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Coco (I) (2017)
8/10
Bright Colors, Dull Script
9 December 2017
(RATING: ☆☆☆☆ out of 5 stars)

GRADE: B

THIS FILM IS RECOMMENDED.

IN BRIEF: A visually stunning film with an unfortunately weak story that needs constant resuscitation (and a few rewrites) to breathe some life into it.

SYNOPSIS: A young boy must come to terms with Death in order to celebrate life.

JIM'S REVIEW: Bright colors dazzle. Characters morph into skeletal figures. Life becomes a struggle with Death. These very macabre settings celebrate the Day of the Dead in this off- kilter animated children's film that is big on visual splash but a tad weak in storytelling and charm. Welcome to the world of Coco.

As with most animated films these days, the story rarely matches the visual flair. And, in this case, the story and plot never quite makes logical sense: Miguel, the young hero in the story, wants to be a musician but is not allowed to utter a single note due to a family tradition of banning music from their household. It seems that his great great grandmother, the title character named Coco, had a mother who was deserted by her musician father who put fame and fortune ahead of family. Yet Miguel has the need to sing out, inspired by his late great idol, Ernesto de la Cruz. This leads him unexpectedly to visit the Land of the Dead. Convoluted? Wait...and he must get back to the Land of the Living by sunrise if he wants to return to his family ever again. Huh? Like I said, if I have problems following the story, younger children will be lost as well.

There is also so much exposition in this film, too much in fact, in order to set-up the complicated plot structure. Some rewrites by the director Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich would have certainly helped to define the characters and their actions. Our small hero, Miguel, is cute and endearing, but not very appealing with his big doe eyes and Pillsbury dough boy generic face. He resembles a good-looking Cabbage Patch kid. Coco is essentially a minor major character, with about as much screen-time as Dame Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love, but she makes a lasting impression in a touching closing scene which is Pixar's forte. Actually Hector, Miguel's sidekick in this Dead Man's Land, provides more interesting and the animators have some fun delivering some needed humor with his movable skeletal parts. Voice-over work is fine with Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Benjamin Bratt as standouts.

Mr. Molina and Lee Unkrich co-directed this movie and they keep the action moving along at a nice pace while sacrificing character development for action. The songs aren't very memorable either, although the main ditty, Remember Me, is at least hummable. So what makes the film worth your time and money? It's purely the spectacle of state-of-the-art animation that is a remarkable step forward in animation.

Yes, it is the visual artistry on display which elevates this tale. Colors shimmer unlike most animated films. A note-worthy phosphorous glow throughout the film's many sequences gives the film its distinctive visual quality. The intensity of light adds a unique richness to the backgrounds which upstages most of the underwritten characters and unfocused plot. There are also lovely textures with the wooden carved faces of the skeleton figures, detailed animal spirits that glisten, and a transfixing luminescent ethereal world that adds to the mystique of the overall production.

The color palette is stunning state-o-the-art animation. Vivid in its saturation point and rendered in amazing exactness. Coco is unadulterated eye candy. Oranges contrast against azure backgrounds...deep purples blend into shades of crimson. It's a glorious mix of hues that would beguile any moviegoer.

But originality and imagination come to an abrupt stop with the film's dull screenplay. This is conventional storytelling, not worthy the artistry that surrounds it. (2014's The Book of Life followed a similar subject, with weaker results, and although the images in Coco are truly remarkable, the plot is not.) There is a nifty twist midway that almost explains some of the illogical loose strands of the plot, but it comes a bit late.

The doltish script never reaches the same level of excellence as the masterful images on screen. And let's face it, the subject of death is a real downer, especially in a children's film that has very few comedic moments to lighten its heavy subject. However, kudos to the film's multicultural message, its all-inclusive Latin American actors doing voice-over work, and to Pixar Studios for tackling such an adult theme while staying true to the story's Mexican heritage.

Coco is a solid achievement, a good film that is dressed to the tens. But all of the visual trickery can't hide its empty-headed plot.
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Lady Bird (2017)
8/10
Mother vs. Daughter
29 November 2017
(RATING: ☆☆☆☆ out of 5 stars)

GRADE: B

THIS FILM IS RECOMMENDED.

IN BRIEF: A good (not great) film with sensitive direction and two wonderful performances to enjoy.

SYNOPSIS: A coming of age story with mother-daughter issues.

JIM'S REVIEW: The volatile relationship between parent and child has been a popular subject in the arts. That unpredictable bonding between father and son or mother and daughter makes for an interesting combination. The latter is on display in Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig's engrossing character study of a young girl's flight of fantasy or her flight away from a domineering mother.

Set in 2002, a.k.a. Christine McPherson (a.k.a. Lady Bird) is in her final year of high school, eager to shake off her town and family and fly east to New York City to make her dreams come true. Ashamed of her middle class upbringing, she is eager to fly the coop. Her father, Larry, is so mild-mannered that he is basically ignored by his loved ones as he negotiates the war between the women in his household. Her mother, Marion, is not the nurturing type and her actions are second place to her verbal assaults. Far from encouraging, she would rather have her idealistic daughter view life in realistic terms, another words, accept the sadness of it all. So Lady Bird has no other choice but to rebel against her parents, friends, and her rigid Catholic School regime, all of which are trying to hold her back from her own experimental impulses.

This set-up is all too familiar territory, but as the director, Ms. Gerwig captures the awkwardness of adolescence and that hormonal imbalance that signifies innocence and self- importance. Her observational glimpses into first love (and that first real kiss), teenage authority issues, and peer pressure are spot-on. The predictability factor is still there, and some scenes go on a bit long, but there are also some surprising events added to the drama about working class economic struggle that are quite telling and unusual for this genre.

As the screenwriter, Ms. Gerwig is mostly successful. Script-wise, this coming of age tale wanders and loses focus with its plotting and the sketchiness of its minor characters, most of which remain interesting, but underdeveloped. Their fates seem to get lost in the storytelling. Yet, at the film's core is the effective mother and daughter tag team bout that makes this film so special. These two characters are rich in details and depth. Their dialog sounds refreshingly honest and natural and the two actresses excel in making their mercurial relationship utterly convincing.

Saoirse Ronan in the title role delivers a fully realized portrayal of a teenager holding onto her dreams and defiantly expressing her independence. This talented actress plays her eccentric character as one part exasperating and and two parts enchanting. Her excellent performance is matched by Laurie Metcalf's sharp tongued and distraught matriarch. As Marion, her verbal reactions hide the love for her daughter and watching the actress' subtle expressions after words are cruelly and hastily spoken brings the necessary depth that prevent her from becoming a monster. (The film's most memorable and bittersweet scene involves an uncomfortable conversation in which Lady Bird simply asks her mother if she likes her, preceded by a hesitated and jumbled answer. That delayed response says much about the sensitive writing and nuanced acting in this film.)

Tracy Letts is Lady Bird's understanding father and peacemaker of the family and he creates a strong character in this meek ordinary man. Also notable are Lucas Hedges as Lady Bird's first love and Beanie Feldstein as her loyal sidekick. The always dependable Lois Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson deliver short but noteworthy moments in their smaller roles.

Ms. Gerwig has directed her film with a deft vision, even if her screenplay could use more cohesion. Still, Lady Bird is fast becoming a darling of the critics and their many accolades seem slightly overdone. It is a good, but far from great, film...with great, not just good, performances by its female leads...and well worth seeing.
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10/10
A Great Film about Anger and Grief
25 November 2017
(RATING: ☆☆☆☆☆ out of 5)

GRADE: A-

THIS FILM IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

IN BRIEF: Three of the year's best performances in one of the year's best films.

SYNOPSIS: A grieving mother angers a town in order to seek justice for her daughter's unsolved murder.

JIM'S REVIEW: When one glances at Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), it is hard to ever imagine if this woman ever danced, or smiled, or loved someone. One wonders if she ever was an innocent child growing up. Her constant scowl, disdaining look, and furrowed brow, are all evident from a lifetime of disappointments which show us that here is a most unhappy person.

But her appearance tells a deeper story... a tragic tale that gives her permission to be filled with hopelessness and a justifiable reason for her rage. Seven months ago, her daughter was raped and savagely murdered and her killer still remains at large. Justice has not been served and now she must intervene in Martin McDonagh's dark comedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Leasing a trio of outdoor displays, she will force local law enforcement into solving her daughter's killing by announcing their ineptitude and shaming the town in the process as the situation becomes even more violent as the investigation spins out of control. The film is superb.

Just as the morning fog rolls in like a shroud of ominous foreboding, so does a nagging sense of dread and melancholia which seems to hang onto this town and its inhabitants. Mr. McDonagh serves as director and screenwriter and has created a work of art. He deftly directs his own screenplay with masterful results, blending humor and dramatic tension seamlessly.

The director / screenwriter's unique and slightly quirky vision fills his film with poetic images (a teddy bear slightly submerged by a riverbank, a deserted set of red swings gently moving in the breeze, a box turtle crawling over a sleeping woman, three disintegrated billboard alongside an empty road). His dialog is hauntingly real and filled with confrontational conversations and barbed words. There are scenes of unexpected poignancy (one between Ms. M. and a passing deer near those controversial billboards and another involving a conversation between pink bunny slippers that are heartbreaking) Each and every character, from major to minor, are fully drawn and react with complete honesty and quiet (and sometimes loud) rage.

The casting is flawless. Frances McDormand is a commanding presence and makes an indelible impression as a woman on the verge. Overcome with bitterness and grief, she dominates this film with a no-holds-bar persona. The actress plays this unlikable but passionate character with a vengeance, literally speaking. She is simply astonishing. Her portrayal is a master class in acting. Even when not ranting against the powers that be or fighting to simply be heard, Mildred's silent pauses and side glances fill in all of the nuances of her character's emotional breakdown to chilling effects. (If there is any justice, on screen or off, the Oscar is waiting for her.)

As Mildred's moving targets are Woody Harrelson who brings a nuanced portrayal as William Willoughby, the chief of police and Sam Rockwell playing his dim-witted, loyal, and anger-ridden deputy, Officer Dixon. Mr. Harrelson plays the film's most centered character in a town filled with hate and bigotry and the actor conveys a good man dying of cancer, frustrated by life's limitations and caught in a free fall of emotions. Mr. Rockwell takes his complicated character into areas of comedy and drama that defy description. It is a commanding performance as we watch his character grow from a bigoted mama's boy into a man finally questioning his own self-worth. (Another possible award winning performance in a film filled with great acting?)

Adding even more depth to the complex plotting are Lucas Hedge as Mildred's forgotten and emotionally trampled son, Robbie, and John Hawkes as her abusive ex-husband. Only Peter Dinklage's character is a tad sketchy and in need of more screen time. He becomes her possible love interest...if Mildred could possibly love anyone. Providing fine support in minor but pivotal roles are Zeljko Ivanek, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Clarke Peters, and Samara Weaving.

Production values are high. Beautifully filmed by cinematographer Ben Davis, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. uses a variety of musical genres, from opera and pop standards to twangy country tunes, which set that perfect tone in Carter Burwell's atmospheric score. Both words and image create a shattering look at grief that is unmistakably heart-wrenching.

Yes, there are some illogical plot twists and sudden far-fetched acts of violence that never have any legal repercussion on the culprits in this community of law and disorder. But the script has such a lyrical and moving way of expressing the everyday sadness and routine of life that is so commonplace in many rural towns.

Some moviegoers also may not be satisfied with the film's conclusion either. But I was transfixed throughout this film. It is hard to imagine another film this year that is so well conceived and executed in its narrative storytelling, sensitive direction, and its glorious acting.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is one of the year's best.
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Mudbound (2017)
9/10
No Man's Land
19 November 2017
(RATING: ☆☆☆☆½ out of 5)

GRADE: B+

THIS FILM IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

IN BRIEF: A powerful film about bigotry with an exemplary ensemble.

SYNOPSIS: in 1940's, two families struggle to survive in the Deep South.

JIM'S REVIEW: It is a small patch of earth that brings together two Southern families in rural 1940's Mississippi in Dee Rees' powerful saga, Mudbound. Based on Hillary Jordan's epic novel, the film shows all the hardships and obstacles that follow these tenant farmers in the bigoted Deep South during the World War II era. Streaming on Netflix and opening in select theaters this weekend, this film is one of the better movies of the year. One hopes the film will gather more critical responses during award season, especially for its strong ensemble.

We meet two dissimilar families: the McAllans, a white, semi-privileged clan who own the cherished land and the Jacksons, a black family who till the parched soil with hopes of buying and owning the property in the future. Their lives intersect as the story progresses. It does take a while for the set- up to begin, but it is well worth the wait. Laura, a well-to-do city girl with a sense of culture and pride marries Henry McAllan and is forced to settle on his family's farm, with his bigoted father named Pappy, a stereotyped hater if there ever was one, and Henry's handsome younger brother, Jamie,. (Yes another stereotype, and too obviously a plot device to create a melodramatic triangle.) Their neighbors are the proud and stoic Florence Jackson, her hard-working husband Hap, and their many children, including their eldest son, Ronsel. Both Jamie and Ronsel go off to war and come back emotionally damaged, unable to face the prejudice of townsfolk as these two become friends.

The screenplay by Virgil Williams and the director covers much territory and creates characters that resonate in their humanity, or lack thereof. Their script has some flaws in its storytelling. The over indulgence of the voice-over narration becomes a bit tiresome, even though the words have a poetic lilt to them. This approach provides multiple perspectives from all of the characters, but it hinders their development at times. One wishes those words would have become part of the dialog and provide its glorious cast with more dramatic acting opportunities. The film also becomes too melodramatic in its subject, but it is handled with such emotional clarity and nuance that one can easily overlook those flourishes. Its complicated story and the scope of its material allows a subplot about an abused wife (though well played by Kerry Cahill) to intrude upon the central story. This does little to advance the narrative, except to provide a haunting image of blood-soaked land. That said, these are minor missteps that cannot diminish the film's overall impact.

In fact, there are many memorable images in this film due to Rachel Morrison's photography (a a child pointing a brook handle at a white man pretending to shoot him dead, contrasting scenes of a woman washing herself clean of the dirt and shame, a harrowing sequence of a black soldier being told to use the rear door, etc.). Mako Kamitsuna's taut editing seamlessly interweaves war time scenes with the farm life sequences and transitions both with masterful skill. Ms. Dee's direction creates moments of undeniable beauty and unsettling tension. Her vision of the ongoing prejudice that permeated this town is palpable and makes the moviegoer sit up and take notice about the injustice and hatred (sadly still a part of America's fabric today). Particularly disturbing is the film's most graphic scene involving the Klan that is riveting and honestly depicts these heinous acts of violence.

The cast is exceptional and work as a cohesive whole. Carey Mulligan as Laura brings an underlying sadness and strength to her part as the despairing Laura. Her female counterpart, an unrecognizable Mary J. Blige, is riveting as she helplessly watches her son make some questionable choices that she knows will have consequences. Jonathan Banks takes on the evil and loveless Pappy with such deep-seeded venom. Although the patriarch roles of both houses are somewhat underwritten, both Jason Clarke and Rob Morgan add the missing depth to their sketchy characters. Perhaps the most effective portrayals are given by Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell as the two friends. Mr. Hedlund gives his best performance to date as the alcoholic PTSD victim and Mr. Mitchell is a revelation, conveying all of the anger and confusion that many African- American soldiers faced returning from duty. His one speech comparing his acceptance of his blackness in Europe to his demeaning role as second-class citizen in America upon his returned is heartbreaking.

In Mudbound, one character says, "I dreamed in brown." That statement conveys the heartbreak and power that is this thought-provoking film.
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6/10
The Mustache Did It
15 November 2017
(RATING: ☆☆☆ out of 5 stars)

GRADE: C+

THIS FILM IS MILDLY RECOMMENDED.

IN BRIEF: This film gets derailed in its confused storytelling, a less than stellar cast, and some misdirection...facial and otherwise.

SYNOPSIS: Agatha Christie's classic murder mystery is remade for today's modern audience.

JIM'S REVIEW: I think it was...Kenneth Branagh...on the train...with his mustache...that killed the movie. The who, what. where, and how may be answered in this unnecessary remake of Murder on the Orient Express, but the "why" still nags at this moviegoer. Why dig up this buried gem when one could easily view the far superior 1974 murder mystery classic by Sidney Lumet and his all-star cast of screen legends (Finney, Bergman, Bacall, Connery, Redgrave, and such)? Can this new treatment with state-of-the-art CGI, a more expensive budget, and a cast of today's recognizable actors improve upon this tale of murder and deceit?

The answer is a resounding "no" in comparison. The specter of Mr. Lumet's masterful film haunts this earnest but standard remake. It's foolhardy filmmaking that does little to improve its literary source. Whereas the 1974 version streamlined a convoluted plot, focused on some fine directorial touches, brought an air of elegance in its elegant Art Deco decor, delivered some interesting well-written characters, and added a first class tier of legendary actors to its roster, this new, but far from improved, update muddles its complicated story, provides stagy direction, has an dark sedated period look, introduces some characters in need of more clarity and motive, and brings a second class group of celebrities to this remake (combined with a few star-worthy replacements). Overall, this 2017 tale has lost all of its sense of glamour, wit, and fun.

It seems that rebooting and re-imagining has taken the place of creativity these days. So with that said, my remainder of my review on this latest attempt to fill the pockets of the producers and filmmakers will try to concentrate on only this movie...a hard task, indeed.

For those newbies unaware of the plot: Aboard a high-class speeding train, is super sleuth, Hercule Poirot. It is there that our fussy Belgian hero meets a shady criminal who fears that he will be killed before disembarking and asks our fastidious detective to prevent his demise. Alas, the deadly deed does take place (no real spoiler here) and the list of passengers become his targeted suspects as he unravels the mystery. Clues are scattered through the narrative as, one by one, each traveler converses with Monsieur Poirot. Rest assure, the culprit (or culprits) will be found by the film's end.

The casting is paramount to make this mousetrap work. Mr. Branagh serves as director and lead actor and his dual contributions are a tad uneven. As a director, he layers the narrative with some skill but never involves his audience, choosing to look more at the panoramic scenery than concentrate on the characters. The screenplay by Michael Green doesn't help matters either. The film begins with a totally unrelated crime that establishes Poirot's quirky behavioral traits but adds little to the plot, except confusion.

However, Branagh the Actor captures the detective's dialect and his mannerisms well, but he is essentially miscast by his own physicality...and his odd choice of including that ridiculous fur- piece posing as a mustache to the Poirot character. Yes, it is a trademark of the sleuth, but, seen here, it is an absurd facial prop that interferes with the character and the story. He takes the term "stiff upper lip" far too literally. Always upstaged by the damn mustache, the actor fights for equal screen time and loses the battle. Plus the fact that the actor himself is rather tall and handsome upends Agatha Christie's unlikable but beloved toady character.

Some "stars" match their predecessors with style (Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer), others acquit themselves rather nicely (Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr. ), a few are underused and underwritten (Willem Dafoe, Olivia Coleman, Derek Jacobi, Johnny Depp) but some haven't a clue on how to create a memorable character (Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz). In their defense, the writing may be suspect too.

Jim Clay's fine production design shows off the opulence without the elegance. Cinematography is first-rate and the period costumes are true to the period but hardly show- stopping. However, the CGI avalanche scene is so fake and jarringly bad that is literally stops the film cold.

No, this cinematic game of Clue remains a mystery. With all its fancy trappings, Murder on the Orient Express may look the part. But under closer examination, some less than stellar casting bits, a few excessively theatrical moments, and a meandering script make this whodunit more of a "why-do-it".

NOTE: Those unfamiliar with Dame Agatha's book or the previous aforementioned Lumet film may enjoy this movie more than those already acquainted with the story and its twisty ending. I was mildly disappointed with the end result.
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4/10
It's All Greek to Me
11 November 2017
(RATING: ☆☆ out of 5 stars)

GRADE: C-

THIS FILM IS NOT RECOMMENDED.

IN BRIEF: A contrived updating of a family in crisis that fails due to bad writing and absurd situations.

SYNOPSIS: Using Greek mythology as its source, a father must make an ultimate sacrifice.

JIM'S REVIEW: Oh, those Greeks and their tragedies! They love to wallow in guilt and despair. That avant-garde wonder boy, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, is upon us with his latest sojourn into absurd irony, The Sacred Killing of a Sacred Deer. His independent film tries to connect the legend of Iphigenia with a modern day family (a lofty goal), and fails miserably, despite the mostly positive reviews that this movie is garnering. (For those unaware with that mythological story-line, let me digress: King Agamemnon is punished by the vengeful goddess, Artemis, for accidentally killing a deer. To appease the gods, he must choose to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, to end his curse.)

This allegorical film unfolds, ever so slowly, in its tale of crime and punishment. Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) befriends a confused teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan). His motive and also Martin's behavior are bizarre from the start and we learn more of their true connection about a half hour into the film when the plot finally kicks in. No spoilers here, although it is quite tempting to reveal some details if that will persuade you to avoid this Trojan Horse. (But I resist, nevertheless.)

Up to this point, moviegoers suffer more than the film's poorly drawn characters. Enduring the flattest of line readings and listening to the endless banalities spoken in the most unbelievable dialog one could ever experience in any motion picture, the film piles on more surreal circumstances with the good doctor as his family's health conditions worsen, with no possible explanation given.

Now let me share a few prime examples of the film's bons mots:

"If you don't stop playing games, I will shave your head and make you eat your hair. I mean it. I will make you eat your hair."

"I won't let you leave until you try my tarts."

"Our children are dying, and yes, I can make you some mashed potatoes."

Definitely a food fetish somewhere, but let's move on...

It should be noted that the cast performs their roles with some semblance of credibility. Mr. Farrell, a talented actor who is unafraid to take risks, is misdirected to act cold and emotionless for most of the film. It creates an unreal tone that undercuts the dramatic potential of his character and the story itself. The actor finally is allowed to react in the third act and he is most effective. Mr. Keoghan is impressive and supplies the perfect foil as a nerdy yet menacing avenger. Nicole Kidman adds depth to a standard grieving mother part. As their children, Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic give respectable performance from the inanity they are handed by the director and his co-writer, Efthymis Filippou. But it is really Mr. Lanthimos who disappoints with his words and actions. (However, he does wisely lets cinematographer, Thimios Bakatakis aim his camera and create some strong visual images that almost hide the film's flaws...almost.)

Metaphors and heavy-handed symbolism runs rampant amid conversation about menstruation, expensive watches, and donuts. Gratuitous nudity is also thrown in as a wake-up call for any dozing members of the audience. (Lest we question this already wonky plot and the direct inspiration of Iphigenia, the director includes a scene mentioning the A+ grade Kim earned from her report on that very topic...subtle, it's not.) All of this leads to a unsatisfying climax and a very dramatic but polarizing denouncement.

That said, let me now succinctly go into the C- grade this film earned from this reviewer. (Alas, if only Kim wrote the screenplay as well!) The film has adequate production values, serviceable direction, very bad dialog, a far-fetched plot, and a fine cast that is trapped in a laughable script.

Yes, sacrifices will be made, but mostly by the movie-going audience as they waste their precious time and hard-earned money on this dud. The Sacred Killing of a Deer is intellectually and emotionally inert. As revenge thrillers go, this artsy-fartsy misfire proves that the gods (and the filmmakers) must be crazy.
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7/10
Have Hammer, Will Travel
8 November 2017
(RATING: ☆☆☆½ out of 5)

GRADE: B-

THIS FILM IS RECOMMENDED.

IN BRIEF: Another comic book hero is given a major reboot with an accent more on comedy than logic sense or real drama.

SYNOPSIS: Thor battles his revengeful evil sister.

JIM'S REVIEW: The Marvel comic book universe is bursting at its spandex seams with all of its superheroes, both major or minor. One of the oddest of the lot has always been Thor, a god steeped in Norse mythology who possesses a magical hammer as his weapon of mass destruction. Thor: Ragnarok is now the third in the series that celebrates this hunky he-man, if one excludes his previous supporting roles and cameos in other Marvel movies of course. (That inter-breeding exists in this installment as well, with other superheroes like Dr. Strange and The Hunk making their entrances with their usual flair. Aside from some funny moments in this outing, nothing is there.)

The nonsensical plot involves Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his bad brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) fighting their even badder banished sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), for ownership of their kingdom, Asgard. The film's narrative sets up major changes in this jocular central character. It updates Thor with a modern leaner look as the filmmakers dispatch his mighty hammer and his shoulder-length tresses at the film's midway point. Many battles ensue and Thor is sent across the universe to meet other perils along his journey to self discovery.

Director Taika Waititi (who also does voice-over duty for one of the movie's creatures) turns up the comedy with mixed results. The overall campy tone works sometimes, that is, whenever Ms. Blanchett takes the reins to reign over our hero and his crusading sidekicks. More often the humor falls flat, particularly whenever Jeff Goldblum minces his way through the role as Grandmaster. (The actor is clueless with his character who should be menacing and a larger threat than the narcissistic power-hungry moron he portrays. Really, can anyone with those traits run a planet? Never mind.) Idris Elba and Anthony Hopkins fill out the rest of the cast with as little screen time or presence as needed.

The screenplay by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher L. Yost wants to pound us over the head with the silly hi-jinks and doesn't build any tension in its story because of its comic intent. The comedy simply undercuts the semi-seriousness of its ludicrous plot. It just can't have it both ways. If the film doesn't take itself seriously, why should we? The characters continually leaps from planet to planet, with no apparent reason. So does the script, making numerous leaps of logic to advance its puny plot.

Except for the aforementioned awful performance of Mr. Goldblum, the rest of the cast works overtime to charm its audience. Chris Hemsworth as our slightly dim hero is again well toned and well cast. Giving strong support are Tom Hiddleston as the cunning Loki and Mark Ruffalo as Mr. Bipolar himself, The Hulk, a.k.a. Bruce Banner. The three actors have a nice rapport on screen that really registers. As the conflicted Skurge, Karl Urban adds some nuance to his underwritten character and Tessa Thompson has some some nice moments of female empowerment as Valkyrie, Female Warrior (channeling enough Michelle Rodriguez estrogen and persona into her supporting turn.)

Still with all its flaws, the movie consistently entertains. Its most effective sequence in the entire movie is the gladiator inspired arena war between Thor and his green adversary which the director stages quite well. This set piece mixes the drama and comedy elements to full advantage. But too often, the many battle scenes are blurred and photographed upfront and personally in-your-face technique that obstructs the action. The CGI is mostly above average, although the best visual effect by far is Mr. Hemsworth's muscular physique in his shirtless scene.

Thor: Ragnarok will awe its target audience, but this reviewer needs at least a hint of intelligence in its storytelling. Just how often do we need to leave our brains at the door whenever we step into this genre.
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9/10
East Side Stories
31 October 2017
(RATING: ☆☆☆☆½ out of 5)

GRADE: B+

THIS FILM IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

IN BRIEF: Noah Baumbach wise depiction of a dysfunctional family is one of the year's best films.

SYNOPSIS: A family divided.

JIM'S REVIEW: The dysfunctional family has been a staple in the arts for centuries and this latest tale about these damaged people, Noah Baumbach's family comedy entitled The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), is insightful and highly enjoyable. It is also one of the year's best films.

Meet the family known as Meyerowitz, a Jewish-American clan of elitist misfits. They are upper class liberal New Yorker types who celebrate the cultural benefits of the city while disassociating themselves from each other. Detached from reality, they go about their day more concerned about each other's flaws and wallowing in guilt and anger. There's Matthew (Ben Stiller), a successful self-absorbed financial planner who flew the coop years ago, Danny (Adam Sandler), newly divorced and pretty much a failure in life. Once a talented musician, he now dotes on his aging father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman), an 80 year old artist still in search of the fame that has eluded him for years. Living on the parameter of their lives is Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), a ordinary woman whom no one acknowledges with much interest. Estranged, they come together to sort out their lives as they organize their father's art retrospective show.

The narrative structure of the film divides events into chapters with title cards separating various time frames. Each section delves into each family member and their personal stories, abruptly cutting off dialog in mid-sentence as it transitions to the next part (a brilliant conceit as each character is interrupted in their life lesson with various hindrances). Their stories slowly unfold over time and we learn more from what is not said than what is being spoken.

But what is being spoken is quite moving and bittersweet. Mr. Baumbach's screenplay is rich in details and savors the moments with sharp conversation and biting humor. He creates fully realized characters that have a refreshing authenticity and depth. His direction is concise and he paces his film with a steady confidence, never allowing scenes to outstay their due. However, he does tend to meander toward the end of his film as he tries to tie up the loose ends of his plot and forsakes his linear structure of his chapter motif.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) boasts one of the best ensembles of the year. At the forefront is the magnificent Mr. Hoffman. He plays this unlikable patriarch with an overabundance of wounded pride and ego. (Note his scene at the MOMA exhibit of an artist friend and watch his reactions as he masks his jealousy with uncomfortable asides and the subtlest of aggravated behavior. Masterful acting! As his two son, both Mr. Sandler and Mr. Stiller are excellent. Their sibling rivalry to earn their father's approval and love becomes heartbreaking as they fight and cajole to earn their personal match point. Ms. Marvel is wonderful too, although a tad underused. She has a wonderful monologue that explains her inner demon most effectively.

Adding solid support are Grace Van Patten as Eliza, Danny's well-adjusted and loving artistic daughter, Judd Hirsch as L.J. Shapiro, a more successful rival of Harold, Rebecca Miller as his daughter, and Candice Bergen as Harold's second (or third) wife. Playing Harold's present boozy free-spirited spouse is Emma Thompson, who impresses in a delightful comic performance.

This is one family that deserves a visit. The film is a beautifully written and thought-provoking testament to those whom we literally were born to love (or hate). It is one of the most honest depiction of a family at odds that one could experience...make that, should experience. See The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). You will thoroughly enjoy their company!

NOTE: One hopes that this film will be given a proper theatrical distribution to qualify it for well- deserved Academy Award consideration.
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8/10
It Leaves an Impression
30 October 2017
(RATING: ☆☆☆☆ out of 5)

GRADE: B

THIS FILM IS RECOMMENDED.

IN BRIEF: An visual and artistic success that paints its subject with the heaviest of brushstrokes in its muddled narrative structure.

SYNOPSIS: An animated film about the death of Vincent Van Gogh rendered in his painting style.

JIM'S REVIEW: Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's love affair with the work of Vincent Van Gogh are on display in their full length animated homage, Loving Vincent. This tribute to one of the most lauded (posthumously) and greatest artist of all time tells the tragic death of the painter by making his Impressionist artwork that come to life. The filmmakers gathered a team of talented craftspeople together to film live action actors to tell the story and then meticulously paint over the actual actors in Van Gogh's signature painting style. The results are truly astonishing, even if the story becomes problematic (as with most animated films of late).

The brushstrokes are frequent and fluid as they transition from scene to scenes, glorious golds swirl seamlessly with royal blues, and the effect is state-of-the-art animation that, well, impresses. Realistically rendered black and white flashback sequences contrast with more colorful scenes that come directly from Van Gogh's paintings and serve as a backdrop to the plot. But take away the stunning visual look of the film and the story doesn't hold up.

The story focuses on Van Gogh's final days and becomes a whodunit of sorts, a conspiracy theory for art lovers everywhere. Did Vincent really commit suicide or was it murder? Paging Hercule Poirot!

One wishes the screenplay would have spent more time focusing on the life of the artist rather than his semi-mysterious death. The narrative opportunities remain confused and simplistic. It's all talk, dull talk at that, with little action. The lines (or strokes) blur the truth with fiction and creates a false sense of reality. Were more time spent on a far-fetch theory that served as the film's major story-line, this film would be perfection. Instead we will settle for a gorgeously animated movie with much to see and little to say except conjecture.

Yet there is much to admire in their creative vision. The filmmaker's own work of passion is evident in every frame of this film. The fact that it took ten years to complete this project shows the earnestness and dedication of all the artisans involved.

Visually arresting but story-wise far-fetched, Loving Vincent just gives off the wrong Impression, no matter how lovely it is to behold.
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Suburbicon (2017)
4/10
A SuburbiCon Game
28 October 2017
(RATING: ☆☆½ out of 5)

GRADE: C

THIS FILM IS MILDLY RECOMMENDED.

IN BRIEF: A murder thriller that would have been better as a dark comedy that satirizes the idealized American way of life.

SYNOPSIS: Life in a 60's suburban community is thrown off-kilter.

JIM'S REVIEW: A good movie trailer peaks the interest of the moviegoer without giving away too much of the plot and characters. It only shows a glimpse of what one could expect from the full length feature without divulging the reveal. So why, you may ask, do I begin this review with that fact? The coming attraction to Suburbicon totally mislead the viewer into thinking this film to be a dark satirical comedy with a 60's vibe to that era and its cookie-cutter utopia. And that is unfortunate. A dark comedy with farcical elements would have made this film a refreshing antidote to the drama that unfolds.

The Coen Brothers are known for their offbeat satirical vision with their quirky characters, ironic situations, and their flip side of American life. Yet Suburbicon is only partly a Coen Brothers film. The movie is based on an old unfinished script by the directors and re-adapted by others, namely director George Clooney and Glenn Heslov. Their first misstep in updating that original screenplay (among many) is adding a story of racial unrest to a plot involving a murder scheme devised by a fool. The two story lines never quite mesh.

It's all in the tone, how words are expressed and actions exemplified. For a farce to work and get across its message by means of absurdity, everything and everybody must be over exaggerated and unknowingly act in an universal reality. In this film, most of the characters play out their caricatures as Norman Rockwell stick figures without much embellishment. But the script never goes into over-the-top mode. It's as bottled-up as its main character. The outlandish set-ups are played too seriously and the film resembles second-tier Hitchcock (right down to Alexandre Desplat's ominous but intrusive score and images right out of Vertigo, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and The Trouble with Harry. The artistic craftsmanship is there on the screen, but the movie never lets loose.(The production values and period details are top notch and the film's biggest asset.)

Matt Damon plays Gardner Lodge, an American dad caught up in his own sins. The actor has a strong scene with his son (a wonderful Noah Jupe) toward the end of the film, but Mr. Damon never goes full gonzo to establish the character's mad streak and desperation. He plays his character straight and resembles a Jerry Lundergaard (from Fargo) without the humor. Julianne Moore plays dual roles as his wife Rose and his dim-witted sister-in-law, Margaret. She nicely embodies up the "Stepford Wife / Wicked Stepmother" persona. Also on hand are Gary Basaraba as an odd Uncle Mitch and Oscar Isaac as a slick insurance auditor who brings the right degree of comedy and menace that this film sorely needs, but Mr. Isaac's performance enters the film too late and only shows the expectations that the movie could have achieve with more rewrites.

A secondary subplot of an African-American family moving in next door seems an afterthought to the murder mystery plot. (The aforementioned trailer never even hints at this premise.) Their invasion into this all-white housing complex with its perfectly manicured lawns and multiple ranch style dwellings does confirm the ugliness of racism rather effectively, but this narrative does little to advance Gardner's story-line, even though Mr. Clooney does some clever directorial touches to build suspense.

Suburbicon wants to draw attention to a world which may appear to be perfect is less so. But instead the filmmakers show that their film is imperfect to say the least.
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