Tully

May 6, 2018 at 5:54 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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Whatever you think this movie is going to be, you’re wrong. One of its pleasures is how it constantly shifted the script on me. Several times, I thought I had figured it out and then it shifted again. Is it comedy? Drama? Dark? Earnest? Creepy? Playful? Poignant? Part of the allure was in keeping all those options open while letting the film take its journey. As I have said many times in this blog, too often I can guess where a film is going and that can be very boring. I guessed exactly where this film was going… and I was wrong. So, I readjusted… and I was wrong again. I enjoyed quite a bit. All of which should suggest to you that I cannot say much about the plot without ruining something. So, let me tell you as much as you can gather from the trailer below. Marlo (Charlize Theron) has 3 kids and a husband who works all the time. She is run ragged and exhausted and near her breaking point, but then things change. Theron is a fantastic actor who has lost herself in roles before. This transformation is almost as thorough as when she played Aileen in “Monster.” She feels completely believable, and completely relatable, as the overwhelmed parents. When she screams in frustration, you want to scream with her. Diablo Cody, who exploded onto the screen 10 years ago as the writer of “Juno,” has made a name for herself writing strong, real women. And everything about Marlo feels real. Her two oldest kids are played beautifully by Lia Frankland and Asher Miles Fallica. Again, everything they both did seemed completely believable. Mackenzie Davis (“Halt and Catch Fire”) was another standout. This was a mostly sweet and mostly insightful story, inhabited with strong female characters. I don’t know if I will remember the film in a year or two, but I truly enjoyed watching it.

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Oh Lucy!

April 9, 2018 at 4:13 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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½

“Oh Lucy!” feels like a movie that had something worthwhile to say, if I just could have paid better attention. Setsuko feels unfulfilled in her dead-end office job in Tokyo. Her niece, Mika, asks her to attend an English class that Mika can no longer go to. Setsuko is confused and then charmed by the unconventional teacher, John. But then he and Mika disappear to America, so Setsuko and her sister head off in pursuit. The film is sometimes funny, sometimes touching, sometimes insightful, and sometimes just odd. As the very strange love-triangle between Setsuko, John, and Mika plays out, there are some moments that feel really honest and moving. But they get quickly swallowed by many more moments that just feel weird and creepy. Some of the characters’ actions are so inexplicable (particularly Setsuko’s) that it can be genuinely hard to be sympathetic. In the end, the film required more work than I was willing to put in. I found my attention wandering and, by the time the credits rolled, I felt like there had probably been something worth seeing there; I just hadn’t seen it.

Love, Simon

March 25, 2018 at 9:59 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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Let me take you on a journey. Or perhaps I should call this review, “how I learned to relax and love Simon.” My first red flag was that the theater was filled with adolescent girls. I was one of 3-4 adults and one of maybe 2-3 men. At one point in the film, the titular Simon (Nick Robinson, from another YA film, “Everything, Everything” and “Jurassic World”) refers to his choice of a Jackson 5 song as “twee.” That struck me as everything wrong with this movie. No kid uses the word “twee” and, in fact, his use of that word pointed out just how twee the entire film was. This is the type of story that has no footing in the real world. Nobody acts like they normally would. The kids are all too cool, clever, and self aware. The adults are impossibly wise, hip and (yes) self-aware. None of the adults talk to these kids the way real adults do. This is especially true at the school, where the vice-principal (the always funny Tony Hale from “Veep” and “Community”) and drama teacher (Natasha Rothwell) act in ways that are much more designed to make the audience laugh than to be remotely believable. This is a perky, happy community, where even the bad kids are laughably bad at being bad. Director Greg Berlanti (from most of the WB’s superhero shows) has made a clear choice to eschew realism for sentiment. You see, Simon is a young man struggling with his sexuality; he does not want to ruin his perfect life by letting his family and best-friends know he’s gay. But then another student announces anonymously on the school social media site that he is gay. They begin to correspond, both using pseudonyms, and Simon falls in love with this unknown person. It is an interesting conceit because the audience becomes invested in who it might be. But the entire film is just a build up to that final reveal, with everything along the way existing to check various humorous or sentimental boxes, without exploring anything remotely close to truth. In fact, when it gets it’s closest to truth (when Simon makes a series of really selfish choices), it takes the easy way out, allowing for a pat solution, rather than exploring the difficult, real-life consequences of those choices.  Sitting in the theater, thinking about films like “Moonlight” and “Call Me by Your Name” that tried very hard to get at something real, I found myself annoyed by the artifice. But then, something started to happen. I became invested in the emotional arc the film was taking. Despite myself, I liked Simon and I wanted things to work out for him. I was as invested as those thirteen-year-old girls (well, maybe not “as invested.” Let’s just say “invested”) in finding out who “Blue” was. The ending was unbelievably sentimental and phony and a little bit silly and it worked. I was swept up in those final moments, maybe partly because the entire theater had erupted in squeals, clapping, crying, and full-on Beatlemania screaming. Or, maybe, just because it was done well. And it occurred to me that Berlanti had made the perfect YA movie. I was never the audience, but it still managed to affect me. I think that says something. Halfway through the film, I was taking mental notes at how annoyed I was. But, I walked out of the theater emotionally spent and feeling oddly nostalgic for the passion of youth. I can’t really hate a movie that took me there, no matter what the journey was like.

 

The Death of Stalin

March 24, 2018 at 11:44 am | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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“The Death of Stalin” is a sometimes funny, sometimes interesting, oft times grim look at the struggle for power after Stalin’s death. Director and writer Armando Iannucci tries to do for Russian politics what he did for the U.S. and Britain with the parody “In The Loop.” That film was often screamingly funny and shockingly foul-mouth, thanks largely to actor Peter Capaldi (the previous “Doctor Who”). This film gets there occasionally but far less often and far less successfully. This may be partly because these actors, fine as they are, do not approach the material with the same caustic indignation Capaldi did. Jason Isaacs (the “Harry Potter” films, “Star Trek: Discovery”) came the closest, but his role was too small and his delivery was not quite as masterful as Capaldi’s. But, I think the real problem is the source material. It is far easier to laugh at the absurdity of American and British politics, which feels comfortably like laughing at oneself, than it is to laugh at the grisly chain of events taking place in the power vacuum left by Stalin. The film is a barrage of casual slaughter, both mentioned and witnessed, that we are supposed to laugh at, partly in the absurdity of how casually it is treated. But that is a joke that can take the viewers only so far without also wearing us down. I felt my audience wanting to laugh (I think we had all come expecting good, silly fun), and we all tried gamely. But, in the end, we mostly sat in silence. I did learn something about the machinations within the Soviet government that would eventually lead to Khrushchev taking control. But I might have enjoyed that more in a drama or even a thriller; all the silliness seemed to make light of it. I do get the desire to point out the absurdity in government and I loved it in “In The Loop.” It just didn’t particularly work well for me here.

 

Thoroughbreds

March 14, 2018 at 8:15 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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With “Thoroughbreds,” first time director/writer, Cory Finley wants to make his mark on Hollywood with the “Heathers” of this generation. But, as dark as “Heathers” was, you always knew who you were rooting for. It was a scream against self-involved, vapid youth that every uncool kid could relate to. This film feels like the opposite. There is nobody to root for here, because every character is some form of despicable. The vapid, self-involved kids are the stars of this story and I found it impossible to care about them or their actions at all. Amanda and Lily are played by Olivia Cooke (“Me and Earl and The Dying Girl”) and Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch,” “Split”), respectively. Over the course of the film, they vie back and forth for which one is the biggest sociopath. Eventually, they rope in the hapless loser Tim, played by Anton Yelchin (“The Green Room,” the newest “Star Trek” films), in sadly one of his last roles before his untimely death. All three are solid actors and they play their characters well. In fact, this film is entirely well-crafted. I have no complaint about any of the acting, the dialogue, the cinematography, the music (or lack of it). The use of sound and silence was particularly interesting in this film. Finley did a great job of creating creepiness. I can see why many people would like this movie. I just despised every single character and every choice they made. Which made it hard to sit through, and even harder to enjoy.

The Party

March 7, 2018 at 7:33 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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This black-and-white British film was small in scope and fairly modest in its intentions. It was not trying to say anything big, nor was it trying to make a cultural impact, nor did it even seem to want to move the audience. In fact, I had a hard time trying to figure out why writer/director Sally Potter made it at all. The only other film of hers I have seen is the brilliant, audacious “Orlando” (1992) that helped make Tilda Swinton a star. She has only made a handle full of other movies in the intervening 25 years. And this one could not be more different from that one. Where “Orlando” spanned centuries and vast distances, “The Party” takes place in one home over one night. It very much reminded me of early 20th Century plays, in which a common trope was to trap people in a house someplace and see was bitterness ruptures forth over the course of a day, a night or a weekend (think O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Williams’s “The Night of the Iguana,” or Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”). This party is to celebrate Janet’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) promotion to Minister of Health. But, as it turns out, nobody is in the celebrating mood, for various reasons. The party devolves as egos fracture and darkness seeps into the room. By the end, there is a permanent emotional wreckage and an impending rash decision that will likely destroy everything. This is not fun stuff, but it can be powerful and cathartic. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Potter never fully commits to the drama. Instead, she attempts to lighten the mood with black humor. Some of it is funny (most of the best lines belong to Patricia Clarkson), but it never becomes funny enough to make this film an effective comedy. All the humor succeeds in doing is blunting the pathos. And, at a slender 71 minutes, it barely gets started before it’s over. Each of the characters had complex stories and complicated relationships, all of which could only be touched on in the short time we had. What a shame. There was some fantastic material here. And a fantastic cast that included, Thomas, Clarkson, Timothy Spall, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Cherry Jones, and Bruno Ganz. I didn’t leave the theater feeling like I had wasted my time (it was too short for that). Instead, I left feeling like there was wasted potential. There was a much better movie lying undiscovered just below the surface of this strange little film.

I, Tonya

January 22, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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So, Part II in my real-life comedy bios of women sports stars… Actually, that statement is where any comparison between “Battle of the Sexes” and this film ends. “I, Tonya” starts with a disclaimer; “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” That should tell you the mood and tone of this film. Unlike “Battle,” this is a bleak sort of humor; we are laughing at and not with the characters. Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and writer Steven Rogers (“Hope Floats”) squeeze as many laughs as they can out of what is essentially the story of an abused girl who marries an abuser and then attempts (and fails) to claw her way out of poverty. This is not a movie that makes you laugh easily and carelessly but, that said, it will leave you with some unexpected compassion. Understanding as we do that everything we learn in this film is distorted by the people who told it (namely Tonya, her mother, and her ex-husband), the audience still can’t help but feel for the brutal unfairness of this girl’s life. She was devalued and rejected by everyone, including, perhaps most painfully, the ice skating community she ached to be accepted by. The film presents her as mostly a victim of others. This is a story that is almost certainly untrue. Gillespie and Rogers balance the fact that the movie is based mostly on her interviews by giving us glimpses of her today, allowing us to draw our own conclusions. This is very clever film making. They could have chosen to present her as all hero or all villain. Instead, they invite us into the grey areas and, as a result, we get a far more compelling story. Much has been said about Margot Robbie’s and Allison Janney’s performances, as well there should be. These two women were dynamic. Robbie deserved her nomination for the SAG award and deserves one for an Oscar as well. She brought all the fierceness she showed as Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad” to bear here. And, through some intensive training and very effective CGI, she managed to look wholly believable as a skating phenom. She was truly magnetic. But, that said, Janney was even better as her mother. She stole every scene and gave the film its best laughs. She squeezed every drop of disdain possible out of the slow blink of her eyes. It was one of my favorite performances of the year. I have to also give credit to the virtually unknown Paul Walter Hauser (the “Kingdom” tv series) as Shawn Eckhardt. He was brilliant at playing the slow witted, self-important friend around whom so much of the story revolved. I hope this performance helps launch his career. This is not an easy story to watch and it offers no easy answers by the end. What it does offer, however, is a razor sharp script, some brilliant directing, and a few of the best performances of the year.

Battle of the Sexes

January 22, 2018 at 4:30 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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“Battle of the Sexes” is a playful look back at a simpler, less ironic, and more deeply sexist time. It gets it’s laughs, and there are plenty, from the “oh my god, I can’t believe they used to think like that” variety, and from the good-natured humor of its two leads. Taking place in 1972 and ’73, it follows two tennis greats, one who is at the top of her game and one who is way past his, as they careen toward a showdown that was part ridiculous spectacle and part serious social commentary. Billy Jean King is played with an earnest, exasperated intensity by Emma Stone. She does a fantastic job transforming into King. Compare this role to her character in “LA LA Land;” every way she carries herself, from her shoulders to her walk, is utterly different. She gives us a woman relentlessly determined to be taken seriously. On the other side of the net, Steve Carell plays Bobby Riggs with goofy abandon. Riggs seemed incapable of taking anything seriously. He understood that what drove media and public interest was larger than life tropes: good guys and bad guys. They were the perfect rivals because they were so different on every level. Nobody could turn away and everyone picked a side. While a movie about a single tennis match may not seem that exciting, this one managed to be. From start to finish, this was a highly entertaining romp that took itself just seriously enough. It was never gloomy or heavy and all the sharp edges were softened. The film rode entirely on the backs of Stone and Carell. Fortunately, their volleys both on and off the court was more than enough to entertain.

The Shape of Water

December 24, 2017 at 11:22 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Not since “Pan’s Labyrinth” has Guillermo del Toro created such a visual feast. From the first moments of the film to the final scene, there was never a moment when I wasn’t enrapt by what I was seeing. Del Toro creates a magical early 60s world awash in shades of green. The wallpaper, carpet, cars, clothing, candies, were all various shades of green, giving us a sense of being underwater, with the occasional shock of red to remind us of the burning emotions and potential violence that was lurking in these murky waters. The fantastic Sally Hawkins plays a mute janitor who works alongside Octavia Spencer in a secret government lab that is clearly up to no good. Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Nick Searcy all play government agents who are varying levels of evil. When a strange amphibian man is captured in South America and brought to the lab, Hawkin’s Elisa has pity for him and they form a bond. This film is part sci-fi, comedy, love story, and allegory. And it works on every one of those levels. It is very funny, though much of the humor is sly commentary. For everything there is to laud about this film, Hawkin’s acting may be the biggest thing. Without ever saying a word, she gave us access to her entire internal world and the deep emotions she was feeling. Visually and emotionally complex, this really was a fantastic, fantastic film and one of my favorites of the year.

 

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.

 

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