The Disaster Artist

December 10, 2017 at 2:35 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I first heard of “The Room” about 10 years ago, when I saw it playing at a local theater. All I knew for many years is that it was largely considered to be the worst movie of all time and that it was developing a cult following. Recently, when I found out this film was being made, I did some research onto “The Room” and the mysterious Tommy Wiseau who wrote, directed, produced, starred in, and funded the film. What I found was a truly bizarre movie that was really so much worse than I had imagined. But I also discovered a cult following, not unlike the one “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” had when I was young, who go to midnight showings, dress up, shout lines at the screen, throw objects, etc. It has enough of a following, in fact, that James Franco decided to direct and star in a film about the making of “The Room.” I have never been a huge fan of Franco’s, who I find to be pretentious in spades. It’s been almost a decade since his last watchable role, in my opinion. But that hasn’t stopped him from working (he has 12 movies and a mini-series currently in some stage of development/production over the next year). That said, this was his best work, by far. He became Wiseau to an eerie degree, capturing the mannerisms and speech pattern perfectly. This performance deserves an Oscar nomination. The film is told from the perspective of Greg Sestero, who was apparently Wiseau’s only friend. It starts in San Francisco in July of 1998 when they meet and continues through the debut of “The Room” in 2003. Sestero is the hero of the story and comes across as a virtual saint; something that I view with suspicion given that the movie is based on his book. Sestero may be the hero but Wiseau is the reason to watch. Franco’s performance is so uncanny that the ending credits show side-by-side clips of Wiseau and Franco doing the same performance, as though to assure us that this ridiculous story was actually real. Because this is a Franco film, it should come as no surprise how meta it is. It may seem to laugh at Wiseau’s oddness but it also laughs at all of Hollywood. It’s no coincidence that one of the early scenes involved visiting Jame Dean’s crash site and Franco’s career was launched by his portrayal of Dean. Just as it is meant as winking humor when Franco’s Wiseau tells Sestero (who is played by Franco’s younger brother, Dave) that he looks just like Dean and could play him. There are a dozen cameos, some of whom have hardly any lines (see the tags list at the top of this review). One of the best involves Bryan Cranston playing a younger version of himself. This period piece film-inside-a-film allows lots of opportunities for meta-humor, as when a bank teller says he wouldn’t be interested in this film because he only likes period pieces. This is a clever piece of writing from start to finish. By the end, we are no more clear on who Wiseau is or what his motives are but we can’t help but sympathize with his desperate desire to connect. There is something deeply human under all the weirdness that I found quite touching. “The Room” is so bad that it is almost great. “The Disaster Artist” is just great.



Atomic Blonde

December 8, 2017 at 4:44 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ½

In deciding how to rank this film, my thinking was fairly simple. It’s really not worth paying to see, not even just a rental fee. However, if you can watch it for free some time, it is reasonably entertaining. Taking place in 1989, as the Berlin Wall is falling, it follows one MI-6 spy (Charlize Theron) as she tries to find a defector and save his life with the help of a deep cover spy, played by James McAvoy. We are clearly meant to be entertained by the back-and-forth, fight-or-flirt tension between them. However, it all felt too predictable to be charming. In fact, the film goes exactly where you think it will. Even the twists within twists were telegraphed 10 minutes in. I could imagine the writers feeling very pleased with the ending they came up with, but it was truly the only real option for an ending that wasn’t completely dull. That said, the action was relentless and oft times entertaining, in that relentless action kind of way. There was some jaded humor, even a few good lines, and a great 80s soundtrack, even if it was used ridiculously literally (e.g. Flock of Seagulls’s “I Ran” for a chase scene). This really was an absolutely adequate way to waste an evening. But it was absolutely nothing more than that.

Patti Cake$

December 8, 2017 at 4:30 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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This raw, and sometimes rough, little film is one of the best I’ve seen this year. The story focuses on the eponymous Patti, a teenage girl living in New Jersey who has a talent for poetry and fantasy. She dreams of being a big rap artist but spends most of her time stuck in the doldrums of her day-to-day life. When she and her best friend Jheri meet the introverted Basterd, everything seems to be coming together for her. Told against a gritty, working class backdrop, Patti’s story feels vibrant; she seems ready to explode into technicolor life against the dull grey background of her world. That tension gives the film real energy. But what really makes this a movie to watch is the powerful performances of the two lead women: Danielle Macdonald as Patti and Bridget Everett as her mother. In my ideal world, Everett would be nominated for an Oscar. She was incredibly powerful every moment on screen. Hers was maybe the most vulnerable and emotionally charged acting I saw all year. Macdonald is also a fantastic young actress. She moved to the US from Australia a few years ago and has been doing bit parts until now, but this role seems to have broken her through; she’s in five films next year. The relationship between Patti and her mother is wonderfully complex and utterly believable. Looking at Barb, the audience understands exactly who Patti is. The film leads us to a somewhat predictable ending, but it is a deeply satisfying one, none-the-less. Loud, funny, touching and rousing; from start to finish, this was a film to revel in.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

December 4, 2017 at 11:19 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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There are dark comedies and then there are, “sweet god almighty” dark comedies. This film is definitely the latter. Taking place in a modern rural community, the story centers around Mildred (Francis McDormand), who has paid to put up three billboards outside of town, calling out the local sheriff for not catching the man who raped and murdered her daughter. Haha, right? Well, despite that bleak framework, there are plenty of laughs to be had, though most of them will also make you squirm a bit. This is some of McDormand’s best work and worthy of a nomination. She plays Mildred with gritty resolve, bitterness, aching heartbreak, and a bleakly acerbic sense of humor. The other characters mostly revolve around her and only come to life when they enter her treacherous orbit. Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) especially was only a truly interesting character when he was interacting with Mildred. Scenes of him with his family felt flat. Though those scenes were meant to make him sympathetic, none were nearly as effective as the one scene where he interrogates Mildred and ends up coughing. The moments after that cough, were a stunning example of acting from both of them. Another standout was Sam Rockwell as Dixon, though the less said about his character, the better. This is not an easy film to watch. The subject matter is disturbing and none of the laughs come easy but most of them are well-earned. That said, the film strays into absurdity more than once, in order to get the joke. Characters act in ways that don’t wring true (and do so often without consequence). As with any comedy, some lines fall flat but, because they reach so far, the flat jokes are much more noticeable here. Every time it drifted, however, the story course-corrected quickly and was able to stay mostly on track to it’s searing, pitch perfect ending. The final couple of scenes could have gone so wrong but the film stayed dark right to the bitter end. This was a movie with noticeable flaws; it wasn’t a great film, but it was a very very good one.


November 24, 2017 at 4:47 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Future generations will look back at the Pixar era as a sort of golden age in animation. Better even than classics like “Snow White,” the films coming out of Emeryville are simply some of the best animated movies ever. This year’s “Coco” is no exception and, in fact, is one of the best of the best. Young Miguel wants nothing more than to be a singer but his family has a particular and hard earned antipathy for them. So, Miguel does what any music loving boy would do; he travels to the realm of the dead in search of a blessing from his great-great-grandfather. Pixar has done what Disney never mastered: they have created a film about a non-white culture that truly celebrates that culture from the perspective of its members. This is not “Pocahontas” or “Mulan.” We are treated to a rich and beautiful story that really celebrates the people in it. With an entirely Hispanic cast, “Coco” sinks deep into the cultural experience that has only ever existed on the surface of other Disney films. The result is a beautiful and touching story. As always with Pixar, the animation is truly stunning. This feels like their most accomplished film yet, with gorgeous scenery and beautifully emotive characters. With amazing visual details (like the way a tv screen was reflected in a person’s eyes), this film was a real joy to watch. This story is not quite as complex as the truly remarkable “Inside Out.” That one explored the complex idea that sadness can be a good and healing emotion. This film doesn’t go anywhere nearly as deep. The sentiments here are far more focused on the obvious, value-of-family, variety. That said, everything about it was a joy. Pixar has long left behind the idea that they are making children’s movies. These remarkable films have something to say to all of us.

Miss Sloane

November 22, 2017 at 7:59 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

“Miss Sloane” was an early 2017 film, released in February this year, but I just saw it on a long flight, so thought I would review it. Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is a big star at a powerful DC lobbying firm. The film dives deep into the heart of the gun control debate and definitely takes a side. We watch Sloane as she tries to out-maneuver her opponents around a bill that would impose background checks. Not unlike 2011’s “Ides of March,” this film suggests the machinations of a very corrupt political system. I doubt these stories are too far from the truth, but both run the risk of losing their impact as they become increasingly more extreme. “Miss Sloane” has some good twists and turns and was quite fun to watch, like a chess match between pros. Chastain has the screen presence needed to play this character with the proper gravitas, especially when facing off against actors like Sam Waterston, John Lithgow, and Mark Strong. Strong, in particular, was effective in his role as the incredulous boss shocked by how far Sloane was willing to go. Several times, his facial expressions conveyed the perfect amount of shock, fear, awe and distrust. The other stand out performance belongs to Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Her Esme was the real soul and conscience of the movie; it is through her that the audience is supposed to ask, “when do the ends no longer justify the means?” When this film was at it’s best, it was insightful and poignant and raised interested ethical questions for me to chew on. In the end, however, it settled for a very Hollywood finish. It was certainly fun to watch and felt satisfying, but it also felt a bit empty and disconnected from any larger message the film was trying to make. Probably, that doesn’t really matter. I don’t think I need Hollywood to be my conscience. That said, my favorite films tend to do more than entertain me; they leave me a little uncomfortable.

Lady Bird

November 19, 2017 at 7:29 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Almost to the day a year ago, I saw a film very similar to this one. That film, “The Edge of Seventeen,” was a real delight, full of honesty and insight. “Lady Bird” made me feel very much the same way. The film is written and directed by Greta Gerwig, who has acted in “20th Century Women,” “Francis Ha,” and “Jackie,” among others. Gerwig’s film is set in 2002 and focuses on a 17 year-old girl’s last year of high school. Gerwig herself would have been 19 in 2002 and so much of the film felt so real that I wonder if she was writing from her own experience. Lady Bird, played beautifully by Saoirse Ronan, feels like a fish out of water. She believes she is too clever for the everyday life she has to put up with. Meanwhile, her overly anxious mother (Laurie Metcalf of “Roseanne” fame) stumbles over how to communicate with her daughter. This world is also occupied with a host of others: kindly father, nerdy best friend, cruel & shallow cute boy, etc. But the real focus of the film is this mother/daughter relationship. Fortunately, both Ronan and Metcalf are excellent actors. They create deeply sympathetic, flawed and funny characters. The end result is a story that feels utterly believable. The kids all act and think just like kids. This relationship between parent and child felt as frustrating and as powerful as a real relationship. This was a simple story about a critical moment in a girl’s life; she’s struggling with what it means to become a woman and to face an uncertain future. There were no shocking twists or garish surprises. Just a regular girl trying to figure out her life out. I found that struggle to be funny, insightful and touching.

Justice League

November 19, 2017 at 10:09 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Admittedly, the bar was low for this one. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” was just a mess, with moments of visual wonder amongst the horrendous dialogue and muddled, overly-stuffed story line. I did not expect much as the curtain rose (I go to an old-timey theatre, where there actually still is two layers of curtains that do rise and a guy playing on the organ before the show starts). When the final credits rolled, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. Director Zac Snyder (“Batman v. Superman,” “The 300,” “The Watchmen”) has toned down the moody visuals he is known for. They were really the only thing I like about the last film, but they aren’t missed here. In their place, we get a tighter and less grim story arc, with genuine humor and even some actual character development. DC has a long way to go to match the camaraderie and complexity of the Avengers’s relationships. That said, I think Joss Whedon, who wrote the screenplay, does a good job of getting us halfway there. Each of these characters had his/her own distinct personality and way of interacting with the others. Even a character like Cyborg, who I had worried would get lost against the larger and more iconic characters, was a vital member of the team, with his own unique personality and compelling story. Whedon and Snyder even managed to create an Aquaman who was not wholly ridiculous. Much of that credit also goes to Jason Momoa who gave the character a sly humor and gravitas that he desperately needed. Most of the laughs centered around the Flash, with Ezra Miller well cast in the part. Miller’s Flash is hyperactive, giddy, wide-eyed and a bit goofy. He’s far more interesting than the boy-scout TV version. At times, the humor around him felt a bit forced and fell flat for me. But, the funniest laughs also centered around his character. Overall, I think this film lacked the comfortable humor of “Wonder Woman” and the action scenes were not quite as fun. That said, I found the plot here to be much more interesting, the story arc more satisfying, and the ending avoided the silliness that crept into “Wonder Woman’s” final moments. This was a fun, high action romp with characters I would love to see more of. In the end, I think DC did exactly what it needed to.

God’s Own Country

November 12, 2017 at 4:51 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I must confess that, by the end of the 1990’s, I felt like I had seen my share of young-men-falling-in-love films. Most of them follow a formula that I have gotten pretty used to. So, I wouldn’t have bothered with this one if a friend had not wanted to see it. I’m glad he did. Set in Northern England, the film follows Johnny (Josh O’Connor) as he tries to tend to his parents’ farm. His father has had a stroke and Johnny must do most of the work by himself. He’s depressed and sullen and drinks way too much. His parents hire Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a farmhand from Romania, who Johnny initially resents but slowly grows attached to. Both men play their emotional cards very close to the chest. In fact, nobody hardly says much of anything in this film; these men make Ennis and Jack from “Brokeback Mountain” seem verbose. Which may be for the better as, when Johnny does speak, I can hardly understand a word of what he is saying. In fact, the Romanian was the easiest person to understand in the entire film. This is a slow moving film and I was slow to warm up to it. I had a hard time connecting to the characters early on, partly because of my difficulty understanding the dialogue. And the sex that did occur seemed rough, uncaring and cold. But the film really grew on me. Johnny’s entire world was rough and cold. As his relationship with Gheorghe developed, he also developed as a character. By the end of the film, and particularly in it’s last act, I was genuinely moved. There was some fantastic acting here, particularly when these rough men were trying to share complicated feelings. It made every fleeting moment of intimacy feel well earned. In particular, I was impressed with Ian Hart (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) as Johnny’s father. He was terrific as a man who was never comfortable with his emotions and was now even more restricted by his stroke. I thought his last scene with Johnny was fantastic. Under the surface, these people have deep passion and need. Because it is so contained throughout the film, even the slightest signs of it feel deeply rewarding. There is a tough, cold, brutality on the surface of this film. You can see it in the harsh lighting, the frozen landscape, the lives and deaths of the animals, the looks on people’s faces. But, stick with it long enough, and you will also discover real warmth, humor, tenderness and even love. The film will make you work for those emotions but, when they show up, you’ll be glad you waited.

Murder on the Orient Express

November 12, 2017 at 10:13 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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To be honest, I’m not quite sure why Kenneth Branagh felt the need to remake this movie. The 1974 version was a rather sufficient telling of Agatha Christie’s overwrought novel. One has to judge a film like this on two different levels. The first would be to discuss the plot as based on a pulpy 1930s murder mystery novel; we can hardly lay the blame for any flaws there at Branagh’s feet. The second would be to evaluate the directing, acting, staging, etc of the film itself. So, as to the story, Christie was the most famous mystery author of her day (perhaps the most famous author, period). She wrote 73 novels between the 1920s and the 1970s. In fact, she wrote one or two a year for many years. That’s a lot of unexpected twists to come up with. As a result, her stories have a tendency to stretch credulity, and this one is no exception. You should not go to this film expecting a complex but ultimately logical plot (“The Spanish Prisoner” this is not). The story arc is largely cliché, the characters are stereotypes, the clues are discovered absurdly, and the final reveal is pure silliness. But that is not to say that it cannot be a fun ride. There is a certain degree of campiness to it all that can be delightful to watch. However Branagh is not known for his campy directing. In fact, he seems to bring a sort of Shakespearean seriousness to everything he does. Seeing his ridiculous mustache in the previews, I had high hopes that this film might be a great deal of fun. It has a fantastic cast, equal to the original, and they could have had a great time playing off of each other. But everyone seems to be playing her/his character so seriously. And Branagh most of all. He brings us an exhausted, disenchanted Poirot, who has a depth of character unlike previous Christie films. He would be an interesting and empathetic character if the source material weren’t so silly. That said, the scenery was lavish. The train was truly exquisite from end to end. I could be persuaded that Branagh only made the movie because he wanted to make that set. It gives him the opportunity for some great staging, lighting, and camera angles. And the arctic surrounds were also beautifully done. It was the perfect stage for a story more sinister and scary than this one could ever hope to be. We might all have been better served if he had used that set for a more modern-styled thriller. As it is, this film is not a dead loss. It is lovely to look at and there is fun to be had as the story unfolds. You will never gasp out loud at the twists, nor will you laugh out loud at the humor. But, you may find it to be a perfectly enjoyable way to spend an evening on the couch.


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