chutzpah and relevancy, visuals filled with lovely imagery (a large rose, gigantic dandelions with the shadow of a mosquito, Leisure Land itself) and some strong performances, especially Chau, who steals nearly every scene she is in. "Downsizing" may just be a good movie in an overall stellar oeuvre, but it's imaginative in ways that most studio-backed films rarely tend to be.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Worst Movies Of 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight. Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Overall, 2017 was a decent year for movies - albeit not quite the great year that some have proclaimed - but there will be more on that later this year when I complete my best of 2017 list.

As is the case every year, 2017 subjected viewers to a number of stinkers. I forced myself to sit through a number of lousy movies, so that you don't have to do so. You're welcome.

However, I missed a fair amount of movies this year, both good and bad. Several fairly prominently lambasted films passed me by. Since I'm a glutton for punishment, I might eventually catch up with them. Or maybe not. Regardless, below find the list of the worst offerings of 2017.

Before I get to my top 10 worst, I'd be remiss not to steer you away from the following disasters: the silly action thriller "Collide," the nasty "Belko Experiment," the bottom of the barrel found footage movie "Phoenix Forgotten," the unnecessary reboots "XXX: Return of Xander Cage" and "The Mummy," the rare Zhang Yimou misfire "The Great Wall," the foolishly reimagined "Baywatch" and "Ghost in the Shell," the not-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is "The Little Hours," lifeless comedies "CHIPS" and "Literally, Right Before Aaron," the Wes Anderson/Todd Solondz knockoff "Lemon," the unpleasant "Vincent N Roxxy," the wannabe lurid "Fifty Shades Darker," the inexplicable "Book of Henry," unfunny "The House," boring "Alien" knockoff "Life" and way overrated "Free Fire."

Now, on to the 10 worst.

10. Rough Night - "Bridesmaids" was a hilarious showcase for women comedians that showed that the ladies could be just as raunchy as the fellas. "Rough Night" is another film in that vein - and a particularly unfunny one.

9. Snatched - Amy Schumer's breakthrough film, "Trainwreck," brought her deserved acclaim. It was a funny movie, whereas this latest effort was a depressingly unfunny slog. Even more inexplicable is why Goldie Hawn chose this film to come out of semi-retirement.

8. Rings - A once-creepy horror franchise wipes off the dust and makes an unnecessary return. This new entry feels dated and is often unintentionally funny.

7. Woodshock - Fashion designers Laura and Kate Mulleavy make the transition to filmmaking and, despite having a sense of visual style, this lackluster thriller is experimental in the worst way. Rather than provoking and creating a sense of mystery, "Woodshock" is a crashing bore, albeit one that is occasionally filled with lovely imagery.

6. We Are the Flesh - This grim Mexican horror movie exists for no other purpose than displaying the nude bodies of its cast for much of its running time as they hide out in an underground layer during what appears to be some sort of apocalyptic event. The picture clearly wants to be a button pusher - however, the only button with which viewers might be concerned is the one used for fast forwarding.

5. Wish Upon - There's little to say about numbers five and four on this list, other than that they are particularly lame and poorly made horror movies. However, the one selling point in "Wish Upon" is Ryan Phillipe's hip dad character who, for no particular reason, rocks out on a saxophone to Kenny G-style melodies.

4. The Bye Bye Man - As I'd mentioned above, just a lame horror movie. "The Bye Bye Man" is not particularly scary, often provoking laughter rather than screams, and boasts some chintzy special effects. Avoid.

3. The Dark Tower - This disaster ranks as one of the worst film adaptations of Stephen King's work - and that's saying something. Matthew McConaughey is forced to ham his way through a silly villain role and the story has been chopped down so much that the film hardly makes sense. There's a mantra throughout the film regarding the forgetting of one's father's face - skip that sentiment and just forget this film instead.

2. The Circle - This is a perfect case of a bad film happening to good people. Director James Ponsoldt was previously responsible for "The Spectacular Now" (which was in my top 10 best of 2013) and "The End of the Tour," while Emma Watson is always watchable, Tom Hanks is an icon and Ellar Coltrane previously impressed me in "Boyhood." But "The Circle" is a bona fide catastrophe. It's a thriller about a start-up company and includes a script that makes me wonder if its writers know anything about start-ups. Or thrillers. Or the way people speak. Or humans.

1. Transformers: The Last Knight - Michael Bay joins the illustrious company of Eli Roth, making him only the second director to have more than one film ranked as my worst of the year in the 21st century. In this fifth (!) entry into the increasingly awful "Transformers" series, Bay seems to have gone off the deep end. Not only does his latest sequel continue the ongoing yawn-inducing battle between two various pieces of clunky machinery on planet Earth, but it also features a subplot involving John Turturro in Cuba and includes a flashback to King Arthur and Merlin. You read that correctly. This is a film in which a bunch of shit just literally happens for no rhyme or reason. And when the filmmakers have painted themselves into a narrative corner, some more shit just literally happens. For two-and-a-half hours. Proceed at your own risk.

Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
The previous entry in this new "Star Wars" trilogy - "The Force Awakens" - introduced a series of new characters and reconnected us with some old ones, and the film ended up making my top 20 of that year. But as some have pointed out, not incorrectly, that picture leaned heavily on nostalgia, whereas Rian Johnson's second entry in the series, "The Last Jedi," takes the franchise in a new direction. That's not to say that there aren't some walks down memory lane - there are more than a few, including a surprise cameo by one of the old series' most noteworthy figures - but Johnson's entry can be seen as the point at which this new trilogy takes its own route.

The film opens very shortly after the events of "The Force Awakens" and much of the picture revolves around The Resistance's retreat from the First Order, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, plus some CGI). Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the rebels - which include the hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Vice Admiral Holdo (a welcome addition of Laura Dern) - are stuck in space and running out of fuel as the First Order closes in.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has tracked down Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who is living on an island populated by adorable fuzzy birds known as Porgs and some other odd creatures, in an attempt to enlist his help. She's shocked to find Skywalker a bitter shell of his former self, living in self-imposed exile after he has blamed himself for Kylo Ren's transformation. Not only does Rey have to twist his arm to train her, but Luke appears to want the Jedi order to die out.

In "The Force Awakens," Harrison Ford gracefully stepped back into his iconic role as Han Solo and Fisher once again embodied Leia - and she does so again here in a particularly poignant final role. In "The Last Jedi," it's Hamill's turn to shine and he brings more gravitas to the role than I recall from the original "Star Wars" trilogy. Johnson makes a wise decision to shoot Hamill in close-up, focusing on his weathered face.

There's a lot that cannot be discussed in this review without giving away crucial plot points. But suffice it to say that a fair amount goes down in this second entry in the trilogy. The film ends on a note somewhat similar to "The Empire Strikes Back," in that the rebel alliance is in a tough spot - that's not a spoiler, trust me - but the finale also paves the way for the final chapter, which is obviously going to focus on the hero's journeys of Rey, Finn and Poe.

Aside from Luke and Leia, a number of characters from the original series get their moments here. Anthony Daniels' C-P30 gets in a few of his traditional fusspot moments, while R2-D2 is utilized for a humorous sequence during which the droid plays upon Luke's emotions and Chewbacca is the center of a funny ongoing joke involving the Porgs. Overall, "The Last Jedi" is funnier than your typical "Star Wars" entry - especially a scene in which Poe pretends to be stuck on hold while speaking with a villain on a star destroyer - but also melancholic. The series has never shied away from the theme of loss, and that is certainly true in this latest entry.

All in all, "The Last Jedi" is a strong second chapter in this trilogy and a better example of blockbuster filmmaking than any other tentpole picture from this year. It's filled with beautiful imagery - especially a final battle sequence on a planet composed of salt - and features performances and characters with more depth than your typical crowd pleasing spectacle film. And the choice of putting Johnson - whose strongest previous work included an indie crime drama ("Brick") and TV episodes ("Breaking Bad") - in the director's chair was an inspired one.

For reasons somewhat unclear to me, "The Last Jedi" has seemingly split fans of the series, and the conclusion would seem to be that it doesn't just deliver more of the same-old, same-old. No, Johnson's film takes the "Star Wars" series into uncharted waters - and, for me, it proved to be intriguing.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review: I, Tonya

Image courtesy of Neon.
Admittedly, I haven't given disgraced figure skating champion Tonya Harding much thought in many years, but my memories of the famous incident in which she was involved recalls to mind how she was portrayed as a villain. So, it's surprising how Craig Gillespie's film, "I, Tonya," turns her into a sympathetic figure - at least, to an extent. Although, this film argues, she wasn't physically involved in the attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan, her name became synonymous with the event and, as a result, ruined her career and reputation.

Gillespie's film treats the Tonya Harding story partially as a comedic exercise, but also as a white trash "Goodfellas," right down to the dolly shots and breaking the fourth wall in the middle of a scene. And it's oddly compelling, mostly due to the committed and sympathetic performance by Margot Robbie as Tonya, but also the group of clowns with whom she surrounds herself.

This includes her reprobate mother, LaVona (a lively Allison Janney), abusive idiot husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and his dopey wannabe man-of-mystery buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). Bobby Cannavale gets a few laughs as a reporter for "Hard Copy" and he delivers one of the film's best lines in regards to the state of the media.

In many ways, Tonya's story plays as legitimately tragic. She's a backwoods beauty queen who happens to be able to skate circles around her competitors, but judges refuse to recognize her since she isn't dressed as well as the snotty children against whom she competes who are often decked out in attire chosen by their wealthy parents. It also doesn't help that she performs her routines - including the extremely difficult triple axel, which none of her competitors can pull off - to ZZ Top's "Sleeping Bag," much to the chagrin of the judges who sneer at her.

Tonya is also surrounded by abusive figures. Her mother frequently slaps her, kicks her off a chair, beats her with brushes and, in one instance, throws a knife at her daughter that sticks in her arm. Regarding the latter, LaVona deadpans, "every family has its ups and downs." Once she flees her mother's house, Tonya flies straight into the arms of Gillooly, an idiot good ol' boy who is quick to slap, punch and even point a gun at his wife.

There are a few wrong notes struck in the film. During one sequence, Tonya talks about her history of abusers and addresses the film's audience directly, saying that everyone watching the film is also complicit. This wouldn't ring quite as hollow if the entire film hadn't cracked jokes at the expense of the people in Harding's immediate circle, who are portrayed as rubes.

Don't get me wrong, many of those scenes are funny, especially the idiocy employed by Hauser's doofus sidekick to Gillooly and Janney's wildly inappropriate mother figure. But you can't exactly have your cake and eat it too. Also, the scenes that mimic "Goodfellas," especially one in which Gillooly begins speaking to the camera during a court scene, should have been left as a Martin Scorsese trademark.

But all in all, "I, Tonya" is a funny, engrossing and oddly moving account of a person who has been portrayed as a villain - and lumped unfairly with Amy Fisher as one of the 1990's femme fatales - but is more sympathetic than you might expect. According to Gillespie's film and the interviews conducted with Harding and Gillooly, the attack on Kerrigan was planned and carried out by Gillooly and several of his dimwit friends, and Harding, despite her image, played no part in the plot. Regardless of where you stand on the issue - assuming you stand anywhere at all - "I, Tonya" is a surprisingly compelling film.

Review: The Other Side Of Hope

Image courtesy of Janus Films.
The films of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki could best be described as deadpan miserablist humanism. The characters in his films are often down on their luck, rarely smile and live seemingly bleak lives - and yet, they often find joy in simple things, play in rockabilly bands and tend to treat others pretty well.

Kaurismaki's latest, "The Other Side of Hope," utilizes some of the typical themes, actors and visual set-ups of his previous pictures and it features a story of an immigrant in need of assistance, similar to his previous movie, "Le Havre," which is most likely my favorite among his works. "The Other Side of Hope" is a gently comedic and emotionally engrossing story that indicates Kaurismaki's belief that people can be inherently good when called upon to do so. It's a movie that counters much of what is actually going on in the world today. In other words, it's a fable.

At the beginning of the picture, Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) awakens on a boat in which he is a stowaway. He has fled Aleppo after most of his family was killed and was separated from his sister in eastern Europe and now intends to find her. He pleads his case to the local authorities and has to await a response as to whether he can remain in the country. After finding out that he will be sent back to the war-torn nation from which he has fled, he makes a run for it.

Khaled winds up sleeping in the back alley of a restaurant that has been recently purchased by a man named Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), a gambler who wants to put his money toward something useful. When Wikstrom purchases The Golden Pint, it's a dump that employs a constantly smoking cook, austere maitre d' and female bartender. After he spruces the place up, it's still a dump and there's a funny running joke regarding how Wikstrom and his straight-faced employees continually change the place from being a French bistro to a Japanese sushi house and then an Indian restaurant.

Although they first engage in fisticuffs, Wikstrom eventually decides it's the right thing to do to give Khaled some food, shelter and a job. Much like the residents of the titular town in "Le Havre," protecting the powerless - in the case of both films, refugees - isn't just portrayed as a valorous choice, but as the only choice in a humane world.

After Khaled finds himself on his feet, he sets out to find his sister. Along the way, he runs into a pack of skinhead bigots, who consistently make trouble for him. The film ends on a note that I believe to be ambiguous. But there's no ambiguity to Kaurismaki's film otherwise - "The Other Side of Hope" is a charming, funny, poignant and goodhearted movie told in the director's deadpan style and with shimmers of optimism amid all the gloom surrounding his characters. It's a film that calls for empathy during a time in which little can be found.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Review: Wonder Wheel

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.
For more than five decades, Woody Allen has been churning out a movie - occasionally two - per year and a number of them have been great or very good, a large amount of them good and at least a dozen just average or mediocre. It is to be expected that when you're working that much, the quality will not always remain on the same level. So, suffice it to say that "Wonder Wheel," the director's latest, is not among his better films. It's also not among his worst, but a misfire regardless.

That being said, the picture is often visually stunning. The cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and lighting are beautiful, resulting in one of the most gorgeously shot Woody Allen films since "Manhattan." In particular, there's a sequence during which Kate Winslet - in a rare example of the Woody stand-in being portrayed by a woman - speaks to her step-daughter (played by Juno Temple) regarding matters of love in a bedroom as the lights of Coney Island flash through their window, resulting in an ever-changing color palette, that nearly takes the breath away. It's a moment of visual beauty.

Unfortunately, the story of "Wonder Wheel" isn't as intriguing. Similar to "Blue Jasmine," albeit much less successfully, Allen's latest is a melodrama in which a woman - Winslet's Ginny - begins to come unglued, but this time in 1950s-era Coney Island.

In the film, Ginny is married to Humpty (Jim Belushi), a carnival worker, and spends her days waiting tables at a clam house. Her son (Jack Gore) is a pyromaniac and Humpty's daughter, Carolina (Temple), is married to a gangster, from whom she has fled and is now being hunted by two goons (Tony Sirico and Steve Schirippa, both from "The Sopranos"). Neither Ginny nor Humpty are glad to see the young woman, although the latter eventually relents. Meanwhile, Ginny is having an affair with a lifeguard named Micky, a wannabe playwright who also stands in for Allen, although he eventually also sets his sights on Carolina.

While Cate Blanchett got a lot of mileage - and an Oscar - from playing a melodramatic heroine in Allen's much better "Blue Jasmine," Winslet is lumped with a character who can best be described as the Angry Woman Scorned. Winslet is undoubtedly a great actress - one of the best we've got - but here she's forced to play a character whose problems hail from the writing, not the portraying. Allen has long been a great writer of women's characters, from "Annie Hall" and "Hannah and Her Sisters" to "Bullets Over Broadway," "Blue Jasmine" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." In this film, not so much. It doesn't help that much of Winslet's dialogue - and much of the other actors in the film - is delivered via shouting.

While Allen mined living under the Cyclone in "Annie Hall" for comic gold, the foibles of his characters on Coney Island's boardwalk in "Wonder Wheel" give the impression of bits pasted together from his other films. Winslet's problems seem too familiar to Blanchett's character in "Blue Jasmine," the mob story feels like a riff on "Bullets Over Broadway" and a decision made by Ginny late in the film that negatively impacts another reminded me slightly of "Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Allen has made some very good films in the 21st century - most notably the great "Match Point," but also "Midnight in Paris," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "Blue Jasmine" - but a few of his lesser works have also been released during the past 17 years. "Wonder Wheel" ranks fairly low in his oeuvre. As I've mentioned, it's not a bad film - it features beautiful photography and a great cast, albeit one whose talents aren't utilized to full capacity - but a relatively forgettable one in the director's long - and mostly very good - filmography.

Review: The Shape Of Water

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
In the years since his masterpiece "Pan's Labyrinth," director Guillermo del Toro has primarily focused on big budget action films ("Pacific Rim") and horror movies ("Crimson Peak"), most of which have been good, but - to be honest - merely well-made genre exercises as opposed to the revelation that "Pan's Labyrinth" turned out to be. I'm glad to report that "The Shape of Water" is not only a delightful fantasy with sumptuous visuals, a number of excellent performances by great character actors and an effectively subtle take on prejudice, but also del Toro's best film since "Pan's Labyrinth." 

In the film, a terrific Sally Hawkins plays Eliza Esposito, a mute maid who communicates solely through sign language and works in an underground laboratory in Baltimore, circa 1963. Her only friends are Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who is her partner in cleaning the laboratory, and a gay neighbor named Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is addicted to eating pie and watching old musicals with Eliza.

One day, a stern man known as Strickland (a frightening Michael Shannon) turns up at the laboratory with a large container. Both the man and container will make a brief stay at the lab for an experiment of a mysterious nature. As Eliza soon finds out, the container holds a being from South America that bears some resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon and is apparently worshipped as some sort of god. Strickland and the creature clearly hate each other, which is exemplified when the latter bites off two fingers of the former.

Eliza becomes attached to the creature, feeding it eggs and playing old Benny Goodman records for it, and the two form a bond. A doctor named Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), also takes a shine to the monster and wants to study - rather than destroy - it, although he has a few skeletons in his closet. But Strickland is hell-bent on killing it and ripping it open to find out how it could benefit the U.S. space program - this is the only story element that remains frustratingly vague. Eliza enlists a few of her friends for a jail break and, in the process, a romance - well, at least something to that effect - blossoms between her and the creature.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, which is clearly used to comment upon Strickland and his military pals' fear of the creature - which represents the unknown. In the backdrop on Giles' TV, black protesters are seen being sprayed by police hoses and Giles witnesses a black couple being refused service at a diner where he'd previously admired - and had a crush on - the owner. The film also lampoons the chauvinist American male ego, especially during a scene in which Shannon's character is sold a Cadillac (that is later hilariously wrecked), another in which he robotically has sex with his wife and asks her to remain quiet and, during a not-so funny moment, sexually harasses Eliza.

Del Toro has a vivid imagination and is a filmmaker who can bring his dreams beautifully to life onscreen. There are a number of lovely moments in this film - a scene in which Eliza fills her bathroom with water to allow her and the creature to float together, an imagined musical number in which her voice is finally heard and a scene in which the creature befriends Giles' cats, that is, after eating one and then feeling sorry about it. "The Shape of Water" is at once an intense thriller, a beautifully shot period piece, a story about tolerance, a romance and an espionage picture. It juggles all of these elements gracefully and ends on a mythic note. I'd highly recommend it.

Review: The Disaster Artist

Image courtesy of A24.
It should come as no surprise that James Franco's "The Disaster Artist" is good for some laughs, especially considering the source material. But what might surprise you is that it is also emotionally engaging and not just a one-note joke that pokes fun at a particularly peculiar subject. Yes, the film takes some easy shots at a character - Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), who is responsible for the disasterpiece "The Room" - who is clearly an oddball. But the picture never comes off as cruel as it seems clear that Franco, who also doubles as director, has affection for his subject.

For those unfamiliar with "The Room" and its director, the film has become a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" cult phenomenon that has sold out midnight screenings for years and its creator - Wiseau - is a man of mystery. Well, sort of. His accent is vaguely Eastern European, although he has claimed to hail from New Orleans, and nobody knows where he obtained the $6 million to make "The Room." All of this is mined for comic gold in "The Disaster Artist."

But what differentiates "Rocky Horror" from the latter is that the former is clearly aiming to be camp, while the latter was made in all seriousness. Wiseau had originally set out to make a melodrama of the Tennessee Williams variety, but later changed his tune after "The Room" became a cult hit due to its terribleness and started calling his film a "black comedy." Regardless, if you haven't seen it, by all means do - I doubt you'll ever forget it.

"The Room" follows a fairly straightforward scenario in which a man named Johnny (played by Wiseau) comes to believe that his girlfriend, Lisa, is cheating on him with his best friend, Mark. In between, there's a scene in which Lisa's mother comments on a breast cancer diagnosis that is never mentioned again, footballs are inexplicably tossed back and forth during conversations between characters, a drug dealer torments a kid pal of Johnny's, the same ridiculous sex scene pops not once, but twice, and Johnny goes on a hilarious tirade after being accused of hitting Lisa ("I did naaht hit her, I did naaht do it, it's bullshit, I did naaht hit her"). Conversations often begin with characters noticing each other offscreen and transitioning into a new scene of dialogue with - for example - "Oh, hi Mark."

One of the elements that makes "The Room" so hilarious is that Wiseau seemingly has no clue how Americans - maybe people, in general - speak to one another. Franco's film focuses on the friendship between Wiseau and Greg Sestero, who wrote the book on which this film was based and starred as Mark in "The Room," and how the decline of their friendship played itself out on the screen in Wiseau's film.

In other words, this is a film about the making-of-a-movie - but one that is particularly bonkers. A number of well-known faces - a deadpan Seth Rogen, Jacki Weaver, Alison Brie, Zac Efron and Josh Hutcherson - have bit parts in Franco's film and all of them deliver. James' brother, Dave, gives his best performance to date as Sestero, a guy who is clearly thankful for the assistance that Wiseau gave him that enabled him to move to Los Angeles and break into acting, but also unnerved by the strange behavior that Wiseau shows on the set - especially during a scene in which he belittles a female cast member - as well as his possessiveness regarding their friendship.

I've seen two recent movies - this one and the odd, but charming "Brigsby Bear" - that ended with screenings of DIY films in which the kooky creators of the films being screened received a standing ovation after bearing their hearts and souls on the screen. And that's really one of the reasons that "The Room" is so endearing. It's a terrible movie, but to the extent that it's almost a great one. It is clear that Wiseau poured himself into the film and has the passion - if not necessarily the skill - to connect with viewers. "The Disaster Artist" is funny, but like Tim Burton's wonderful "Ed Wood," it's also a film that proves that dedication can often make up - to an extent - for ability and, therefore, it's a film that has its heart in the right place. Franco's picture pokes fun at its hero, but it loves him just the same.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Review: Darkest Hour

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Similar to Ava DuVernay's terrific "Selma," Joe Wright's entertaining and rousing "Darkest Hour" ditches the Great Man Biopic approach to historical drama, opting instead for telling a true story of a momentous period in history during which a specific historic figure made decisions that altered history. In other words, Winston Churchill is the lead character in "Darkest Hour," but this isn't a straightforward biopic that tells its subject's story from early age to career peaks and death.

As the film opens, British Parliament is calling upon Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to step down after its members have lost faith in his ability to lead as Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party ravage their way across the European continent, causing nation after nation to fall to the Reich. Churchill, played brilliantly by Gary Oldman, ends up being his replacement, although much to the consternation of many of England's leaders, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) included.

Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) want Churchill to broker a peace treaty with Germany through Italy to prevent what they see as unnecessary English bloodshed as Hitler romps across Europe. Churchill, accused of warmongering by some members of Parliament, declares that he intends to do no such thing, setting him up to butt heads with Halifax and Chamberlain and, occasionally, the king.

Since this is a warts-and-all bio film, Churchill is first introduced as a bit of a crank, shouting at the young typist (Lily James) whom he has just recently hired. The only person who is able to talk sense to him is his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has good reason to worry that others won't respect and appreciate him as she does.

Once in power, Churchill attempts to hold steadfast in his promise to fight Hitler, but not without Halifax and Chamberlain attempting to exert pressure to make him relent. A pivotal scene during which Churchill rides the underground train in London and solicits the opinions of the working class people onboard threatens to become too Hollywoodish, but ends on a note that is stirringly effective.

It helps greatly that Oldman disappears so completely in the role enough to sell it. Not only is the actor weighted down with makeup that nearly renders him unrecognizable, but Oldman also nails the prime minister's vocal tics and accent. It's one of the best performances of the year and one that is sure to draw some awards attention, for those who care about such things.

Every year around this time, studios with their eyes on Oscars release movies about British royalty or leaders that occasionally are great ("The Queen"), often enough good and, at other times, stuffy. "Darkest Hour" is more tense and has higher stakes than your typical film about British monarchs or prime ministers. It's primarily set during a period of days when Churchill must decide whether to capitulate to Hitler or take up the fight.

Near the film's end, the prime minister gives his famed "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" speech and, at that point, it's a cathartic and rousing - especially considering the dark forces currently at play in our world and the fact that Nazism is not a distant specter of the past - moment in an overall very good film.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: Call Me By Your Name

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Attentive to detail, composed of gorgeous visual imagery, patient in execution and romantically melancholy, Luca Guadagnino's "Call Me By Your Name" is not only the best film to date by the Italian director, whose previous work includes "I Am Love" and "A Bigger Splash," but one of the most tantalizing of this year so far.

Set in 1983 in a rustic area of Northern Italy, the picture follows the story of 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet in a great performance), who is spending the summer with his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a renowned professor of Greco-Roman culture, and mother (Amira Casar), a translator, in their seasonal home. Elio often switches back and forth flawlessly between speaking English, French and Italian and knows his way around a piano. However, the cultured and sophisticated persona that he likes to give off masks his unease regarding other things - namely, his sexuality and still existing virginity.

A doctoral student from New England named Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives for a summer internship and Elio is, at first, put off by the mysterious American, who often fails to join the family for dinner and frequently bids adieu with a seemingly dismissive "later!" But from their first meeting, there is obvious chemistry between the youth and more experienced - but also secretly awkward - older man.

If you're guessing that "Call Me By Your Name" is one in a long line of films about a young person learning the ways of the world, shedding their innocence and becoming wiser in the process, well, you'd be correct. But as in all things - especially movies - the how is often more important than the what or why. This is a gorgeously rendered film, from its terrific performances and beautiful cinematography - particularly in the manner in which natural light often plays across a shadowed room or the faces of its characters - to the terrific script by James Ivory and excellent use of music - including the Psychedelic Furs and Sufjan Stevens.

There are several sex scenes in the film - involving the two aforementioned lovers as well as Elio's brief fling with a French girl - and they are all tastefully erotic. Each one is also utilized to deepen the relationships of the various characters, rather than simply put bodies on display. However, there's a scene involving a peach that I'd imagine nobody will forget any time soon.

There's an excellent sequence near the film's end during which Stuhlbarg's character puts into words the overall thematic crux of the picture and it's a lovely moment. Often, when a director literally spells out what they are trying to say - rather than showing - it's a bad sign. But in this case, the scene during which Elio's father talks to him about friendships and love that can transform one's life is, perhaps, this film's finest moment.

The movie ends on a hauntingly melancholic note that anyone could see coming from a mile away. The thing that makes the relationship between Elio and Oliver so poignant all along is that it's obviously doomed to be fleeting. Guadagnino culminates the picture with a long-held shot of Elio's face after he has received a piece of news that is shattering in its obviousness. But it's not a depressing way to end the film. Just around the corners of Elio's mouth a smile can be glimpsed. This is a film about an experience that shape's a person's life - and it's one that has been made with great craft and care. I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Review: Justice League

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
A group of heroes with special powers band together to stop an invading otherworldly presence that promises to wreak havoc on mankind and bring about its destruction. Yes, that is technically the plot for "Justice League," but it could also stand in for any number of films that have been released during the summer or holiday season for the past decade or more. And therein lies the problem with "Justice League" - it is overly familiar to the point where we can guess the exact plot points long before they occur onscreen. The only variation is the order in which they are presented.

Zack Snyder's film isn't a bad one - although there are some cringe-inducing scenes, most notably the ones in which villain Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) attacks with a marauding band of flying insects that give off the vibe of scenes that didn't make the final cut in "The Hobbit" sequels - but it is lacking a personality and a raison d'etre, other than - to quote the finale of "Spaceballs" - the search for more money.

Gal Godot and Ezra Miller add a little flavor to the proceedings as Wonder Woman and The Flash, respectively. Ben Affleck is back as Batman and he's given a little more personality than in the flop "Batman v Superman," while Henry Cavill reprises his role as Superman. A great cast - Diane Lane, Amy Adams, J.K. Simmons, Joe Morton and Jason Mamoa, providing a snippy Aquaman portrayal - doesn't go far enough to make up for the lack of inspiration here.

As the film opens, Steppenwolf and his band of insects are planning to attack Earth in the wake of Superman's death. Batman and Wonder Woman round up Aquaman, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash to form their own Avengers-style superhero team to take on the menace. This mostly results in Batman brooding, Aquaman complaining, Cyborg sulking and The Flash babbling, although the latter's incessant banter provides a little levity amid all the nonstop battle scenes and expensive special effects.

An odd plot point in the film involves a Russian family, whose home is repeatedly threatened by Steppenwolf's crew for no other point than to be saved late in the movie by two of the heroes and then quickly forgotten. Another minor and unnecessary plot strand involves the sale of Superman's old home. Moving on.

Although I am as equally fatigued by "The Avengers" movies as I am the DC output, the former - at least - is lighter on its feet - that is, when it's not attempting to tackle such topics as the overstepping of Homeland Security - and quicker to poke fun at itself. "Justice League" is, similar to other Snyder films, often so straight-faced that it provokes a question once posed by one of DC's top villains: Why so serious?

Earlier this year, "Wonder Woman" showed how to do a comic book movie the right way. Should DC move forward with a "Flash" movie - as I'm sure they will - it could be fun, especially with Miller in the lead. But despite the fact that the villain in this latest entry is named Steppenwolf, the mantra for this picture could be "Born to Be Mild."

Review: Mudbound

Image courtesy of Netflix.
Dee Rees' "Mudbound" is a powerful film about perspective and how different people view a similar situation and come up with opposing views. The picture follows the stories of two families - one white and one black - in pre- and post-World War II Mississippi who, due to circumstances, find themselves sharing the same plot of land.

One perspective is that of pastor Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan), who shares the plot of land with his wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige), and five children, one of whom - Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) - is drafted and sent to fight the Germans and, in the process, falls in love with a young German woman while abroad. Hap sees the plot of land as an opportunity to rise above his station in life.

Meanwhile, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) has dragged his wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan), two daughters and evil racist father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks), to the plot of land and comes to find it to be godforsaken. Shortly after taking over the plot, Henry's brother, the hard drinking and womanizing Jaime (Garrett Hedlund), has also returned from the war in shell shock. Another perspective in the picture is that of Jaime and Laura - who come to know members of the Jackson family and forge bonds of friendship - versus that of Henry, who merely see the Jacksons as a means to an end, and Pappy, whose perspective is completely driven by hateful racism.

Jaime and Ronsel strike up a friendship, all the while that Henry forces Hap to work on the land that he has hoped to become his own. It also becomes obvious that Laura has a thing for Jaime and, to add more drama to the scenario, Pappy not only insults Hap and Florence with racial epithets, but has a run-in with Ronsel that we know will lead to no good.

Rees' previous film, "Pariah," was a picture about a young, closeted gay African American woman and her relationship with her family. "Mudbound" is also about a family dynamic - make that two, actually - and Rees shows an affinity for stories regarding familial units. Although "Pariah" was very good, Rees' latest film is a major step up - it's the type of confident, visually striking and thematically rich picture you'd associate with a veteran director, rather than a second outing.

This is also the type of film that will likely make you angry. There are no Hollywood endings here and the film's characters are frequently forced to swallow injustices without any recourse. There's a particularly horrifying scene late in the movie that the viewer can probably see coming, but it's deeply unsettling and heartbreaking all the same. This is a very good film, anchored by terrific performances - especially Hedlund, Mitchell and Blige - and strong filmmaking. I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review: Murder On The Orient Express

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Kenneth Branagh saved the best role for himself in the remake that he has directed of Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express." As the legendary Hercule Poirot, Branagh appears to be having fun as he struts about with braggadocio as the fuss budget Belgian detective who can't tear himself away from a good case and is driven crazy by the sight of a crooked tie.

So, it's a shame that the rest of the picture feels like the type of overstuffed film from the 1970s - from "Airport" and "The Towering Inferno" to Sidney Lumet's much better version of "Orient Express" - that features a who's who of talent who are mostly relegated to bit parts. Branagh's film boasts an impressive cast: Branagh, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad and Penelope Cruz.

The film opens with an over-the-top sequence in Turkey, during which Poirot is called upon to unravel a mystery regarding a theft that was likely carried out by one of three religious leaders. He then boards the titular train, where he is surrounded by a group of strangers and, not long after the train takes off, approached by one of them (Depp), a criminal of some sort who believes that his life is in danger and wants Poirot's help.

Poirot declines and, shortly thereafter, a murder occurs on the train, which then becomes trapped in a mountain following an avalanche. Naturally, everyone is a suspect and Poirot quickly begins formulating the scene of the crime in his head while interviewing all of the aforementioned, plus several other minor characters. Much of the film's early scenes lack energy, despite Branagh's wily turn as Poirot - who, as it turns out, is the only character given any sort of development.

Poirot pulls clues from the oddest of places, so much so, in fact, that it's often difficult to follow his line of reasoning. The finale includes a clever twist, albeit one that you can probably see coming if you stop to think about it. As a filmmaker, Branagh has worked wonders with Shakespeare and  independent dramas ("Dead Again"and "Peter's Friends"), but his bigger budget work ("Thor") and two remakes of classics ("Sleuth" and "Orient Express") have been lesser endeavors. Other than Branagh's inspired turn as Poirot and the film's final twist, this is a remake that wasn't entirely necessary.

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Martin McDonagh's third outing as a director is not only arguably his best, but also a film that goes out of its way to challenge viewers' assumptions about and attitudes toward its characters as it deftly explores the concepts of grief and anger. This is an often very funny movie that draws humor from subjects that are not funny whatsoever. The ability to do so stems from McDonagh's talents as a writer and director and the abilities of his excellent cast.

Frances McDormand, one of our greatest actresses, is a force of nature in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" as Mildred, a woman living in the titular town whose anger and grief have overwhelmed her. However, she's long past the stage of shock and ready to take action when necessary. Several months prior to the film's beginning, Mildred's teenage daughter was raped and violently murdered and Ebbing's police department has no leads or suspects.

To announce her anger over her loss as well as her frustration regarding the lack of progress in the case, Mildred - much to the dismay of virtually everyone in town - pays for the ad space on three billboards on the outskirts of town that she adorns with three messages: "Raped While Dying," "And Still No Arrests," and "How Come, Chief Willoughby?" The last message refers to the town's sheriff (Woody Harrelson), who in any other film would be the villain, but here is most likely the most sane member of the town.

Willoughby is, similar to Mildred, frustrated about the lack of clues to the murder and he only becomes the target of Mildred's billboards because he's the sheriff and, well, the buck has to stop somewhere, right? In fact, the two appear to have an element of respect for each other and Mildred gets a slight lesson in humility after finding out that Willoughby has his own cross to bear.

If anyone is hostile in "Three Billboards," it is Dixon (Sam Rockwell), the rogue, racist and violent cop for whose humanity Willoughby holds out hope, although no one else appears to do so. Other town members include a dwarf (Peter Dinklage) who harbors feelings for Mildred, the timid man (Caleb Landry Jones) who reluctantly rents the billboard space to Mildred and Mildred's ex-husband (John Hawkes), who clearly beat her and is now living with a 19-year-old girl. Mildred lives with her teenage son (Lucas Hedges), who acts as her semi-voice of reason and appears mortified by her behavior. There's a particularly unsettling scene when Mildred's ex stops by, nearly hits her, is stopped by their son and then everyone goes back to what they were doing as if the scene were routine.

There have been numerous films about people who behave very badly and we've often been forced to identify with them - in other words, the human elements of their atrocious behavior. But it's not often that we are asked to empathize with them. "Three Billboards" does this - and it's a risky move, but ultimately an effective one. Every character in the film is flawed, some more than others. We may be compassionate regarding Mildred's grief, but she's also reckless and occasionally dangerous - take, for instance, her firebombing of the police station, which results in the permanent scarring of a character. And while Dixon, at least for the film's first half, is an unrepentantly disgusting individual, we witness behavior later on that could be seen as some sort of a redemption.

"Three Billboards" is often riotously funny, but also moving in a manner that often sneaks up on you. It also feels true. The film has an ending that will likely be much discussed and debated. Some might call it abrupt, but it ends in a manner that is open ended for a specific purpose. One's take on the final scene might depend on one's view of human nature.

McDonagh's debut, "In Bruges," was a screamingly funny movie about criminals that concerned itself with elements of the soul. Its follow up, "Seven Psychopaths," was amusing, but not on par with the playwright's directorial debut. "Three Billboards" follows in the footsteps of those films in that it deals with crime and punishment and some unsavory characters. But it's also a little deeper, more melancholy and thoughtful in how it examines the grieving process. McDormand should easily earn some awards attention, but Harrelson is also great and Rockwell gives what could be the performance of his career. In other words, I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Review: Lady Bird

Image courtesy of A24.
In a scene near the end of Greta Gerwig's wonderful autobiographical semi-directorial debut "Lady Bird," a minor character notes how the titular character - high school senior Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) - describes Sacramento, the city in which she lives, with such loving detail. Lady Bird is surprised by the compliment, considering her feelings for the city she calls home. For much of the film, Lady Bird talks about how much she hates Sacramento, but the nun at her Catholic school who pays the compliment mentions that the girl had paid such great attention to detail while describing the California town.

And that, at its heart, is sort of on what Gerwig's lovely - and often hilarious - film fixes its attentions. Much of the picture follows the uneasy relationship between Lady Bird and her taskmaster mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who our protagonist believes is unnecessarily harsh - she chides her daughter about her wardrobe, her choice of schools, her behavior and much more. But the thing is: Marion pays attention to her daughter and, during a scene late in the film, Lady Bird recognizes that often paying attention to and taking interest in another's life is one of the greatest ways to show love.

"Lady Bird" is a coming of age story during which a witty, precocious and, let's be honest, occasionally bratty young woman makes a mess of things and, in the process, becomes wiser. Between her work here and her terrific performance in "Brooklyn," Ronan is easily one of the best actors of her generation and Metcalf takes what could be the thankless role of the overbearing mother and provides a deeply felt portrayal. Playwright Tracy Letts is also great as Lady Bird's easygoing father, who has well-hidden melancholia, while Lucas Hedges shines as a love interest - who has a secret - for Lady Bird and Beanie Feldstein plays one of the most well-drawn sidekicks in recent memory as Lady Bird's kindhearted pal Julie.

As the film opens, Lady Bird has set her sights on college in New York City and away from Sacramento, a town that she feels is vapid and culturally lacking. The year is 2002 and scenes of post-9/11 America are splashed across TV screens in the background. The film is based, in part, on Gerwig's youth. She sort-of made a directorial debut alongside Joe Swanberg with the mumblecore film "Nights and Weekends," of which I was not a fan, but her work here is that of a mature artist. This is a wonderfully warm, very funny and terrifically written movie. It's a film about youth that it took the maturity of an adult to bring to the screen.

Although named Christine, the titular heroine gives herself the name Lady Bird to distinguish herself from the other Catholic school kids with whom she attends school, but doesn't feel a connection of any sort - other than Julie, a good natured girl who appears to have a crush on a math teacher. Lady Bird first chases the affections of Hedges, a theater kid with whom she performs in a school play, and - after that romance fizzles - a pretentious hipster in a band whose aloofness tricks Lady Bird into thinking he is interesting.

There are some musical cues - Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River" - that alert us to the era in which the film is set, but many of the songs in the movie are late 1990s nuggets that are well used - such as Bone Thugs N Harmony's "Tha Crossroads" and Dave Matthews Band's "Crash Into Me," which is utilized to startlingly great effect.

Many of the best films from the past few years have been small budget dramas about existences that don't feel too far removed from ordinary life - for example, "Boyhood," "Moonlight," "The Florida Project" and, now, "Lady Bird." In Gerwig's film, Lady Bird makes the type of relatable mistakes many of us have made while forging our paths through the world. Her character might be a self-imposed outcast - at least, before she attempts to fit in for a brief spell with a few of her school's vapid popular kids - but her life follows a trajectory that many will find familiar.

There's also a wonderful mother-daughter dynamic in the film. The picture opens with Lady Bird and Marion tearing up as they listen to an audio book of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" during a college road trip and then quickly begin bickering after it's over as to what they should listen to next. There are a few grand gestures - a prom sequence, albeit a lovely one, and a goodbye at an airport - but "Lady Bird," much like "Boyhood" and "Moonlight," finds its magic in the smaller moments. This is a lovely film, a genuine calling card for Gerwig as a director and one of the year's best movies.

Review: Last Flag Flying

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Considering that his films frequently feature young men behind the wheels of cars, it is surprising that Richard Linklater has never made a road trip movie. His latest - "Last Flag Flying," a sequel of sorts to Darryl Ponicsan's novel and Hal Ashby's classic 1973 film "The Last Detail" - is a movie about three men on the road that is occasionally funny and often melancholy and boasts three excellent performances from its leads.

In the film, Bryan Cranston plays Sal Nealon, who is seemingly the Jack Nicholson character from "The Last Detail," although his name in that film was Buddusky. Laurence Fishburne fills in for Otis Young as Rev. Richard Mueller and Steve Carell takes over Randy Quaid's Larry "Doc" Shepherd. While Ashby's original film was a dark comedy, this sequel - while often funny - is a more sombre affair.

As the film opens, Doc wanders into a bar owned by Sal in Virginia. The year is 2003 and the two men haven't seen each other for years. Although Sal owns a business, he is by no means tied down by anything and it doesn't take much arm twisting for Doc to convince him to take a short road trip. They end up in a church where Mueller, once a hard partying ladies man, is now a reverend and are invited to dinner at his house, where they meet his pious wife.

But the happy reunion is interrupted after Doc confesses that his beloved wife had died earlier that year from cancer and, most recently, his son - a marine - was killed while deployed in Iraq. Doc has sought out his two former buddies - with whom he served in the Vietnam War - to accompany him to pick up his son's body and ride along while it is transported to Arlington National Cemetery for burial.

Similar to Linklater's other films, "Last Flag Flying" focuses on people and the way they gab with one another. The director is a great writer and each character - including Cicely Tyson as an elderly mother of a soldier whom the three men knew in Vietnam and J. Quinton Johnson as a soldier pal of Doc's son who travels along with the trio on their journey - gets at least a few scenes of great dialogue. Each of the performances is strong - Fishburne lends a certain gravitas, while Cranston gets to let loose as the incorrigible Sal. But it's Carell who nearly steals the show in a soulful performance as Doc, whose life has, in some ways, been the rockiest of the three characters.

The film is not perfect. There are a few scenes played for laughs that don't quite work - for example, a discussion of Eminem's music by Mueller and Sal, a sequence during which the three leads are mistaken for terrorists and an ongoing joke regarding Sal's newfound obsession with cell phones. But otherwise, "Last Flag Flying" is a film through which - similar to Linklater's other films - the characters come alive through conversation. There's a particularly funny scene during which the three men - and Johnson's character - laugh about the older men's exploits during Vietnam and a quietly moving scene later on a train when they realize that soldiers' experiences in wartime don't vary much from generation to generation.

Linklater has, for a while, been on a roll with his "Before" films, the remarkable "Boyhood" and excellent "Everybody Wants Some." His latest isn't quite on par with the aforementioned, but it's still very good and it ends on a profound one-two punch when the men visit the mother of a fallen comrade and then Sal and Mueller attempt to be there for Doc after receiving a letter written by his son prior to his death. This is a powerful, beautifully acted movie that does justice to its source material and the classic movie that preceded it.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Review: Suburbicon

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
There's a whole lot of talent involved in "Suburbicon," a movie with two stories that never quite successfully coalesce, but the results are, unfortunately, middling. This is a film that can't decide whether it's a satire, straightforward thriller or socially conscious period piece.

The film's director is George Clooney, an actor who has proven that he has talent behind the camera, and two of the picture's four screenwriters are Joel and Ethan Coen. The cast includes Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac and a bunch of other great character actors. And yet, "Suburbicon" never truly gels.

The picture opens with an ad for the titular town and gives an annotated history of the blossoming of the suburb. The film is set in the late 1950s and as the story opens, a black family is moving into the town of Suburbicon, much to the dismay of the town's predominantly racist population. One of the film's few funny jokes is during the prelude, during which the town is referred to as diverse, which we learn means that white families have moved there from New York, Mississippi and Ohio.

One of the many issues with "Suburbicon" is that, other than a few characters, nearly every person who appears onscreen is repulsive - to an extent that seems near impossible. The film's protagonist, Nicky (Noah Jupe), who lives next door to the black family, is prompted by his mother and aunt to befriend the new neighbor's son. Meanwhile, the rest of the block takes up a vigil of banging drums and other racket outside the black couple's home to scare them away.

Near the beginning of the film, a tragedy strikes. Two nasty men break into Nicky's home, tie up his mother (Julianne Moore), aunt Margaret (also Julianne Moore), Nicky and his father, Gardner (Matt Damon), and knock them all out with chloroform. However, nothing appears to be stolen and the entire scene comes off as fishy. Nicky's mother, who is wheelchair-bound, dies as a result and the boy's uncle vows to find out who was involved in the home invasion.

Nicky begins to sense something is up shortly afterward when Margaret moves in to his house and takes up with his father, who becomes increasingly nasty. In fact, I don't believe I've ever seen Damon play such an outright villain. His character in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" comes off as a Boy Scout in comparison. Moore's aunt also gives Nicky a creepy vibe and it begins to appear as if the boy could be in danger himself.

One of the biggest problems with "Suburbicon" is its attempt to juggle the story involving the murder of Nicky's mother and his growing distrust of his father with the story of the black couple being taunted by Nicky's racist neighbors. At times, it feels like two films being blended together that merely share a similar setting and era, but not much else.

Also, the scenes involving the tormented couple are meant to be moving and anger-inducing - which they are - while the other story is occasionally humorous, but mostly dark and in the manner of the Coens' debut, "Blood Simple." In other words, it doesn't blend well. It's only when Oscar Isaac shows up as an unscrupulous insurance adjuster that "Suburbicon" is made more lively. Otherwise, the film is a blend of tones and concepts that never come together convincingly.

Clooney has shown that he has an eye as a director for period pieces - most notably, "Good Night and Good Luck," but also the decent "Monuments Men" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." But his latest didn't work for me and it's his least successful outing behind the camera.

Review: The Square

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Ruben Ostlund's "The Square" is an occasionally funny, often frustrating and frequently too obvious satire of the art world that, somehow, won the Palm d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The picture is a follow-up to the director's previous Cannes favorite, "Force Majeure," a much funnier and sharper satire of bourgeoise foibles.

There's a fair amount to admire in "The Square," especially the performances by Claes Bang as art director Christian, around whom much of the film's action revolves, and Elisabeth Moss as an American journalist who sleeps with Christian after having interviewed him. But many of the film's targets are too easy and the picture, at times, feels reactionary.

The movie opens with Christian, who runs the operations of a gallery known as the X-Royal Museum, stopping to help a young woman from being attacked by a man on the street, only to find out that the whole scene was a scam and his wallet has been stolen. Meanwhile, people on the street hold up signs and ask passersby for subscriptions to social services, while a few feet away homeless people are sleeping - or maybe dead - with no one paying them any mind.

Meanwhile, Christian and his work cohorts are debuting a new exhibition known as Square, which is a box surrounded by glowing light strips. The exhibit is intended to be a "safe space," combining art and sociological study, and Christian must come up with a way to relay the exhibit's message to the public. Unfortunately for him, he brings in two exaggeratedly obtuse millennials who come up with a ridiculous advertising concept for the Square involving a little girl being blown up - as in detonated - inside it. For some reason, Christian agrees to the concept and soon finds himself in a PR nightmare.

Simultaneously, Christian enlists the help of several work friends to carry out a mission in which he delivers an accusatory letter to every single mailbox in a building after he discovers that the people who stole his wallet are among the tenants. Miraculously, his wallet is returned, however, he is now plagued by a young boy who tells him that his letter caused his parents - who assumed that the boy stole the wallet - to punish him.

Some of these scenes are amusing. One involving Moss's character bringing Christian back to her apartment for sex, which involves a live ape and a tug of war involving a condom, becomes hilariously awkward, especially after she confronts him later at his museum. Other sequences are just flat-out awkward, such as one in which Tourette syndrome is utilized for laughs or another during which Christian agrees to pay for a homeless woman's meal, only to have her suddenly become picky in regards to what she'll eat.

The piece de resistance of the film, if you will, involves a banquet held by the museum, during which a performance artist takes his aggression a bit too far, resulting in the guests attacking him. However, the point of this sequence appears to be just how far the guests at the museum will allow the scene to play out before intervening. Much like the film's aforementioned early scenes in which people pass by the homeless without noticing them, the picture's sociological observations are, well, a little too obvious.

In the 1960s and 1970s, filmmakers such as Luis Bunuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini often created furiously hilarious attacks on bourgeoise attitudes and lifestyles. During the past few decades, director Michael Haneke has made a few such films - for example, "Funny Games," of which I was not a fan, and "Cache," which I thought was terrific - that have covered similar ground. Yorgos Lanthimos' "Dogtooth" was also a highly inventive film exploring such concepts.

But two recent films - Lanthimos' "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" and "The Square" - are films in that vein that give off the vibe of sneering at liberal societies and making easy targets of them. The titular art piece in Ostlund's film appears to satirize the concept of what right wing commentators might call "PC culture." And in both "Sacred Deer" and Ostlund's film, the protagonists are both flawed men who are, perhaps, out of touch with the lives of the less fortunate, but ultimately attempt to do the right thing. And for that, they are castigated.

In the film, much like Eli Roth's "The Green Inferno" - I know, an odd comparison - do gooders are seen as foolish. But none of the films provide better alternatives - other than to take easy potshots. "The Square" is a well made, well acted and occasionally amusing film, but it's not as clever as its makers seem to think it is. It's certainly not a bad movie - and a few sequences are examples of bravura filmmaking - but I'm a little surprised that this picture took Cannes' top prize.