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.

 

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The Disaster Artist

December 10, 2017 at 2:35 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

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.

 

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.

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.

Thor: Ragnarok

November 5, 2017 at 9:52 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I liked this film so much more than either of its prequels (“Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World“), which is admittedly a pretty low bar.  Those were both dull and overly serious, relying entirely on special effects to replace any meaningful plot or dialogue. Come to think of it, this film is not so different. It is mostly a special effects spectacle with largely silly dialogue and a plot so full of holes that it is hard to decide which ones to highlight. How about the utter lack of explanation for how Hulk ended up on this planet, or how Bruce Banner’s ominous fear about himself is utterly ignored in the end, or how a creature vanquished so easily at the beginning of the movie becomes all powerful when it returns. The list could go on, but then you might be tempted to think that I didn’t like this film and I did. Why? Because there was one critical difference between it and its predecessors; it had a sense of humor. New Zealand born director Taika Waititi, who is most known for the tedious “What We Do in the Shadows” and the lovely “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” is primarily a comedy writer/director. He has brought that aesthetic to the Thor franchise, where it is much needed. This film was, first and foremost, a superhero action movie. As such, it had its main villain, played with delicious glee by Cate Blanchett. It had its various lesser baddies, played with varying levels of silliness, from the relatively straight Karl Urban (as “Skurge”) to the always over-the-top Jeff Goldblum (“Grandmaster”). And it had several well-choreographed fight scenes, including the Hulk/Thor battle that we have all seen in all the previews, and the final battle scene, which was beautifully scored to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” The best thing about these scenes was that the audience could actually follow the action, which has been a real problem in many CGI fight scenes in previous movies (think anything Michael Bay). But, as I mentioned, on top of all of this saving-the-universe-yet-again stuff, there was this nice layer of light comedy. At times it didn’t work, particularly when it was overly adolescent; I could have gotten through a Thor movie without ever hearing any masturbation, penis-size or anus jokes. But, what it did really well was to add dimension to two overly dramatic Marvel characters. Both Thor and The Hulk have suffered in overly serious films. Here, they suddenly became real people. These two characters were more alive in this film than in any film to date. Their buddy relationship was particularly fun to watch, as it allowed both actors to show a softer side to their characters, including warmth, humor, and self-doubt. I like this new Hulk a lot and I really like the new Thor who has evolved by the end of this story. I hope these are the two characters who show up in the “Infinity Wars” movies. I could definitely watch more of both of them.

The Florida Project

November 3, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Posted in 2017 | 1 Comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Two years ago, Sean Baker exploded onto the big screen with his first full-length feature film, “Tangerine” (see my review here). In case we were wont to think this was a one-time fluke, Baker ups his game and comes with an even stronger sophomore effort. Taking place in and around a couple of motels near Disney World, “The Florida Project” takes us inside a world in much the same way “Tangerine” did. Here, we experience life through a group of 7 year olds being raised by single mothers scraping to get by. Baker has such an affection for America’s disenfranchised; he shows us their resilience with great empathy and humor. Taking place in the the first few weeks of summer break, the film chiefly follows Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and the various other children that orbit her as she goes about entertaining herself as a dirt poor, wholly unsupervised, child. Moonee and her friends are watched over by the gentle Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who is the manager of the motel where she lives. We also see her relationship with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley is immature and poorly equipped to handle the role of parenting anyone, including herself, but she is still a loving mother and, through Baker’s lens, she’s impossible not to empathize with. The real miracle of this film is in the acting by this group of almost entirely untrained actors. Vinaite is powerful as Moonee’s mother, though this is her first film. She is raw and her emotions play so easily across the surface that I am tempted to believe she has actually lived the experiences she is portraying. This was a large cast of so many younger and older actors, and each of them seemed to genuinely inhabit their characters. This was nowhere more true that with our lead actress. Prince was astonishing. In a fair world, she would be considered for an Oscar nomination. For her to inhabit this character so fully was amazing for a child so young. She was loud, brash, sarcastic, charming, silly, playful, and demanding in all the right ways. At one point, she wept so painfully that I felt as though this young girl must really be sad and scared. I believed in Moonee fully. In so many places, this film felt as though it were a documentary. That is how real these kids and their behaviors seemed. This is a very funny, joyful film but it will also break your heart. Underneath the bright pink exterior, there is deep pain, with only more to come. This movie will make you laugh and, in its final moments, it will leave you stunned, sitting in a dark theater, trying to process what you just witnessed.

Lucky

October 15, 2017 at 7:31 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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This film follows in a long and venerable line of films that feature an elderly person on some journey. They are typically beautifully shot, languid films that act as a showcase for an older actor who has never been the lead before. The first film that I know of in this series, and perhaps the one I loved the most (I saw it multiple times while it was still in the theater) was 1985’s “The Trip to Bountiful,” starring Geraldine Page. Between then and now, we have also seen “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989), “The Straight Story” (1999), “Nebraska” (2013), and probably others that I don’t remember. They typically center on an older person taking some sort of quixotic journey and the people they meet along the way. Here, Harry Dean Stanton’s eponymous Lucky just hangs around his Arizona time pondering mortality. Perhaps that is why this film did not connect for me the way those other ones did; it just felt like it was going nowhere. Lucky is much like the turtle “Franklin Roosevelt” that ambles along at the beginning and end of the movie, reinforcing it’s incredibly slow pace. Lucky has nowhere to go and is in no hurry at all. Stanton, who died just a few weeks ago, was 89 when he made the movie and it really focuses on death and how one wants to live out one’s remaining days. Which is not to say that it is depressing. It has real moments of humor and exuberance, as when Lucky sings at a young boy’s party. But it is deeply nostalgic, with everyone reminiscing about a simpler time. Even the turtle’s name is a nod to the past. The film was beautifully shot and was, at times, moving. But, overall, it lacked any direction and I think I needed that.

The Big Sick

August 26, 2017 at 10:38 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Sometimes the most cliché of genres can offer the sweetest surprise. It is a difficult thing to convince me to see a romantic comedy, any more. I feel like I have seen it all and disliked most of it. They are cloying, predictable and only blandly humorous. Yet, “The Big Sick” manages to be something I almost never expect from a romantic comedy; it is deeply touching. Written by real-life spouses Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, the film tells us the story of how they met. In what is definitely an unexpected twist for a romantic comedy, the main focus of the movie is on Kumail’s relationship with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter & Ray Romano), rather than with her, as they struggle to deal with her unexpected illness. This vehicle allowed the audience to get to know his character outside of the standard rom com clichés. The film’s humor is fairly gentle. There are no belly laughs and it won’t have you in tears, but it did keep me genuinely chuckling throughout. At times, scenes could feel like they were veering toward stereotype (particularly where Kumail’s family was concerned) but it always felt more like a gentle ribbing than anything else. Because this was so autobiographical, the film felt very loving and respectful toward its characters. There is nothing biting here. If you are looking for a side-splitting good time, this may not be the movie for you. But you will genuinely feel good throughout. You will find it hard not to like everyone and you will find it hard not to be moved. You probably won’t shed any tears from laughing but you might still shed a tear or two or other reasons.

Logan Lucky

August 20, 2017 at 8:10 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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This film could serve as a good lesson on how to use Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic in conjunction with each other. It got a sterling 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and a middling 78% on Metacritic. Given that the former is a straight up-or-down vote, whereas the latter is a graded score, the takeaway is that virtually every single critic liked “Logan Lucky,” but only moderately. And guess what? I liked “Logan Lucky.” I really did. But only moderately. Steven Soderbergh has always had a penchant for odd little films (“The Limey,” “Bubble,” “The Informant!”) that he mixes in with his massive successes (“Erin Brockovich,” all the “Ocean’s” movies). Here we get a blend of the “Ocean’s” type heist film mixed with the sort of mockery of its lead characters that you saw in “The Informant!” This is a heist movie for the current era, where NASCAR-loving, blue collar workers replace the slick cultural elites of the “Ocean’s” films. But Soderbergh doesn’t quite love these characters like he loved the originals. The “Ocean’s” films were all slick gloss and romanticism. This film is asking us to laugh at these characters, rather than with them. The humor is never cruel but it is poking fun, none-the-less. The caper they set about to commit is as ridiculous and unrealistic as one might expect, but that’s okay. A heist movie requires a suspension of disbelief. Though this film does talk out of both sides of its mouth; we are expected to believe these characters are both brilliant enough to come up with their plan and dumb enough for us to laugh at. The story starts very slowly and I found the begining dragged a lot. Channing Tatum did a passable job as the lead character, though he has never been a standout actor for me. Adam Driver, who I normally like, was odd here. I could not figure out where he was trying to go with his character; some of his acting and speech choices just felt a bit confusing for me. And we had to suffer through a painfully miscast Seth MacFarlane. The film really lit up when Daniel Craig’s character arrived. Whenever he was on screen, the film had energy and direction and had moments of genuine humor. In fact, the film could be very funny in parts. At other times, the film was clearly trying so hard to make us laugh that it fell flat. Overall, this was a fun, lighthearted ride. But it felt like there could have been more there. If the characters had just been a bit more developed, there might have been a real opportunity for some understanding, instead of just parody. And, frankly, we could all use a bit more understanding these days.

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