Bright

January 8, 2018 at 11:36 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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This film was only released on Netflix, but I recently reviewed “Mudbound” and “Okja,” both of which fall into the same category. It’s so much easier to do when it’s a film I like but, I guess reviewing Netflix movies is something I do now. So, here goes. This movie actually has an interesting premise; it’s a shame that’s the only thing interesting about it. Taking place in modern L.A., it imagines a world where magic, orcs, elves, etc. have always existed. In this alternate universe, there is intense racial tension between the species. The elves live in highly wealthy and segregated communities and they appear to run everything. Orcs are mostly poor, under-educated and despised by the other races. Human officer Daryl Ward (Will Smith) has been paired with a token hire Orc, Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton). He distrusts his new partner and so does the rest of the precinct, who want him to find a way to get rid of the guy. Meanwhile, some bad stuff is going down regarding a prophesy about the return of a dark lord. That is something way outside of the LAPD’s league, but Ward and Jakoby end up right in the middle of it. That could have been an interesting story with the opportunity for some prescient and insightful metaphors about society today. However, director David Ayer (“Suicide Squad,” “End of Watch”) seems intent on beating the audience with his metaphoric broadsword. His depiction of Orcs as a metaphor for African Americans was so over-the-top as to become almost racially insensitive. It ending up reading more as parody than metaphor, and that’s a problem for a film trying as hard as this a one was to be taken seriously. In its attempt to make that we get the metaphor, the script has every character acting as a one dimensional cliché. Every police officer, besides Ward and Jakoby, were so evil as to be ridiculous. Smith seemed to be sleepwalking through his role and Edgerton’s normally expressive face was hidden under inches of rubber. The dialogue was painfully unnatural. I did not believe anything anyone was saying; anger, vulnerability, fear, camaraderie all felt utterly phony. No emotion was earned in this film and, as a result, nothing meant anything. Its ending clearly leaves open room for a sequel. Good luck with that. Even for free, I wouldn’t bother watching the next one.

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The Post

January 8, 2018 at 10:40 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊

I’m not sure I have much to say about this polished but predictable film. It files easily in the category of liberal, high-minded, and earnest films about how the press is necessary to keep power in check (think “All the President’s Men” or 2015’s “Spotlight“). The story arc is basically the same: Some powerful people are doing bad things, intrepid reporters/editors become aware of it, against massive opposition they bravely publish the truth (personal consequences be damned). It’s a rousing story and certainly a noble one, especially in light of our current administration’s views on the media and the role the NYTimes played in exposing the Hollywood sex scandal. And this film was well constructed and finely acted. Spielberg has proven himself a master storyteller and this one is no different. It moves along tautly with virtually no wasted space. He makes a story that could seem dull into something gripping. His focus is very intentionally on the courage it took the owner, editor and writers of the Washington Post to move ahead a publish. The actors in each of those roles played them absolutely as well as you would expect from the likes of Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bradley Whitford, Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon, and Michael Stuhlbarg, among others. Streep and Hanks are always easy to watch and their verbal sparring was entertaining. Streep, in particular, can morph into her roles physically and vocally so thoroughly and expresses so much in facial expressions and body language that it’s always a pleasure to watch her performances. All of that is very positive and yet I couldn’t help but feel that I have seen this all before. I’m not sure it shed much light on the need for a free press or on the courage it takes to keep that press free. But maybe we need to hear it all again right now. Maybe, if we can have countless action movies with the exactly same plot, it isn’t the worst thing to tell this important story one more time. I can’t help but feel that, if I had seen this movie before “Spotlight,” it might have gotten a higher rating from me. I don’t know that that is fair, but I am just being honest.

Call Me by Your Name

January 1, 2018 at 11:46 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

After having just reviewed “Darkest Hour,” I now have to review another film built almost entirely on a single performance. But I feel very differently about the outcome. “Darkest Hour” felt like an exercise in great acting. I enjoyed watching Oldman’s craft, but I was always aware that I was watching acting. In “Call Me by Your Name,” I became lost in Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Elio. Taking place in Italy in 1983, the story covers Elio’s American family, living in Spain because his father is a professor of antiquities. They all speak fluent English, Italian and French, and the film moves back and forth between the three languages fluidly. Seventeen-year-old Elio considers himself a sophisticate, but he is unprepared for the doctoral student who comes to stay with his family for the summer. Elio falls hard for Oliver (Armie Hammer) and a summer romance blossoms. Based on André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, the film wisely tones down the eroticism of the book and focuses instead on the romance. I cannot overstate how taken I was with Chalamet’s performance. He portrays Elio’s adolescent sense of wonder, bravado, lust, goofiness, and insecurity perfectly. Elio tries so hard to seem cool but is deeply uncertain of himself. The script gives Elio a chance to show that insecurity over and over in really beautiful moments and Chalamet is up for the task. For most of the film, we are treated to charming moments of him falling in love against a stunning backdrop. Some of those scenes work better than others but they all give Chalamet an opportunity to utterly charm the audience. Toward the end, the film shifts as summer comes to a close and the story goes where we always knew it had to. This is also where the film became the most effective for me. It was no longer just sweet, it was genuinely heart-wrenching. Michael Stuhlbarg (“The Shape of Water,” “A Serious Man,” Season 3 of “Fargo”) plays Elio’s father. He is kind, wise and far more aware than Elio knows. In his final scene, Stuhlbarg’s monologue is a beautiful piece of writing, acted beautifully. Who doesn’t wish they had that father? And the final scene. Anyone who has read many of my reviews knows I put a lot of weight on the final scene. This is one of my favorites and I will remember it for a long time. It is in those final moments, as the credits roll, that you really understand Chalamet’s acting skill. So much is conveyed in his face and it all feels so real. I don’t know how anyone could portray those emotions so really, without actually experiencing them. I don’t know where inside of himself that young man went (he was only 20 at the time of filming), but I am grateful he was able to go there. What he ended up giving us was deeply touching. This is the difference between a good and a great performance. It felt like Armie Hammer was acting well. It felt like Timothée Chalamet was living it.

Darkest Hour

January 1, 2018 at 11:09 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I really had no intention of seeing this one. How many films about Churchill can they make? Apparently, as many as they have about Kennedy. However, as the buzz grew for Gary Oldman’s performance, I decided I had to see it. I’m glad I did.  Covering the first month of Churchill’s term as Prime Minister, the story takes us through the agonizing decisions he had to make (including the rescue at Dunkirk) and the intense opposition he faced in his own party. This story would be mildly interesting if it were not for Oldman’s riveting performance. Under mounds of prosthetics, he was still able to capture the full range of emotions of a man who was at turns frustrated, terrified, indignant and exhausted. His body language and vocal tonations reminded me of the transformation Marion Cotillard went through to play Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.” He became the character. The only actor who could even hold my attention in any scene with him was Ben Mendelsohn (“Animal Kingdom,” “Rogue One”) as the king. Otherwise, the film was really almost a one-man show. That said, director Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Hanna”) gets credit for some clever cinematography. He consistently films Churchill tightly framed, sometimes by small rooms, sometimes by people crowding either side of the screen, sometimes by simply putting him in a small box in the center of the screen surrounded by black. The effect is one of Churchill looking trapped and hemmed in on all side; I found it an effective way to convey how he must have felt. This is a well done film and I suspect Oldman will win the Oscar for his performance. That said, the story is engaging enough but it was never brilliant or revelatory. Compare it to “Dunkirk” and one quickly understands the difference a strong story can make. That was a film that was about the events, rather than about the characters. It did not rely on any one actor to carry it. The film carried itself. You remove Oldman and there wouldn’t be that much to recommend here.

The Shape of Water

December 24, 2017 at 11:22 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

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.

 

Mudbound

December 20, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

If you’ve never heard of this film, you’re not alone. It was released first on Netflix and has only had a very small theatrical release, just so it would be eligible for awards season. The story was based on a novel by Hillary Jordan and directed by Dee Rees, whose only other feature length film thus far is the stunning “Pariah” from 2011 (see my review here). This story takes place in 1940s Mississippi, as two poor families (one White and the other Black) attempt to keep their farms afloat. Both send young men off to war and then have to deal with the consequences of how they have changed when they return. The plot is not overly complex, nor are there any twists; it unfolds pretty much as you suspect it might. The real treat is the fantastic acting from everyone involved, but especially from Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund as the two young men who strike up a friendship, based upon shared experiences, once they return. Mitchell is particularly powerful as a young man barely containing his pride and anger. In addition, Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige as his parents masterfully play characters who have had a lifetime of swallowing their rage. Nobody in this film is happy. They are all bitter, angry and disappointed. It’s just that the White people feel entitled to make sure everyone knows it. The film gets difficult to watch in parts and has one particularly disturbing scene near the end. I’m not sure I could recommend this film based on its story, which feels largely predictable and ends on a note that felt forced, given the rest of the film’s tone. That said, if you love great acting, I would see it just to watch Mitchell, Morgan, Blige, Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Carey Mulligan, and Jonathan Banks. They collectively breathe life into every single scene.

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

December 18, 2017 at 5:22 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Expectations are always high when it comes to “Star Wars,” and that certainly was the case here. There was a giddy eagerness in the theater the night I was there. My audience applauded the opening credits, whooped and clapped throughout. They were looking for a good time and, fortunately, they were not disappointed. This, the 9th “Star Wars” film and the 8th in the Skywalker series, is the best one in years. Darker and far more brooding than most of the films, it also shows a level of character development that the series has sorely missed until now. In Lucas’s world, there were good guys and bad guys, but little in-between. Director Rian Johnson had directed three feature-length films before this: “Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom,” and “Looper.” Anyone who has seen any of his films knows he loves complicated, morally ambivalent characters. In Lucas’s hands, a character like Luke always felt a bit one-dimensional to me. Yet, in “The Last Jedi,” we get a window into a more complex character filled with guilt, self-doubt, a bit morally simplistic and even a bit arrogant. It was great to see Hamill again, playing the only character I have ever seen him play. He has become a comfortable actor, capable of playing a far more interesting Luke than he could 35 years ago. I really liked this new version of an old character and I hope to see more of him. I also really like how the two core characters are being played. I realize one might debate that there are core characters in this rich ensemble cast. But, using the first films as a guide, it seems to me the backbone of these stories is the relationship between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), much as it had been the relationship between Luke and Darth Vader. I find this relationship more interesting than the Luke/Vader one. It has more uncertainty in it, with Kylo Ren as a far more conflicted villain than Vader ever was. I am very interested to see his character arc. I was also really pleased with the screen time General Leia was given. This final role was a fitting tribute to Carrie Fisher. Johnson also filled the film with all the things one would expect: beautiful planets, interesting aliens, a few battles and chase scenes, all the good stuff. He also had the requisite cute/funny aliens but, mercifully, kept them tightly contained. From start to finish, this was an entertaining ride and, more than that, it intrigued me. I genuinely want to see where these characters end up and that’s something I haven’t felt in a “Star Wars” film in a long while.

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.

 

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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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

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.

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