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210 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
I, Tonya (2017)
Unconventional Bio-Pic
13 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Director Craig Gillespie's I, TONYA is an unconventional Bio-Pic - so unconventional that the term itself doesn't really apply. Part-Mockumentary, Part-Drama and Part-Dark Satire, TONYA gives us a cracked version of Tonya Harding's life and and the events surrounding the knee-capping of Nancy Kerrigan in the week's leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympics.

TONYA contains not one, but several, unreliable narrators lead by Tonya herself (Margo Robbie), her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and Tonya's estranged mom LaVona (Allison Janney). The movie is framed with faux interviews with them (and others) - often speaking straight to the camera (a convention which also occurs within scenes in the movie). But, make no mistake, Gillespie and Screenwriter Steve Rogers very much favor Tonya's POV here. It's her slant on the story that takes center ice.

The movie works as well as it does because of the cast and the lure of the lurid true story. Robbie looks nothing like Harding despite hours of makeup (this is made clear when we see clips of the real Harding), but, she enthusiastically takes on the role, giving it a grit and energy that keeps the movie on balance despite some significant bumps along the way. Stan and Paul Walter Hauser (as Gilooly's henchman Shawn Eckhardt) are also fine. More problematic is Janney's LaVona. Janney is a superb actress, but, here she is so over the top that she verges on being a cartoon (unsurprisingly, the real LaVona Golden wasn't interviewed by the filmmakers, so it is little wonder than she comes off the worst of the major characters).

The contrivance of an unreliable narrator isn't a bad concept, but, too often I, TONYA ends up feeling unreliable itself. Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) is very much shunted to the background (and only utters one word, "Why!??"). To believe I, TONYA you'd think that Kerrigan was some rich Ice Queen in contast to the working class Harding. The truth is that Kerrigan's family was also working class (the Dad working three jobs to pay for her training). It's understood that the movie is from Harding's perspective, but, at a certain point, you have to wonder about the movie's overall authenticity. Matters aren't helped by a certain reluctance on the part of the filmmakers to have dramatic scenes play out. There is some very nasty physical and sexual abuse on display, but, they are often undercut with a wink, a retro song (often not very good selections) or a quip directly at the camera. It's as if the filmmakers are saying to the viewer, "Yes, some bad stuff happened, but, hey, here's a funny aside - you're still having fun and enjoying the movie, ain't ya?!" And, some of the mugging for the camera makes it seem like the cast is auditioning for an off-Broadway production of an early Coen Brothers film.

Despite some major qualms, I, TONYA refreshingly breaks the mold of a Bio-Pic. It's simply too bad that the filmmakers couldn't find a consistent and more thoughtful tone.
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Foxtrot (II) (2017)
Heady drama that is alternately haunting and darkly humorous
11 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Director Samuel Maoz' feature follow-up to his terrific 2009 war picture LEBANON is a strange, but ultimately moving, tale. Whereas LEBANON took place entirely within a tank on the battlefield, Maoz here takes an entirely different approach.

The story begins with a soldier's family being informed of terrible news about their son Jonathan (Yonaton Shiray). The parents, Michael (Lior Ashkenazi) and Daphna (Sarah Adler) react with appropriate shock and even catatonia in Daphna's case. We are then brought to the war zone and see what actually occurred with Jonathan and his troops. The third act returns us to the parents home.

I am fighting harder than usual to avoid spoilers here. Not just for the obvious reasons, but, because FOXTROT is movie built upon the viewer's reactions to the three acts - and, how they work with and against one another.

Again, in contrast to the self-contained structure of LEBANON, here Moaz shifts FOXTROT into several directions - intense grief, dark satire, tense drama, an unexpected jump cut in time and even a short X-rated animated sequence. It's a heady experiment. It may not all work smoothly (almost by its very nature, it cannot), but, together it's a strong work. It all culminates in a long sequence that is, in turn, haunting, touching, humorous and all together devastating. Michael the father observes that the Foxtrot is a dance where no matter where you begin, you end up in the same spot. But, as a movie, FOXTROT is much more than standing still - it moves you deeply.
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Luca Guadagnino's tender film fills the senses
9 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Luca Guadagnino is one of our most sensual filmmakers. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, like his previous A BIGGER SPLASH and I AM LOVE are filled with scenes touching upon all the senses. Guadagnino gorgeously captures images of beautiful objects, locations, books and, of course, the pleasures of the flesh. His soundtracks are filled with the sounds of nature as well as overflowing with music (usually classical, but, with more modern nods to the Rolling Stones and the Psychedelic Furs). His characters luxuriate with the smells of food and they caress the world around them.

It is within that world that screenwriter James Ivory (adapting André Aciman's novel) places our main characters seventeen year old Elio (Timothy Chalamet) and twenty-something Oliver (Armie Hammer). Every year, Elio's parents Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Anella (Amira Casar) invite a research assistant to their idyllic villa in Northern Italy. In 1983, that person is Oliver, an American who sweeps into town with his good looks and cool persona. Oliver simultaneously attracts the attention of the ladies in town - as well as Elio. Complicating matters is that Elio is also having a summer romance with a young Parisian Marzia (Esther Garrel).

While on the surface, this may seem like a simple potboiler, Ivory, Guadagnino and the cast gracefully ease the audience into the tale. The film takes full advantage of the 132 minute run-time. Nothing is hurried. No shortcuts taken. The emotions are given time to build organically. It's like a lovely concerto that plays out to its own meter. The pacing may be too languid for those who demand a more forceful drama, but, CALL ME is a film to soak in. To luxuriate within. The subtext and the atmosphere not only inform the main story, they become part of it. By the time Elio and Oliver's infatuation is consummated, you have fully invested in them.

CALL ME is deliberately set in the early 80s - just as AIDS was becoming a concern, and, of course, long before coming out was accepted. And, some may find the idyllic setting a bit too perfect. Hammer's performance is a bit too flat at the beginning, but, pays off as it progresses. Chalamat (also strong in the current LADY BIRD) brings off the extremely difficult task of externalizing what is largely and internalized character - simmering until it boils. Stuhlbarg is largely a background figure for much of the story-line, but, is sterling in one of the film's key scenes. Guardagnino's choices of music is impeccable (including pieces by Bach, Revel and Satie) and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's 35mm film lensing captures every moment exquisitely.

On the surface, a collaboration between a sensualist like Guadagnino and the reserved James Ivory (as in Merchant-Ivory) may seem a bit of a mismatch, but, it works beautifully. Together (with the cast & crew), they have created one of the year's most indelible films.
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Franco's meta-take on the infamous The Room
8 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Perhaps the hardest thing about judging THE DISASTER ARTIST is how to suss out how much of this odd bio-pic is sincere, and how much of it is James Franco putting on another of his art projects. The story of Tommy Wiseau (played by Franco himself) is intrinsically fascinating. A forty-something immigrant passes himself off as a twenty-something from New Orleans and moves to Hollywood with an actual twenty-something (Greg Sestero, played by Franco's real brother Dave). Each aspire to become actors. Together, they make a vanity project which becomes notorious as a 'So Bad It's Good' film classic. I personally drove past that curious Highland Boulevard billboard hundreds of times, shaking my head all the while.

DISASTER starts off promisingly. Franco seems earnest in trying to tell Wiseau and Sestero's off-beat Hollywood wannabe tale. The brothers Franco use their kinship to give their on screen friendship an extra bit of verisimilitude. As a Director, Franco manages to balance the satirical and the sensitive portrayal of the duo pretty nicely. And, then we get to the making of THE ROOM itself.

From there on, DISASTER takes a turn for the worse as the movie shunts aside much of the goodwill towards Wiseau in favor of mockery. Chief among the flaws is Seth Rogan as a fictionalized version of script supervisor Sandy Schklair (the actual Sandy quit during the shoot, and, in a bizarre turn of events actually tried to claim credit for Directing much of THE ROOM). Rogan comes off as a wise-ass who openly mocks Wiseau and the film from the get-go (Schklair has said he has trouble with the portrayal). Rogan's version of Sandy becomes a stand-in for all those who attend THE ROOM's midnight screening in order to hurl wisecracks at the hapless Wiseau. The fact that Wiseau now claims that his is "in" on the joke, doesn't make it any less cruel.

It's unfortunate that Franco lets this aspect take over DISASTER ARTIST. There is much to praise, including Franco's own uncanny mimicry of Wiseau's seemingly inimitable style (Franco's accent does slip a bit during the 'Directing' scenes). Parts of it seem to genuinely have an affinity for Wiseau and his dreams, and the depiction of the making of a low budget feature has a certain ring of truth to it, despite exaggerations.

And, yet... The big premiere scene isn't credible (I've been to many a disastrous screening, and, they don't spontaneously turn into a Rocky Horror style midnight event; my suspicions backed up by first person accounts of attendees). Why the Bryan Cranston scene was invented is never explained (to get in yet another celebrity cameo?). And, why maintain the illusion of a "mystery" surrounding Wiseau's origins? He's from Poland and he was in his late 40s when THE ROOM was made. Franco's brave decision to end the body of the movie with side by side clips of his recreations of scenes from THE ROOM with actual ones is quite meta (as good as they were, I have to say my attention still drifted more to Wiseau's originals than to the Franco ones; There's still something to be said about authenticity - even if incompetent).

A large group of millennials sat in the back row of the screening I attended. They seemed primed to mock Wiseau at every turn. And, on cue, they openly guffawed at every poorly pronounced word out of Franco/Wiseau's mouth. They cheered and jeered at all the infamously poor scenes recreated from THE ROOM. Even as someone who loves 'So Bad It's Good' movies myself, I found much of their reaction unsavory. They weren't just cheerfully playing along with Wiseau's amateurishness, they were ridiculing his accent, his very gall at trying. Unfortunately, I felt some of that crept into Franco's movie, even if semi-inadvertently. Compare that with ED WOOD where Tim Burton and screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander openly showed great affection for that hapless filmmaker and his cockeyed dream. Franco's performance is deeper than Depp's in that film, but, it still can't save THE DISASTER ARTIST from its failings.
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Loveless (2017)
Maybe hard to 'love', but earns your admiration
3 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Russian Director Andrey Zvyagintsev's 2014 LEVIATHAN was one of the best movies of that year (it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film). It took a relationship drama and made it into a stunning commentary on government corruption. LOVELESS is more intimately told and focused, but, it certainly isn't without larger concerns.

A married couple, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are going through a divorce yet still living together in a Moscow apartment they are jointly trying to sell. Both are having affairs. Literally lost amongst this is their son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). Right from the start we hear the parents bickering over custody of the boy - NOT over who wants the child, but, who gets 'stuck' with him.

Unsurprisingly, the boy becomes a runaway. In a normal movie, you'd think that their son's disappearance would draw them closer as they search for him. Not in Zvyagintsev's LOVELESS. Far from it. Their search seems more a social obligation than one out of genuine emotion. It's a cold detached point of view, and one matched by a stern police office on the 'case'. The only dim rays of hope are provided by a private advocacy group that looks for runaways. The movie is set in late 2012 and there are mentions of the Mayan Calendar's End of the World prediction for that year, adding to the downbeat mood.

The acting is strong in a low key manner. Zvyagintsev's Direction is clean and precise with well thought out camera compositions. The minimal score is spare but effective. And, while Zvyagintsev does attack the system as directly as he did with LEVIATHAN, the image of Zhenya running on a treadmill outdoors in a freezing Moscow wearing a bright red jumpsuit emblazoned with the word "Russia" (in English) in large letters can't help but beg mention. It may be difficult to say one 'enjoyed' a distressing movie like LOVELESS, but, it earn your admiration.
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Wonder Wheel (2017)
Woody does 50s style melodrama
2 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
I guess we have to give credit to Woody Allen for working a bit outside his normal territory. Unfortunately, a 50s styled and set melodrama just isn't in his wheelhouse.

Kate Winslet plays Ginny, an unhappy housewife working at famed Coney Island in the 1950s. Her husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) works as a Park ride repairman. In walks Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty's now adult daughter from his marriage. Ginny's first marriage spawned a young son Richie (Jack Gore) who's a budding pyromaniac (why Woody chose to go this way? I guess to show that the tyke was anguished -- as if all the bickering wasn't a clue enough -- or, to show off some cool, if very digital looking flames). As if this weren't enough of a hothouse stew, Ginny is having an affair with a younger lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake). Mickey is the Woody Allen stand in here, so, he's not just a lifeguard, but also a wizened wannabe playwright.

The plot gets going when two thugs show up looking for Carolina. It seems as if her ex-husband is looking for her because she turned state's witness against him for his organized crime activities. Much of this is staged as it were a theater production. The family not only works at Coney Island - they live there. So, their literal glass house doubles as a convenient theater backdrop.

Legendary Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shot WONDER WHEEL in digital, but uses extreme digital intermediate tools to try and create a super saturated 50s technicolor look with an emphasis on autumnal oranges. It certainly is eye-catching at times, but the digital sourcing shows through, sometimes distractedly so. There are times it appears as if the entire movie was shot in front of a digital backdrop (in one close-up, Winslet's hair seems to be vying for co-star billing). Along with the faux 16mm look in LADY BIRD, the fake black & white in stuff like NEBRASKA and FRANCES HA - why bother? Just shoot the damn movie on film.

The cast is game. Winslet is given free reign to go from A to Z in her acting playbook (conveniently, she's an ex-actress). Timberlake is never given the chance to break free of his faux Woody dialogue, but, brings just enough of himself to carry through. Temple is another of Allen's ditzy woman stereotypes, but also does well here. The same cannot be said for Belushi. The sub-Stanley Kowalski paces he's put through are simply beyond his range.

In the end, the blame is squarely on Woody Allen. The staging doesn't match up with candy-colored cinematography. The mob story-line doesn't make sense (A moll on the run is going to hide in plain sight in one of the area's most visible locations? Heck, she doesn't even use a pseudonym!). And, sadly, it doesn't seem as if Allen has any affinity for the material outside of having seen some Tennessee Williams back in the day. Allen has long played the nostalgia card, but, where once a BULLETTS OVER Broadway, RADIO DAYS or a PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (heck, even last year's mild CAFE SOCIETY had some spark) would have had a certain joie de vivre, WONDER WHEEL just seems to be spinning it's you know what.
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Darkest Hour (2017)
Oldman's performance carries this historical drama
1 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Gary Oldman IS Winston Churchill. That seems to have been the selling point for DARKEST HOUR since it went into production. Premiering at Telluride, the word was that this could finally be the one that brings Oldman an Oscar. That is to be seen.

It's not all Oldman, of course. Director Joe Wrigth seems to have an affinity for period pictures, so one would think that this WWII drama would fit well. Unfortunately, it's a bit of an unsteady ride - much like Churchill's term as Prime Minister. Beginning just before Churchill's rise to power, DARKEST HOUR trains its focus on how he manages a thicket of opposition - from ousted P.M. Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), from much of his own party (chiefly Viscount Halifax; Stephen Dillane) to even King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) while trying to stave off what seems like the imminent Nazi conquest of England.

Anthony McCarten's screenplay certainly stacks the deck in making it appear as though it was Churchill versus everybody else (and fudges other significant facts). Everybody else but his loyal, but strong wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his loyal secretary (Hannah Steele). Fortunately, Oldman is up to the task of carrying the burden. It's a big blustery scene-chewing performance just set on a tee for awards consideration. Oldman mostly carries it off under all the makeup, even, if some of the supposedly 'amusing' backstage scenes come off as a drunken Alfred Hitchcock performing on Monty Python. When he's allowed to play it straight, he dominates the screen.

Unfortunately, Director Wright seemed to have a bit different idea of doing a historical drama. Instead of remaining largely invisible in his direction, we get swirling stylistic 'touches' that detract, more than engage. Sometimes it seems as if Wright instructed Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel to make his camera into a giant wind-up toy and let it roam free. Dario Marinelli's score is perfunctory.

DARKEST HOUR is modestly effective for Oldman's performance. It's a rousing old fashioned tale, even if it isn't perfectly told.
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Jane (II) (2017)
Embracing look at Jane Goodall's career with superb archive footage
29 November 2017
Warning: Spoilers
JANE is a simply titled documentary about the life and career of naturalist Jane Goodall. Director Brett Morgen does a very fine job of sifting through hundreds of hours of footage to illustrate his movie. Interviews (both original and period) are layered over the clips to bring her story to life.

The plain title is appropriate for Goodall wasn't a scientist by training, but, a secretary who got the attention of renowned paleontologist Louis Leakey (curiously, mentioned little in the doc). Goodall couldn't provide a scientific background, but she convinced him that her lifelong passion for animals would make her a good research assistant. What followed, is one of the greatest studies of animals in nature. Hard to believe today, but her initial expeditions are considered the first in depth studies of primates in the wild - in history.

Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing to this day, Goodall and her team have studied chimpanzees in Gomba Tanzania. National Geographic sent photographer Hugo van Lawick (later, her husband) to shoot 16mm film beginning in the early 60s. It is that footage that provides the bulk of the photographic evidence of her studies. Much of the footage had been in vaults, uncatalogued, for decades. Fortunately, those vaults seem to have been well-preserved, for the film looks stunning on the big screen. In fact, some sections of the documentary look so utterly perfect (and capture intimate moments so precisely), that you almost swear it had to be faked! The 60s scenes (which also includes footage Hugo shot in the African Serengeti) are the most fascinating in this rather brief doc (90 minutes).

JANE is very much an authorized account. Only a couple of mentions of the controversy in the scientific community about her methods are covered, and only scantily. Still, give credit to Morgen, and Goodall herself, for showing how career driven she was - and remains. It's quite clear that both Goodall and Hugo put their careers above their personal lives (they even bring their baby up in the wilds of Africa rather than return home for a 'normal' upbringing). Morgen also is a bit sloppy with the chronology of the footage including a newspaper account which mentions that she is married - before she even met Hugo in the story-line (oops!). More problematic is Philip Glass' music. One of the great minimalist composers, and the writer of several fine film scores, Glass here tends to overwhelm the largely gentle tone of the doc. Further, Morgen also made the decision to do a full soundtrack to back the footage, the vast vast majority of which is silent. It works for the most part, but, in conjunction with Glass' overbearing music seems out of register. Minor points, but, significant enough.

Jane Goodall and her work has been in the public eye so long, that one might feel that she is of the past. But, like the woman herself, JANE makes her very much alive and vital.
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A good movie in there somewhere
24 November 2017
Warning: Spoilers
There's a good movie in there somewhere within ROMAN J ISRAEL, ESQ. - perhaps more than one. Unfortunately, what is on screen isn't one of them. Writer Director Dan Gilroy famously re-cut the film after it played at the Toronto Film Festival. About a dozen minutes were deleted, some scenes re-arranged and the musical soundtrack was shuffled a bit. Knowing that only re-enforces the notion that the movie is messy.

Actor Denzel Washington is the main reason to see it (nothing too surprising there). As ROMAN begins, it looks as though we are in for a low key character study. Roman works as a partner to who we are told is a legendary attorney with a strong civil rights background. But, Roman is strictly a behind the scenes individual. At one point, he's even termed a savant for his preternatural ability to recall facts. And, savants are said to not be all that comfortable with social interactions - and, HOW with Roman J. Israel! Circumstances occur where Roman's boss becomes incapacitated and he ends up in the clutches of slick lawyer George Pierce (Colin Farrell; good, but in an underwritten role) who takes over the firm. Soon, Pierce sees the savant in Roman and takes him into his firm. He has also befriended a younger civil rights attorney Maya (Carmen Ejogo; quite fine).

Up until this point the movie is a slow, if decent portrait of an awkward if well-meaning soul. Without delving into spoilers, let's just say that complications soon arise. Now, ROMAN moves into phase two where it tries to play as a more traditional legal thriller. But, the halves don't fit. Even Washington, for all his proficient acting skills, fails to carry his character smoothly between the two parts. Early on, Roman is a kind of endearing shambolic individual. But, in the second half, Washington slips into the sharp-talking Denzel of a FLIGHT or TRAINING DAY. Most of the blame lies with Gilroy, but the actor must bear some responsibility as well. Even worse, the eventual outcomes play to the worst clichés of a law drama. There is a cool twist that could have been great in a more cohesive film.

No matter what was changed from the original cut, little could save ROMAN save for drastic re-shoots. The new music cues are cool to listen to - but, they are little more than background. As stated from the outset, the shame is that Washington is so good here that a simpler character study would have made for a much better, if hardly extraordinary, movie.
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Mudbound (2017)
Episodic Melodrama about WWII Mississippi
22 November 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Dee Rees' adaptation of Hillary Jordan's novel tells the tale of two families (One white, one black) in WWII Mississippi. Garrett Hedlund Jason Clarke (as Henry)and Carey Mulligan (Laura) head a family who buys a farm, but, through a mistake end up not in the landowner's house, but on the farm. Mary J. Blige (Florence) and Rob Morgan (Hap) are the parents of a family who already lives and work on the farm.

While there is a cordial enough relationship between the families, there is no question as to who are the bosses. And, the day to day struggles to survive are brutal and difficult for both families. A deeper bond is shared between Henry's brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) - returning veterans from the war (we see them in battle). The segregation in the military is nothing compared to what they find back 'home'. Further complicating matters is that the Partiarch of the white family Pappy (Jonathan Banks) is as rabid a racist as any of the Mississippi locals.

In outline, MUDBOUND sounds like it plays as a relatively straightforward drama. But, Rees (and co-screenwriter Virgil Williams) use narration - and a lot of it - to structure their screenplay. And, the narration floats through several of the performers. Some of the passages certainly deepen our understanding of the characters but, too often, fall into Joe The Explainer mode. This not only clutters the proceedings, but keeps the viewer from fully investing themselves into reading one's own interpretation of the events. Further, it emphasizes the already episodic nature of the movie. The acting is, for the most part, excellent. Mulligan and Blige seem a bit removed at times (and Blige's sunglasses don't help). Banks (one of my fave character actors) is frighteningly chilling as the bigoted father, while Morgan brings a low key intensity to Hap. Mitchell and Hedlund strike up a warm friendship even it feels a bit too modern at times.

There is no doubting the power of the tragic climax and the gentle mercies of the epilogue. Still, MUDBOUND needed a stronger structure to overcome some of its more melodramatic passages. It's a solid production even it promised more.

P.S. Some controversy has been generated by its Netflix release. Pushed as an Awards contender, Netflix's decision to release the movie straight to streaming while giving it a same day very limited release (17 theaters - where I saw it) doesn't help create separation from what feels like a TV production (it was independently produced as a feature). Ironically, MUDBOUND may have worked better had it been a Netflix mini-series, where the episodic nature could have been better fleshed out.
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