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There's genius in this stitching.
20 January 2018
In Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis is like his protagonist, a celebrated '50's London fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock, because they both are meticulous and mercurial artists, whose creative livelihood requires complete devotion to the craft, without distraction. If anyone can challenge Gary Oldman's front-running Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, it's Day-Lewis.

Seeing an artist at work, in this case a designer sew designs and direct models, is where I find my most complete satisfaction. Reynolds is very much the genius micro-manager who guides each fold into perfection. His personal life, however, is not so easily handled as he finds out when he falls in love, a designer that brooks no competition.

Reynolds falls for a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), whose stature and curves reach the perfection he seeks, but always, it seems from a design point of view but not predominantly a romantic one. She has a strong will, however, that seeks the place in his life where she is not just a lady in waiting.

After the electric first half, full of his genial moments and self-centered creativity, Phantom Thread settles into a melodrama losing sight of his genius in order to promote Alma's machinations gaining control of his affective life. Although her methods are extreme and worthy of thriller status, the latter half of the film loses the excitement as it relies on formulaic circumstances of whether someone will die or not from the intrigue.

As he did in The Master and There Will be Blood, Thomas helms believably genial outsiders, who, like Woodcock, create beauty in the face of petty politics and personal liabilities. Although I was a bit disappointed in the melodrama, I was thrilled by DDL's performance and PTA's fluid, moody direction. There is very little out there to compete with their genius.
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12 Strong (2018)
Thor wins, of course. But not the movie so much or The US in Afghanistan.
18 January 2018
Yes, Thor wins the battle but has lost the war ever since. Chris Hemsworth plays a stalwart, heroic Captain Mitch Nelson in the docudramaed engagement by Special Forces in Afghanistan after 9/11. On horseback, much less. The movie is called 12 Strong and 12 American soldiers did succeed in beating back an Al Qaeda warlord. Not one American soldier was lost.

This feat, through a pass that would be considered Thermopylae at any time, was successful because of the cooperation of Afghan warlord General Dostum (David Negahbon), a joint venture that surely must have set the model for our endless and fruitless attempts to bring justice to that rogue country. No country has achieved success in over 2000 years, a testimony to the difficult warfare well described in this film.

Beyond the rocks and hills are no memorable lines (ironic because the writers penned superb Silence of the Lambs and The Town) and no twists of fate. 12 Strong just trudges forward to a mountain pass that promises death except for the dashing captain's Lawrence-like rush to save the day.

In other words, this is another B war movie with not even 1940's stirring wisecracks or satisfactory twists. I should note that hints of writing greatness occur when the captain and the warlord engage each other in philosophical repartee. Too little.

The obligatory goodbyes to family and children are there at the beginning and at the hellos in the conclusion. This formulaic stuff does not a great film make.

That's all folks except the waste of Michael Shannon as Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer. While Hemsworth can never seriously be wasted because of his heroic mien and film provenance, Shannon is too good an actor to be given such a lean role.

If you want to make some sense of the Byzantine world of Mud-eastern battle, then see 12 Strong. If you want solid filmmaking, re-see Saving Private Ryan.
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The Post (2017)
First-rate history and drama.
10 January 2018
Although I lived through the commotion of the Pentagon Papers in the New York Times and the Washington Post, it doesn't seem half as exciting in my memory as it is depicted in Steven Spielberg's The Post. This docudrama is in the tradition of fine films like All President's Men, and Spotlight and numerous other quality journalism films.

Ben Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post, and Kay Graham, its publisher, duke it out over whether or not to publish the papers purloined by Daniel Ellsberg about the government's secret promotion of the Vietnam War. Even Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) knew the US couldn't win the war. Hence, thousands of young men went to their deaths for political expediency sanctioned by presidents from Truman on down.

The excitement at The Post can be felt through the movie screen, a tension wrought from both sides about the privileges of war-time secrecy versus the freedom of speech of newspapers supporting the public's right to know. Yet, the director and writers Hannah and Singer play on another tension: the emergence of a strong woman, Graham, into a leadership position in a male dominated world.

Given that most of the docudoc is from the liberal point of view, with only McNamara there to defend the White House's conservative power play, the film is Spielberg all the way with smooth camera work and a thematic emphasis on the righteous side of things. Regardless of his politics, the director can tell a story that places you in the middle of things. And I lived through the history without enjoying its revelations, as only a gifted filmmaker can make real and compete for Oscar.

You'll love the dialogue, acting, and contemporary relevance!
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The Commuter (2018)
You know the drill, but it still is a fun ride.
10 January 2018
Warning: Spoilers
"You have no idea who you're up against." Typical dialogue from a typical thriller typically starring Liam Neeson.

If you think The Commuter is another cheesy Neeson thriller following the same weary plotline with his character saving the day, you'd be right. Yet, you'd be wrong if you didn't think this ersatz Hitchcockian thriller was a guilty pleasure because it is. In the spirit of Strangers on the Train and Speed, this whodunit travels at the speed of a runaway train and makes Murder on the Orient Express look like a sleeper car.

Mike McCauley (Neeson) gets drawn into a murder plot by femme fatale Joanna (Vera Farmiga) on a phallic train north out of Grand Central Station (North by Northwest anyone?) with a tight time frame, of course, and his family endangered if he doesn't help . He sells insurance and is ill-prepared for this dangerous ride.

The rest is boilerplate B movie thriller porn as it showcases a few bodies and many motives like a Golden Corral smorgasbord. As trite as it is, and you don't need to have seen Neeson's Taken or Non-Stop to figure what will happen, it moves like a, well, runaway train.

One fight sequence is a barn burner using everything available in the car from a guitar to an ax, seeming to compete with the memorable upstairs-downstairs fight sequence in Atomic Blonde. Both supposedly used one take, but that is arguable, yet even with heavy help from CGI, both seem seamless and get your blood speeding from your heart like, well, a high speed train.

Next time you think you'll enjoy the surprise company of a lovely blonde, get off at the next exit and take the bus. Or just enjoy this clichéd thriller that still manages to thrill.
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A messy Civil War, and a sincere documentary about a famous massacre.
8 January 2018
"Anyone born and bred in Northern Ireland can't be too optimistic." Seamus Heaney

At times the civil war in Northern Ireland reaching some sort of apex or denouement in the '90's made me aware of how bloody and divisive ours must have been in the 1860's. Alex Gibney's documentary, No Stone Unturned, investigates the mass murder of six Irishmen in a pub as they watched the World Cup in 1994. It's not pretty, and it's still not solved.

Gibney's photography and portraits are first rate, another Errol Morris in the making, as he places us in a small town seemingly remote from the IRA bombings and the intense protectionism of those loyal to Great Britain, occupying Northern Ireland with an iron grip. Some shots are bloody bodies being carried away from a bombing, some are ironic (small kids looking at a crouching soldier from around a corner), but all are made more horrible from the endless battle with no end.

The re-creation of the murder in the pub is gladly elliptical but memorable enough for the director to return to its images several times. The invasion into the pub feels like a home invasion, and maybe it is because the Irish team is about to win the cup.

Cutting away consistently between emotion-laden testimony to the consistently-blocked investigation, Gibney confuses more than clarifies, and even in the final report is unable to cast the murderers other than lucky to have a colluded circumstance that the police will not set straight because they are part of the cover up.

Seeing this expert but flawed doc will bring back the horror of the conflict in Northern Ireland, its inscrutability, and the dedication of the Irish commoners to make peace. I don't know why I demand clarity when chaos rules. That Gibney got right.
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I, Tonya (2017)
Tonya's rough and elegant, a tough combo for figure skating.
3 January 2018
"I mean, come on! What kind of friggin' person bashes in their friend's knee? Who would do that to a friend?" Tonya Harding (Margot Robie)

Director Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya may change the way you view Tonya Harding. This gritty docudrama chronicles the life of the competitive skater who worked a lifetime to become a member of the Olympic team only to see the dream shattered by her ex, Jeff (Sebastian Stan) in the now infamous assault on superior skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver).

Although Tonya admits to coming from "white trash," she dreams of entering a world that mostly coddles to girls from proper families, hardly a term for the Hardings. Their incessant smoking and Eskimo-Pie eating are small reminders of how difficult she would have it in the culturally rarefied world of Olympic competition.

Tonya displays an astounding naiveté as she places her confidence in boyfriend turned abusive husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan). No question she knew he wanted to harass competitor Kerrigan through the mails, but she doesn't seem to have sanctioned assaulting her. Harding's hard shell makes it difficult to sympathize with her nevertheless.

The crux of this revealing and ultimately sympathetic chronicle is that Harding, as bluntly competitive and rough as she is, is easily buffeted by her rude mother, La Vona (Allison Janney), whose drill sergeant ways and seeming lack of love set up Tonya for feelings of inadequacy for the Olympics and life. The action of the film, well known for anyone aware of the turbulent 90's and Harding, arguably, as she says, secondly famous only to Bill Clinton, doesn't play as well as other docs that keep the audience on edge but eager for more. Harding is deeply in need of real love, a circumstance that gives the film less suspense than that of a more stable hero. I might even be challenged calling her a "hero."
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It's Manhattan and they're Jewish. You don't need much more preparation.
3 January 2018
Plant an academic-artistic Jewish-American family in contemporary Manhattan, and you have neurotic conversation, bruising relationships, and repentance all learned from Woody Allen if not for real. Even more than Woody's endearing situations, this one is bloodier but more forgiving.

Noah Baumbach's Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),a Netflix original, is touchingly funny about two Meyerowitz sons, musician Danny (Adam Sandler) and financier Matt (Ben Stiller) celebrating their mediocre-sculptor-professor father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman), and their constant jockeying for position with him and themselves. It's not a hilarious comedy, but the nerdy-New-Yorker motif shows it is still satisfyingly amusing.

Baumbach perfectly tunes us to Danny's alienation from Dad and Matt's clueless realization of his role as favored one. Danny's opening sequence trying to find a parking spot in the East Village is an emblem of his consistent failures and the disintegration of the fractured family holding on to hopes about the deed for Dad's apartment.

Most of what happens is off-center from the truth of things, as is probably true of most families whose perception of each other is skewered by family culture and parental politics. The dialogue is both banal and profound, just the way we all live except that few of us are Jewish or live in Manhattan, two invaluable elements that provide subtle hilarity. When feelings are exposed, the dialogue turns almost Eugene O'Neill-like.

Most touching about these stories, which are chapters partly devoted to the three males, are almost seamless revelations about the family and their unspooling in a leisurely but sometimes devastating way. About the daily dialogue, Baumbach can't be bested, maybe except for Allen in his prime and Baumbach's girlfriend, Greta Gerwig, whose wispiness is gone from Baumbach here, but all the better for this urbane grit: "Brian and James, who you've met..." Matthew "Very charming interracial, homosexual couple, and smart about the work. They were familiar with Gilded Halfwing [Harold's prized but ignored sculpture]." Harold
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Compelling and confusing, lurid and tragic.
30 December 2017
"It was like stepping inside a slaughterhouse."

So one observer in the documentary Killing for Love reports about the brutal murders of Nancy and Derek Haysom in 1985. More lurid than the photos is the court conclusion that lovers Elizabeth Haysom and Jens Soring murdered them, she being their daughter.

What makes this an audience pleaser is the archival footage that shows her to be a cunning beauty and him an almost innocent lamb to her romantic slaughter. This, the intrigue is that after confessing to the murder, Jens tries to recant saying he lied to mitigate the sentence of his love. The court wouldn't accept the confession of the confession.

Directors Karin Steinberger and Marcus Vetter cut between time and testimonials to create a dynamic if confusing, disjointed set of circumstances filled with lies and ambiguity. Both conditions would ordinarily fulfill the needs of soap opera, but here, as truth is the end game, energy for sympathy is sapped by conflicting facts and sentiments.

Yet, the salacious elements endure for audience interest such as the fact that Elizabeth's mom photographed her nude and allegedly abused her. Additionally, Jens adds a sardonic attitude toward the proceedings that hypnotizes those who would like to think this not a laughing matter.

Filled with striking moments - such as the courtroom revelation that Elizabeth's mother took nude photographs of her and may have abused her sexually, and a tour of the house in which the murders took place, conducted by its current owner who doesn't seem at all fazed by its horrific past

For history buffs, the archival footage is nectar. For those of us who find the DNA evidence now compelling, it looks as if a part II may be in order for Jens Soring's future.
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Molly's Game (2017)
Another Wonder Woman only this time she's for real.
28 December 2017
"I don't trust People . . . . I have no heroes." Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain)

That pretty much characterizes the heroine of Molly's Game-a brilliant woman, Molly (Jessica Chastain), who, after suffering an Olympic skiing career-ending accident turns to running high-end gambling nights only to be indicted on illegal gambling charges. However, the real interest in this story is in the gutsy, implacable woman, based on Molly Bloom's book of the same name, who never flinches from her self regard and principles that remain constant throughout her life.

She was Hollywood's "poker princess" who at 26 ran games as pure as the snow she used to ski except at the end of her career when she deviated from her norms and became entwined with the feds, who hounded her into court. Chastain, together with Idris Elba as her smart lawyer, have moments of interaction that could be straight out of a 40's screwball comedy, typical from the pen of writer/director Aaron Sorkin, except that there's nothing amusing about the years in prison she was facing in the court room,

What pleases me so much is we have, not a Wonder Woman, but a real woman with unusual intelligence maneuvering in a man's world of wealthy poker players. Besides stretching the rules a small amount of time and extending credit when she shouldn't, she shows a fortitude and intelligence that could be wish for anyone's daughter.

Molly's game tells a true story with a modern, flawed heroine. She has four Aces to Lara Croft's two of a kind. Be a winner and see this commanding biopic portrayed by an actress who could be anyone's heroine.
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Hostiles (2017)
A revisionist western in the mighty tradition of Dances with Wolves.
24 December 2017
"Sometimes I envy the finality of death. The certainty. And I have to drive those thoughts away when I wake." Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike)

Although Quaid's words might well be the anthem of this brutal, quiet, moving 1892 western, they harbinger the death of the Wild West and the birth of justice and equality as whites and Native Americans abandon slowly the death that brought little peace to either side. Appropriately the tone in unremittingly grave, and rightly so, for the film illustrates the wages of racism as well as any contemporary screed could try to do.

Writer/director Scott Cooper, who knows a thing or two about the passing of time and custom with his poignant Crazy Heart, drives home the loss of the Indian's world, the cost to the US troops, and the bereft families on each side. Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale), a legendary anti-Native American fighter, is charged with escorting Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), also a killer, and his family from New Mexico to his home in Montana, where the government determined he should be allowed to die.

Cooper is at his best filming landscapes occasionally punctuated with John-Ford-like door framed shots and themes of abduction and reconciliation. The threats along the way are external and internal, often soldiers just as culpable as the "savages" they hunt. Joe is a man on a mission to bring justice against the Indians, but like the times he's in, it is time to change to benevolence as the end of the century approaches and a kinder world of connection and cooperation begins, slowly and surely, like the film. The appreciation for a person regardless of race, is Cooper's ultimate aim. In ways, this Western is reminiscent of the revisionist Dances with Wolves, both of whose slow pace, almost at time painful, is reflective change's pace.

Cooper's shots are generous to the beautiful faces, from Mrs. Quaid's lovely and the stoically-contemplative Joe's to the chief's landscaped leather. The ensemble is first rate, especially the feisty Ben Foster as Sgt. Charles Wills. The landscapes? well, look at Ford's and feel his tradition.
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Get the Getty story and an Oscar-worthy performance at the same time.
23 December 2017
"A Getty is special. A Getty is nobody's friend." J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer)

If Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World does anything well, it shows the banality of crime and wealth, at least as this abduction/ransom motif plays out. It's the story inspired by the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) in 1973, his grandfather's resistance to paying the Italian Red Brigade's ransom demand, and the heroic effort of his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), to bring her son back alive.

After slogging through the tepid back story (disjointed to say the least), the story gains strength through the passions of its leading players, both of whom have strong feelings about the right way to respond to the kidnappers' demand for $17 million ransom. Mom would pay, considering grandpa is the richest man who ever lived, and he does not in principle want to capitulate.

Yet he may also have reasons to deny the ransom, one that paying would open floodgates of abductions for his other grandchildren and a point made later on but nonetheless fascinating history about the nature of the Getty fortune. Regardless, the central conflict of the story is not the kidnapping but the struggle between patriarch and daughter-in-law for the soul of the family and the deliverance of III.

Although the cross editing between home and kidnappers is sometimes jarring, the director makes the audience feel as if it's present at the contentious proceedings. Trying to understand why the old man resists the ransom is a most difficult situation for parents who couldn't possibly do anything other than pay, but the audience can witness the arguments as if right there among the players.

Coldness pervades this film, as if Scott were able to let the audience feel the lack of warmth from the old man's. Several scenes show him in front of large fireplaces, evoking a Citizen Kane ambience. Getty echoes the self-centered, aloof, lonely Charles Foster Kane.

For the history and the acting, All the Money in the World is worth enjoying this season. Williams plays a resolute and resourceful mother and Plummer infuses the Scrooge-like Getty with a humanity that feels like we are with the real tycoon.

The film is also a cautionary tale about the corruption of wealth and the tenuous familial relations when money is the major player. See it and be happy with your small fortune, which may be, I hope, your loved ones.
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Darkest Hour (2017)
Stunning docudrama with an Oscar-worthy lead.
23 December 2017
"He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle." Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane)

What a joy to see this superior docudrama, Darkest Hour, exalt language by championing Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman). Although I have spent my career cavorting with words, this film does in two hours what I had always believed: Words can win wars.

Although at this point I can see no other competition for the Oscar than Gary Oldman, you may not believe me because you can't recognize him in his role. He does lose himself playing Churchill, not just because of the fat prosthetics, the glasses, and the cigar, but because he channels Churchill's indomitable spirit and endearing flaws with a perfection rarely seen this side of Daniel Day-Lewis.

For the complete historical experience, see Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk as a companion, for Churchill's success of the 300,000 soldier-rescue/retreat at Dunkirk made Churchill's legacy and changed the war to a losing proposition for the Nazis, notwithstanding their withering superiority on the land and in the air. What makes this doc so memorable is the revelation of Churchill's flaws as well as his genius. He wavers in acceptance of Chamberlain and Halifax's proposals to capitulate to Herr Hitler, yet he can be persuaded by the populace's "never" to give in to them as he rides the tube to listen to their heroism first hand.

Besides the tour de force performance, Darkest Hour has other splendid moments such as the nose-to-nose confrontations between Mrs. Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas) and the prime minister. Additionally, director Joe Wright employs his well-known camera acrobatics to keep interest and relay meaning (e.g., the opening camera shot from the ceiling of the House to a close-up of the speaker's left side is ominous about the lofty proceedings and their roots in humanity, and his street-tracking shots are several and realistic.

Here's a docudrama to make you weep as you watch real-life heroes struggle in a battle of the mind, and oh, yes, words.
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Mudbound (2017)
Outstanding: a Grapes-of-Wrath echo with a modern sensibility.
20 December 2017
"Over there, I was a liberator. People lined up in the streets waiting for us. Throwing flowers and cheering. And here, I'm just another nigger pushing a plow." Ronsel (Jason Mitchell)

In the memorable Mudbound, WWII serves as background for the war going on at home, where whites still beat up on blacks like Nazis on prisoners. Two unlikely friends, Jami (Garret Hedlund) and Ronsel ,white and black, go over the pond to war, come back as heroes, but fight again against the white scourge of the KKK and hidebound Mississippi prejudice.

Meanwhile, although the land is brown and the crops a challenge (The Grapes of Wrath hovers over the entire film), the black folk can sing about a better time while they fight for survival in the white man's world. Writer/director, Dee Rees, along with writer Virgil Williams, makes the blacks dignified not in a condescending way but one which allows them to act with humanity more encompassing and compassionate than the more clichéd characterizations of African Americans in recent years.

A darkly photographed film, Mudbound keeps the titular color throughout, brown and subdued, just as Laura (Carey Mulligan) said in the always lyrical voiceover, "I dreamed in brown." A few characters give poetic impressions as an antidote to the harsh lives playing out in front of the camera.

No less lyrical is the Searchers-like love between brother in law Jami and Laura. Although it's love from a distance because Jami lives in his brother Henry's (Jason Clarke) house, the two are isolated from each other like the whites and the blacks, with no encouragement even from their hearts to cross into love. This little world is just as confounded as the big one.

As frequently happens in dramas about warring factions, a break occurs where the sides can meet even in the smallest way. While the film has been a downbeat testimony to race relations still explosive after the war, it also poses a hope in the end, where the big war nemesis, love, conquers, as it always will.

Mudbound is a powerful evocation of the poisonous nature of slavery and racism and a testimonial to the intrepid salvation of love.
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Downsizing (2017)
Sci-fi comedy with a social bite. Fun and deeper than you'd think.
19 December 2017
The easiest part to get of writer/director Alexander Payne's sci-fi comedy, Downsizing, is the allegory of shrinking ourselves and our possessions to miniature to save the planet from our excess yet become miniature plutocrats in the process. The more challenging part is to understand how he can pack climate change and economic decay also into his themes.

Paul (Matt Damon), an occupational therapist who at best is just a nice guy, and his ambitious wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decide to have a richer life by downsizing, but contrary to our conventional use of that term. To shrink means to have a bigger miniature mansion, the kind he couldn't afford in a regular size that his shrinking paycheck keeps him from. Of course, in his decision to help out the planet, he is really helping to mitigate his envy of his richer friends in their McMansions.

Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor deftly move the Twilight-Zone story into a melodrama that stresses the humanity of a man who forsakes family and friends for a seemingly higher purpose such as saving the environment. However, it still comes back to greed.

At least until Paul experiences caring for those less fortunate than he, for those shrunk but still with relatively nothing, viz., the poor, the immigrant, and the sick to name a few disadvantaged souls living in a ghetto-tenement world far from the eyes of the advantaged. Once Paul witnesses real poverty he can never turn back to his truly shrunken life of excess and worthlessness.

Where Payne veers from the staples of his drama is bringing in an apocalyptic climate change, a danger not even appearing earlier. More than that misplaced motif is that he has nicely set up already the humanity that will save Paul, who must choose between survival and being together for however long with the ones he truly loves.

Downsizing is rare, a comedy in sci-fi mode with a toolbox of social concerns. It's a child of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids with a Twilight Zone spirit, and it's a pleasant holiday diversion.
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It's fantastic, lyrical, beautiful, and lyrical. It might get the Oscar, so SEE IT.
14 December 2017
"This may very well be *the* most sensitive asset ever to be housed in this facility." Fleming (David Hewlitt)

If you consider writer Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006), you might call him a visual genius, a poet who transcribes myth into reality. Now in his beautifully-written/directed The Shape of Water, when Elisa (Sally Hawkins) falls in love, it's with a fish, actually a large amphibian that can love her back, and the result is sweet.

That is until the government of early-sixties figures Amphibian Man a political liability and the lovers become fugitives. Undoubtedly inspired by The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Shape of Water is a lovely fantasy fable set in the Cold War, where a simple janitress, who is mute and an outsider like her Amphibian, struggles along with him to be accepted for the love she chooses.

I'm misleading you; the exciting struggle is mostly against the narrow-minded forces of convention and authority, which see the fish as a threat to national security, but just as much inscrutable and dangerous because of being misunderstood.

In that xenophobia lies the similarity to today's political climate which threatens our history of tolerance because of ignorance. Just as odd-looking foreigners threaten our way of life, so too does Amphibian Man, whose value as a specimen to be studied is compromised by foreign agents who do not wish us to benefit from research.

Strickland (Michael Shannon) is the weak authorities' security guy, who doggedly pursues Amphibian out of duty as much as ideology. His glee using an early version of a stun gun on the fish is a reminder of the rabid torture sanctioned by modern "safety" obsession.

Although I have made this film out to be a sci-fi political thriller, it is even more of a love story along the lines of a thinking-person's Beauty and the Beast, far more modern and human, possibly closer to Frankenstein, whose monster in the Mary Shelly novel is almost lovable in his ignorance and yearnings.

When Strickland seeks out to destroy the Amphibian and his love, he states the mantra of ill-considered radicals everywhere, even in politics: "I deliver." He could be Potus fulfilling a campaign promise or just plain evil. In either case, Beauty is always vulnerable and Beast, well, not meant for this "civilized" world.
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Wonder Wheel (2017)
It's Wonderful acting.
12 December 2017
"The heart has its own hieroglyphics." Mickey (Justin Timberlake)

Wonder Wheel is a wonder of despair juxtaposed with the cheap nostalgia and common lyricism evoked by its 1950's Coney Island setting. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is trapped in a loveless marriage with a Ralph Kramden-like carney, Humpty (Jim Belushi). Indeed, their lives are destined to come tumbling down.

In tragic fashion, Ginny is having an affair with lifeguard Mickey, who eventually falls for her step daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple). Given that Humpty wears wife beaters with a penchant to beat Ginny up, the tragic conclusions seem inevitable. True to an extent, but what writer/director Woody Allen seems to be after goes beyond the cliché into a realm of despair over bad choices and unshakeable fate, where outside forces take over once they are ignited by the principals' decisions.

As if the foolishness of Ginny's cougar relationship were not enough to spark tragedy, Carolina is pursued by the mob, an avenging force hardly to be stopped by minor characters on a boardwalk. None of this melodrama is excitingly different from many black and white TV dramas of the fifties or Allen's own Manhattan, etc., yet Allen infuses it with characters we root for because their pathos is an ingredient of the failed American dream so many of the middle class experience in their daily lives.

Allen has revived the kitchen-sink realistic dramas so successfully launched in Britain in the '50s and early '60s. Apropos of the doomed triangle of Wonder Wheel is an original kitchen-sink called Look Back in Anger (1956). Disillusionment is manifest in ironing boards and kitchen sinks, the hotbeds of despair for disadvantaged women.

Wonder Wheel is his best acting ensemble yet, possibly a result of the director taking unusual care with actors' performances. Hardly worthy of the sometimes magical dialogue of other Allen dramadies such as Midnight in Paris, Wonder Wheel has a raw feel, a realistic tint unlike much else he has created. While rough to see characters go through calamities most of us at least have a faint relationship with, it's salutary to see the Woodman touch down with the real people and make characters that aren't his doppelgangers.

It's not funny Woody; it's real Woody, and it's wonderful.
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First see the Room, then Franco's brilliant docudrama about its making.
5 December 2017
"The Citizen Kane of bad movies"

In front of the camera and behind it as director of The Disaster Artist, James Franco deserves the artistic praise his subject, Tommy Wiseau, would never receive. Wiseau produced, directed, wrote and starred in The Room, arguably the worst movie ever made.

Because it's natural to be curious about the dedication and lack of talent it would take to make such a cult classic (packed at midnight in many art houses around the country), Franco has given his measure of dedication and talent to produce a first-rate biopic that sugarcoats not at all the zany set and principals producing such a risible work.

Although Franco's imitation of Wiseau is sometimes too slavish, generally he catches his charmingly witless energy in the search of becoming a filmmaker. With the help of his best friend, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), Franco and his brother make the making of The Room believable and affecting.

Because, you see, although Tommy has no talent for artistic expression, he has a drive to be successful that transcends his limitations. Indeed, pursuing a dream, even while lacking the resources, is an end great in itself. Tommy is helped, coincidentally, by a mysterious fortune no one can ever trace. Yet, he uses it to fulfill his dream of being a filmmaker who creates a classic, albeit one that may be the worst ever made.

He can be legitimately called the modern Ed Wood, a producer of schlock like Plan 9 from Outer Space, the reigning clunker until The Room arrived.

"Why is he having sex with her bellybutton? He knows where her vagina is, right?" Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen)
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The Square (2017)
Challenging and amusing--you'll not forget it.
5 December 2017
"A sanctuary of trust and caring": a performance piece of art's signature, a square that reflects the irony of the remotely privileged in this satire.

The last time I was with a Ruben Ostlund film, Force Majeure, I was watching a hair-raising avalanche. With The Square, the catastrophe is in Stockholm with the human race under a figurative pile of danger from its growing distance from the public.

With the deft camera work and themes of a Hitchcock and the bleak outlook of Bergman-wearied characters, writer/director Ostlund presents a comedic allegory about modern art and its ambivalent obscurity as well as a trenchant satire of the disparity between the rich and the poor. Along the way he lampoons our society's distrust for each other and suspicion of outsiders. It's quite a discursive screed with 142 minutes to play and occasionally confuse.

This heavy-duty comedy is expertly couched in a semi-thriller when protagonist Christian (Claes Bang), chief curator of a progressive Stockholm, publicly-funded art museum, is entangled in events that threaten his job and his sense of self worth, notwithstanding his safety in his bubbled world.

Beginning with an ingenious robbery and cresting with a furor over an exhibit that hasn't even shown yet, the cocky, Pierce-Brosnan-handsome womanizer is faced with a public trying to see how inclusive he really is. A distracting reporter, Anne (Elizabeth Moss), may have other things to do with a used condom. That she participates in a high-stakes battle of the sexes seems sure. Otherwise it's just a condom conundrum.

Besides the unsettling blowback he gets from the poor and immigrants, largely because of a misguided museum promo, he is equally unsuccessful with his children and a child caught in a stupid act after his mugging. As he chases the latter in the child's tenement, Ostlund has several shots looking down a long spiraling staircase, reminiscent of a vertiginous Hitchcock hero lost in his growing insanity.

Anyone who sees this complex film will not forget the banquet scene of humanity's humiliation and the strange chimp Anne keeps in her apartment. They are connected to the theme of a barbaric and darkly evolved mankind. Enough said; see the scene and try to keep your jaw closed. As for the chimp, I can only guess.

I need to stop here because the intricate plot is such a fascinating puzzle that I should not unwind it for you, even if I'm unsure of my own take on it. Suffice it to say, this Cannes Palme d'Or winner deserves its award despite the confusion of some critics I admire. Just sayin' it worked for me and the Cannes jury.
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No Christmas cheer here.
27 November 2017
If you have a bottle of something that helps you through holidays with family, then use it liberally after seeing A Bad Moms Christmas because this film will only add to your blues. Not only is it not funny; it is also boring as it trades mercilessly on stereotypical mother/daughter rivalry and takes amusing moments stretching them out to seeming infinity.

For the three principal young moms, Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell), and Carla (Kathryn Hahn), their mothers in different ways present the ugly side of cheer. In each case the mother domineers by not appreciating her daughter, competing with her, or so misunderstanding her as to make familial love impossible.

As for Amy's kids, helicoptering by Grandma Ruth (Christine Baranski) is the mode of loving, never a good thing and one of the few satirical nuggets in an otherwise sloppy script. Not that grandma is devoid of good lines, e.g., "Its December 19th — even the Jews have Christmas trees by now." Most egregious are the lengthy sequences with a male stripper, Ty (Justin Hartley), which have him dancing too much with those gestures supposed to be erotic but end up being lame, even if he is better than Magic Mike. At least the directors/writers, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, have the wit to place him romantically with the cheesiest of the three ladies, Carla.

The coda is arguably the best part when it philosophizes about the fraught relationships between most daughters and mothers. But that's too little too late. The Grinch rightfully owns this movie, so move on to find real laughs somewhere this season—good luck with that.
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It's no Wonder Woman, but it has its moments.
24 November 2017
"People said the Age of Heroes would never come again."Diana (Gail Godot)

The super heroes of filmdom do come again, this time in Justice League, the DC equivalent of Marvel's Avengers and other comic book communal power sharing. Smartly producers are seeing that a super hero like Superman (Henry Cavill) or Batman (Ben Affleck) is better served by having more heroes to expand audience and humanize.

In Justice League, Diana Prince is a welcome leader, having jumped into that spot no doubt because of her box office success in Wonder Woman early in 2017. Here she teams up with Cyborg, Flash, Batman, Aquaman, and Superman (recently resurrected) to defeat Steppenwolf (voice of Ciaran Hinds), who is bent on bringing back power and global destruction to the dark side. The team motif, so popular in pulp fiction and sci fi these days, is best expressed by Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons) to Batman: "Good to see you playing with others again."

Oh, well, nothing new here, especially with the usual out-of-date explosions and knock-abouts, both to me not worthy of advanced sci-fi but along with bullets, staples of the genre. The reliance here on fist fighting and gun shooting seems beneath the dignity of advanced civilizations such as ours. The banter is banal, and the wonder of the Wonder Woman film earlier this year places this epic in mediocre land far, far away from the Amazons.

With so much run-of-the-mill CGI as a central focus, no wonder plot is thin and characterization superficial. While director Zack Snyder tries to give enough time to each character to develop, too many of them mean too little rounding out their personalities and lives.

What we have is what we have—a middling story of the same stuff told with characters just waiting for their own next motion picture. Please, no more Batman vs. Superman films—Justice League is close enough.
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Novitiate (2017)
Learn how tough the Church can be on its young women.
24 November 2017
Novitiate is not Audrey Hepburn's The Nun's Story, nor is it The Sound of Music, The Singing Nun, or countless other romances about happy nuns. It's closer to Doubt. This "expose" is merciless showing the almost Marines-like indoctrination of young girls, first to be postulants, then novices, then the real deal.

Although the film doesn't have drill sergeants, it has a super-committed Mother Superior (Melissa Leo). She will punish swiftly with, for instance, the girls kneeling to walk while saying Hail Mary's or disciplining themselves with knotted ropes. But the real torture is the interior questioning of the young women about even the existence of God.

Nevertheless they are moving to become "brides of Christ," which when they dress in bridal gowns for the actual marriage borders on satire, hokum, or downright pathos. As more than one postulant avers, "Where is He?" daily, the girls are giving themselves to God while not feeling the divine presence.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the emergence in the early '60's of Vatican II, that progressive body of prelates that liberalized the Church and demoted the nuns. So much for that disrespect as 90,000 pure souls took the last train outta there.

The central postulant, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), has a tough time with her vocation, much less her attraction to another hopeful. The complications of sexual yearnings in young women is a nicely figurative way of showing the challenges of taking 17 year old girls from a normal life, which usually involves young men.

Cathleen's mother, Julianne Nicholson (Nora Harris), serves as the vox populi questioning the sanity of the process as she is losing her daughter to these unknown forces of religion. For Catholics, Novitiate is a confirmation; for non-Catholics it's a gloss on the complexity of Catholic faith.
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May be the best movie of 2017
22 November 2017
If you long for the brilliant depiction of the melancholy unity between humor and pathos, you'll love writer/director Martin McDonagh's darkly comic Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. In seeming homage to the Coen Brothers, especially their iconic Fargo and Raising Arizona, this film takes the rape/murder of Mildred Hayes's (Frances McDormand) daughter and weaves the dreary investigation with some scarily funny takes on small-town rednecks/crackers.

Mildred spurs the investigation of her daughter's murder by placing three billboards that accuse the local police, especially Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), of slacking. However, this is just the MacGuffin that pales in the shadow of the town's bigotry and lassitude. The Chief, however, is not necessarily culpable as he claims to have tried but without physical proof such as DNA.

Mildred, in Marge Gunderson mode, pursues the killer at the expense of local sympathy: "It seems to me the police department is too busy torturing black folk to solve actual crimes." Note the slams at languorous cops and racism, motifs played throughout.

Catching the right dark tones between grief and hilarious ineptitude, this film knows justice is not easy and sometimes meted out by imbeciles. Yet, getting on with a goal and learning cooperation and compromise, especially in a small town, may lead to a comfort that goes beyond catching a murderer.

The acting is incomparable. When Harrelson talks about the culture of racism, there's truth in his voice, sadness in his tone: "If you got rid of all the cops with vaguely racist leanings, you'd have only have three cops left. And all of them would hate fags."
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Lady Bird (2017)
One of the best ever coming-of-age comedies.
15 November 2017
"I wish I could live through something." Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan)

Nothing in the constantly funny and stunning coming-of-age film Lady Bird will surprise any audience. It's all been played before: conflict with mom, loving dad, high-school romances, gawky and hip girl friends, amateurish school play, agony about college admission, and nuns who restrain and nuns who nurture.

She has indeed lived through "something" up to her waning adolescence, but as in the case of her hometown, Sacramento, she has to look back at it to see that she has lived there fully and uniquely. Right now, before graduation, the city is to her "the Midwest of California." The real difference from other growing-up stories is first-time solo writer/director Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan (who plays Christine "Lady Bird "McPherson). Together they craft a lovable, flawed heroine with such a sense of herself and her future that she is unafraid to taste life in its entirety, blessed or broken. Forget Julia Stiles in 10 things I Hate About You. Bird is better.

As in most films where a young girl is taught in a Catholic high school, the nuns are the looming moral force for restraint and also dream, embodied in the principal, Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), a realist who knows Lady Bird is a creative and independent spirit. So, too, in a different way is Lady Bird's mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), whose tough love is constant, but whose love is there if only Lady Bird would see it. Mom's agony at the airport when Bird goes to college is as anguished a mom/daughter parting as you will ever see in a comedy.

Moments of humor are plentiful and low key, e.g., when Sister Sarah's reality check with Lady Bird, "Math is not your strength," is met with Bird's "that we know of, yet." While Mom's realism is minute by minute, Sister Joan gives hers out slowly with equal portions of quiet love.

While actress Ronan has already tasted life from an adolescent heroine, Hannah, to a young adult in Brooklyn, Lady Bird could be seen as a retro acting gig. Bird is so strongly mature yet naïve that this role defines Ronan's wide-ranging ability. So, too, great Greta, a directorial/writing genius who should outstrip Woody Allen by the time he fully matures.
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Wonderstruck (2017)
It's magical even when the characters can't hear.
10 November 2017
The title Wonderstruck, a film about the mysterious connections between parents and kids, suggests the magic of being curious and young and the powerful forces of nature and family. Parallel stories of 12 year old Ben (Oakes Fegley) in rural Minnesota around 1977 and 12 year old Rose (Millicent Simmonds) in 1927 NYC eventually link in a way that only fantasy can allow.

Although this dramatic flight at times confuses the audience with its multiple relationships and time periods, it has director Todd Haynes's earnestness about the children's searches: Ben for the father he never knew and Rose for her beloved older brother. The tie that binds is the American Museum of Natural History and the dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals with wolves to send Ben's mind back to the wolves of Minnesota.

Along the way appears Robert Moses' scale-model Panorama of NYC in the 1964 World's Fair linking Rose to her paper buildings in her Hoboken bedroom. Oh, yes, the uncommon tie that binds both explorers is their deafness, she from birth and he from a storm. Both are struck, she from film stars and he from lightning.

As Haynes did in Carol, he has an artist's appreciation for the fine details of the period: the romance of '20's pre-crash energy and the allure of silent transition to sound in film. How the two finally connect is an imperfect conjunction that tries to tie in the disparate details of both lives.

Wonderstruck is a lovely evocation of the nervous energy and creativity of youth and the joyful quiet of being deaf. Regardless of physical challenges, the film embraces our early search to connect with parents and set loose the creative energy latent in youth.

For the Hugo-like nostalgia buffs, this film will give them one more dose of the goodness that can come from the limitations of time and place.
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Maya Dardel (2017)
You may think she's a cougar, but she's really a viper.
7 November 2017
An attractive, middle aged writer at the end of her life advertises for young male writers to compete to be heir and executor of her estate. The intriguing Maya Dardel is an art-film setup almost too precious for its own good. Because the titular writer (Lena Olin) is both brilliant and accomplished, we are expected to eat every word for the wisdom of age and genius.

Au contraire, the wise words are frequently lost among the tests she gives the applicants for her fortune. If there is anything profound about her plotting with neighbor, Leonara (Roseanna Arquette), and the cunnilingus Maya demands from the young men, I missed it in my fog of adoration for the well-aged star and her game with the boys. For certain, this challenging drama can be a figurative screed against men who dare to ignore older women.

Along the way are some bon mots about writing, mostly about the salutary effect of self criticism and the passage of time. The film does its best depicting the artist's aging gifts and her need to preserve her estate and writing legacies. Although her means of preservation are closer to bizarre than eccentric, the effect is the same: Her motives are mixed and occasionally wicked.

Largely because she tortures the men in such a way that misanthropy becomes a relevant motif, it is wrong to go into the film anticipating a feminism that welcomes men in a celebration of an accomplished life. Even her constant critical thinking is a weapon against the boy-men.

Lina Olin couldn't play a more dangerous intellectual, a predatory artist bent on emasculation and dominance rather than loving inclusion. Actually, her predations are a welcome counterbalance to the current obsession with Harvey Weinstein crimes. While Maya is no lawbreaking harasser, she is nonetheless lethal. All hail equality!
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