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Auteur Filmmaking with a Capital "A"
10 December 2017
I just love movies like The Shape of Water. Not because it's particularly imaginative (it is) or because it's decorated to the brim with lavish costume, set and creature design (it is), or even because it's thematically ballsy (it very, very, very much is). No – I like movies like The Shape of Water because it is a rare glimpse into the mind of an original creator, cashing in most of his good will and gambling his professional reputation on a film he/she has nearly complete control over and that encapsulates everything they like and care about. George Lucas did it for Star Wars (1977), Christopher Nolan did it for Inception (2010), Zack Snyder did it for Sucker Punch (2011) and now Guillermo Del Toro has done it for The Shape of Water.

The film takes place in a fable-esque early sixties Baltimore amid the height of blind consumerism, social conformity, oblivious futurism and Cold War paranoia. Elisa (Hawkins), a mute janitor working the night shift at a top secret research facility forms a deepening bond with their latest test subject – an aquatic humanoid creature with amazing abilities. But when the creature's handler Agent Strickland (Shannon) decides to kill and dissect the creature, Elisa, along with some unexpected allies form a plan to rescue the creature and keep it hidden until it can be freed.

The Shape of Water is first and foremost a compendium of very interesting, very different ideas all melting into fine bubbly brine. It's part monster movie in the vogue of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), part sweeping romance in the mode of Romeo and Juliet. There are shades of 1950's opulence, 1930's escapism and bit of 1960's civil unrest seething just out of frame. A little of Pan's Labyrinth (2006), a little Red Scare cloak and dagger stuff and an overall feel that conjures memories of playing Bioshock when I was a teen (though that last one may not have been purposeful).

Even if none of those particulars appeal to you, the craft and detail in this film can hardly disguise the unbridled passion that's infused in every retro-verve window pane and dingy aquarium. This is not just a world you can touch but one you can feel as exemplified by, among other things, Alexandre Desplat's wistfully nostalgic score and Guillermo Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor's mood-setting screenplay. The result is a strong, consistent tone that evokes a feeling of longing for a forgotten past that may have existed in another dimension.

Story-wise, the film more-or-less unravels exactly how you'd expect with the only surprises coming in the form of visceral extremes. This may arguably be one of the film's few weaknesses though considering it unravels like a fable, you can't really blame it for following through on its tragi-romantic precepts. Every time we as the audience are lulled into a sense of complacency, the film punctuates the moment with short bursts of gruesome violence, sleepy flights of fantasy and/or, shall we say unique sexual circumstance. These moments of adult content, rather than distract, amplify the overall experience like large crystals of sea salt on sweet caramel. It plays out like a dark, bloody, carnal fable whereby true love is a given and monsters are there to be vanquished.

The largest monster in the film is Michael Shannon who plays the menacing Strickland. From one point of view, he's a dedicated family man, a patriotic American and an incorruptible company man. Yet his ruthlessness betrays him, showing that his inner core is just as rotten as his fingers, which the creature bit off and doctors haphazardly reattached. In this situation and in the eyes of Elisa, he's a villain of biblical proportions.

Though not to be outdone in the monster department, the distinctive 6' 3'" Doug Jones manages amazing feats as the amphibian creature. Behind layers of makeup and prosthetics the giant figure has the same level of expressiveness as the demure Sally Hawkins only with occasion to be primal when the need arises. Hawkins, Jenkins, Spencer and Stuhlbarg are all given a chance to imbue their characters with an inner life. Where in lesser hands they'd be relegated to stock, here the black maid becomes the privileged gatekeeper, the communist stooge becomes the moral arbiter and the gay confidante becomes the fallen man given new life.

This bring me to the films larger flaw – because we're given so much time to get to know everyone, some of the more romantic moments come across a little unearned. This judgment isn't entirely fair given a lot of "romance" movies suffer from the same problem, but not every movie has an amphibian creature playing paddy-cakes with the gal from Paddington (2014). I for one would have liked to see a few more scenes of them getting to know each other before Elisa goes ALF on everyone's a**es. Of course adding a scene or two may ruin the pacing of the film, which is as artfully maintained as everything else in this film.

Even at his worst director Guillermo Del Toro knows how to use film language; to make us feel for those tap-dancing across the screen with dreamy grace. The Shape of Water is with little uncertainty one of his best and most powerful films to date. It is a beautiful looking, lovingly crafted and as previously mentioned ballsy movie featuring some of today's best ensemble acting and best Auteur (with a capital A) filmmaking. As of now The Shape of Water is on limited release but if it's playing at a theater near you, you should definitely check it out.
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Darkest Hour (2017)
Darkest Hour - Not the Finest Hour
10 December 2017
When I was in middle school one of my favorite guilty pleasures was a film called Small Soldiers (1998). In it, the late Phil Hartman sits in his living room, enjoying his new satellite TV while watching a WWII documentary. Tanks thundering, bombs bursting, Hartman looks up from his barcalounger and makes the comment, "You know, I think WWII was my favorite war." For some reason while watching Darkest Hour, I thought a little about that brief cutaway in that one mediocre kids' film. It sounds silly but with that in my mind, I thought more about our constant media exposure to the subject and how even today a lot of the stories we tell (and still the majority of our war stories) are about WWII. Seems not since the second Punic Wars has there been another moment in history where people lineup slack-jawed and stargazing at big men, doing big things. Heroes, villains, world-shaking stakes and potentially world ending weaponry, these are the things we remember.

And arguably the biggest hero we remember of that time was Winston Churchill; the vigorous wartime British Prime Minister who, in the words of a visiting American reporter, "…was the right man in the right job at the right time." Yet Darkest Hour has the man intermittently questioning his own resolve. Set between May 10, 1940 and June 4, 1940 the Churchill (Oldman) who stands with heavy prospects and even heavier makeup is one who just saw his worst fears become reality and is now unsure of what to do next. A great man? The film seems to be suggesting not yet.

Now, lest you believe this film is a war drama in the truest sense of the word, know that much of the plot hinges on Churchill's precarious political position and the machinations of his dysfunctional basement war room. Viscount Halifax (Dillane), former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Pickup), the generals and even the King (Mendelsohn) himself all seem to be pulling at different threads to see what unravels out of the pugnacious statesman. They don't know what to make of the cigar smoking, brandy swilling neophyte, which complicates an already dire situation on the European mainland.

Despite the makeup and prosthetics, Gary Oldman turns in a stellar performance as Churchill. While so much of the film wallows in the character's uncertainty, the flame of defiance is ever present in the veteran actor's eyes. You also have to admire the man's dedication to the role. He walks like Churchill, jokes like Churchill, chomps on cigars like Churchill and at times he mumbles incomprehensively like Churchill - which brings me to the biggest problem with Darkest Hour.

The film has a very inconsistent approach to history. Oldman no doubt studied the role as if it were the acting challenge of a lifetime; which is great if one were to compare footage of Oldman and Churchill reading the "We shall fight them on the beaches" speech side by side. But as a function of storytelling the accuracy of Churchill's speech patterns comes at the expense of communicating information. This becomes especially distracting when Oldman is throwing taunts and tirades at Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas while sounding like a broken muffler. It also doesn't help that depending on the light he either looks like a Bob from Office Space (1999) or a Muppet.

On the other side of things, nearly everything meant to heighten the tension (except, you know, the war) is either fictional or highly suspect. I'm not an expert historian by any means but even I know Churchill's war room couldn't have been that duplicitous and aggressively petty. Much ado is made about the new Prime Minister's defiant stance against Hitler, which I'm sure wasn't as resolute as we all think but certainly not as wishy-washy as this movie make it become. There's also a scene on the London tube that has the double problem of being historically false and incredibly trite.

But even if you're not a student of history and are just looking for a good yarn – even then, Darkest Hour falters. Director Joe Wright's consistent approach towards his films is one of close angular shots, studious symmetry and a flare for the frontloaded metaphor. It works in Atonement (2007) and Hanna (2011) but not here.Here it feels more like they were making a made-for-TV movie in all honesty.

This is a very small film; so small that it's trying to fit into the mind of a single man. Yet that single man is a towering figure in a crucial moment in history we're already incredibly familiar with. Churchill deserves a Patton (1970) not a Hyde Park on Hudson (2012); a movie that greets the greatness of the man on equal footing instead of trying to reel him in like a whale on a rusty fishing trawler. Given Gary Oldman's performance, Darkest Hour could have been something special. Instead it's just the third film released this year centered on the evacuation of Dunkirk. As far as smaller movies go, watch Their Finest (2016) instead.
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Disaster Artist Makes Light of the Worst Movie Ever
9 December 2017
The fact that The Disaster Artist exists as a full-blown award season movie should be evidence enough that we're through the looking-glass when it comes to ironic/unironic appreciation for all things meta. The film is based on the making of The Room (2003), a noteworthy "trash" movie that's captured the imagination of many a film nerd with years of sold out midnight screenings and pot smoke filled, dorm room viewings. Centered on the friendship between Greg Sestero (D. Franco) and one man side-show Tommy Wiseau (J. Franco), The Disaster Artist recreates the atmosphere of chaos, ineptitude and bizarreness that plagued the production and inadvertently made the film such a cult hit.

I first saw The Room under supposedly ideal conditions – a viewing party of a few friends all of whom, like me, came in with fresh eyes. I…wouldn't recommend it for those looking for a good movie (obviously), but if you're curious about grasping the appeal of trash cinema The Room is a surefire introduction into that world. For unlike something like Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) or Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010), which are special-effects laden sci-fi films which cartoonishly under-deliver, The Room is pure, concentrated badness from pre-vis to post.

On the other hand, The Disaster Artist, based on the novel of the same name by the real Greg Sestero, is a fairly polished, Hollywood biopic whose only real trick is it actively rouses Wiseau fans while selling itself to the masses as the anti-La La Land (2016). It's a neat little trick and it largely works thanks in part to James Franco's unhinged performance as the delusional Tommy.

Yet for those giddy over the prospect of The Disaster Artist hitting the Award circuit with the energy of something like, say Ed Wood (1994) or Sunset Boulevard (1950); yeah, no. I'm afraid despite its subject matter being red meat to Academy voters; this film is far too modest in its approach and too bogged in the minutiae of the famed, plagued production to be anything more than a really, really good fan film.

Which is kind of a shame; had the film truly delved into the darker side of Tommy's obsession, really reveled in the dark comedy, or at the very least made Greg's naivety a little more tethered to reality, The Disaster Artist could have edged out Swimming with Sharks (1994) in its nihilistic takedown of Hollywood. Instead it vies for a mercurial, funhouse mirror sense of irony where audiences don't know whether their laughing at/with the situation, the characters' reaction to the situation or the actors portraying characters that are inundated by the situation. It thinks it's being subversive but just like Tommy Wiseau himself it's mostly just hard to pin down.

But regardless of whether we're laugh at or with The Disaster Artist, at least we're all laughing - you can thank all the seasoned comedic talents that pepper the film for that. Much has been said about James Franco's performance (which is great in a Best of SNL kind of way). But the comedic timing of Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and Zac Ephron not to mention the inclusion of Megan Mullally, Alison Brie, Hannibal Buress and Bob Odenkirk all keep the film entertaining and even charming in a sense. Also, not to get too insider baseball on you but Josh Hutcherson as Denny was a stroke of genius.

So, what ends up happening when the usual suspects turn a niche inside joke into "big Hollywood movie?" Well, exactly what you'd expect I suppose. If the intention of The Disaster Artist was to be a cross between Boogie Nights (1997) and The Master (2012) (as James Franco had declared of the script) then I'm afraid to inform you it doesn't quite reach that level. But I suppose that's just another layer of comedic irony. For much like Tommy Wiseau himself, this film aimed for the moon and still ended up among the stars. Only time will tell if this film will have the same staying power…I doubt it.
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Mudbound (2017)
A Melancholic Masters-Class in Filmmaking
5 December 2017
Mudbound is an old-fashioned epic drama based on the penetrating novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan. The film follows a pair of families (one black and one white) who live and work on a tenement farm circa 1940. The McAllan's (the white family) were swindled out of a quaint antebellum home and forced to live in a hobble without water or electricity. The Jackson's on the other hand have lived on the plantation for generations and have acclimated to the harsh work and conditions – so much so that family patriarch Hap (Morgan) optimistically hopes to buy his small plot of land right out. But with the specter of WWII threatening to take away eligible family members the downwardly mobile McAllans and the upwardly mobile Jacksons are put on a path towards conflict and mutual destruction.

The film begins with the two McAllan brothers Henry (Clarke) and Jamie (Hedlund), at the end of their revelations, burying their dead father (Banks) amid the grime and the mud. The Jackson's, pulling all their worldly possessions on a mule-drawn cart are stopped in their tracks and asked by Henry to help in the burial. They oblige, though it is obvious from the context that if Hap and the scorned, hurt Florence (Blige) had their way, they'd be spitting in that grave instead of performing the eulogy.

The film then flashes back; juggling its sprawling, melancholic tale with a jumble of voiceovers starting with Henry's wife Laura (Mulligan), ending with Hap's son Ronsel (Mitchell). But what stands out in Mudbound is not so much the tale (though it is well written and realized) but the tone. Gone are the ambitious romanticisms of Gone with the Wind (1939) as well as the blunt moralizing of Hurry Sundown (1967). Instead we're pulled straight through into the languishing muck - harsh living, sweltering heat, putrid racism that's soaked into the skin like salty brine. These are the things that exist in the world of Mudbound.

The racism in this film comes in multiple forms though thankfully never in the form of an anachronism or a simple attitude in need of correction. Some facets are overt such as when Pappy McAllan sneers at the prospect of sitting next to Hap in a beat-up truck. Other times, the racism is more mundane, more insidious such as when Laura feels entitled to beckon Florence the middle of a storm to take care of one of her sick children. The bigotry and the entitlement blanket the film like a rolling fog. It's not an attitude but a state of being, a purposeful social stratification that's based on fear, resentment and hatred.

Rather than pouring a few spoonfuls of sugar in her deliberately paced drama, Director Dee Rees forces the audience to commit to her interrogation of history. This is not an easy movie to watch, not because it's particularly harrowing but because it lets you stew in its internal anguish. We're transported to a place in time, feel the sweat beading down the characters' back, hear the grackles mock their efforts on the farm and undergo the hunger pangs of families in need.

To further the misery en scene, Rees and cinematographer Rachel Morrison composed the frame so the digital high contrasts would reveal every pockmark in the light while shrouding every edge in darkness. The result feels like a colored, restrained version of a Dorothea Lange photo: earthy tones, undeniable humanism and a sad dignity eroded by the baser instincts of Jim Crow.

It is only at the hour mark that we see divergent perspectives via boys coming home from war. The color saturation changes ever so slightly as Ronsel and Jamie start to form a bond based on their mutual war experiences. By then the inner voices of our various narrators gel in an achingly poetic marriage of mood and mission. We begin to think there is light after all – a grimacing stoicism to the things that cannot be changed and cautious optimism going the other direction. Sadly it doesn't last.

Mudbound does a lot of things right including casting, directing and book-to-film adaptation. But what it does best is instill in its audience a sense of perspective. Come to think of it, the events of the film only took place seventy short years ago give or take. And while it's a work of fiction, none of the elements of the story deviate from the cold, harsh truths of the time. The film frames, contextualizes and investigates with only the deepest of emotional truths. Perhaps Laura says it best when she opines, "Beginnings are elusive things. Just when you think you have hold of one, you look back and see another, earlier beginning, and an earlier one before that…you still have the problem of antecedents, of cause and effect."
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Wonder (I) (2017)
A Very Good Child Performance
4 December 2017
So Wonder…isn't that bad… I know, that's not exactly a ringing endorsement, but considering I am so far outside of this films' particular demographic, it's actually kind of a miracle that I didn't walk out immediately thinking someone played a depression era song with my heart strings. This movie is (thankfully) not the 2010's answer to Powder (1995) or Mask (1985). It's actually more like The Sandlot (1993) meets Flipped (2010) only instead our protagonist uses his middle school science class instead of the baseball diamond to ground him.

Wonder stars Jacob Tremblay as Auggie Pullman, a fifth grader with facial deformities who takes the leap from the comfort of his mom's homeschooling to a New York City prep school. While there he gains a few friends and allies, leans heavily on his family and navigates the unique difficulties of being an extraordinary boy put into an ordinary situation.

Part of the reason why Wonder works has a lot to do with its characters. Auggie, his friends and his tight-knit family are all given a chance to lead interesting lives outside of each other. For the most part they all adapt to earth-shattering changes, explore new interests, conflict at times, comfort each other in times of strife and then grow from the episodic, shallow but not wholly pointless lessons they've learned. It's all about the characters which is, at least to me a surprising and welcome subversion of expectations.

Of course, this looking at character as "characters" is a double-edged sword given the film's twee tone. We're never given the forced melodrama of something like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) but the film also never crescendos into anything worth shedding a tear over. What results is a film that doesn't pull at the heart-strings per se but rather awards you the gooey, "daaw" feeling you get while searching for cat videos online.

Wonder is based on a novel by R.J. Palacio, and for the most part keeps the multiple perspective narrative from the book that worked to give the story depth and character. Here however, the multiple perspectives are a distraction. Every time we're given a chance to really internalize Auggie's struggles with bullying or being accepted by his peers, we're suddenly brought into the mindset of his mother's (Roberts) struggles with finishing her dissertation or his sister's (Vudovic) struggles with being the invisible girl or his sister's best friend (Russell) being…her for some weird reason. It all kinda-sorta services the film's larger themes – which is nice. But it all adds up to feel more like a quaint episode of 7th Heaven (1996-2007) than a movie worth our full attention.

Thankfully, despite its episodic structure, Wonder does have one big asset in the form of Jacob Tremblay. While Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson treat their parts with the same reverence any professional actor would give to a fat paycheck, Jacob Tremblay seems to want to leave his mark as a child star. He's not just acting; he's reacting as evidenced by his interactions with best friend Jack Will (Jupe) and his exasperated conversations with his doting sister. Here's to hoping this movie washes away the memory of watching The Book of Henry (2017), a movie Tremblay participated in but thankfully walked away from it unscathed.

So Wonder isn't the most effective film in its class. That said, it showcases a decent child performance, keeps its story going at an even clip and respects its audience enough to not be trite and saccharine. While it would have been nice to approach the new chapter in Auggie's life with a better sense of the stakes, the film's even tone is reward in of itself for mainstream audience to walk away feeling like they've experienced something.
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Coco (I) (2017)
An Elaborate, Beautiful Tapestry of Sights and Music
25 November 2017
This past summer I was given an opportunity to sit in on a feedback screening for this film. The story structure was pretty much all there but the layers-upon-layers of painstaking animation were unfinished, with large swaths of the movie being represented by little more than storyboards. It was quite an experience being able to witness just how elaborate an animated movie like Coco can be. To be able to see a literal army of artists, storytellers, engineers, animators and musicians toiling on a project partway through was like getting an exclusive tour of a new theme park months before it's set to open.

So to say that the final product is almost as exhilarating as attending that screening, should be considered a testament to just how solid Coco is. As a story, as an animated comedy/musical and as an event for families whose exposure to Pixar is now a generation thick, Coco has just about everything you'd expect. It's effortlessly charming, brilliantly paced and plucks at your heartstrings like a seasoned mariachi at just the right moments. Considering that the same production studio that gave us Toy Story (1995) hasn't made a movie this affecting since Inside Out (2015) (or as I'd argue Toy Story 3 (2010)), Coco stands as a stark, defiant pronouncement that Pixar's quality bubble hasn't actually popped.

Coco tells the story of a young Mexican boy named Miguel Rivera (Gonzalez) whose family's humble cross-generational contribution to their small regional town is a shoe shop and an all-consuming hatred of music. Miguel however doesn't share the same passions as his extended family and often hides away learning the gentle guitar riffs of music and screen legend Ernesto De La Cruz (Bratt). After a series of confrontations and plot reveals, Miguel attempts to steal a guitar during the town's Day of the Dead festival which curses him into an in-between state where he is neither living nor dead. To reverse the curse, Miguel recruits desperate soul Hector (Garcia Bernal) and is compelled to approach the ghost of Ernesto De La Cruz while avoiding the spirits of his dead family.

As you can tell by the synopsis, the mechanics of the film's supernatural bent, how the curse works, who De La Cruz is in relation to Miguel, who Hector is, why he's helping Miguel and why the Rivera's are not big fans of music in the first place (not to mention why the movie is called Coco) are all a lot to soak in. The film swiftly covers as many of its bases as possible in the first act and drops exposition every fifteen minutes or so as to assuage audience members who can't grasp the social significance of an ofrenda.

Thankfully instead of it coming across as the equivalent of explaining why the toys in Toy Story don't move, all of the complexities and contrivances are complimented by an emotional and/or a plot-focused coda. Why is Hector willing to debase himself to enter the land of the living? Because he wants to see his daughter one more time before she enters the land of the dead and he is "forgotten". Why does family matriarch Mama Imelda (Ubach) forbid music? Because Imelda sees music as antithetical to family unity. Even a seemingly half-cocked explanation of Alebrijes gets a punch- line that resonates, even if it takes two acts to get there.

What's more the film doesn't stop to parse many of the culture- specific details, but rather lets them wash over you in a sea of color and textures. This gives audiences otherwise unaccustomed to the traditions of Dia de los Muerto the challenge of picking things up via context clues while giving audiences like myself the dopamine tickle one gets by referencing la chancla. There's a lived-in quality which is nice considering Coco could have so easily been a guided tour through Mexican cultural mythology a la The Book of Life (2014).

My largest complaint remains virtually the same from when the Pixar marketing team handed out the post-movie questionnaire back in July. For a movie about family, it seems a little odd that Miguel's living, breathing family is left almost completely absent throughout the story. A few cutaways to Mama (Espinosa) and Abuelita (Victor) worrying about Miguel might have been enough to give the film a smidgen more heft, even if it were to slow Coco's zippy pace. This is not to say the last act doesn't pack one hell of an emotional, familial wallop. By the time we get to the last vocal performance, there was not a single dry eye in the theater including my own.

Coco is a gorgeous, intricate and affecting animated musical-comedy whose cleverness and light touch is made all the more impressive by just how many plates are being balanced in the air. It falters only a little in regards to story and it may prove a bit slight in ambition for Pixar's growingly finicky fandom. Thankfully it makes up for it in detail and meticulously thought out world-building which proves both fun and enlightening. Check this one out for sure and bring the entire family.
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Ambiguous Yet Clear in Thought, Beautiful Yet Ugly, Bizarre Yet Superb
15 November 2017
A Surgeon's guilt leads him to mentor the teen son of a deceased patient. After weeks of diner lunches and awkward afternoon walks along the riverside, Steven (Farrell), our duplicitous leading man finds that Martin (Keoghan) has some seriously sinister plans in-store for him and his young family; a plan that ultimately puts Steven in an impossible excruciating moral dilemma.

This is essentially the plot The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the latest mad experiment concocted by the same warped mind that gave you the similarly themed Dogtooth (2009) and the deadpan black comedy The Lobster (2015). But lest you've seen either of those films, nothing can really prepare you for what this twisted little romp is really about and how this film goes about achieving its own ambitions. Director Yorgos Lanthimos isn't just an idiosyncratic art-house director with a wild hair for film-school suspense. No this guy is a cinematic mad scientist who takes all things familiar and makes them wholly unfamiliar by breaking everything down to the bare essentials.

What do I mean by this? Well for one the story doesn't ever feel the need to explain itself. In an interview famed director Alfred Hitchcock was once asked why the characters in his films never call the police. His answer was, "Because it's boring." Lanthimos seems to be taking that same approach not only for the crime elements of the story but the very mechanisms that make the story possible. It is never explained (nor does it need to be) how Martin goes about doing what he does. The only logic that counts exists within Martin's fractured state of mind; and we just have to live with whatever twisted logic happens to be exposed by the frame at the time.

While the story is very much in the vein of Hitchcock, the cinematography just screams Kubrickian other-worldliness. Everything is shot with a streamline economy so that every scene, every character, every plot point is tailor made for maximum ambiguity while never straining the limits of a traditional narrative. Yet despite its perfection in relaying information and theme, every frame and gently sweeping pan serves to overwhelm the viewer with a near constant feeling of unease. How much unease? Well the film literally starts with an un-obscured view of open-heart surgery. Whatever feeling you're liable to have while watching something like that (shock, disgust, anxiety, etc.) is going to be your default for two hours so buckle up.

In comparison to other outstanding horror films released this year, Sacred Deer certainly holds its own - even if the spirit of its horror is less Get Out (2017), or Jigsaw (2017) and more Werner Herzog oppressively reading Grimm Fairy tales. Yet in comparison to Lanthimo's other works, Sacred Deer feels like it doesn't have that same immutable fearlessness. That may have less to do with the film itself and more to do with the genre. The Lobster may have dabbled in some horror tropes but it was first and foremost a black satire on romantic love. Our expectations were naturally pretty limited in regards to "how far" they're willing to go with the premise. Thus when it really did "go that far" the wickedness of the satire felt all that more dangerous. Any satire of familial love on the part of Sacred Deer is played less with a sense of wickedness and more with a sense of dread. It still feels dangerous, but only to the extent the extent of bodily harm.

Thankfully the cast are perfectly suited for finding the flawed, ugly and human parts to their off-putting characters. Farrell is at his subdued, disquieted best as a complacent everyman suddenly put into a lose-lose scenario. Nicole Kidman, Sunny Suljic and especially the brooding Raffey Cassidy have between them all the cunning instincts needed to make their characters sympathetic while harboring the animosities needed to make the situation believable.

The real standout however is Barry Keoghan who takes what would have otherwise been a one-note Machiavelli and elevates him to the level of an uncaring God. His malevolence is scary not only because of his forceful actions and their inherent power imbalance but because there's nonchalance in everything he does. There's a void where his empathy and moral compass should be. So to compensate, he adapts a sense of justice where extreme measures are regular and they're seemingly the most human thing about him.

Keoghan's abrasive performance alone is definitely worth the admission price for horror fans, film fans and those already familiar with Lanthimos's unique approach to storytelling. Combined with the film's fable-like clarity of thought and this thing suddenly becomes a worthy piece of art crying to be studied and argued about for years. But for casual audiences, Sacred Deer may prove too outwardly bizarre and too much of a dialectic gut-punch to walk away satisfied. Which is a shame because I think Lanthimos is actually aiming for the unwitting who settled for whatever just started at the cinemas because Ragnarok sold out.
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Bloated and Poorly Executed...so an Improvement
15 November 2017
If Batman V Superman is the oozing, puss-filled, body wound to the DCEU than Justice League is the haphazardly applied bandage that's currently dressing it. It works at least as far as mitigating the damage, stopping the bleeding and keeping this ugly-looking spectacle alive, but it's not exactly the miracle cure for the mountains of ills currently plaguing the DCEU that fans were hoping for. What exactly does that make Suicide Squad; I don't know, probably the gangrene?

Seemingly only a couple of weeks since the death of Superman, Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince aka Batman and Wonder Woman preemptively team-up to protect the world from external threat. To help them, they recruit young upstarts Barry Allen and Victor Stone aka The Flash and Cyborg; as well as marine demigod Arthur Curry aka Aquaman. This is so they can face down the eventual threat of the sinister Steppenwolf and his army of fear-fueled creatures from places unknown aka some inter-dimensional/space traveling hypno-beam (the film is not clear on this point).

Starting with the good, the films as-of-yet introduced superheroes are interesting enough characters handled with the best of care by their actors. Miller especially does an excellent job keeping the mirth coming while staying true to the spirit and tone of The Flash and movie respectively. Momoa straight up shows up as Momoa sans the dreads but the rock star bravado he's known for works and works well all things considered. Fisher pulls double duty as a near constant fountain of exposition as well as a living breathing character worth investing in. It doesn't always work given the paragraphs worth of beans he needs to spill but at least no one is calling him the professor yet.

The brightest star however is Gadot whose stunning beauty and otherworldly accent perfectly encapsulates every superficial thing we love about Wonder Woman. On a deeper level, Diana's naiveté from the fondly revered Wonder Woman movie is gone, but what's still there is an inner strength that both serves to ground this movie, while being an understandable progression of a character now centuries old.

The fact that Wonder Woman is the only character worth not just caring for but believing in should be an indication of what's the biggest problem with this movie. Even with the Batman in the mix, the stitched-together cadre feels less like the world's mightiest heroes and more like a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. They're given just enough time to go over their skill set and motivations but its all bullet points and untrimmed fat that at times derails the film's pacing. Take a scene transition early on where Bruce Wayne is buttering up Aquaman. This scene is then set against Wonder Woman's action-packed introduction, an edit that arguably works on a narrative level but feels jammed in there like a Janis Joplin tune played just after a cover of "Come Together".

What's worse, Justice League always seems to be in a rush to get somewhere guaranteeing moments of depth and exposition stick out harshly against the action. Bruce Wayne jets here and there, Steppenwolf picks a fight with the Amazons and the Atlantians, Wonder Woman comes swooping through a terrorist plot etc. It's all action-packed in its own bruising, unremarkable way, but none of it is good at conveying information, establishing stakes or forwarding the plot.

Luckily the plot is so simple as to ensure the slow bits are over quickly. Evil-because-he's-evil Steppenwolf wants all the shiny cubes and our protagonists are doing everything in their power to stop him. That's basically it, a first draft good versus evil macguffin hunt that seems to be avoiding themes from the other films until a certain subplot makes it impossible. It doesn't add anything to the genre that they're fighting the third DC villain in five movies with a horned helmet on some power trip about world destruction but at least it makes sense this time around.

And before you go huffing and puffing about how the complex mythology behind Superman, Darkseid and the infinite Earth crisis is justification for the repetitiveness; you need to first read the forthcoming sentence aloud and slowly. Movies do not require homework! Knowing the larger purpose and machinations of a motherbox is no more an indication of this movies quality than reading The Dark Knight Returns retroactively makes BvS not a pile of garbage. Enough makes sense this time around but it's still repetitive.

And can we take a moment to talk about Batfleck again? I was very loudly not a fan of his older, reactionary Batman in BvS but since that movie was such a dumpster fire, I was willing to give everyone involved a mulligan so long as this one was at least passable. It is, but the poor man still looks like a bewildered stepfather who won the part in a raffle and continues wearing the cowl because his stepson finally thinks he's cool. It's just not a good use of your Affleck. Affleck is good for two things: being an a**hole and being a quiet blank slate a la his character in Argo. Batman is neither of those things but thanks to Affleck he comes across as both. Not something you want for the founder of the Justice League.

A reported $25 million worth of reshoots, the unexpected absence of director Zack Snyder due to personal reasons and a shaky foundation built upon the most hated franchise movie to come out since Batman & Robin; it's actually kind of impressive this thing didn't turn out worse. It's not up to the level of another team-up movie that shall remain nameless but at least with Justice League, DC and Warner Bros. prove they're slowly learning from their mistakes. I admire this movie, I really do, but to the extent that I'd admire a fat guy running a marathon. It's trying; it's just too ill-prepared and bloated to do the job efficiently.
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We've Been Naughty This Year: Here's the Proof
12 November 2017
For those still looking forward to Christmas, know that this week's forced Holiday pabulum, Daddy's Home 2 is proof that we've all been naughty this year and you should probably batten down the hatches before Santa Claus comes to your home and s**ts underneath your tree. This movie is a horrid, rage-inducing, ill-conceived exercise in dead-horse beating that's so on-its-face repulsive, that its obligatory last act koombaya resembles an upside-down diaper that's been left on someone's windshield.

Daddy's Home 2 takes the broadly-drawn animosities of the first film and gives them a wider birth as Markie Mark and Wimpy Willy are visited by their like-minded fathers played by Mel Gibson and John Lithgow for Christmas. Looking for a way to get underneath everyone's skin, just because, Mel Gibson AirB&B's a rustic snow-swept cabin and eggs everyone into a blended family blowout. As you would expect the movie then devolves into clichéd comedic hijinks not funny since the Reagan Era to relay a message (I guess) not relevant since Archie Bunker was still on TV.

On its face, this movie has every glaring, stupid, simpering problem the first one did. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are still cardboard jumbles of male insecurity and chauvinism stuck in an ever-escalating game of one-upsmanship. The kids are still lingering afterthoughts who chime in only when the plot needs a shift in tone. The story itself still plays out like a tour of loosely connected contrivances laboring to maintain a PG-13 rating and Linda Cardellini still plays a feckless, inconsequential support figure. Admittedly, Cardellini does have a tiny bit more to do here but that comes at the expense of having her play opposite the wooden Alessandra Ambrosio – ouch.

What makes this movie so much worse however is the inclusion of Mel Gibson's character which somehow takes the tired affectations of Wahlberg's Dusty and strips them of everything resembling an adult. The actor may be pushing sixty-two but Gibson's toxic grandpa (or padre as he insists on calling himself) is a terror on the level of The Problem Child (1990). Never has there been a more irredeemably terrible character worthy of being pushed out onto an ice flow. Yet, the movie somehow thinks Dusty and Brad (Ferrell) are the ones that need to be emasculated, electrocuted and pelted with snowballs. Gibson does get shot once - so that's nice.

The film's big climax takes place in a movie theater. An interesting choice since it only serves to highlight the woeful fact that if you've gotten this far without walking out, you're definitely won't get your money back. The movie then ends in a syrupy sweet crescendo of sing-songy holiday cheer so forced it should be arrested for assault. The Song "Do They Know It's Christmas" was never played on heavy rotation at my house during the holidays, but after watching this monstrosity, I wanted to buy the record just so I have something physical to destroy. Maybe if I'm good all next year, I can treat myself to skeet shooting the Blu-ray of this derelict piece of bat droppings instead. Yes, I'll probably ask Santa for that.
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Lady Bird (2017)
A Prequel to Frances Ha
10 November 2017
Lady Bird is the semi-biographical directing debut of noted indie actress Greta Gerwig. The film stars Saoirse Ronan as Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson, a Sacramento teen whose uneasy shift into adulthood bears unpredictable and transformative results for her, her friends and her family. She dreams of moving as far away as possible for college, in part to avoid her contentious relationship with her mother (Metcalf). The prospect seems unlikely however given her father's recent unemployment. Thus while she waits, Lady Bird soaks in and learns from her encounters with her boyfriends, her run-ins with the well-meaning nuns at her out-of-touch Catholic School and the quirks of her dozy hometown.

Much like Gerwig's breakthrough success Frances Ha (2012) (a film she also co-wrote), Lady Bird has a very frank, very refreshing honesty to it. The characters, both major and minor are flawed and sympathetic, the story and the city in which it takes place feels fleshed out; drawn with an appreciation and love that appeals to a certain sense of remembrance. It's not nostalgic – who truly can be nostalgic for 2002, a year Lady Bird notes for being a palindrome and little else. It's more like an honest examination of that awkward period in life after high school, before college where boredom, jadedness and sexual frustration can unknowingly turn you into the adult you will become.

The honesty goes a long way in overcoming the usual teen dramedy clichés. While the film stops just short of surprising audiences with the wholly unexpected, Lady Bird nevertheless spins its web of story lines in a unique configuration. The expected mother-daughter friction, the Catholic School repression and the pompous proto-douche boyfriend subplots are all here and accounted for but they're painted in with such care and loving detail. Like a Faberge egg this film is cognizant of tradition but encrusted with unique filigree all its own.

Supporting cast members Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts are truly spectacular as Lady Bird's hardened but still loving parents. They both dominate different extremes of the parental spectrum (one overbearing, the other a little too free-wielding), yet both only want what's best for their children even if it costs them their pride, their finances and in one subplot their dignity. Beanie Feldstein and Lucas Hedges likewise make pretty good hay out their roles as Lady Bird's long suffering best friend and first boyfriend respectively. While it would have been nice to see more of Hedges exploring the deeper complexities of his character, what ends up on screen, works in serving the overall narrative.

Saoirse Ronan is…an interesting choice as an avatar for Gerwig's personal tale of adolescence and turmoil. The film requires her to be funny, charming, excitable, aggressive, and a bit of a brat depending on the circumstances. And while the young actress hits all those notes, she does so with an uncomfortable passivity that often risks making the movie about her environment as opposed to about her. One can't help but compare Ronan to the fearless Hailee Steinfeld of last year's Edge of Seventeen (2016) and wonder if by this time next year, we'll still be talking about the self-absorbed but not too self-absorbed Lady Bird? That along with the strong inference that Lady Bird is a lesser, spiritual prequel to Frances Ha means the film, for all its positives doesn't go all-the-way sort of speak. It's an honest movie and a lovely movie but not as truly transformative or life-changing as could have or should have been. The bad news is that means The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) will stay in the popular consciousness for only that much longer. The good news is hopefully that means Greta Gerwig is just getting warmed up. With a movie that ultimately feels as custom made as this one, I'm very, very excited to see what she comes up with next.
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